By Nancy Merrill and Trip Hart
By Trip Hart and Nancy Merrill
“It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Woody Allen, Without Feathers, 1976.
Over 80% of people describe a peaceful death as being at home surrounded by familiar things and people they love.
Honor My Wishes (HMW) advocates for ‘Dignity, Security and Peace at Life’s End’ for all adults by urging them to exercise good stewardship to prepare for dying as a matter of living well. Leaving a written legacy, healing broken relationships and determining final arrangements are important steps toward achieving the “ars moriendi” or good death.
Begin by recording family history and stories to share. Called a Spiritual or Ethical Will, this can pass down life experiences highlighting what was important to you. Imagine if your ancestors had written such a document what an inspiring connection that would have been! Yours will be just such a gift for generations.
More challenging is reflecting on what Dr. Ira Byock, hospice champion, calls “The Four Most Important Things” in the book by the same name. He proposes our lives are at peace when we can say these things to the people important to us: “I’m Sorry,” “I Forgive You,” “Please Forgive Me,” and “I Love You.” Dr. Byock witnessed repeatedly how unresolved pain due to estranged relationships with loved ones made dying more difficult for those patients. Indeed, in the end the only thing that matters is relationships. Making these four statements a daily habit enriches everyone, but especially brings a measure of peace to those who are dying.
Finally, what would you want done with your body, and what are your preferred final arrangements? We previously mentioned our culture avoids conversations about health care at the end of life and puts off organizing legal and financial affairs. Even more taboo is talking about our actual death and outlining preferences for final arrangements. That is, until we are forced to make our own or a loved one’s arrangements.
Unlike the way we systematically research other major purchases, we tend to wait until we are in immediate need for end of life matters before we determine a budget and act. This limits options and creativity, and puts undue stress and anxiety on those making hard decisions. Waiting until a death occurs and family is grieving often results in emotional overspending. Some estimate that one-third of such customers contract for more than they can afford.
Since the Civil War the custom of a viewing, followed by a service and body burial became traditional. Recently cremation has risen in popularity, primarily because it is less expensive. Alternative options include making your own or personalizing an inexpensive burial or cremation casket, your family managing the funeral themselves at home, or being cremated for free by donating your body to medical science. Ashes can be mixed into a cement marine reef, turned into diamonds or even shot up in fireworks. People assume embalming and a casket are required for body burial – neither is true, but you won’t know if you don’t explore options. Look for Green cemeteries and funeral products on the horizon as new concepts in after-death care for this changing industry.
Investigate, know what you want in products and services, plan accordingly and shop around. Funeral homes and cemeteries whether private or non-profit are businesses after all, and prices can vary by thousands of dollars. Phone for a price quote or visit to receive a price list. Consumer Reports and AARP generally advise consumers to plan ahead but not pre-pay for such services.
HMW has produced a resource guidebook that covers these topics in greater detail, including a health care power of attorney and a legal form to control the disposition of your body after death.
Most of all, share your wishes with loved ones using the four articles we presented as a springboard. You will save survivors a great deal of effort, anxiety and possibly substantial money as they honor your death. Being a good steward of time, talents and treasures as you live day-to-day is important to a life well lived. Adding the stewardship of dying well to that list paves the way for your ‘ars moriendi’ and provides for all concerned the gift of ‘Peace.’
In 2008, my husband became critically ill following surgeries. After 4 long unresponsive months on a ventilator, I was faced with the very real and difficult decision of whether to continue life support. Luckily for me, having been active in Honor My Wishes for several years, we had talked about end of life issues. Several years earlier we both had our Advance Directives filled out, signed and witnessed. Quality of life, not quantity, was important to him. Though the decision was difficult and painful, discontinuing life support was the right decision.
Nancy (McCormack) Wik