Planning your death
“There are three kinds of death in this world. There’s heart death, there’s brain death and there’s being off the network.”
– Guy Almes
Do you push away thoughts of death with the same fervor that I employ resisting raisins? Despite the discomfort, do you have some ideas – or perhaps even just fragments – about what will happen after your passing? For example, how do you imagine your remains: a burial on land? Burial at sea? Donation to science? Orbiting in a Tesla convertible? How about any funeral or memorial service elements? Do you envision a religious approach, or secular? Or perhaps no service at all?
In my initial reflections about death after my Stage IV breast cancer “terminal” diagnosis, I specifically did not plan to leave any outlines or requests for a particular type of burial, funeral or memorial service. I felt that doing so would peg me as an egocentric control freak, a way of barking orders from the Great Beyond. I honestly believed my loved ones would be better off creating their own plans for me, based on their own needs. However, I soon learned how hard that can be on them.
Yes, someone takes care of our remains and other matters after we die. But the hardest question people say they agonized over amidst their tremendous grief is, “What would s/he have wanted?” Many carry this question for a lifetime; perhaps this is something that you live with yourself. So why do we want to saddle someone else with decisions that we could have determined ourselves while we are alive? What if we remove the ambiguity and make some real choices? What if the very idea of crafting this end-of-life information is truly the most loving gift we can give to others?
Interested in dipping your toe? I encourage you to begin. And take it easy. This work can, and should, take meaningful time: They are our final wishes! My go-to is the Advance Death Care Directive planning booklet by Sacred Crossings (http://deathcaredirective.com). It’s a slim 24-page workbook and costs $10.
I like it for several reasons. The range of topics feels wider than I could have ever come up with on my own. For example, the question about cremation includes choices of vessels for the cremation itself: pine box, bamboo/alternative casket, cardboard cremation box or other. The Life Review prompts, such as “My gratitude list includes,” or “Amends I have made and those I wished I could have made,” help to organize my reflections while keeping my answers manageable. There are checklists for completed documents to include in our “Death File,” so the papers are stored together in one place.
The simple questions and straightforward language keep my process flowing, not stuck in “overwhelm.” And the entire process unfolds at my pace. Additionally, I have found this material to be a terrific prompt for discussing these sensitive end-of-life topics with family, too. Referencing this material with a neutral “third party” booklet help temper the terror of tackling these topics for everyone in the conversation.
What is a step you can take right now, today? You can begin – or continue, if you’ve already gotten started – on one of the prompts I mentioned. Or, do you feel like encountering some incontrovertible truths? Reading these words means that you are alive, which means that at some point you will die (note: not because you are reading this). I appreciate this 2015 interview by Larry King with scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson (who says, “It is the knowledge that I am going to die that creates the focus that I bring to being alive,”) and I encourage you to give it a listen – especially at 21:55, when Larry King asks, “What do you think happens when we die?” It’s available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4x2ZrklQQYU.
Head On and Heart Strong!
Kids’ Almanac columnist Erica Chase-Salerno was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in the Summer of 2015. To read more about her experience, visit https://hudsonvalleyone.com/tag/ericas-cancer-journey.