Monday, December 21, 2009

Death and Practicality

We humans are an odd lot. The subject of the impending death of someone we care about is one of our culture's collective taboos, and we go to great lengths to avoid even thinking of it until it actually occurs. Even when we know someone for whom we are responsible is dying, we refuse to acknowledge it or make the most basic preparations for it, even when to do so would save untold stress and emotional trauma when the inevitable happens.

My current situation with my friend (and long-ago partner) Norm inspired this particular blog. Norm is dying. I hate even watching these words appear on my computer screen as I type them, yet the fact is inescapable. He has terminal emphysema (Thank you, Philip Morris! Kudos to you Liggett & Myers! Way to go, Marlboro!) and grows just a bit weaker with each passing day. Since his only functional brother lives a couple hundred miles away, and since I've always considered Norm family, I do the best I can to be there for him. Part of that involves my holding his Power of Attorney for health care.

The death of someone close to us, no matter how well we may think we are prepared for it, always comes as a shock. It is the worst possible time for those responsible for funeral arrangements to have to deal with them, and the ability to make rational decisions--especially about what the deceased would really want in the way of the elaborateness and expense--is severely limited. Too often a sense of...what? guilt?...misguided devotion?...leads us to be manipulated into being far more extravagant than logic warrants by a funeral industry which is, despite the number of caring people in it, and its almost universal denial, after all in business to make money.

We have been culturally conditioned to believe that the money lavished on last rites for a loved one is demonstrable evidence of and in direct proportion to how much we cared for the deceased. ("That funeral was a disgrace! Did you see that cheap casket? And after all Aunt Tilly did for them! She deserved far better!") And nothing I can say here will change that.

But the reality--harsh and cold as it may be--is this: the moment the individual makes the transition between being alive and being dead, that person is far beyond knowing or caring what happens to him/her. What is left is no more a person than an egg carton is eggs. The contents are gone. Granted, it should be treated with dignity and respect, but to spend $25,000 for a gleaming mahogany and brass casket which will, within days of being purchased, be either be sent immediately to a crematorium or buried in the ground forever? Come on, people! It is far better to show how much we care for someone while he/she is alive rather than go to unreasonable expense to place one empty shell inside another.

But I digress, as usual. Norm. When my mother was dying of lung cancer (Thank you, Philip Morris! Kudos to you, Liggett & Myers!), I made complete arrangements for her funeral a month before she died, so that when the time came, I was spared the additional trauma of making funeral arrangements. I have never regretted doing so. And now I've done it with Norm. I know, I know, to make funeral arrangements while the person is still living may strike many as cold, callous, or uncaring. But it is not.

Pre-arranging also allows time to resolve any unforeseen problems which might otherwise arise from not knowing what to expect. I was, for example, made aware that the power of attorney which gives me the right to make the arrangements ceases at the moment of death. Which means that had I not been aware of that fact until death had occurred, I would have absolutely no legal right to even call someone to come and pick up the body. At death, the remains become the responsibility of the legal next of kin. I was able to give the society contact information for Norm's brother and immediately called him to convey that information, and thereby undoubtedly saved both of us a considerable amount of anguish had I waited until Norm is gone.

Norm's will states that he wants to be cremated. So last week I joined the Illinois Cremation Society on his behalf. The cost to join is $50, and the subsequent funeral expenses are, on the basic level, far lower than they would be through regular funeral establishments. Everything is handled from the moment of death onward.

Pre-planning still involves making decisions, of course. There are any number of containers/coffins/caskets (with correspondingly escalating price tags), for example, to choose among. But the lack of pressure for an immediate decision allows practicality--such as the full realization that both container and body will be reduced to ashes in the cremation--to be taken into consideration. I therefore chose the most basic and least expensive casket, and feel sure it is what Norm would want.

There are an astonishing array of urns for long-term preservation of the remains (the ashes can even be compressed into something akin to a diamond that can be set into a necklace or pendant), with an equally astonishing array of prices. But since Norm wishes his ashes scattered, a permanent urn was not an issue. Were I making arrangements for myself, I'd just have my ashes put in a paper bag. What would I possibly care at that point? I was shown a couple of very simple containers for the purpose holding the ashes until the scattering. Costing $95 and $125, respectively, both were far more elaborate than I felt practicality dictated, and I chose the $95 one without feeling one whit of guilt or disrespect.

Every penny not spent on unneeded funeral ornamentation goes into the estate, from which a number of worthy charities will benefit. The less on the funeral, the more to the charities and to living people who really need it, which is exactly what I know Norm would want.

And having said all the above, and stressed the importance, logic, and practicality of making funeral plans before they are needed, I can still hear the disapproving "tsk-tsk" of hundreds of years of cultural indoctrination which tells us it is wrong for us to think of death until after it has occurred.

Cultural indoctrination be damned.

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