The Death File

[Note: this is an edited version of an article that appeared in Backwoods Survival Guide magazine.]

My father died in the summer of 2019. He’d been in poor health for a while and his passing wasn’t exactly sudden or surprising. Even so, the loss of a loved one is a tragic and emotional time. What made it infinitely worse was having almost no information about what to do next.

We’d talked a bit about his wishes, but it isn’t a topic most people are comfortable discussing, especially when the end is seemingly close at hand. My mother had passed several years prior and dad had handled all of the arrangements. That’s when I started asking him questions, every once in a while, about what he wanted done when his time came. More often than not, he’d brush it off with a joke or smart remark and that’d be the end of it.

Then, it came time to make decisions.
• Burial or cremation?
• What kind of casket?
• What did we want for a service?
• Any particular music to be played?

The list went on and on. And that was just for the funeral arrangements. It seemed like every single day brought a slew of new questions that needed to be answered, information that needed to somehow be located in the rapidly growing pile of miscellaneous papers we kept finding in drawers, cabinets, and desks.

Most of the stress could have been avoided had better plans been in place.

The Death File

Let’s face it, nobody gets out of life alive. As morbid as the name sounds, I speak from experience when I say this is a tool that would be of great benefit to your surviving family members. The basic idea is to collect and collate the information they’ll need after you pass.

This can be an actual physical file folder containing hard copy pages and documents, or it could be a digital file stored on a flash drive or other device. The important part is to make sure the ones who should have access to it know where to find it.

File Contents

The contents of this file should go well beyond simply whether you want to be buried or cremated, though that information should certainly be included. Let’s go through the various categories of data that should be part of the file.

Legal Documents

This one should be obvious. You should include copies of your Last Will and Testament, as well as a Living Will, Power of Attorney, and similar paperwork. While the POA and the Living Will won’t be used after your death, they will certainly be good to have in case you are incapacitated. Helpful tip: have multiple original copies of the POA paperwork. While most places will accept a photocopy, some of them will demand an original. Consulting with an attorney to prepare these documents is always recommended. They will probably think of things you overlook. They are also often able to advise on the best way to handle things so as to preserve as much of your estate as possible.


Make a list of every single account you have, from your mortgage, car loans, and credit cards to utility bills and gym memberships. Every single thing that is paid through your bank accounts should be included. Note the name of the account, the account number, and the contact phone number for that company. You don’t need to include balance information. The idea here is to give your heirs the ability to close accounts so they don’t continue to accrue charges.

Online Access

This one will rankle the feathers of every computer security expert out there, but consider making a list of every online account you have, from email to social media, and include your log in information for each of them. This gives your heirs a way to access information that might not have made it to the Death File yet. They can download all of your social media data as well, including photos that might not exist anywhere else.

List of Contacts

Make a list of every person you feel should be notified of your passing. Quite often, we have friends and acquaintances, especially online, that our family might not think to contact. Include their names, mailing addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. This is another reason why you should consider including in the file your log in information for social media accounts, as they can be used to reach out to people who might otherwise be overlooked.


This includes any insurance policies and pensions as well as Social Security benefits for which your family may be eligible to receive. My father had a life insurance policy nobody knew about, until they found out about his passing during a file audit several months after the fact. The payout was very small, but if they hadn’t contacted me, I’d have never known about the policy.

Access Information

If you have a safe at home, a safe deposit box, or anything else along these lines, be sure to have instructions in this file as to how to access them, such as safe combinations or where a key is kept. My father had a small fire safe he kept on his nightstand for years. Unfortunately, he never wrote the combination down. I ended up contacting the manufacturer and was able to pay a fee to get the combination, after providing a copy of my identification and such. Turned out, this was where he was keeping the bulk of his collection of antique money, so it was worth the hassle and expense.

Last Words

Consider writing a short note to your loved ones, something personal just for them. While it might be difficult for them to read it at the time, they’ll treasure it later. If you have trouble expressing your feelings toward them verbally, this is a great opportunity to tell them how much you love them and how proud you are of them.

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