Your Future Client, Planning Her Own Funeral Party
I’ve been writing on deathcare matters from a layperson’s perspective for a while now. I’ve delved into graphic, unsavory aspects including trauma and decomposition and the actual biological progress of the process of losing one’s life. I’ve even granted close consideration of most of the subjects I’ve covered within the context of my own life, trying them on as a potential grieving daughter, widow, sibling, and friend; I’ve considered how the harsh, objective science of death will impact me should I personally stand in need of death care services for a loved one of my own.
After giving close attention to the details, I really ought to have gotten well beyond squeamishness on the matter as a whole. But one thing I’d not addressed was the applicability of the sum of these concerns together, all applied at once. An entire scenario, a complete picture of all that will follow my own actual demise, one step at a time, until my body is dealt with and the living have moved on.
How to be Dead
Truly not as easy as it sounds.
So, say I’ve just died, right this minute. My abhorrent temper finally got the best of me and some transgression has pushed me over the edge into an anger stroke. Do I want to be resuscitated?
Knee-jerk reaction: Yes, I do. This is not the answer I once imagined it would be. But I’m not THAT old, or at least I don’t feel I ought to qualify for a surprise dropping-dead cerebral event; I feel like I’m of an age where my death, however it might come about, ought to be returnable. But say that isn’t an option, and paramedics, however valiant, fail to reverse things. How would I wish matters to proceed?
Item 1: Pre-need (Disposition)
I know I don’t want traditional burial, but neither do I want cremation of any kind. That leads to questions about types of legal burial available for my state. Green burial sounds good, but is it a local option for me?
And what about my husband? We don’t have kids, but I always thought we’d end up together in a cemetery somewhere. Turns out he’s discovered his alma mater owns a body farm, and he likes the idea. Me, not so much.
Once upon a time it was my goal to donate my body to science, but when it turned out not to be the straightforward business I’d thought it would be, I dismissed the idea and hadn’t given the matter much thought since. A body farm is a form of donation to science (provided they have space for you) but now, 20 years later, my preferences have changed.
If I could swing a green burial, hopefully with just a shroud; is a body farm such a different option? Isn’t it even greener (no shroud)? Maybe I could be happy with this prospect.
I consider my own carcass, happily decomposing alongside my husband’s (is that even a thing at a body farm?) and the idea of my own corpse going through what a body farm does is a lot easier on my imagination than that of his going through the same thing. But we’d be contributing to the (cough) body of knowledge of forensic science. This is honorable, yes?
After consideration, I believe I could deal with it for myself… but if he died first, I find myself dubious about my ability to place him there, according to his wishes. I think about him lying out on top of the ground somewhere, turning back into earth, exposed to weather, eaten by bugs, disassembled by local wildlife, pieces carried off here and there.
And what if I die first, and he changes his mind? There I’d still be, varmint food, bones bleaching in the sun, and for what?
I really did think I was beyond the sentimentalities. Instead, it seems like age has just made them worse.
Item 1 (disposition): TBD
Item 2: Guardianship of Survivors
I’ve already invested more (fruitless) time and effort and anxiety in (avoiding) planning of my own final affairs than I did for any of my major life events — graduations for two advanced degrees (skipped one altogether) or my wedding (Vegas, with only my sister as a witness).
So to simplify things, I find a death planning checklist online, and one of the first things I learn is that before I do one more thing I should really arrange for the care of my pets.
We currently have 6 cats. If my husband goes first, who wants to inherit six (or five, or four, or even three) of someone else’s cats? Of course it may be years before I kick off and cats obviously don’t live as long as people, so it may turn out to be a non-issue but what if we’re in some horrific car accident together tomorrow?
I ponder for a bit. My brother, sister and I are all big animal lovers, with multiple pets instead of kids. After a bit of thought, I call my sister; my brother and his wife are about as cat-fanatical as we are and theirs already outnumber ours; it doesn’t seem sustainable to add another half dozen to their numbers. My sister only has two dogs. She’s a bit hesitant at first (more dog person than cat), but agrees, as I knew she would. That’s a relief. Aside from the practical issues, the only other person I’d actually trust with my cats would be my brother.
Item 2: Auntie to the rescue.
Item 3: Wills & Estates
The checklist says I need a medical proxy, a legal will, a thumb drive with access details to important accounts and papers, and multiple people who know how to put their hands on all of it in the event of my sudden death.
I print the checklist and dutifully work my way through it.
I create a spreadsheet of everything I think is relevant, find a portable hanging file box to hold printouts, label it clearly and place it prominently, then create a desktop-equivalent file on the laptop named “In Case of Jennifer’s Death”. When it’s done, I feel both tremendous accomplishment and a tremendous need for booze.
Item 3: CrapYouNeedWhenIDie.xlsx
Item 4: O-bitch-uary
Actually was looking forward to this one. Lots of people do one of their own, to have read at the service or printed in the paper or whatever.
I take some notes, trying to determine how I’d prefer to be remembered. Before I’m half through I’ve got a list of bullet points in a list I’m happy with… and another list. One I never intended to write. A shadow list… of all the things I didn’t do.
Before too long I’m staring out the window. I could be doing this from my chateau in France as a neuroscientist, instead of from my home in the north woods as a slightly neurotic writer. The more I think, the more abandoned plans resurface.
Instead of my own obituary, I end up with a semi-legible rant on everything I never got to do. I may have gotten carried away, settling an old score or two as I went (there were a few, long forgotten until I tried to write my own obituary).
In the end I give myself a pounding headache, abandoning the effort after a brief crying spell.
Item 4: Someone Else Can Write the Damn Obituary.
Item 5: Come as You Are
What about the party? The whole point of all of this was to plan my own “Life Celebration”, though in my mind I’ve just thought of it as my funeral party; instead, I feel like I’ve put myself through the wringer. When I started the process it was because I liked the idea of something fun and happy instead of the regular dour proceedings. Now I get why funerals were so grim for so long.
But I’m all for a little drama and not entirely averse to a big somber ordeal. I can see the merits of each. After bouncing back and forth with this one, unable to choose it occurs to me: I can do both. It is, after all, my funeral.
If I don’t get embalmed (body farm/green burial) there’ll be less time to work with so we might have to do everything the same day, but actually I think that works best. Ideally we could rent the whole funeral home so we could hold a traditional wake-type thing in one room, and a great big old catered shin-dig with balloons and champagne and music in the next, or in the adjoining event hall, or in limos that take everyone all over town. There should also be a sundae bar. Maybe an open bar.
Finally, something redeeming! I create a 6-hour playlist, then the menu. As I’m drawing up the dessert table, it occurs to me that I’ve gone about the organizing backwards.
This is where I should have started: with the fun stuff. The death is already taken for granted; you know you’re going in the ground, or the retort, or the AH vessel, or what have you. You know someone else is going to need to deal with the red tape. You know your death will leave a void in your responsibilities, and, out of necessity, at some point, no matter what you do in advance, someone will eventually step in to fill that void.
But nobody can plan your perfect going-out party but you.
Item 5: Prioritize the Party
I’m not a newbie to the deathcare scene, yet faced with the task of planning my own affairs, it was still hard to get my mind around. I enjoyed none of it except for coming up with the menu, the playlist, the party plans. Coming up with the catering spread and decorations, that was fun. I want streamers and balloons and a big tiered cake, since I didn’t have one for my wedding. Maybe they can airbrush me in my burial shroud onto it (I’m so going to do this).
Death is sort of life’s ultimate achievement. It seems to me it should be rewarded as such, no matter how it comes about, and no matter how the survivors memorialize it. I wish I had seen this option presented first, the celebration idea before anything else. I mean, of course we’re going to get to the rest of it. Of course we are. And some people aren’t going to want anything but serious neutrality, which is fine, but why can’t we first be offered alternatives to that first? The knowledge that it’s possible to create a lighter moment too, from an incident of death, rather than moping about in formal tones that feed the stagnant fug of misery and regret.