It's never too early to start thinking about your own death
May 4, 2016 4:22 PM   Subscribe

It is never too early to start thinking about your own death and the deaths of those you love. I don't mean thinking about death in obsessive loops, fretting that your husband has been crushed in a horrific car accident, or that your plane will catch fire and plummet from the sky. But rational interaction, that ends with you realizing that you will survive the worst, whatever the worst may be. Accepting death doesn't mean that you won't be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like "Why do people die?" and "Why is this happening to me?" Death isn't happening to you. Death is happening to us all.
It's never too early to start thinking about your own death
posted by y2karl (47 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
A good piece. Thanks for posting it.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:38 PM on May 4, 2016


I also want better municipal, state, and federal laws in North America, which would allow not only for more natural burials but also for open-air pyres and grounds where bodies can be laid out in the open and consumed by nature. "Burial" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word birgan, "to conceal." Not everyone wants to be concealed under the earth. I don't want to be concealed. I believe the animals I've consumed my whole life should someday have their turn with me. The ancient Ethiopians would place their dead in the lake where they fished, so the fish would have the opportunity to receive back the nutrients. The earth is expertly designed to take back what it has created. Bodies left for carrion in enclosed, regulated spaces could be the answer to the environmental problems of burial and cremation. There is no limit to where our engagement with death can take us.

This is beautiful. Thank you.

I would like my body to be hot composted, perhaps to then push up heirloom tomatoes.
Or something like this, although I've never eaten vulture.
posted by wonton endangerment at 5:01 PM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


Both of my grandfathers just turned 90 this year, so I've been thinking a lot about this, but more in the nonconstructive, "obsessive loops" way. Thanks for posting this, it's lent some perspective.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:05 PM on May 4, 2016


As I turned her over to wash her back, I received the ghastly surprise of a gaping, raw wound the size of a football festering on her lower back. It was akin to the gaping mouth of hell. You can almost gaze through such a wound into our dystopian future.

That was a fun read. Thank you.

The whole Prince thing (and Bowie too, at age what, 74?) made me realize that most people don't think they will die.
posted by mrgrimm at 5:05 PM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Eh, I can understand the "you should accept it because you can't really defeat it" argument. But then it shifts into talking about how death is "good", which is bullshit. Death is bullshit, but realistically its going to happen. I can accept that, more or less, and make reasonable preparations, and then go back into a normal state of denial that is the only thing that keeps me from going insane thinking about it.
posted by thefoxgod at 5:13 PM on May 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


"Is she to your liking?"

Christ

Is this normal funeral director verbiage?
posted by prize bull octorok at 5:14 PM on May 4, 2016


You gave Bowie 5 more years that he apparently really wanted to have, mrgrimm. He had just turned 69 two days before he died. That said, maybe we should have the rockers doing the upcoming Desert Fest read this piece. I got the knee jerk feeling when I read about it that Bowie's death spooked the daylights out of them, and boom! Rock show where none of these guys would've stood on the same lawn at a garden party together back in the day.

Me? I want to be wrapped in one of those pods where I provide food for a tree. Before the pods were invented, I had already been telling loved ones all I wanted was to be wrapped in a linen shroud and a tree planted on top of me.
posted by droplet at 5:19 PM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


made me realize that most people don't think they will die

My immediate family has my nonna, who is 95. My wife's family has my mother in law, who cleared 100 last year. We get 'this is it, nonna/bubbe wants to talk to everyobe...' calls and emails all the time.

I dig ya, grimm, but speak for yourself.
posted by jonmc at 5:22 PM on May 4, 2016


"At my age, I don't even buy green bananas any more!"
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:47 PM on May 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


The only thing I have done to prepare is to ask my Rabbi to deliver part of the service in Klingon. It isn't that I am really into Star Trek or anything. I just think the idea of Klingon at a funeral is really funny.

Besides, the goyim at the service won't be able to tell the difference between Klingon and Hebrew, and that's also funny.

(The only MeFite that I know in real life is Huck500. Huck will provide details when the time comes.)
posted by dfm500 at 5:50 PM on May 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


Change is mostly good, and death is change. Death is part of life that we've attempted to insulate ourselves from, which is futile.
posted by Existential Dread at 6:03 PM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thought about my death? Done. Made plans? Done. My shallowness comes in real handy at these times.

My father would always say to me, during home visits, about how such and such holiday could be his last and that it was good that I was visiting, just in case. I was concerned and asked my mom about dad's morbidness, and her reply was, "Your father? Your father is too chicken to die. Unlike ME, I'm ready to go!" (throw in some volume and a vigorous hand gesture from her at this point.) Man, that put things in perspective.
posted by jadepearl at 6:21 PM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


Last week, I got my will and advanced directive signed and notarized. I also made my family aware of my burial wishes (cremated and inurned at Swan Point, and, thanks to a long ago MeFi comment, requesting that Leonard Cohen's If It Be Your Will be played at my funeral. I'm not on a device that can easily search for citation, but thank you, fellow MeFite). I'm 36. It's never too early to sort this out.
posted by Ruki at 6:41 PM on May 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


I dig ya, grimm, but speak for yourself.

My grandmother told me "this is probably the last time I'll see you" ... every time I saw her for 10 years.

I still think there's a difference between outward and inward acceptance of it. Most people don't accept it. I still haven't.
posted by mrgrimm at 6:41 PM on May 4, 2016


You mean the non-Trekkie goyim, I assume, dfm500...
posted by y2karl at 6:43 PM on May 4, 2016


We are but older children, dear
Who fret to find our bedtime near.

--Lewis Carroll
posted by kinnakeet at 6:45 PM on May 4, 2016 [5 favorites]


Isaac was getting his PhD, exploring the boundaries of science, making music because of the inspiration death provided. If he lived forever, chances are he would be rendered boring, listless, and unmotivated, robbed of life's richness by dull routine. The great achievements of humanity were born out of the deadlines imposed by death.

I ... can't really agree with this. If anything, half the people I know (the female half, mostly) would probably be more likely to 'explore life's richness' if they didn't have to spend at least 20% of their lives raising children.

That said, dying itself holds absolutely no interest for me, but I sometimes fantasize about the freedom that a terminal illness that didn't immediately limit me would bring. A colleague and I were talking a bit ago about the sorts of experiments we'd start doing if we didn't have to worry about the long-term health effects of some of the reagents. I wonder how much my current life is still ruled by those calculations -- if I were certain that I wasn't going to die of old age, would I still be willing to go out in the sun? What are the potential environmental sources of trace amounts of MPP+? What other things would I deny myself because of its potential impact on my life seventy years from now?
posted by steady-state strawberry at 7:05 PM on May 4, 2016 [13 favorites]


"Change is good" is an even sillier assertion than "death is good." But if nobody died it would be a big mess, that's for sure.
posted by atoxyl at 7:07 PM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Postmortem daguerreotypes from the 1800s picture fresh, young, almost lifelike corpses, many of them victims of scarlet fever or diphtheria. In 1899, a mere four percent of the US population was over 65 — forget making it to 85. ... [T]his gradual deterioration comes at a terrible cost. There are many ways for a corpse to be disturbing.
Um. As romantic as diphtheria is, I guess I'd rather be around to see grandchildren than leave a pretty corpse?
If anything, half the people I know (the female half, mostly) would probably be more likely to 'explore life's richness' if they didn't have to spend at least 20% of their lives raising children.
This, this, this. I always find discussions of dying a little strange as they relate to women. I remember reading some prestige-press article about a 40-something woman with cancer who wanted any medical treatment possible to save her life, and it was sort of passed off as, "well, she's a mother, so I guess it's understandable because she's not just doing it for herself, it's for the children."

There's this weird dissonance where we applaud Ezekiel Emanuel for not wanting medical care past 75 and then debate over which septuagenarian or near-septuagenarian, Sanders or Clinton, would make a better president. Shouldn't these aging irrelevances quietly go away and free up resources for the rest of the population? Or are resource constraints only for non-elites?
posted by Ralston McTodd at 7:18 PM on May 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


My grandmother told me "this is probably the last time I'll see you" ... every time I saw her for 10 years.

"I'll most likely be dead in the morning."
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:28 PM on May 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


If he lived forever, chances are he would be rendered boring, listless, and unmotivated, robbed of life's richness by dull routine.

Uh, yeah, because that uh, that never happens to anyone NOW, being mortal and all.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:45 PM on May 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


My grandfather, who was a good southern boy raised on meat'n'taters, had 4 heart attacks in his 60's with the 4th one resulting in a quintuple bypass operation. At that point (this is in the late 70's) the doctors told him that such an operation could be expected to extend the patient's life by 5 years (and my grandparents' diet changed drastically to one featuring vegetables and a minimum of sodium, meat, and taters).

Around the 5-year mark, during a family get-together he said to us, "The doctors gave me 5 years. Any time beyond this I consider pure gravy.* I've had a good run, please don't feel bad when I go." Of course some of the family members started protesting "Oh no, don't say things like that!" But I thought that was a pretty cool and wise outlook, and his words really stuck with me.

A few years after that, the 5th heart attack killed him. He was out playing his usual round of golf at the municipal course, and the doctor later said he was probably dead before he hit the ground. Some of the family was devastated, of course, but I thought to myself yeah, that's the way I want to go, quick poof while I'm doing something I love. **

* Even then he still dreamt of gravy...

** I hadda do it: "Peacefully in my sleep, not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car!"
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:48 PM on May 4, 2016 [6 favorites]


Death is unfair, unjust, meaningless, inescapable; it preys upon the weak, the poor, the sick and the old, and is terrible and feared not just by the dying, but by their friends, family, acquaintances, passers-by. It has almost all worst the characteristics of a terrible person, an evil God, a nasty, brutish and short Nature. The more I think about it, the worse it seems. I'll prepare for it, and may eventually even accept it as inevitable, but up until then, I'll fight it with everything I've got, and strive to do the same for the millions who suffer senseless, stupid, pointless and tragic deaths every day. Death sucks.
posted by chortly at 7:54 PM on May 4, 2016 [5 favorites]


One could say the same about gravity.

You will see things differently in time, I suspect.
posted by y2karl at 8:35 PM on May 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


When I was planning a loved one's funeral last year, probably over half of the friends and family told me they wanted some variation of the Viking funeral. Made me wonder if there's an entrepreneurial opportunity there. Assuming state laws and archers accurate with flaming arrows are amenable. Wish ColdChef was around to answer that.

I like thinking about this stuff myself. If I could get what I want, it would be a natural burial with an apple tree planted on top. Then, 20 years in the future, there would be a large tree with bright red apples. All the kids around would tell each other stories about how there would be a bright streak of red visible if you cut the apple open. And then they'd dare each other to eat it, even though my ghost would haunt the one who took the first bite.

Could have so much fun with the tombstone as well. When I was tombstone shopping last year, I was completely surprised to see you could have them digitally carved. And with anything you could put into an image file. The possibilities are so endless.

But the only real option for a tombstone is something like Kryptos. Something so puzzling, I'll get a fair number of strangers viewing it every year, and occasional discussions (& conspiracy theories) about the mystery online. Have the code and an enigmatic map on the stone which will reveal the spot where a solid gold owl is buried deep underground.
posted by honestcoyote at 8:44 PM on May 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like "Why do people die?" and "Why is this happening to me?" Death isn't happening to you. Death is happening to us all.

I think death is existentially devastating. The more I think on it over time, the more unfortunate it becomes. And it's not an issue of anxiety, but a rational, objective, "this is the suckiest thing of all things, really" perspective. To "not think about the deeper questions" is (I think) a psychological dodge to how bad it really is, not only to think about our own nonexistence, but also the nonexistence of others whom we care about. Beautiful, wonderful, unique agents no longer anything but a memory, a memory which is eventually lost from cultural consciousness, as well. I can construct a narrative that attempts to soften the blow, but I suspect that deep down, for many, this is simply a coping mechanism for something that is objectively "not right" and we have a hard time resolving with any satisfaction. That being said, this doesn't mean that death is necessarily a hopeless state of affairs when we probe the deeper questions (at least, not in terms of my own metaphysical inclinations). But it's certainly not one of those things that you just don't think about on that level. For some maybe (I wish I were so lucky to live with this kind of lack of longing), but probably not most.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:44 PM on May 4, 2016 [6 favorites]


Are you talking about death or aging ? Because, apart from electrons and some giant subterranean fungi, everything withers away.

Oops! Posted before I finished my thought. To be continued. God, I hate.smartphones.
posted by y2karl at 8:52 PM on May 4, 2016


I think about that passage from Yoshido Kenko that ends with What makes life so precious is its uncertainty.

What is hated is not so much death as the withering. But if everyone lived forever and ageless, there would be no room in no time.

We would have to start decimating ourselves and, ooh, to choose who, now there's a judgeship no one would deserve and for which all would strive...
posted by y2karl at 9:04 PM on May 4, 2016


it preys upon the weak, the poor, the sick and the old

And it strikes the young and the healthy, as well. A young colleague of mine contracted the flu, developed pneumonia, then acute respiratory distress syndrome, then died. All in about two weeks. He was 25. I was 28 when I first found my tumor.

Death isn't evil, a predatory stalker. It's a process everything goes through, from plants to animals to planets, stars, galaxies, the universe. You can also think of it as a cycle of renewal, making space and providing soil for new life to appear. I can understand denial, and raging against it in the young and healthy, but denial rarely resolves an issue.
posted by Existential Dread at 9:30 PM on May 4, 2016 [13 favorites]


The author claims that people create music via the inspiration "provided by death".
Uh, no. We make music because we love the sound of it.
Death is a bummer because it stops us from doing that.
posted by storybored at 9:57 PM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


"The best break anybody ever gets is in bein' alive in the first place. An' you don't unnerstan' what a perfect deal it is until you realizes that you ain't gone be stuck with it forever, either." -- Porky Pine, Pogo
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:48 PM on May 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


If he lived forever, chances are he would be rendered boring, listless, and unmotivated, robbed of life's richness by dull routine.

I always hear people say this and it's baffling to me. I can't imagine having exhausted the depths of everything that's caught my interest in a few decades. And interest seems to grow exponentially -- the more I know, the more corners I'm aware of to look around.

Maybe with unfathomable aeons it could happen, but I'm skeptical.

The great achievements of humanity were born out of the deadlines imposed by death.

Deadlines can be motivating, but mortality is hardly the only means of creating them, and I've seen passion carry projects through as swiftly as limited windows of opportunity.
posted by wildblueyonder at 10:49 PM on May 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


I'm not really a big fan of death, so I plan to avoid it for as long as possible by trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle, making regular GP visits, and positioning myself as best I can to take advantage of any potential technological advances that might help me to keep existing. Luckily, I think there's room for hope that our civilization could come up with some creative methods to prolong the existence of our individual selves in time for me to benefit from them. I guess I'll find out, either way.

If I do die in the meantime, I'd like to have the structure of my brain preserved using the best method available (currently this seems to be aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation), in the hope that someday, our society might develop to a point where it is knowledgeable, prosperous and kind enough to attempt to revive me through emulation or reconstruction, if it turns out that the information represented by the physical structure of the brain is indeed sufficient to revive a person in principle (which is very much not a settled question in either neurobiological or philosophical terms).
posted by polychora at 11:03 PM on May 4, 2016


I'm not really bothered by dying. It's inevitable and then I won't have any more problems. It's sad — I won't get to do more cool stuff. I don't want people I love to die and leave me behind. I'm afraid it will hurt. It's kinda gross. But the idea that I'm here now & then I won't be? That some people will get any decent organs and then I'll be burned (for we are, if anything, cremation people in my family)? I'm weirdly okay with that. Just maybe in a few years so I can art a little more.
posted by dame at 11:24 PM on May 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


One could say the same about gravity.

You will see things differently in time, I suspect.


Don't make assumptions. I'm 50, and I figure with my health, I have maybe 15 years left. Death is the most terrifying thing there is. Utter nothingness, the end of the universe. I don't even like to sleep anymore, because that time of unconsciousness is too similar to extinction.

That's why I write every day. I fight a desperate battle against my ADHD, the world's distractions, and my own failing mentality to write. I have fifteen years at most to get something written worth reading. And it is not. Enough. Time.

And when I die, it's going to be screaming, struggling, trying for one more day, one more hour, one more moment of being productive. Otherwise I might as well give up and die now.
posted by happyroach at 12:39 AM on May 5, 2016 [4 favorites]


This is a pretty awesome mind game about longevity ("if you could choose..."). Personally I think 20 years in each country on Earth would be a good start. I'd take an awfully long time to get bored of being alive.
posted by superfish at 1:27 AM on May 5, 2016 [3 favorites]


If he lived forever, chances are he would be rendered boring, listless, and unmotivated, robbed of life's richness by dull routine.

This is a theme explored in a good Sci-Fi(ish) book: "The End Specialist" by Drew Magary (ISBN: 9780007429080)
If a cure for aging was suddenly discovered, what would you do with your life for the next few hundred years? And is it inevitable that we'd all grow tired of life eventually?

Personally, I don't want to live forever, but my biggest fear is having that choice taken away from me by senility or something else incapacitating.
posted by faceplantingcheetah at 2:08 AM on May 5, 2016


This is a theme explored in a good Sci-Fi(ish) book: "The End Specialist" by Drew Magary (ISBN: 9780007429080)

The Deadspin guy? Weird.

I'm someone who is somewhat problematically obsessed with my own death. It started when I was a kid and read something about someone who was buried alive, but now it's more about missing out*, losing time to do all the stuff I want to do, the big things like travelling, the little things like sitting and drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book. I wonder if I'll feel differently when the pains of aging and disease make it seem like I'm missing less, but so far pretty much every year of my life has been better than the last, so it's hard to imagine ever wanting to get off this ride (I'm 33). Learning to accept death is one of those bits of wisdom that I keep hoping will come with age, but my grandfather died at 95 and he was crying and shaking with fear about dying pretty much up until the end. I respect Caitlin Doughty and the work she's doing a lot (I knew a couple people in her Society of the Good Death in college, so I've been following her for a while), but I worry it might just be something that I never really get. Hopefully I'll go quickly, right after my wife, before I have too much time to sit and think about death anymore than I do now.

*Except occasionally like when I saw a trailer for The Revenant and that fear of being buried alive bothered me again for a few weeks.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:28 AM on May 5, 2016


This thread is kind of wild to read! i don't know if it's just low-grade depression or if it's just that i'm super-boring, but I legitimately feel totally okay about dying and i'm 34. I did some cool shit, had some cool relationships, went some places, ate some stuff. I don't have any novels to write or art to make or kids to raise. There's no reason to preserve my brain, it's perfectly average and someone else's will quite do.

I mean I'm not about to jump off a building or anything but there just seems to be nothing to be frightened of, about death, apart from possible pain just before. (Which tbh since I got to forego childbirth seems like I'm kind of due for it.)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:42 AM on May 5, 2016 [3 favorites]


But if everyone lived forever and ageless, there would be no room in no time.

This reality makes it a bit of a Sophie's choice situation. Each option sucks pretty bad: dying for the benefit of those who come later, which requires a type of personal annihilationism (given options to live longer); or, live longer, albeit with fewer resources. I am an optimist in the conviction that we can do much, much better with the room that we have, given enough incentive, such that it shouldn't offset the benefit of living as long as possible. Even if I wasn't, though, it's not much comfort to those who die that they are simply making more room for everyone else who will eventually die anyway, if all death is removed from questions of deeper meaning and we're simply "all in it together" because "death is happening to all of us". I'm not sure there is a legitimate meta-perspective over the first option that wouldn't eventually be deeply motivated by a personal desire to maximize one's own life at the expense of others dying.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:03 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


My mother, who is about to turn 69 and who is *knock on wood* in good health, has been talking more with me lately about her (and my father's) own mortality; apparently my brother and sister *do not* want to hear, talk or even think about it, but...I dunno. I guess I've always had what I consider a realistic outlook on death. When my grandparents died I was sad, of course, but it was their time, we all gotta go, etc. I hope I'm that at peace with it when it's their time, too. Now, the idea of my wife dying before me...that I cannot accept at all at this point in my life.

Not long ago I watched The Hit, which is less a crime movie than it is a really interesting, meditative look at getting older, regret, how we approach our own death, etc.. Highly recommended.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:43 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


This reality makes it a bit of Sophie's Choice situation.

Indeed. Since I am at present on my phone, I can't link it but if you Google 'Kurt Vonnegut Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow full text,' you will find a short short story I first encountered when I was fourteen and which makes immortality a most depressing concept. Especially when you are very young. Imagine waiting for an immortal rich grandparent to drop....
posted by y2karl at 12:50 PM on May 5, 2016


One of the recurring thoughts this article brought back to mind is wanting to have a signed will giving away what treasures I have to those for whom I care the most and to leave a spare clean living space where they can be easily found by the discerning deserving.

Oh, and to destroy any incriminating evidence in regards to my life as a pirate.

See also Heracles at the Augean stables....
posted by y2karl at 3:15 PM on May 5, 2016


I believe the animals I've consumed my whole life should someday have their turn with me.

I suppose you could throw me to the pigs, but I really prefer the tasty, tasty herbivores. Putting me out on the ground or in the water seems more like pollution than anything else. Plant me under a tree. That way I'm not so stinky.

I can't imagine having exhausted the depths of everything that's caught my interest in a few decades. And interest seems to grow exponentially -- the more I know, the more corners I'm aware of to look around.

This indeed, wildblueyonder! There's so much in this world to see and do, even without having a ton of money. Even if I"m stuck in a rocker, hopefully I'll be able to read or listen to books on tape (So. Many. Books!) or hopefully reminisce about the great times I've had and tell funny stories. Maybe I'll be talking to myself, but that's nothing new.

I would hate to be absolutely destitute, be senile or have dementia, or to be in exceptional pain or incapacitated. I'm certainly not rich, and I have some aches and pains, but life is good.

At 63 and having had a stroke, I can see an end. Hopefully not soon, but I intend to enjoy the time I have left. I don't fear death, I do hope it isn't long and drawn out. For everyone's sake.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:28 PM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


“To die will be an awfully big adventure.”
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:19 PM on May 5, 2016


One best saved for last.
posted by y2karl at 5:47 PM on May 5, 2016


If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to faid like the smoke of Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.
Yoshido Kenko
Essays in Idleness
posted by y2karl at 9:27 AM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


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