Never having been a long-term planner, I cannot see myself happily planning my own funeral. But these days we are inundated with messages about what a joy it is to make one’s final arrangements in advance of taking leave. It’s the considerate thing to do and there are funeral planners ready and willing to instill a little guilt and help us achieve those plans.
Mortality is something we frequently joke about as in: “I was so embarrassed I wanted to die,” but do we ever sit around and contemplate or discuss mortality? As in: Is it fair? Did someone get this one wrong? Should we accept it? Is there an alternative? And if not, where can we protest?
When I have seriously considered the subject of dying, I have at times thought that the best place to die would be in an operating theatre on a metal table, preferably anesthetized and solidly under. Death would then come as a complete surprise and I could live with that.
One of my favorite uncles once told me his desire for burial was for someone to dump him into the garbage can head first, feet sticking out, close to pick-up day, and be done with it. His son, my cousin who lived directly across the street and whose living room window faced that scene wasn’t impressed with his father’s directive, but that was all the ceremony Uncle wanted.
Ad agencies for the funeral industry wouldn’t be impressed with killjoys like him, but how many of us hold similar views?
It’s About Mortality
Today’s media is full of ads showing people who are simply over the moon as they plan their last rites…smiling and happy with birds tweeting their approval outside an open window with billowing white curtains.
However, many senior boomers are still figuring out what they want to be when they grow up. Still recovering from the shock of the suddenly a senior realization, they’re now being told it’s funeral time and get planning while you still can.
Hold the phone. Are we really there?
Yes, the Stoics remind us: Memento Mori.
We’re told it’s a matter of consideration and thoughtfulness to our heirs that every detail of THE END is planned and taken care of. We wouldn’t want to depart unexpectedly and leave behind a mess. I get that but I’m still stuck on and can’t get past the mortal part.
Resignation to the fact of our mortality seems to come more easily for people of faith who have a tendency to up their church attendance as they age. I assume increased attendance is seen as some form of insurance guaranteeing the promised land will materialize?
Not being a person of faith I personally prefer living on the edge, forsaking repentance, and hoping there is indeed no hell awaiting.
Agnostics And Atheists Eschew Elaborate Farewells
Throughout my life, my closest friends have been agnostics like me or ardent atheists. Most don’t want a funeral in any form. They just want to disappear and not become a high-paying customer, departed, no less, to the ever-profitable funeral industry.
And let’s be clear: attending the dead is a profitable business model, one never experiencing supply chain issues or lack of inventory. The average funeral cost in Canada is between $5000 – $10,000. Cremation runs $2000 – $5000. No matter the cost, funerals in my view, spartan or lavish, are ghoulish. Why can’t we just evaporate when we die and become part of the atmosphere instead of this ashes-to-ashes and dust-to-dust thing? So much more eco-friendly and cost-effective.
Wouldn’t You Rather Just Fertilize A Tree?
Actually, eco-friendly alternatives are becoming more popular and there is a multitude of options available: cremations, green funerals, being buried in your own backyard or someone else’s, having your ashes scattered on some body of water, or a mountaintop, residing in an urn or perhaps fertilizing a tree. Some people donate their body to medical science and are then cremated for free.
Does having numerous options for burial make contemplation of one’s mortality any easier? Not for me they don’t.
Does planning a celebration of life vs planning a funeral make acceptance any easier? To quote Hamlet Act III, Scene III, Line 92, “No.”
Apparently, I am not alone in my aversion. Only 1 in 3 Americans have formalized instructions to family involving living wills, end-of-life wishes, and the naming of a Powers of Attorney. Only 1 in 5 have had a conversation with family members regarding final wishes. Few people want to go there.
By Contrast, Millennials Are the Death-Positive Generation
Millennials by contrast, appear to be accepting of mortality and may have something to teach us. Order of the Good Death was founded in 2011 by a young funeral director in Los Angeles when she decided that you could build a better mousetrap concerning death. Her mission is about helping everyone die better:
“The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above.” This Order teaches that accepting death itself is natural, but modern culture’s death anxiety and terror are not.
Then there’s a digital app called WeCroak which reminds its monthly subscribers 5 times every day that they are going to die. The hope is that this proverbial nudge in the ribs will induce people to live life more fully while they still can.
Finally, there’s a funeral service called Recompose specializing in human composting, rendering a body to soil without the use of formaldehyde, cremation, casket or coffin. Instead of burying wood, embalming fluid, and concrete; instead of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during cremation, human composting or fungi death suits are becoming vogue.
Millennials are creating numerous other apps to help us cope with the existential dilemma of our ephemeral time on this planet. Unlike me, Millennials are facing and dealing with death’s reality.
But Back to Acceptance From Which All Action Originates
How do we get there? To that exuberant planning stage? That one by the window under a clear blue sky with flowers blooming, birds tweeting, and be that smiling couple who just signed off on all those documents marked THE END.
Maybe by realizing that life is for the living, that life is a gift, that it was there before we showed up and will be there long after we reach our expiry date.
Still, permanent retirement is a difficult concept to swallow.
I intend to hang around a little longer but in the meantime, my motto is: life is for the living. Mortality is for others.