In honor of Halloween, I’m going to talk about morbid stuff. It’s as good a time as any to bring up the topic of preparing for the end of life. You know. Mine. Yours. Everyone’s. Nobody gets off this ride alive, and I hate thinking about it as much as anyone else. Once a year, though, we can probably spend a few minutes on the topic, maybe while deciding between the sexy pizza or sexy anteater costumes. (Always go with the anteater).
The majority of people die intestate, meaning they never wrote a will. My grandmother was asked about this, and she said, “Well, I just never have needed one.” Personally, my estate can be summed up fairly well by this quote from Rabelais: “I have nothing, I owe much, and the rest I leave to the poor.” Money and material goods are not the big deal here; frankly, I’m sick and tired of seeing families ruined over a fight about some stupid jewelry or “heirlooms.” What I want to talk about is last wishes. What do you want your loved ones to do when you go? Anyone who has ever lost a close family member probably knows that it is no time to be forced to make tons of decisions. My feeling is that it’s unfair to leave a bunch of question marks hanging if you have the power to settle those matters in advance. Do you want to be buried or cremated? How about a living will? Do you want to be an organ donor?
I looked up the forms for an advance health care directive, which vary by state, and dragged my husband through this discussion several years ago. He does not have a morbid bone in his body (see what I did there?) and it was very uncomfortable for him. I reminded him that if we spent about an hour talking it out, filling out the forms, and having them witnessed, we would never have to discuss it again. I pleaded for him to do it for me, because the duties would fall to me if he went first, and I needed to know I would make the right decision. I told him I needed to know whether he would fight for my wishes if ever I wound up in a persistent vegetative state; otherwise, I’d ask someone else. He agreed and we got it over with. We both have a folding orange card for our wallets with our wishes spelled out.
I took it further and planned to become a whole body donor. I had read about the Body Farm, and it piqued my interest. [To clarify: I am registered through Science Care, not the Body Farm; the Body Farm simply happened to be the starting point for my inquiries]. I’ve been reading true crime and murder mysteries almost since I could read, and I wanted to know there was a chance that my mortal remains could contribute to science, or maybe even help to solve a murder. I sent away for the forms, returned them, and got a card with an 800-number for anyone to contact in case of my sudden demise. They handle all the arrangements and expenses of retrieving… me… which could be pretty complicated if I suffer an unfortunate event in the back country somewhere. Many years ago, I decided that one of my financial goals was to die debt-free, with enough put aside to pay for my own funeral expenses. I’m still paying on my student loan, which unfortunately does not have the power to grant me immortality, but at least I know nobody else will be stuck with the bill for my cremation. Donating the only thing I truly own seems like a fair trade.
If this post hasn’t creeped you out yet, ask anyone who has accompanied me on a hike or foot race. I have this macabre tendency to pull out my “in case I die today” wallet cards and explain the process. I used to keep them in my phone case, along with my driver’s license, so I had them even on training runs. As I write this, it occurs to me that I can enter the information on the emergency screen on my phone. [tinkering] That took about five minutes; I added my husband as an emergency contact and created a “medical note” with the number to contact Science Care. I also had to change the profile photo, which showed a picture of my parrot for some reason.
As a futurist, I can share that I think a lot of this planning will be unnecessary. I believe we’ll start to see more medical breakthroughs that will lead to the ability to grow functional human replacement organs. I’m already 40, and chances are that by the time I go, my organs will be too old and used-up for anyone else to want them, though I’m offering anyway. I think it’s completely within the realm of possibility that all the information we currently have on wallet cards will soon be tracked by biometrics: fingerprints, DNA signature, or other things of which I am unaware. We could be microchipping ourselves the way we do our pets, but that, too, I think is going to see a limited window of application due to continuing innovation. There’s also a solid chance that various court cases (and medical innovations) will come up that will influence how the standard of care is defined by hospitals for coma patients. We’ll have better information about brain activity, and a lot of questions will be settled. I’m optimistic about the future.
We’re still all going to die, though.
Immortality would suck. It would suck the most to be the only person who lived a preternaturally long life. First, everyone you ever loved, or even knew, would predecease you. Then you’d cease to appreciate or understand pop culture. Then the language would change so much that you’d struggle to understand anyone. It would get harder and harder to make new friends, who would keep dying before you anyway. Unless you had an artistic or spiritual practice that utterly consumed your attention, you would get colossally bored. Medieval people put constant attention on memento mori – “remember you must die” – because it reminds us that we must live. Time is short. Time is short in this dumb old world, and there’s never enough time to do everything we wanted to do or to tell enough people we love them. We have to try to make the most of the time we have. Make those calls and fill out those forms, and then get back to the sexy anteater costume.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.