The simple fact is this: No one has died of “old age” since 1951, because that was the year that category was eliminated as a cause of death. On the other hand, everyone dies due to oxygen starvation; the cause of death listed on the death certificate is actually what caused the body to become oxygen-starved in the first place.
Regardless of its ubiquitous presence, death is generally not a subject that brings movie audiences roaring to its feet. Some people live in fear it; others manage to avoid thinking of it; and some obsess over it as though it were Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue.
The Wall Street Journal ran a story of a Brazilian man who was so fearful of being buried alive that he had a tomb built with air, food, water, megaphones and a television. Now, I can understand his fear of being buried alive, taphephobia, but what do you call a fear of missing your favorite TV program?
And then we have people so concerned with their carbon footprint they seek an exit that intrudes as little as possible upon nature. In Carrboro, NC, EcocoffinsUSA sells so-called green caskets. These biodegradable coffins, made from bamboo, willow, bananas and other materials, and assembled in factories in South China and Indonesia, allow you to eventually be at one with nature—hmm, all this foofaraw, despite the fact that normal wooden caskets start to deteriorate after about 20 years, returning themselves and their occupants to the earth from whence they came.
Death remains one of life’s impenetrable mysteries. After all, no one has entered The Great Beyond and returned with a ticket stub. It is not a subject easily embraced; though we may reflect somberly when someone has passed on, we are usually pretty happy it wasn’t us.
Little is said about the subject in polite company, and it is usually left to the secular community to explain the various rituals that prepare the dearly departed to finally depart. Worse still, few if any public schools offer coursework dealing with what one needs to know when you-know-what has happened.
Now, death itself may be an enigma, but it should be more than just a way to opt out of a cellphone contract. And though we may never uncover its secrets until it is too late to take crib notes, we can at least prepare ourselves for that final exam.
Most people are aware that the final disposition of the body involves either burial, in a grave or grave, or cremation; rarely are the deceased left leaning against a lamppost. So, unless you prefer civic authorities to flip a coin, you should attempt to resolve the issue of your final resting place before it becomes an issue.
There is no law requiring that you have a will, though it is nice to leave something for your loved ones to fight over. If you die without one, the State will determine who gets what, and you can be sure the State will seek the lion’s share of your estate.
Unlike informed consent, the right to vote, marriage and drinking, there is no minimum age required to make out a will. Just consider what you’d like to give away, whom you’d like to give it to, and the name of the person to take responsibility over all your affairs once your ability to actually have an affair has ended.
Keep your will in a safe place—like a safe.
The Living Will
A living will is a record of your preference to remain alive, should you be unable to stop your friends or relatives from prematurely pulling the plug, or to have the plug pulled when you tire of eating apple sauce 7 days a week. If you don’t have one, the decision will be left to those very same friends and family, plus the doctors and the courts—see Klaus and his erstwhile sleeping beauty, Sunny von Bulow.
A power of attorney allows you to put someone in control of your possessions while you can still enjoy them. As always, if you don’t have one, most of the haggling over what is yours will occur at the bedside of what was once you.
You have the right to decide ahead of time how you wish to be disposed when your time has expired, and also how you wish to be remembered. You may, as Barbara Streisand and others have done, reserve a plot in the ground of your choice—provided, of course, that burials are legally allowed there. Cremation, as always, remains a popular alternative for your remains, with your ashes serving as a lasting reminder that the floors need to be swept.
There are three different types of services: funeral, memorial and committal. In brief, funeral services are held with the body present—for some, the only occasion for which they dressed up; memorial services are held with no body present, which does not mean nobody attended, so you’re still responsible for the catering; and finally, committal services are held at the grave site or just prior to a cremation, where people who only knew you by your name will still have no idea what you looked like.
You also have the power to control what is said and what is written about you by preparing your own obituary. This is not the time to pinch pennies and insert one line in The New York Post. If finances allow, hire a creative type from Madison Avenue to craft a going away gift your family and friends will enjoy for years to come.
You may wish to craft an epitaph, but remember, it is meant to be inscribed on your tombstone, not read as the opening monologue on The Tonight Show.