In which our writer gets his affairs in order, so you don’t have to. Oh, wait, actually you still do. Sorry. But what he discovered can help you get dying right the first time.
The buzzards are already circling, my friends, though they may be too far away to see. We’re all goners. It’s just a matter of time. Are you ready?
If you are unprepared to think about your mortality—or mine—read no further. This isn’t an easy subject, and writing your will is as tempting to put off as taxes, garage cleaning and vasectomies. But it’s not really that hard, once you overcome the vague feeling that signing a will may somehow cause you to die.
There was a day when I’d have said, “Why should I care, I’ll be dead!” But I’ve come to understand that taking these simple steps now can save my loved ones a lot of anxiety and hassle later. Not caring about that is akin to saying that there’s no point doing a good deed if nobody’s looking. People with that outlook don’t tend to have large memorial services, and I do like a good party. I want my loved ones thinking about which bounce house to rent, not wondering about whether I wanted to be buried or cremated. So really I’m doing all this preparatory work for them. They’ll thank me later.
I’m not sick and I’m not that old (though old enough that much of the music on today’s “classics” station was playing at my prom). But you never know when a piano might drop on your head, and I hoped that confronting this thing head-on would actually make me a little less anxious about dying. And it has. In fact, it’s been enlightening and even therapeutic. Here’s what I learned.
Where There’s a Will
The existence of life after death is an unknown, but paperwork is a certainty. If you don’t make a will, the state determines who gets your money and your stuff and your business and perhaps your children. More importantly, if people know you have a will with their name on it, you get more birthday cards. You also have a little more leverage over your children’s behavior if you have something you can threaten to cut them out of.
In fact, my life is simple enough to allow me to generate my own will. It’s kind of like taxes; if your situation is complicated, you need professional help. But a basic will is not that big a deal, and I did mine with the help of the Quicken Willmaker software by good old Nolo Press, which publishes a great variety of DIY legal guides. There are also a number of online services that’ll do the same thing. You answer a bunch of questions, and it generates the documents at the end. Since I’m not married, I can consider whether I want my bank account and jar of pennies to go to friends, family or some organization I admire. But even married people need to consider what happens if they happen to be hit by the same piano.
Distributing my financial assets was simple, but when it came to deciding who would get my precious belongings, it was a little depressing to realize that the real question was who was going to have to get rid of my crap. None of it is going to be as valuable to others as it was to me. But you probably have better taste than I do, and own many beautiful and valuable things that people will want, so you may want to save them future awkwardness, or even rancor, by sorting it out in advance. To make things more interesting, and profitable, make it quietly known you’re accepting bribes.
But what about super personal items you don’t want anybody to see? It pays to have a trusted confederate with your house key ready to dash over to your house and destroy your journals, racy photos, love letters and bedroom toys before they fall into the wrong hands.
The will also allows you to name a guardian for your children and their assets, assuming their other parent isn’t in the picture. If you don’t specify anybody, the children will be sold to the highest bidder. I could be wrong about that part; I don’t have kids and just skimmed that chapter. I did, however, learn that you can’t leave everything to your cat, which is a good thing. You know how cats are; imagine if they could afford a gun. But as with your children, it would be good to sort out what happens to your pets when the time comes. This could be tricky if you have an animal only you could love. That parrot shrieking ABBA songs day and night may need to come with a hefty endowment.
The toughest question I had to answer in order to finish the will was: Who would be my executor? They say this should be somebody you know well and trust completely, yet don’t mind sticking with a tedious and depressing job. This is the person who basically ties up your financial loose ends and gives your stuff away per your instructions. My “estate” should be pretty simple to deal with, and the executor is entitled to a fee, but it still seems like a pretty big favor to ask.
Body Parts? Help Yourself!
The will, it turns out, is just one in a family of similarly uplifting documents that you may as well get done all at once. The others deal with what happens if you’re too sick to represent yourself. If you’ve ever heard about somebody in a persistent vegetative state or constant pain with no hope of leaving the hospital and thought, “I’d rather have them pull the plug than live like that,” the “living will” is where you can put it in writing. This document goes by various other names, like “health care directive,” but whatever you call it, it’s a more emotionally grueling document to complete. As with the will, you can take the do-it-yourself route or have a pro help.
You can spell out specifically what you do or don’t want if the worst happens, but you’ll still need somebody to represent you at the hospital if you can’t do it yourself, a “durable power of attorney for health care.” This job sounds way worse than the executor of your will, since they’re the one who may have to make a terrible choice on your behalf. This needs to be somebody you feel certain will make decisions based on what you would want, not what they would want for you. And they can only do that if you sit down and talk to them about your dark fears regarding quality of life and death. Bring wine. And a nice gift.
Next question: Do I want to donate some or all of my organs? Of course! I’ve always had the red donor dot on my driver’s license. What’s to think about? It’s not like I’ll need them. But in the process of filling out the document, I started to actually think about it, and got a little creeped out. I mean, ew. Barbaric. Gruesome. I had a mental image of a stripped car in a bad neighborhood. And then I recalled reading Mary Roach’s excellent book “Stiff,” which is all about what happens to our bodies after we’re gone, and I realized there’s no escaping the ick. It’s all pretty gnarly. I checked the “Help Yourself to Whatever You Need” box, a little glad I’ll never know—and therefore feel insulted about—any parts that nobody wants, even for free.
So what about the leftovers? To me, burial just sounds too lonely and old-school. But if you like the idea, I assume the location would be important to you, so you should reserve a nice plot in advance. It’s one of the few real estate opportunities still within reach in California.
Other than taxidermy, I’ve never seriously considered anything besides cremation. I like that it releases most of the body in the form of energy, leaving behind just enough to allow for a physical placement of the remains. The question is, where?
If you’ve never handled ashes before, they’re not like what you have left over after a campfire. It’s more of a gritty, sandy mix, and 4-6 pounds of it—kind of like low-grade kitty litter (which brings to mind another way to leave everything to the cat). The disposition of cremated remains is limited by numerous federal, state and local rules that are hard to find and mostly ignored. Hunter S. Thompson supposedly had his fired from a cannon near his house in Colorado, but most people’s ashes end up being buried, scattered or placed on a prominent shelf in the home, ideally in a container of some sort. One enterprising company will mix your ashes into concrete blocks to be sunk offshore to help create an artificial reef. Personally, I’m leaning towards getting my ashes mixed with cement, cast into a garden gnome, and sold at the flea market. I like the idea of not knowing where I’ll end up.
But I do like the idea of all the ashes staying together. I’ve been to memorials where everybody is invited to take a small amount of ashes, like a party favor. They can then scatter them as they see fit, and many people appreciate the opportunity. It gives me the willies. It’s like the difference between being eaten by one shark or 500 piranhas.
You could also donate your body to science, or to medical research. Or maybe, if you never get tired of attention, you could be converted into a plasticized anatomical exhibit in a show like Body Worlds, where you’d spend eternity listening to people say, “So, that’s a spleen.”
Finally, in one last formal document, you need to designate your durable power of attorney. This is somebody who can handle your financial affairs if you’re too incapacitated to do so yourself. This can range from selling your house to cancelling your Netflix account. These three designees—executor, durable power of attorney, and durable power of attorney for health care—may be the same person, perhaps a spouse, or you might spread the jobs around. Either way, these are difficult tasks you’re asking somebody close to you to perform, and you owe it to them to stay alive and kicking as long as possible.
Extra Credit: Prepping the Legacy
I don’t want to be a bench. I don’t know why exactly, but I just hate the idea. So I’m writing it down where people will find it when I’m gone: “Please don’t have my name put on a bench at a scenic overlook.”
Generally speaking, leaving your wishes behind means your people don’t have to wonder, or bicker, about what you would have wanted, and can concentrate on manifesting your longtime dream of, say, getting a drink at the 515 named after you.
There are lots of little bits of information and preferences you can leave behind without having to incorporate them into a legal document; as long as it’s accessible to whomever is tending to your affairs, you’re good.
Example: passwords. I’m going to leave my email password and instructions to have it auto-reply, “Thanks for your message. Unfortunately, I’m dead” because I don’t want to get a reputation as somebody who doesn’t reply in a timely manner. Whatever online life you may have, this is a good time to decide what you want done after you stop logging in. Many of us have encountered “Facebook ghosts” who still get “I miss you” messages and invitations to events. That’s kind of nice. But do you really want to be the very definition of “unattainable” on a dating site?
Other things you leave behind might include letters to be delivered, a bio for your obituary, the location of important documents and keys, a list of people and organizations to contact with the news of your passing, and your own personal “Rosebud”—a mysterious reference to something utterly obscure in your life that will give people something interesting to talk about at your memorial.
Now, you may say you don’t want a memorial, and I’ve known people who made that wish known. They were ignored. It’ll happen in one form or another anyway, so you may as well just roll with it. In fact, if you’re a party planning type, it can be kind of fun to get involved.
Even if you expect a formal memorial, a church service perhaps, a more informal gathering is likely to follow. Most memorials I’ve attended have been potluck mixers with some sort of brief program involving a few speeches and an open mic for remembrances. This seems a pretty good format for giving people a chance to get together and express their feelings.
Often there is a slideshow of photos of the departed, and when I watch them I sometimes think, “Oh, she would have hated that one. And that one.” It seems like the person putting those slides together never has access to what is literally a lifetime of photos of that person. Leaving a disk behind filled with photos you like may seem a little vain, but what the heck. Whose party is this anyway?
Music, too, can be a little tricky. When my little sister passed away two years ago, I agreed to put together songs for the mingling portion of the memorial. Music was one of the things we had a lot in common, so I was a good choice. But the key question was, do I put together a playlist that the crowd would like and think appropriate, or should I play the edgier music she preferred herself? Neither felt quite right, so I put together something that I think catered to both sensibilities, carefully weaving one with the other. And in the end, the room was too noisy with talk for anybody to take much notice of it. It felt like something she would have laughed about, a last little joke between us.
Who’s in charge of your memorial? I’ve heard many stories about families and friends bickering about the details, which is a bad start. Who’s the right person to control the message? Who has the right temperament to make sure everybody gets a chance to grieve in an atmosphere that feels inclusive and respectful? If that person is obvious to you, why not ask if they’d be willing to take this on and add that wish to your list? Don’t forget to leave them with a guest list; this is your last chance to snub a social rival. Do you want to write a letter to be read at the event? Or maybe record a video? A passage from a favorite book? How about some saucy jokes? Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t be fun.
Wait, Before You Go…
When I started, I wasn’t sure if this process would leave me traumatized. I never went through a goth phase, so I didn’t have much experience with dwelling on the subject. Certainly, there were some things that creeped me out. But overall, I feel good about being prepared, like when my house is cleaned up and I’ve put on pants before guests arrive for a dinner party. There are still some things I’d like to work on, like cleaning up messy relationships and living each day like it’s the amazing gift it is. But hey, you don’t want to be too prepared. That’s just asking for it.