Planning to Death

I like to plan ahead. I’m a planner, an over-thinker. I like to know life has in store, and I do my best to be one step ahead of whatever it has to offer. There is however this one nagging detail that I haven’t been able to get in front of. Death. Mortality. The final exclamation point. The big send off. How does one really prepare for the end?

Now this isn’t meant as a somber walk down a dark morbid trail. I’m blessed to be healthy and have no immediate plans to attend any funerals. I’m talking about high level stuff; as an ongoing preoccupation that resurfaces when life’s other minutia settles down to a dull hum. It comes down to a question of what comes next after this great journey we call life. Is there life after death? Do we take a stairway to heaven and enter the pearly gates? Do we come back for another go around as a monarch butterfly in Mexico or a future sheep herder in France? Do we stumble through the afterlife as a restless spirit haunting the family home and animating creepy clown dolls? Does our energy transition into another form, contributing to a universal stockpile to be tapped for future creation? Or is it all just lost to entropy?

We are indoctrinated about these concerns from an early age. The simple bedtime prayer for kids starts right off with mention of death;

“If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

This was the sort of thing that scared the crap out of me as a child. Surrendering to even that brief bit of oblivion was difficult enough, acknowledging that we may not even make it to sunrise was simply terrifying. I sided with Edgar Allan Poe on this one;

“Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.”

As we grow up our understanding of death and dying becomes an integral part of our early development. We experience the death of a goldfish, a family dog, a grandparent.   These are defining moments in our childhood. We try to come to terms with death without fully realizing the implications on our own lives; we are wrapped in the perceived immortality of youth with little thought of confronting the inevitable.

I imagine kids growing up on a farm might have a different perspective on the whole “circle of life” thing. They collect the unfertilized chicken eggs in the morning for breakfast and then break the infertile chicken’s neck in the evening for dinner. Farm to fork. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. They witness life coming into the world in spring and life passing from the world in winter. Everything has a natural ebb and flow, all in its own time.

Then there are the less fortunate kids; the ones who grow up facing atrocities in war-torn nations or battling a serious diseases in children’s hospitals. For them death and dying is a harsh reality that they cannot be sheltered from. They cannot escape it, and often cannot justify it, trying to make sense of life’s wild injustice and trying to find gods hand in some universal order. For them more than any I pray there is a perpetual circuit of souls that, with each trip through life, is meant to teach us an essential lesson. If that could by any hope be true then those brave kids at least can look forward to a full, rich, life in their next go-around.

I remember back when I was a teenager I found a book of questions that were meant to inspire soul-searching and generate lively discussions among friends and family. The one that stuck out most in my mind asked “would you risk being diagnosed with cancer if it would give you a better appreciation of life?” My immediate gut reaction had been “absolutely!” before considering the implication that this newly found perception of life may not be long-lasting.   I imagine that bit of uncertainty is exactly what precipitates the change in the first place. We’re told all the time to make every moment count, treat each day like it’s our last, live like you were dying, but without a real end in sight it’s hard to stray from the safe and narrow. If faith is believing without being able to know, facing death is knowing without being able to believe.

Speaking of faith, though, this had always struck me as one of the greatest gifts one could have; the unquestioning certainty that the afterlife offers every abundance of love and acceptance without a trace of suffering or hardship. I had a close friend back in high school who was a devote Mormon and carried with her such a sense of peace even at that early age. There was an underlying confidence that everything would work out in this world or the next. Jesus will provide. Jesus will protect. Jesus will welcome you when you close your eyes on this life and join him in the next. You are covered, baby! I was raised in the Jewish faith where the focus was on living a good life without consideration for what comes next. I don’t recall any talk of heaven or salvation. We would watch grim footage from the holocaust; newsreels of bodies and bulldozers with no talk of those poor souls going to a better place or assurances that they now sat at the hand of god.   So without faith what should we be preparing for?

Just before my son was born I was having a difficult time with this very topic. It was a few years after my father had passed away and it struck me that I was about to welcome the birth of the generation that would one day outlive me. You think about all the generations that came before you were born and all the ones that are yet to come after you pass away and one’s lifetime starts to feel all the more fleeting. It was in this context that I sought out a counselor to speak with. After a couple of sessions speaking about my dad we got down to the mortality issue. Turns out the counselor I had selected at random had advanced prostate cancer and was facing some of the same questions. I tried to ask if he’d found any answers, but being true to his profession he ducked most of my questions with related questions redirected back at me. What he did offer though was something like this;

“Think back to your childhood and the things you remember. Think back further to your oldest earliest memory. Think back to when you were born. Now think back before then to when you didn’t yet exist. How did it feel? What was it like? Think to that and perhaps that is what you will return to.”

What I did take away from those meetings was not about what will happen to me, but what will happen after me. Knowing my children remain behind to grow and prosper does offer a touch of immortality. Knowing that I will be remembered and in some way have made an impact on the people who continue after me is some small sense of comfort. I guess in the end that’s all we can hope for. Benjamin Franklin said the only two things that are certain are death and taxes and while I can save all of my receipts and organize my statements each year, there’s really not much prep I can do on the death front.   Not like I’ll get audited for being unprepared.

Share