The other day, I was honing and polishing my death instructions. Death instructions, of course, are a collection of my wishes, preferences and expectations regarding the subject of death. In this case, my death.
For me, the money part is easy. Because there’s not a lot of it. Dead, my life insurance and pension go to my sons. Open and shut. My children are instructed to divide or sell anything I have of functional or monetary value: my car, furniture, electronics, media. My clothing goes to charity, sans any particular items the boys desire to keep en memoriam.
Should Kelly The Wonder Dog outlive me, she has a home.
It’s the stuff with sentimental value that was really fun to assign. My friend Paul, for example, gets my Beatles vinyl record collection. And my Monty Python DVD collection. And this cheap blue suitcase filled with stacks and stacks of gag drawings and doodles and jokes we used to pass back and forth in Forestry 101 when we should have been listening to the college lecture.
My guitar, my original music, the silver/turquoise crosses I wore as a priest, a few rings, a sculpture, two paintings — it was fun to see the faces of the particular people to whom I entrusted each item. More importantly, the meaning of each item.
See, you don’t need a bustling estate to take seriously the business of death instructions.
My estate certainly doesn’t bustle all that often. In fact, I would blush to call it an estate. But that’s my point. If you are much older than 25-30ish, if you own a car, real property or other hard assets, if your house or apartment or dorm room is rich only in sentiments (letters, important photographs, memorabilia, etc.), art, jewelry (regardless of the monetary worth of these items), and ESPECIALLY if you have a spouse and children and/or surviving parents and siblings … then it is recklessly irresponsible of you not to have considered your own death and assembled instructions thereto.
It’s mean, actually. And selfish. The folks who love you dearly and will be surviving you will have a hard enough time. Why add to them the burden of divining what should become of your Ben Franklin silver half-dollar collection? Let alone the specifics of your funeral and whether you prefer cremation, burial or cryonics. (By the way, if you DO choose cryonics, don’t choose it in the last week of your life written with crayon on a napkin. Your family will think you mad, and they will then fight over the constitution of your mental health and what you really wanted.)
Ah, my funeral. I want it to be buried in the Anglo-Catholic church. Same place I was baptized (born). I want them to stand and sing “Now Thank We All Our God,” because gratitude is, for me, the very core of my spiritual journey. I’ve named three speakers. I’ve named the preacher/celebrant.
Cremate me, please. I’ll come back to haunt anyone who spends a bloody fortune on a carved, monogrammed hardwood box and embalming fluid. I prefer the liberation and humility of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Don’t forget what, in our modern world, is a more urgent issue: advanced directives. The quantum advances of science and medicine are a two-edged sword. Physicians have, today, so many more options to intervene in the wake of trauma, disease or simply old age. To sustain life beyond any previously known borders. But … just because we can do something, doesn’t guarantee we should.
Don’t leave your loved ones deciding for you! Pick and secure a trusted agent or agents to advocate for your wishes and values should you be unable to advocate for yourself. Pick and secure a trusted agent or agents who will defend your wishes and values against a death-denying culture. Could be your spouse. Your adult children. A sibling. Some people choose a covenant friend, unrelated by blood but bound by history and love.
Then gather any and EVERY known loved one to your side and TELL them who the agent(s) are, what your instructions are, and threaten to come back and haunt anyone who starts a quarrel regarding what you so clearly have stated.
My agents will know when to pull the plug. When to say “no, thank you” to any further intrusions/interventions of modern science.
It’s an honor to be invited to walk someone to the grave in faithfulness. So, don’t be afraid.
Imagine your death. Secure your instructions.
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Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at skalas@ reviewjournal.com.