Column entry, Let’s Talk Family, “Communicating about Death”

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Column: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing

Column entry: “Communicating about Death”

By Jonathan Pettigrew, PhD, Arizona State University; Diane Badzinski, PhD, Colorado Christian University

Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.

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Communicating about Death

In the book, Let’s Talk about Death (over Dinner), along with the website “Death over Dinner,” Michael Hebb encourages individuals to host a dinner gathering to talk about end-of-life issues.

If you were invited to one of these dinner parties, would you go? Why or why not?

If you were to host one of these parties, what topics would you hope to address?

Seem macabre? Like something out of the Adams Family or Transylvania? These kinds of dinner parties wouldn’t be our first choice, but we do think it is important to talk about death.

As families, we “do life together” and this includes walking to the threshold of death together. So, as uncomfortable as “death over dinner” conversations might be, we are going to cover it. We include some tips about how to have conversations with family members about end-of-life planning.

Money and “Getting Your Affairs in Order”

Part of leaving this life includes helping others manage what you leave behind. There is a joke that a man argued with Saint Peter at the Heaven’s entry gates to bring with him all the gold bars he had saved in his life. Eventually, Peter decided to let him pass, but scratched his head in amazement at why the man cared so much about bringing street pavement with him! Indeed, as Job (1:21) reminds us, “naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return.” Since we don’t take anything with us, it is important for many people to plan ways to manage what they leave behind.

Have you talked with your parents and/or your children about financial issues? What will happen to a house, cars, debts, savings? If not, why not?

Some cultures and some families consider money talk taboo, so they avoid the topic. Others worry that talking about money is insensitive and implies that all they care about is money. If you grew up hearing Bible stories, maybe you are afraid that talking about money will paint you as a “prodigal son” (see Luke 15:11-32). Yet, engaging in conversations with our parents and our children about inheritance can create opportunities to openly share what’s important to us.

A review of studies on communication between the generations showed that most children did not know if they would inherit any money from their parents, much less the amount, nor did they know how the process would work. This was the case in my [Diane’s] family. My husband and I executed a trust outlining how we want our estate to pass on upon our deaths. We had a conversation with our three young-adult children about their roles and responsibilities in executing our wishes, including how to pay bills, debt, funeral costs, etc. Our daughter, about 20 years-old at the time, voiced her concern upon hearing that she was assigned our financial power of attorney: “I don’t have that kind of money!” she exclaimed. We chuckled before explaining to her that she was given the power to use our money to pay all final financial obligations. She was happy to hear that!

Researchers, in a study titled “You’re Saying Something by Giving Things to Them,” found that older adults really wanted their kids to know about and carry out their inheritance wishes. The adults also felt that talking about inheritance will help to avoid conflict and preserve family bonds. We couldn’t agree more.

So, what might we talk about?

You might share how you plan to pay off debt. Or you could share your desire to earmark an inheritance for a grandchild’s college fund, reinforcing a value for education. Or you might express that your children use the inheritance for a downpayment on a home. During these conversations, you might also share if you wanted to support a certain non-profit organization or church. Other topics you might talk about include any final wishes, roles and responsibilities upon death, and plans for the funeral, including how to pay for it. Even though these conversations may be awkward, it is important to be able to talk about what’s important to you.

What other practical topics should we discuss? Here are some suggestions:

  • Funeral Arrangements. Plan a funeral. Be specific. Do you want to be cremated or not? Where should the ashes or remains be spread or buried? Are there special songs to sing or poems to read? Do you want to have a funeral, graveside service, or host a memorial service? Is there a significant person to officiate the service?
  • Roles and Responsibilities. Determine who will assume medical power of attorney and/or power of attorney should you become incapacitated. Whoever takes the responsibility should be well acquainted with your wishes and able to fulfill those wishes. These documents usually need to be signed when you are cognizant and notarized, so it is good to make the plan early.
  • Beneficiaries. Assign beneficiaries to bank and savings accounts (as well as 401k retirement accounts, Individual Retirement Account (IRA), mutual funds, etc.) or place accounts in multiple names with rights of survivorship. For many estates (and in some jurisdictions), taking these steps can keep an estate from going to probate court.
  • Distribution of Assets. Place titles and deeds to all secured assets (e.g., vehicles, properties) in multiple names with rights of survivorship; alternatively, assign all assets to beneficiaries in a legally executed last will and testament. Don’t forget to talk about the distribution of household items and sentimental objects. Who is going to get your wedding ring, the family crest, or the rod-and-reel collection?

Life on earth ends. As Scripture teaches, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27, NKJV). Only while living is there opportunity to prepare for death, spiritually and practically.

Let’s talk about these matters over dinner, shall we?

Thanks for joining the conversation.

–Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski



 Charles Collier, “How Do You Start a Family Conversation about Financial Inheritance,” in Wealth of Wisdom: The Top 50 Questions Wealthy Families Ask, eds. Tom McCullough and Keith Whitaker (United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons 2019), 161–164.

Karen L. Fingerman, Meng Huo, and Kira S. Birditt, “A Decade of Research on Intergenerational Ties: Technology, Economic, Political, and Demographic Changes,” Journal of Marriage and Family 82, no. 1 (2020): 383–403.

Michael Hebb, Let’s Talk about Death (over Dinner): An Invitation and Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation (New York: Da Capo Press, 2018).

“Let’s Have Dinner and Talk about Death,” Death over Dinner,

Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski, Family Communication and the Christian Faith: An Introduction and Exploration (Pasco, WA: Integratio Press, 2023).

Lorna de Witt, Lori Campbell, Jenny Ploeg, Candace L. Kemp, and Carolyn Rosenthal, “‘You’re Saying Something by Giving Things to Them,” European Journal of Ageing 10 (2013), 183.



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