Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #141. First published in the St. Cloud Times Apr. 5, 2019; in print Apr. 7

Eighty. A full decade past the biblical “threescore years and ten.” A year, even, beyond Minnesota’s best-in-the-nation life expectancy for men, 79 years (for the state’s women it’s 83, though that’s only fourth).

Eighty. It’s what I turn later this month.

We recently attended the memorial service for a nephew who died of cancer at 43.

I’m among the lucky ones.

I tell you this not to elicit birthday wishes, but because I want to write about death.

Samuel Johnson (1709-84), among the wisest persons who have ever lived, remarked that “few things there are of which we can say, without some emotion of uneasiness, 'this is the last.'" I first read these words 60 years ago. They come to mind as I sit down to write this, my 141st column.

It’s not “the last,” by the way; at least I don’t think it is.

But if I don’t know whether I’ll reach 100, or 90, or even 81, I’m aware that “the last,” while not necessarily imminent, is closer than it used to be.

This, of course, is a truism. From the moment we are born, our days start counting down. But time seems more compressed as the decades move on, and as I enter my ninth, the admonition in the Rule of St. Benedict (4:47) – “keep death daily before your eyes” – is both bracing and reassuring.

“Some emotion of uneasiness” understates what death calls forth in most of us most of the time. Maybe we think of it, with Hamlet, as something “devoutly to be wished.” Maybe we “do not go gentle into that good night” while we “rage, rage against the dying of the light” with Dylan Thomas. Maybe with John Donne we declaim, “Death, be not proud … Death, thou shalt die.”

“Uneasiness,” yes. But my wife and I have overcome it, to give a gift to each other and to our children. We are planning our funerals.

I hope that as I tell you what we have done, you will decide it’s something you should do too.

How do you want to be remembered? To a considerable extent you can’t determine this. People will have their memories of you, they’ll tell them to each other, stories will take on a life of their own.

In one way, though, you can inject a powerful current into this interplay of memory ricochet – your obituary. We have each found it not gloomy or dispiriting, but actually exhilarating, to write our own story, a narrative that makes sense to us from the inside, from where it has been lived.

An obituary written before the fact isn’t a fixed document. The story doesn’t stop. You can keep revising it to the end. It’s the gist that counts.

When the first of us dies, the other can simply call up the file. Grieving will not be compounded by having to decide what to say in the paper. The same will be true when the other dies. Our children will not have their grieving hijacked by wondering how to articulate a parent’s story.

The obituary says how you want to be remembered.

The funeral or memorial service or celebration of life (lots of choices these days) says how you want to be sent on your way. Again, it’s a blessing to those who are left behind that you have already identified what you’d like done, how, where and by whom. They can make changes if they wish, but they don’t have to start from scratch.

Do you want closed casket or open, or cremation? Do you have a place already purchased for burial or inurnment (or maybe you want your ashes scattered in a place you love)?

Pre-planning our funerals relieves the remaining one (and subsequently, the children) of countless distractions.

Pre-paying (a separate decision) offers a benefit we wouldn’t have guessed. A prepaid funeral is considered an excludable asset when Medicaid expenses accumulate, as they well might in case one of us goes into a nursing home.

Mention of nursing home calls into play the “emotion of uneasiness” that surfaces when prolonged illness takes the stage.

Planning a funeral needs to be prefaced with planning for end-of-life that precedes the funeral.

We believe a Health Care Directive is really a blessing for our family. It is part of our portfolio.

There is help available at “The mission of Light The Legacy is to educate and empower the people of Central Minnesota about the importance of personal healthcare planning through facilitating conversation and inspiring action.” Check it out.

Maybe “keeping death daily before your eyes” is a bit much, but avoiding it daily is both delusional and selfish. I urge you to think about it at least enough to give a gift to those who will be left.