Tips for writing a meaningful condolence letter

Condolence letter from Abraham Lincoln

There’s no question that in this age of technology, writing letters is a lost art. That’s a shame when it comes to death and dying, because a personal letter is a great comfort to the bereaved. Take for example, this famous condolence letter from President Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby, who had lost five sons in the Civil War:

 

Executive Mansion,

Washington, 21st November, 1864.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.

But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln.

 

With the advent of email and other technological advances, letters are far less common than they used to be. But when someone dies, the best way to convey condolences is through a personal letter.  While there are times a condolence email is appropriate — when the bereaved is a casual acquaintance, or if you’re traveling on business — in most cases, to truly convey your feelings to a friend or family member who has suffered a loss, a letter – or note tucked into a card – is much preferred.  In fact, Emily Post suggests that an email can precede a phone call or written condolence, but should be followed up with a hand-written note.

A hand-written condolence letter is a personal way of acknowledging someone’s grief and offering comfort in a heart-felt way. Old-fashioned? Maybe. But taking a few extra minutes to compose a personal sympathy note will pay tribute to the deceased and provide long-remembered treasured words of comfort to the bereaved.

Here are some guidelines for writing a condolence letter, but the most important thing to remember is to write from the heart: Say what you truly feel.

  1. Send the letter promptly. Write and mail the letter within about two weeks following the loss.
  2. Use your own voice. There’s no need for fancy prose to express simple, genuine sympathy.
  3. Don’t dwell on the deceased’s illness or circumstances of death. Don’t suggest that the death is a blessing or that it was “for the best.”
  4. If you have to send an email, you can find some example of email condolences here.
  5. The components of a condolence letter:
    • Address – if you are unsure to whom you should send the letter, Emily Post has some suggestions.
    • Acknowledge the loss of the person by name.
    • Share a favorite memory or special qualities of the deceased.
    • Offer specific help, if needed, such as babysitting, cooking, or a ride to church.
    • Finish with a thoughtful message, such as “You are in my thoughts.”

It can be hard for some people to express themselves in writing. Fortunately, you don’t have to write like Abraham Lincoln. And if you’re stuck for words, technology can come in handy: You can find some examples of condolence messages on the Internet – such as these from Hallmark. Use them for inspiration and the right words will come to you!

Memorial Day is about more than summer and barbecues

Memorial Day

While it didn’t become a federal holiday until 1971, Memorial Day has been celebrated in some form since the Civil War – although back then it was known as Decoration Day.

Some towns hold parades and memorial services and some head to the cemetery to place flowers on graves, but over the years those activities have become fewer. For many it’s a day off, the official start of summer, filled with barbecues and fun, but the real purpose of the day is to honor the memory of men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.

Memorial Day started off as a somber day of remembrance; a day when Americans went to cemeteries and placed flags or flowers on the graves of our war dead. It was a day to remember ancestors, family members, and loved ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice.” (usmemorialday.org)

Traditionally, Memorial Day was held on May 30, but was later changed to be observed on the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend. Many have sought to change the holiday back to May 30 to set the day apart from the start-of-summer festivities.

Traditions

According to usmemorialday.org, there is a tradition to flying the American flag on Memorial Day. It should be fully raised, then lowered to half-staff until noon. After that it should be raised to full-staff for the rest of the day. When the flag is at half-staff, we remember the 1.1 million men and women who died serving our country; when it is raised to full-staff, their “memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue to fight for liberty and justice for all.”

A “National Moment of Remembranceresolution was passed in December 2000 in order to “reclaim Memorial Day as the sacred and noble event that that day is intended to be.” According to the resolution, at 3 p.m. local time, all Americans should pause whatever they are doing for a moment of silence.

Cemetery visits

Visits to the cemetery don’t have to be somber events. Check the cemetery rules ahead of time and follow some basic etiquette rules to maintain reverence and respect:

  • Children should learn that a cemetery is not a playground. They should not run or play on grave markers.
  • Pets should not make the trip to the cemetery unless they are service animals.
  • Don’t blast loud music from your car or music player
  • Obey speed limits.
  • Quiet picnics are usually allowed; please leave the hibachi at home.

Military cemeteries, especially Arlington National Cemetery, have their own rules. Check them before you go.

Ways you can observe Memorial Day

  • Visit the graves of fallen military personnel and leave flowers.
  • Observe a moment of silence at 3 p.m.
  • Fly the U.S. flag (and POW/MIA flag) at half-staff until noon.
  • Visit a war memorial.
  • Pledge to support the families of the fallen and disabled veterans.
  • Attend a Memorial Day parade and pay respects to those soldiers who gave their lives for our country.

Mourning in the Victorian Era

Funeral procession

Today’s funerals are somber affairs, but they can’t compare to funerals and mourning in the Victorian Age. The Victorian-style of mourning came into fashion in the 19th Century (1837-1901) and was probably influenced by the long and public mourning period of Queen Victoria over the death of her beloved Prince Albert. This set the stage for elaborate and prolonged mourning etiquette – and expensive funerals and burials for the upper classes.

 

Customs and superstitions

When a person died in the Victorian Era, the curtains would be drawn and a wreath with black ribbons was hung on the door to alert people that a death Mourning wreathhad occurred. Because Victorians were quite superstitious, mirrors were covered in black crepe so the spirit of the recently deceased wouldn’t get trapped there. The dead were carried out feet first so their spirit couldn’t look back and beckon to another family member to join them; photos might be turned face down to prevent the living from being possessed by the spirit of the deceased; and clocks would be stopped at the time of death to prevent further bad luck

Some other common superstitions:

  • If the deceased has lived a good life, flowers would bloom on his grave; but if he has been evil, only weeds would grow.
  • You should always cover your mouth while yawning so your spirit doesn’t leave you and the devil never enters your body.
  • It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on. If you see one approaching, turn around.  If this is unavoidable, hold on to a button until the funeral cortege passes.
  • If you smell roses when none are around someone is going to die.
  • If you hear 3 knocks and no one is there, it usually means someone close to you has died.
Mementos

Anything that belonged to the deceased – jewelry or other items – would be collected and kept as a memento and a reminder of the deceased. Keeping locks of hair as a memento was common and people kept the hair in pins, hair clips, rings and bracelets. Sometimes the hair was even woven into a piece of jewelry.

But most macabre was the memento mori (“remember your mortality”), photos of the deceased that portrayed them in lifelike settings that reflected their personality. Photography at that time was still something of a novelty, but it was accessible and affordable, so the middle class could afford to have a photo keepsake of their loved one. These photos were designed to make the deceased looked as natural as possible. It may seem morbid now, but these photos were all loved ones had of the deceased and were considered prized possessions.

 

Attire

Accepted rules about attire were complicated enough that popular magazines of the time would publish articles that outlined what attire – and how long it Victorian mourning attireshould be worn – was accepted and what wasn’t. An intricate overview of Victorian mourning attire can be found in this period Collier’s article.

Most of the rules pertained to women – men simply wore black suits, black gloves and a black cravat – and depended on the stage of mourning: deep mourning or half mourning. Widows were expected to wear mourning attire for two years. (Mourning periods for other members of the family were much shorter).

During deep mourning women wore dresses made of clack crepe, a crepe bonnet and heavy veil over a white widow’s bonnet, and black kid gloves. Back fur and sealskin were also acceptable.

After three months the widow’s cap could be done away with and after six, the crepe attire. The heavy veil could be exchanged for a lighter one. During the entire period the widow was expected to forego social engagements, with the exception of church; men on the other hand, were expected to go back to work.

The only acceptable jewelry was made of jet, a coal-like minor, although the deceased’s hair may be combined with it. At half mourning, clothing could be gray, mauve or white.

 

The Funeral

The custom of a wake came about in this era as the body was watched over continuously from death to burial. This was a practical matter as it helped make sure the person was actually dead and not unconscious or in a coma.

Funerals were by invitation.  A working-class funeral could be £5 during a time when a yearly salary was just £20, so poorer families would often make weekly donations to a funeral fund to cover costs. The upper classes had much more elaborate and expensive send-offs that cost much more; £53 for instance, would buy you:

Hearse and four horses, two mourning coaches with fours, twenty-three plumes of rich ostrich feathers, complete velvet covering for carriages and horses, and an esquire’s plume of best feathers; strong elm shell, with tufted mattress, lined and ruffled with superfine cambric, and pillow; full worked glazed cambric winding-sheet, stout outside lead coffin, with inscription plate and solder complete; one-and-a-half-inch oak case, covered with black or crimson velvet, set with three rows round, and lid paneled with best brass nails; stout brass plate of inscription, richly engraved; four pairs of best brass handles and grips, lid ornaments to correspond; use of silk velvet pall; two mutes with gowns, silk hat-bands and gloves; fourteen men as pages, feathermen, and coachmen, with truncheons and wands, silk hat-bands; use of mourners; fittings; and attendant with silk hat-band.”

It was not acceptable for women to attend the graveside service. Tombstones during this era became much more elaborate and were deeply engraved and the tradition of laying flowers began. Often photos would be taken of the flowers and made into a memorial photo.

During this era the funeral industry came into being. Undertakers became commonplace, going to the deceased’s home, procuring the casket and arranging the funeral procession. While today’s funeral is much more of a private affair, the Victorian Era is when many of our contemporary funeral traditions and customs were born.

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Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium has been serving the public since 1906. We are the largest provider of funeral services in the state, and we operate three full-service funeral homes, two crematories, two non-denominational chapels, and a cremation society. To request a free brochure and planning guide, click here.

5 Facts About Cremation

Crematon urn with white rosesWhy cremation? Some people like the idea of a simple funeral process; others prefer cremation to the decomposition process that occurs in a burial. For others, it’s cost; a cremation is often – but not always – less expensive than a funeral and burial in a traditional casket.

For a whatever reason, cremation has been growing in popularity over the past 10 years or so. Even as late as 1998, the cremation rate in the United States was just 28 percent. Today, the number of cremations has surpassed burials, and by 2030, the cremation rate is expected to be over 70 percent. New Hampshire is among the top 10 states when it comes to cremation at almost 72 percent.

Still, many people aren’t really familiar with the cremation process, and may misunderstand the process, which is simple and dignified. If you’d like to learn more about cremation, read on: Here are 5 facts you may not have known:

  • Cremation does not involve fire.
    It’s true: The deceased’s body is placed in a special furnace that reaches extremely high temperatures – 1,500 to 2,000 degrees F. The entire process takes two to three hours, and there is never any flame involved.
  • Cremains are not ashes.
    Cremation reduces the body to bone fragments. Those are placed in a processing machine that makes the fragments a consistent size. The final material – known as cremains – is then placed in a container. Cremated remains resemble coarse sand and are whitish to light gray in color, with a weight of between 4 to 6 pounds for an adult.
  • Most religions allow cremation.
    A few – such as Orthodox Jews and Muslims, Eastern Orthodox and some Fundamentalist Christians – don’t, but most others do. Most Protestant churches accepted cremation in the early 1900s, while the Catholic ban on cremation was lifted by the Pope in 1963.
  • You can only cremate one body at a time.
    You may have heard horror stories about the cremains of loved ones being mixed up with the cremains of other people, but that won’t happen. Not only is it illegal put more than one body in the cremation chamber, most aren’t big enough to fit more than one. Our Peace of Mind cremation process ensures human error is minimized and that the cremains you receive are the correct ones. However, if you would like your cremains to be mixed with those of a loved one, you can get a companion urn created for that
  • Neither a casket nor embalming is required for cremation.
    All that is required by state law is an alternative container constructed of wood to be cremated with the body. Embalming is absolutely not necessary and it’s against the law for a funeral home to tell you otherwise.In addition, you do not have to buy an urn from the crematorium or funeral home, but you do need to provide a container of at least 200 cubic inches that can accommodate the cremated remains.

Want to learn more? Visit our site for information about the cremation process, prices and membership in the Cremation Society of New Hampshire.

Common funeral and cremation terms

Funeral flowers and candle

Not everyone has been to a funeral or has experience with cremation, so when it comes time to make final arrangements for either yourself or a loved one, you may be unfamiliar with some of the terms being used. To help make the process easier, here are 35 common terms that you may come across when making final arrangements:

Apportionment – When cremated remains are divided up between friends and loved ones and, perhaps, for spreading in a specific location.

Arrangement conference – The meeting between the family and a funeral director to discuss final arrangements. The conference is usually held in an arrangement room, but can also be held at the hospital or at home.

At need – Arrangements made at the time of death (as opposed to preplanned arrangements).

Burial certificate or permit – A legal document issued by city and town clerks, authorizing burial, cremation or entombment.

Casket – Also called a coffin, a container made of wood, metal or plastic that holds the deceased’s body. Under federal law, funeral homes are required to accept caskets that consumers have purchased from another source or that you have built yourself.

Certified death certificate – Usually prepared by the funeral home; a legal document filed with the state to verify an individual’s death. A valid death certificate is needed for a family to make insurance claims and collect other death benefits.

Columbarium – A structure that’s similar to a mausoleum, but holds cremains rather than bodies.

Committal Service – Also known as a graveside service; the final part of the funeral service when the deceased is buried in the ground or entombed in a mausoleum.

Cosmetology – The use of cosmetics to give the deceased a more lifelike appearance, especially when there will be a visitation.

Cremains – The cremated remains of the deceased

Crypt – A vault or chamber in a mausoleum that holds the deceased’s remains.

Embalming – A method of preserving and sanitizing the deceased. This is done by injecting an antiseptic preservative through the circulatory system.

Eulogy – A speech of praise given to honor the deceased.

Family Car – The vehicle, often a limousine, dedicated to carrying the family to the service and burial.

Family room – A separate room in the funeral home for the family of the deceased to have some privacy.

Full couch – A casket that is completely open, showing the deceased from head to toe; a half couch is a casket that only opens halfway, showing the deceased from head to waist.

Funeral service – The ceremony, religious or otherwise, that marks the death of an individual.

Grave liner – A container placed in the ground to keep the walls of the grave from caving in. The casket is lowered into the liner at burial. A vault is similar, but more substantial. A grave liner only covers the top and sides of a casket, while a vault surrounds the casket.

Inter – To bury the body of the deceased.

Inurment – To place cremains into an urn.

Mausoleum – An aboveground structure used for placement of casketed remains.

Memorial service – A ceremony held to honor the memory of the deceased; often held without remains.

Next-of-kin – A person who is the nearest relative of the deceased and who is responsible for making decisions about final arrangements.

Pallbearers – A group of individuals who carry the casket. Pallbearers are often friends and relatives of the deceased.

Preplanning – When an individual makes his or her own final arrangements ahead of time. Preplanning doesn’t necessarily require prepayment.

Private service – A service that is by invitation only.

Procession – Also known as a cortege; a line of vehicles that travels between the funeral home or church and the cemetery.

Register – A book in which mourners can record their names at the funeral home when they pay their respects to the deceased.

Reposing room – Where the deceased’s body lies in the casket until the funeral service.

Viewing – Also known as a viewing;  a period of time during which the deceased’s body is displayed at the funeral home, so friends and family can visit and pay respects.

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If you would like more information about funeral or cremation arrangements, we’ll be happy to send you our free brochure and planning guide.

5 Unusual funeral customs from around the world

 

Jazz funeral

We generally think of funerals as somber affairs, comprised of three components: a wake, a funeral and a burial – or memorial service in the case of cremation.

There are exceptions: In New Orleans, for instance, jazz funerals are both a sad and joyous affair. A jazz funeral is usually held for musicians and blends several cultural traditions – some of which see celebrating death as a way to please the spirits who protect the dead. In a jazz funeral, the band leads the funeral procession, starting with songs of lament and later transitions to more raucous melodies coupled with dancing by mourners.

In the rest of the world, funeral traditions vary greatly and differ from ours in many ways. Dancing at a funeral? In some parts of Madagascar, there is a tradition, known as Famadihana, in which every few years, relatives unbury their dead in order to replace their clothes with fresh ones. The relatives walk the remains of their loved one around the village, play music, drink and dance. Afterwards, they put their dead back in their graves until the next gathering.

In Ghana, funerals are lavish affairs: They generally cost between $15,000 and Ghanaian coffin in shape of a bus$20,000, according to CNN. Billboards are erected to publicize funeral arrangements and Ghanaians often bury their dead in coffins that symbolize what the deceased did for work or something special about him or her. These “fantasy coffins” take all shapes; that can range from an airplane to a Coca Cola bottle, or even a cell phone. In this way Ghanaians mourn, but also celebrate the life of the departed.

In South Korea, where burial space is at a premium, a law was passed that requires families to dig up their dead after 60 years. Because of that, cremation has become much more popular: in fact, more people are now cremated than buried in South Korea. A recent development in the way they treat loved one’s cremains is to have them compressed into colored beads that are then stored in a jar.

Hanging Coffins of Sagada Mountain ProvinceThe Tinguians in the Philippines dress the deceased in his or her best outfit and then seat the body in a chair. The body remains there for several weeks, often with a lit cigarette placed between the lips. In mountainous areas of the Philippines, some cultures still practice the tradition of hanging coffins from high cliffs in order to place the dead closer to heaven.

Funeral rites have been around since the dawn of man and there are as many different traditions as there are cultures in the world. Some cultures leave their dead out in the open, others bury their dead in caves. Many of these traditions seem very odd to us, but then, our traditions may seem very odd to other cultures. The most important thing is that family and friends find the best way to remember loved ones and celebrate their life with dignity and respect – however tradition dictates.

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Phaneuf Funeral Homes & Crematorium and the Cremation Society of New Hampshire can assist you with personal funeral arrangements that meet your needs and customs. For a free consultation, click here.

Photo Credits:

Jazz funeral Derek Bridges/Flickr

Fantasy coffin Daventam/Flickr

Hanging coffins Aldrin J. Garces

Preplanning is a gift for your loved ones

Funeral insurance

Even though it’s inevitable for all of us, many of us don’t like talking about death. So talking about our wishes for funeral or cremation arrangements is an uncomfortable subject for not only us, but our families as well.

But, it’s important to have plans in place – especially if there are things you very much want for your funeral or cremation, burial or disposal of your cremains. The only way you can be comfortable that your wishes are carried out is through preplanning.

Preplanning doesn’t necessarily mean prepaying. If you simply want to have your final arrangements known in advance – down to the type of ceremony and casket – you can do that without paying a dime. Putting your wishes in writing is the best way to make sure there is no confusion about your intentions at the time of your death.

As always, make your loved ones aware that you have put your wishes in writing and let them know where they can find that information. A good place to put it is with all of the other important documents you should prepare before you die.

If you do decide to prepay for your funeral or cremation expenses, there are a few ways you can do it.

 

Preneed Funeral Insurance

Preneed funeral insurance is usually tied to a specific funeral home, crematorium or funeral service provider. Preneed funeral insurance is a type of whole life insurance, that is, a policy that remains in force throughout the insured’s life. It accumulates cash value and has a built-in growth rate. Our preneed funeral insurance locks in your future costs at today’s prices – but be aware that not all funeral home policies do.

The first step is to choose a provider. If you don’t have a specific funeral home in mind, meet with several and compare plans before making your decision on funeral insurance. All funeral homes in our area offer some sort of preplanning program and all are priced competitively.

Once you decide on the funeral home and sign a preneed contract, a preneed funeral insurance policy will be issued for the same amount as your preneed contract. We place funds in an Irrevocable Mortuary Trust account, in accordance with state law. This trust is insured and the funds gain interest, which we maintain in the account to offset future price increases.

 

Final expense insurance

Final expense insurance isn’t tied to a specific funeral home. You can choose – and change – your funeral home at any time. These policies also cover other final costs aside from funeral costs. The advantage of final expense insurance is that this type of policy often has lower premium payments than preneed funeral insurance policies. The down side is that these policies accumulate little or no cash value.

Final expense insurance can either be whole life insurance or it can be term (temporary) life insurance that provides coverage only for a specific period of time and only pays out if you die within that specific period.

 

A Trust

You can set up your own burial trust fund, known as a “Payable on Death” trust. It’s done at a financial institution – bank or credit union – and is simply a bank account. It earns interest and is very flexible: You can close the account, change banks or change the beneficiary at any time. Upon your death, it is paid out to the beneficiary, you named, who then uses the money to pay for your funeral expenses.

However you decide to do it, preplanning ensures that all of your final wishes will be fulfilled. When you prepay it provides you and your family additional peace of mind in knowing that expenses will be covered. It’s the best gift you can leave your loved ones.

This is an overview of the alternatives available. Be sure to talk to your funeral home, lawyer and/or tax advisor before entering into a contract.

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Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium offers preplanning and payment options to fit your needs. To get more information, click here.

 

Family-owned funeral homes are part of your community

Historic family photos

Trust is not something you build overnight. That’s why, when you’re looking for a funeral home, you want to find one that has a long history of trust; that’s what you’ll find with a family-owned funeral home.

In the 1990s, the funeral home industry saw big conglomerates buy up many smaller funeral homes. Don’t be fooled: While a funeral home may have been in your community for years under the same name, that funeral home could have sold out to a large conglomerate with a focus on little more than profit.

When it comes to funeral and cremation planning, it’s important to know who you’re dealing with. Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium has been owned and operated by the Phaneuf family for four generations in our community. We are one of the oldest continually-owned family funeral homes in New Hampshire and we are deeply committed to supporting our communities, as well as local charities and nonprofit organizations in the communities we serve.

Here are 10 good reasons to choose a family-owned funeral home:

  1. We are locally owned and operated, and are independent.
  2. We have one goal: to make our business the best it can be for you and your loved ones.
  3. We are not beholden to shareholders, governed by corporate mandates or driven by solely by profit.
  4. Many family-owned funeral homes have been in business for generations, so they have built a legacy of trust in the community.
  5. You can feel comfortable knowing that after the funeral is over, our staff is still in the community and will be there for our clients.
  6. Our staff has a personal relationship with their community; they live in the area and are often very active in the communities they serve.
  7. Family-owned funeral homes contribute to the local economy.
  8. Much of the staff is local and often graduates of local colleges.
  9. We are aware of, and appreciate local customs and understand the expectations of our clients.
  10. We are always a good neighbor – not because we have to be, but because we care about our community.

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Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium has been serving the public since 1906. We are the largest provider of funeral services in the state, and we operate three full-service funeral homes, two crematories, two non-denominational chapels, and a cremation society. To request a free brochure and planning guide, click here.

Death certificates and Social Security fraud

Social Security Card

A “60 Minutes” episode recently told the story of people who had wrongly been declared dead and ended up on the U.S. Social Security Administration’s Death Master File, a computerized list containing some 86 million names. As a result, these people were denied loans, couldn’t use their credit cards and couldn’t rent an apartment.

Patty Young of Mason, NH, told CNN Money that she was mistakenly declared dead due to a “keystroke error.” Even once she got the mistake fixed, someone filed a tax return in her name, likely as a result of that one keystroke.

For others, fixing the problem involves a lot of red tape and a lifetime of problems.

In another CNN Money article, one woman said “My life is still a nightmare three years later, after correcting errors with the Social Security Administration. I am disabled with no health care insurance and could not purchase my heart and blood pressure medicine.

“I can’t open a bank account in my name, and I couldn’t renew my driver’s license until I had someone come into the police station and vouch for me. I can’t even get a full-time job to bring in money because no one will hire me once they find out I’m dead.”

This past Monday, the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing on the problems with the Social Security death records. At that hearing, Judy Rivers recounted her ordeal after being declared dead. She noted that while she and others have had problems convincing agencies that they are alive, at the same time, families of people who actually have died have difficulties proving that the deceased is their family member.

Fortunately, as serious as these problems are, they represent less than 1/3 of 1 percent of the Social Security Administration’s transactions. A far greater problem is when people aren’t reported dead and relatives continue to collect social security payments, or criminals get access to those social security numbers and commit tax fraud, social security fraud, and credit card fraud, costing the United States and merchants billions of dollars.

According to the Social Security Administration some 6.5 million people over the age of Social Security Administration logo112 have no death certificates on file. The Associated Press reports that there are only 42 people known to be that old in the entire world and just 13 people receiving Social Security benefits in the US who are age 112 or older.

The Death Master File is used by banks and credit agencies, federal agencies and state and local governments. Until recently, parts or all of the file have been available for sale, but Congress tightened access so that only those who are “certified” can access the full file. It’s estimated that tighter restrictions on the DMF could save taxpayers more than $700 million in fraudulent tax refunds alone over 10 years.

Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr., Inspector General of the U.S. Social Security Administration told “60 Minutes” that the agency now has some tools to help cut down on fraud. If an elderly person hasn’t been on Medicaid for three years, they call and see if the person is still alive; if they are over 100, “We reach out to see how they’re doing.”

While about a dozen states don’t have a statewide electronic system for filing death certificates, New Hampshire does. Here, the funeral home is required by law to file the death certificate electronically – then the Social Security Administration is automatically notified via the New Hampshire Bureau of Vital Records.

There have been times when families, for one reason or another, don’t want to provide us their loved one’s Social Security Number, saying that they will notify Social Security themselves. While most of the people are well-meaning, others may not want Social Security notified so they can continue to receive monthly Social Security or other payments.

Social security fraud is a growing problem, and while the state of New Hampshire does a good job of containing it, not every state does. For those people who commit fraud, O’Carroll has a message:

“We’re going to find you, we’re going to arrest you, and we’re going to get the money back.”

What happens to your digital assets when you die?

Computer on table with abstract pattern

Last week I talked about some of the important documents you should gather and store in a safe place so family members can easily find them when you die. Among them are any passwords for online accounts you may have. Today, let’s talk about what happens to your online accounts— specifically social networks — when you die.

It’s important to know that leaving passwords behind so loved ones can access your account may not be enough. As the Associated Press reported last year, “most company’s ‘terms of service’ agreements prohibit anyone from accessing an account that isn’t theirs.” And it may take some wrangling to cancel a loved one’s account when they die. Facebook, for instance, says that “Verified immediate family members may request the removal of a loved one’s account from Facebook,” while Twitter says “we can work with a person authorized to act on the behalf of the estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated.” In order to do that, the survivor must provide your death certificate, their drivers license and a signed statement.

Facebook also allows you to specify whether you want your account deleted after death or if you want a “memorialized account,” where friends and family can share memories after you die. While you can name a legacy contact who can write a pinned post, respond to condolences and post photos, that person can’t log into your account and make changes.

Because social media is relatively new, this area of law is also relatively new and many states haven’t addressed the issue yet. The Uniform Law Commission has proposed an act, Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets, that can be enacted at the state level. The act ensures account-holders retain control of their “digital property” and can plan for what happens to those accounts after their death. “Unless the account-holder instructs otherwise, legally appointed fiduciaries will have the same access to digital assets as they have always had to tangible assets, and the same duty to comply with the account-holder’s instructions.”  It has been enacted in Delaware and introduced in 17 other states. New Hampshire is not one of them.

Of course, not everyone wants their loved ones to access their social media accounts after they die. Consider whether you want others to be able to see all of your emails, private messages or your online dating profile. In that case, forego leaving the passwords and stipulate in your will that no one should have access to your online accounts, except perhaps your lawyer or someone to whom you grant power of attorney.

WebpageFX has created an infographic that provides a great visual overview of this topic that will help you understand each social media site’s policies and requirements to deactivate your accounts. To see it, click here.

Information about deactivating accounts:

Facebook: http://ow.ly/K74Uy

Twitter: http://ow.ly/K74YZ

LinkedIn: http://ow.ly/K752G

Pinterest: http://ow.ly/K756o

Google: http://ow.ly/K75aO

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Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium opened in 1906 and is one of the oldest continually-owned family funeral homes in New Hampshire. We are the largest provider of funeral services in the state, and we operate three full-service funeral homes, two crematories, two non-denominational chapels and a cremation society. For more information, go to http://www.phaneuf.net/.