The Modern Survival Guide #77
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And like you, I am going to die. Not today, I hope — what do we say to the god of death? — but at some point in the future. There is nothing I can do about this; it is inevitable. Nonetheless a huge part of modern survival is to prepare, as best we can, for the one certainty in our lives… their ending.
Preparation for death and dying comes in three parts:
- Preparing ourselves for death
- Preparing our loved ones for our death
- Estate planning
Different people may find one of these more important than another, but for our purposes today I’ll treat them all as equally important and equally valid. So without further ado…
Preparing for Death — Don’t Fear the Reaper
The first part of preparation for death is to prepare ourselves. And the core of that preparation is to get over, as best we can, our fear of death.
Oh yeah, this should be an easy one.
So let’s talk about death. Fundamentally, we don’t have a good understanding of it. The act of dying, the process of dying, is something that we’re really only now starting to get to grips with in science. Fundamentally, the scientific understanding of death is one of system failure — the idea that it’s not an instantaneous event, but rather one characterized by a fairly orderly shutdown of bodily processes triggered by the failure of a primary organ. This will have relevance in the immediate future, as doctors develop new and interesting ways of arresting the dying process to allow repairs, and this my even require new philosophies of death to cope with someone “dying” and then being put in some form of suspended animation and brought back to life days or months later.
I think the best way to understand death is as brain death — the failure of our bodily seat of consciousness and spirit (if you believe in souls). Without the brain, the body is just a shell. This is a very contentious viewpoint; plenty of people believe that as long as the body is whole, it should be kept alive. I do not subscribe to this belief, and in fact I think that keeping a body alive after brain death is usually detrimental to everyone — the family, the medical establishment, and the body alike — because it is a waste of valuable resources.
Beyond this discussion of bodily processes, we have no understanding of death. We don’t know what happens after we die. The most scientifically likely thing is… nothing. We’ve never been able to prove the existence of a spirit or soul, and so the Occam’s Razor explanation is that death is probably simply a cessation of consciousness.
But the universe is not only stranger than we know, it’s stranger than we can know, and there is ample room for an afterlife. In this view, some portion of our existence or consciousness could continue on after death.¹
And there’s no way to know in advance which one of these is the reality we get.
Oh, I know all the religions have opinions on this, but part of the point of that last statement is the fact that I have to say “all the religions,” and I can’t just say, “the religion.” If it was provable that one group or another was right about the afterlife, we’d have proved it by now. There’s certainly enough interest. But we haven’t, and anyone who tells you that they know what happens after we die is lying. They may believe, but that’s another kettle of fish.
So — we don’t know what happens after we die, and accordingly a lot of our fear of death seems to boil down to uncertainty.² People really like certainty in their lives; certainty in the afterlife is not only a natural follow-on to that statement, but perhaps the ultimate expression of this quest for certainty. And in this instance, we simply don’t get any certainty. It does not exist. Death is a great mystery.
How then can I justifiably say “don’t fear the Reaper?” Well, I have a few good reasons for this.
Number one, everyone who has ever existed before you either has died or will die. So no matter what the outcome, lots of people have gone before you. If there is an afterlife, it’s a well-trod path and you’ll have plenty of company. If death is simply a cessation of being, then there’s literally nothing to worry about or look forward to, and we should focus on living our lives as best we can while we have them.
Number two, if what we fear about death is the uncertainty of the experience, then I think it is far better to view it as the next great adventure. All our lives we do new things, interesting things, things we never thought we’d be able to do. Why should our death be any different? I choose to view death as a curiosity, not as a bogeyman. I do not seek it, but when it comes I’ll be interested to know what happens next.
Number three, if we spend our lives in fear of death, all of our actions will be bent around that fear. We will lose focus on improving our lives, and instead work only to improve (or postpone) our deaths. Given that we cannot know whether any actions we take in this life will actually improve our post-death experience, that could easily be a waste of time and resources that could be put to better use. To paraphrase an old saying, we can either work toward heaven or work toward heaven on earth.
Taken together, these three reasons provide me ample defense against a fear of the Reaper, and they provide me with a goodly portion of my life’s philosophy: that we should live the best lives we can, in as much harmony with each other and the universe as we can, because the best odds are that this is all we get and we owe it to ourselves and each other to make it as pleasant as possible.
And this, too, is part of our preparation for death — to live a life that is as in accordance with our principles as possible, in order to greet death in the knowledge of a life well-lived.
The Hard Talk — Preparing Our Loved Ones for Our Death
The second thing we must do is prepare our loved ones for the possibility of our death. This isn’t an easy talk. It’s not something that people will thank you for, at least not in the moment. But it is absolutely necessary if we want to ensure that our loved ones are not unduly burdened by our passing.
This talk is hard because it forces us all to come to terms with the reality that we are going to die. This directly contradicts the standard-issue training that we all receive in American culture, which is that none of us are going to die if we eat the right things, exercise frequently, go to the right doctors, and believe in the right God. Most of us go through life in denial of the inevitability of death, which makes the acknowledgement of that inevitability hard to process.
Have the talk anyway.
This terribly morbid chat should focus on several areas:
- Situations in which you would not wish to remain alive
- What to do with your body
- What your funeral should look like
- Who is administering your will
Starting at the top, #1 is about the times when you would prefer to pull the plug. This will mean different things to different people, but most of us would prefer to be unhooked from life support in the event of brain death, for example. There are a huge variety of “do not resuscitate” scenarios that you can and should think about as soon as you become an adult capable of contemplating your own demise.
This is a subject you need to talk about with your loved ones because there is a very real chance that they will be called upon to make this choice on your behalf at some point. If you want them to make the choice you’d like, you need to discuss that choice beforehand.
It’s also worth noting that “right to die” legislation is under consideration in many states and countries, and you may have views on that subject. These also need to be shared with your loved ones in advance, so that they can either come to terms with your decision or have the opportunity to speak their minds. They are entitled to their viewpoint, and if they disagree with yours you may need to take action to ensure that your viewpoint is the one that gets acted on when the time comes.
#2 is about how you want your remains processed, and there are a huge variety of options here. Some people want to be buried (with or without very expensive coffins). Some people want to be cremated. Some people want to be mulched and used as fertilizer for a tree. Some people want to have their ashes compressed into lab-created diamonds and gifted to their relatives. Some people want to have their ashes shot out of a cannon, or their body launched into space. This is a very personal decision and it’s one that you should make now, and discuss with your loved ones, if you have strong feelings on the subject.
#3 is what your funeral should look like. If you grew up in the American South you may be familiar with the Southern Baptist funeral setup, which is basically one long sermon about how the deceased might be in Hell and the congregation should shape the fuck up if they don’t want to burn for eternity. I was exposed to this at a young age, and it seriously shaped my views on the subject. Consequently, I want my funeral to be a Viking-level extravaganza of wailing rock music, feasting, boozing, and pyrotechnics, complete with setting me adrift on a burning boat. My family is aware of this.
If you have particular views on your funeral, you need to share them with your loved ones now. There will not be time later, and if you don’t have this talk it is very possible that your funeral will be something you’d hate to attend. If this matters to you, have the talk.
#4 is about what to do with your stuff, and how you want to execute your will. Our legacy is at least somewhat based on the things that we leave behind, and it’s naive to think otherwise. Many a house’s down-payment has been made from money bequeathed from a relative, and many a fond memory has been preserved by the judicious gifting of family heirlooms. You’re going to spend a lifetime purchasing, creating, and curating stuff, and if you care what happens to your stuff after you die, you need to write those directions down now.
A will is the legal method of doing this, and it is usually worthwhile to employ a lawyer to help create one. If you are an adult and you have stuff, you should probably have a will. Even if you don’t care what happens to your stuff, your family and friends might, and a will may be all that keeps them from fighting each other over inheritance.
Some key points about wills: they need to be reasonably detailed, they need to be stored in a known location, and they need an executor — someone to carry out the directions in the will. The more stuff you have, the more critical each of these points becomes. In particular, someone in your family should always, always know where your will is. A lost will causes more problems than no will at all.
The will discussion is a good way to move into a related topic, which is how to prepare your assets for your passing. A will is a good start, but what we all really ought to do is some preparatory work.
This isn’t something you can do at the last minute, either — preparing for one’s death is a complex, ongoing exercise, and one that we should all do on a fairly regular basis (say, once a year or every two years) for our entire lives. It breaks down into several distinct acts that you, and every able adult, should do:
- Assign insurance beneficiaries: If you have life insurance or other forms of disability insurance that might kick in if you’re not conscious, make sure you have identified the people you want to receive those benefits.
- Procure long-term care insurance: Odds are, you’re going to end up in some form of long-term care facility as your life ends. You can limit financial damage to your family by procuring long-term care insurance, and once you’ve lived into your 60s you probably should do this.
- Set up property transfers: Do you want to pass your land to a conservation group, or divide it between family members? These are things to consider and prepare for in advance, and can usually be done with the same lawyer who draws up your will.
- Set up financial transfers: Wills are great, but if you really want to make things easy on your family it may be a good idea to set up joint accounts with the people who will be inheriting your money anyway. You might also want to set up living trust funds for family or charitable giving — talk to an accountant to see what your options are if you have significant financial assets.
- Arrange for pet accommodation: When you die, who gets Fluffy? This is a non-trivial question, particularly if people in your family have pet allergies, don’t want pets, or don’t like Fluffy. Figuring out in advance who will take your pet is good for the pet and removes a burden on the family.
- Set up cleaning services: Your home, if you live in anything larger than a two-bedroom apartment, is going to be a bitch to pack up after you die. Setting aside money for moving services is a good way to take some of the burden off your family. Similarly, if you have significant assets, setting aside funds for an accountant or other professional services may be a good idea to help your family tidy up your financial life.
- Organize your documents: We run significant portions of our lives on paper and electronic media. Keep these things organized and make sure that the executor of your will is aware of where things are — important documents, bank records, and your password list are all good things to keep track of.
- Set up power of attorney: Someone with power of attorney is legally authorized to act on your behalf if you become incapacitated. This is a very important step in ensuring that your death occurs in the fashion you prefer, your will is honored, and your assets are distributed according to your wishes. Once you become elderly, or once you suffer a life-shortening medical event, it may be a good time to set up power of attorney for someone you trust.
It is Inevitable, Like Taxes
The only thing in life that is absolutely certain is that you aren’t getting out of it alive. It is the height of naivete to assume otherwise, and it does no one any favors to hide one’s head in the sand in denial. We are all going to die, and that’s simply all there is to it.
So, enjoy life! Smell the roses. Pet the dogs. Have the (responsible) sex. Eat the chocolate (in moderation). Follow your interests. Uphold your principles. Have experiences. These are the things that make life worth living, and those of us who were gob-smackingly lucky enough to be born in the developed world have a lot of experiences to choose from.
But never forget: you are going to die. If we can’t hide from it, if we can’t avoid it, we are obligated to prepare for it and make sure that our passing discomforts our loved ones as little as possible. With any luck this article helps you do that.
¹Long-term readers might wonder why I’ve gone spiritual all of a sudden, when much of my other writing focuses on hard scientific knowledge. This is not a refutation of my belief in science, but simply an understanding of its limits — there are plenty of weird phenomenon out there to demonstrate that we don’t have a complete understanding of the universe. Dark matter, dark energy, dimensions beyond the normal four, quantum theory, hell, even the nature of energy itself are all still very much open questions. It’s even reasonable to suppose that we might be living an elaborate simulation. With all that uncertainty running around, I’m loathe to discount an afterlife just because we haven’t found scientific evidence of it yet.
²That and pain. But pain is really a fear of a life experience, not a death experience. People fear the events leading up to death often to a much greater degree than death itself.