by Alice M. Wald
Thinking about your death is not exactly a favorite pastime. However, some like Dr. Murray Bowen have said that “direct thinking about death, or indirect thinking about staying alive and avoiding death,
occupies more of man’s time than any other subject.” Add to that the anxiety being generated as humans face the challenges of climate change and increasing population and the question becomes:
How in the world do you muster the courage to face your death and in the process bring a bit of peace and love to your corner of the world?
The overarching principle is communication with your family as you think about what is important to you at each step of this journey. As the saying goes, you are all in this together even though there will be those who would rather run than talk or listen! If you can stay focused, your family will likely come along and in the end will appreciate what you are doing.
In my experience, the easiest place to start is with planning your funeral, that is, “the ceremonies held in connection with the burial or cremation of the dead.” Granted, Friends are not into ceremonies and generally prefer to have a memorial service at a later date with no “body” present. However, I believe that it is important to bring the family, faith community, and wider friendship system together in the presence of the deceased. This long-standing human ritual confirms reality and reaffirms our connections with others. It applies to adults and children. Even elephants have been observed to spend time with their dead kin.
Funerals should be planned with each detail as personal as possible. Remember that funeral homes are an industry, even for cremation, so shop around and refer to the Funeral Consumers Alliance for general information. In some areas a “green” burial may be possible or you could do what I did and have a carpenter make you a casket. The idea came from an article in Friends Journal years ago about having a “plain pine box” which I currently use as a piece of furniture. If I remember correctly, the Arthur Morgan School in North Carolina provided the instructions.
There are a number of details that you may want to include in a printed program. In my case, brief written instructions will be useful for those who have never attended a Quaker Memorial Meeting.
Perhaps you have a favorite scripture such as: “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24) which describes my ongoing effort to be “joyful” as my car tag has proclaimed for years. Poetry or simple art can also express who you are. I chose The Duck by Jane Goodall which speaks to the oneness of all beings.
People may want to remember you with a memorial gift so let them know where to send it. Or perhaps you might like your family to give those who come a daffodil bulb to take with them. Music by “Earth Mama”, aka, Joyce Johnson Rouse is a must for me. I enlisted a cousin to make a compact disc that has my favorites on it.
(I would love to be there to hear them!)
Then there is the obituary. Who better to write it than you? I found that the life review it involved brought me a kind of inner peace. However, if that is not your case, you still have time! Local newspapers charge to print obituaries while Friends Journal does not.
Another aspect of planning ahead includes legal and financial issues. Even if you only have a pet, I believe it is important to have a Last Will and Testament because it makes your wishes clear.
Sometimes people attempt to avoid contentious family issues and manage behavior by using legal constraints. It is better to think clearly about what is important to you and address the issues while you are alive. Be prepared for push back as you take this opportunity to do things differently and perhaps avoid the transfer of unresolved emotional issues to the next generation.
Advance Directives apply to your right to make health care decisions that affect you. They include Living Wills and Health Care Powers of Attorney. In the Living Will you tell your doctor that you do not want to receive certain treatments, primarily insertion of a feeding tube or resuscitation if your heart stops. In the Health Care Power of Attorney you name an agent to tell the doctor what treatment should or should not be provided. These documents are followed only if you are unable, due to illness or injury, to make decisions for yourself.
Attorneys are happy to charge you for completing these documents but in my state you can download and complete them yourself. Be sure to read the forms carefully and follow the instructions. Note that a Health Care Power of Attorney is a specific form of durable power of attorney that names an agent who only makes health care decisions. A durable power of attorney may be worded to only allow the agent to make decisions about property and financial matters.
If you have questions about signing an advance directive, talk to your doctor or other health care professional, your family, anyone you intend to name as your agent(s), and perhaps have a meeting for clearness if you think it could be useful. In the end, it is the conversations that matter most, not the documents. So push thru your resistance to doing them.
As you make these important decisions, be sure that your thinking is based on facts as far as possible and not emotionally driven feelings.
For this kind of perspective, I recommend a book: Being Mortal:
Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014) and an article: “Why I Hope to Die at 75” by Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The Atlantic (October 2014). The gist is that both our birth, bringing joy, and our death, bringing loss, are biological events.
Ethical Wills and Legacy Letters are tools that can provide a way of sharing your heartfelt expressions of what matters to you with family and friends and in the process communicate how you want to live until you die. Videos can also be done to capture important family history information that may be lost but once you are gone.
Queries posed to individuals, families, and meetings are also useful. What does a person do to get prepared for death?
How do you share who you are and what you think is important?
What is the best way to say good-bye?
What is it you do when you say good-bye?
In my work experience as a hospice Social Worker I have seen many individuals and their families face saying good-bye. Some manage well and are gone within a few weeks or months while others continue to exist in a suspended state of not living and not dying for a year or longer. Often seeing the suffering of the dying one influences the family’s ability to let go. As for myself, I hope to die peacefully with family by my side and that along with their grief they too will have a sense of peace.
I have a couple of thoughts to share about the notion of what happens after we die. Given the anxious times we live in coupled with this stress producing topic, it is normal to ruminate. However, in my opinion, we as the Religious Society of Friends will be best served if we can maintain our relationship systems, focus on taking action when we can (like end of life planning) and use our Quaker spiritual
process to help manage the gut wrenching fears that life brings and follow the Light forward. These actions will support our natural resilience. Ultimately I believe we do live on in our families which is enough for me. As Bradford Smith so aptly put it in Dear Gift of Life, “The love which cherishes is the power that keeps the dead among the
Alice M. Wald, a member of Columbia Friends Meeting, SC and a professional Social Worker for forty-seven years, enjoys writing and nature.