It was a nondescript white van. Nothing on the outside conveyed its importance except a small, easy to miss sign in the back that read, “Funeral Services.” I followed it numbly through the streets of Chicago’s north side. South on Pulaski, northwest on Elston, around side streets to the entrance of the funeral parlor. A typical mid-February day, with snow covered sidewalks. Just one simple question kept nagging at me, “So this is how it ends?” At times it became more of a statement of sad realization as a thousand thoughts and memories rushed through me. “So this is how it ends.”
My father remained an optimist no matter what adversity life threw in his path. His mother passed away when he was a small child, the fourth of five siblings. In those days, many Indian men worked abroad in South Africa because it promised better employment opportunities. My grandfather was one of them. Thus, my father was essentially orphaned at a young age when entrusted to the care of family so that my grandfather could return to work. A few years later, he also passed away during a trip home to India. After that, my father’s uncles gave my father and his two brothers up to institutional care in their ancestral village.
My father studied religion and earned the esteemed title of Alim. His faith served as his guide. I still come across former students who respect my father for teaching and guiding them. Theology, Quranic tajweed, spirituality and ethics were his subjects. My father left his mark on students across three different continents: Asia, where, in addition to India, he taught in Pakistan and Bangladesh (or East Pakistan, as it was known in those days), Europe, where he taught in Germany and England, and here in North America, in Illinois.
But my father was more than a priest and teacher. He had a spirit for adventure, a passion for travel, and a proud sense of entrepreneurship. For me, this is his lasting legacy. I inherited his love of the open road and enthusiasm for spontaneity. One day, I hope to take my children on an international road trip similar to the one he took us on when we were very young kids: from London, across the English Channel by ferry, via the Autobahn to the foot of the Alps in Salzburg, through the idyllic countryside of then-Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, to Istanbul, on eastward along the Sea of Marmara to Ankara, through tumultuous Iran, over the rugged mountains of Balochistan (where we almost died when our car rolled backwards downhill alongside a deep canyon), to Quetta, and finally to the booming coastal city of Karachi.
I used to think I knew a lot about estate planning. My father’s parting lesson was about how wrong I was. I advise clients about estate and gift taxes, asset protection, probate, and related matters. My father passed away with very few possessions to his name though. He didn’t have to worry about a taxable estate and asset protection planning was never a need. On a simple imam’s salary, he could live by the philosophy I heard him reiterate when I was younger, “If I can’t take it to my grave, then why do I need it?”
Yet with his death, my father taught me that funeral planning is also important, so loved ones aren’t left wondering about your preferences. As the eldest and the family’s decision maker, I had to decide where to bury my father, whether to hold the funeral right away or wait until other family members could arrive, decide between open casket or closed, who should recite the funeral prayer, who should be involved with preparing my father’s body for burial, who would perform the final rites at the cemetery, and whether it should only be close family or open to everyone. My father and I never discussed these things, so I found myself asking over and over what he would have wanted. These are decisions that I must live with for the rest of my life.
He also taught me the importance of addressing preferences on an autopsy in the event there is a question of medical negligence. My brother wanted an autopsy but I decided against it because I couldn’t see how anything good would come of it and it would delay the funeral.
And with his death, my father also reminded me that personal property includes legal documents that can serve as mementos, such as a birth certificate, passport, driver’s license, etc. One should specify who should take possession of them.
My father would have turned 69 last week. So it’s only fitting that I dedicate my new estate and legacy planning blog to him for all that he taught me, both in life and death, about the importance of leaving a meaningful legacy.