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Sun, 30 Sep 2007

"Time, Gentlemen"

The end of summer and the beginning of fall begins a time when one's focus turns not to the sowing and the growing, but to the final harvest. Also, perhaps, because of an unusually large (for me) number of funerals I have had to attend in the last month or two for family, friends, and business associates, I find myself thinking a great deal about my own eventual demise. While I sincerely hope it is a long way off, one can (meticulously planned suicides excluded) never choose the exact circumstances of one's own death. All one can typically hope for is that your final wishes will be respected.

Indeed, another recent conversation -- this time with my attorney -- brought this point about final wishes even more strongly home to me. My wife and I were in his office going over some minor changes to our wills we wished to make. Years ago, she and I had made our first will more or less a simple, pro forma one: I left everything of mine to her, she everything of hers to me; and in the event of our simultaneous demise, what little we had would be sold and the proceeds donated to charity. For a newly married couple just starting out, it seemed like a simple and reasonable approach. Indeed, the very simplicity of the thing caused me to actually write the thing using one of those will-making software programs. We were relatively poor at the time, and $29.95 cost for the fill-in-the-blanks software seemed like a much better deal than paying out several hundred dollars to the local lawyer. Duly witnessed, and with a copy on file with my parents, it was all perfectly legal and gave us simple, basic legal coverage.

Not too long thereafter, though, we acquired our first house and our first child was born, and everything changed for us from a legal perspective (among many others). As my father pointed out to me, we now had to worry not only about each other, but about the baby's future as well, should something untoward happen to either or both of us. This time there was no thinking about $29.95 do-it-yourself solutions; instead we made an appointment and spent the afternoon discussing our financial and familial ins and outs with a local attorney whom my father had recommended to me. This fellow was a great believer in the idea that one's last will and testament should be meticulously prepared and mind-numbingly thorough, "every contingency," he added in stentorian tones, "covered by THE WILL." (This fellow also had a tendency to speak in capital letters, not exactly shouting, but raising the volume and lowering the timbre of his voice; probably the same technique he used to make critical points to juries in court.) The outcome of all of this was a massive document that not only covered the run-of-the-mill legal contingencies, but (new for me) introduced me to the arcane spheres of guardianships, trusts for minor children, and estate tax planning. The whole question of who should raise our kids if we weren't there to do it ourselves was one to which I had never given much thought, and which took a great deal of soul-searching, negotiations, diplomacy, and compromise to finally resolve. I had never before realized that dying could be so complicated.

But the great work was finally signed, sealed, and delivered, and my wife and I returned to our lives, our legal backstop quietly reposing in the back of the safe deposit box. With only the odd codicil or amendment needed to reflect other important changes in our familial circumstances (such as the birth of our second child), it remained a document about which we felt we had covered everything and thus would not need to spare it another thought for a long time.

A few years ago, though, our family moved to a new home in a new state, and the attorney I had hired to review the sales contract and handle all the legal paperwork at the closing asked me about my family and whether or not we had a will. I replied that we did, and he suggested that we bring a copy by his office for him to review. Certainly things like our address were changing, he said, and there might well be legal and financial implications of living in a new state that we might want to investigate. "No charge to review it," he added. "I do this for all my clients moving in from out of state. Usually it's no big deal, but you never know if there's something about your particular circumstances that you may want to handle differently given the laws here." So a couple of months after moving in, on the way home from work, I dropped off a copy of our will with the secretary at his office.

A week passed, then two, then a month, with no word from him. I realized that lawyers often have erratic schedules, and a bit of pro bono review could certainly not be extremely high on his priority list, but I at least wanted to find out the status -- had he even had a chance to look at it yet? I called his office.

"Yes," he answered, "I have started to go through it. Very impressive. I have to say that this is the first will I've ever looked at that has clauses dealing with things like civil insurrection, or radioactive contamination from nearby power plants." I too, had always been a bit uneasy with some of the detail in our wills, which seemed like overkill to me, but after all, the whole reason you hire professionals like lawyers to draft your will is that you trust their expertise and judgment, that they will do the right thing by you; if you don't trust them, there was little point in hiring them in the first place. So I was now interested to hear where he was going to go with this. "You realize, of course, that while there's nothing really wrong with it, a good amount of what's there could be taken out without causing any harm."

"Why?"

"Because your circumstances (as you described them to me) aren't really unusually complicated. In fact, your situation is just about as straightforward as you can get. It's not like you or your wife stand to inherit large estates from your parents that would need careful planning to hand on to your children. And while your own financial circumstances are sound, between your assets and your insurance coverage, again, your situation isn't really complex as far as things like the tax laws go. We can probably streamline this quite a bit -- having all this complexity is just an invitation for somebody to object to something in it; even if they don't have an argument, they can tie the thing up in probate, and I'm sure that's not what you'd want to see happen." That was certainly true.

"Another thing I noticed: you and your wife don't have powers of attorney, do you?" No, we didn't. Did we need that? "Well, you should probably have them. It will give each of you legal authority to act for the other in case either of you are incapacitated. And what about a living will?" No, we didn't have those either. "That's another thing you need to have these days. It's always better to have it spelled out in advance who you want to have acting for you and carrying out your wishes medically and legally. I tell all my clients these days that you should have these done at the same time you're putting your own will together." That seemed like very reasonable advice, and I was a bit embarrassed at not having gotten these done earlier.

"Finally, one other thing: I noticed that your wills have a lot of details about things like funeral arrangements, and specific bequests to individuals. I always advise my clients not to generally put those kinds of things into the will itself. Again, all it does is make for a lot of unnecessary length and complexity. Besides, you have to be careful -- if you keep your will in something like a safe deposit box, when you die, the bank will usually immediately seal the box, which means that no one will be able to find all that information until much later -- probably too late, if you get my point. You needn't bother putting the bequests in there either. All the ones you mention are relatively small, personal things -- it's not like you're leaving the house to someone. It's usually better to put your personal wishes in a separate document and leave it at home someplace where everyone knows about it and where to find it. You don't even need to leave a copy with me; better to keep that stuff to yourself. Remember, if it's in your will, that eventually becomes a public document, and you might not want the whole world to know everything about to whom you left your little things and to whom you didn't." I had never had it explained quite that way before. I had always believed that your will needed to be all-encompassing and exhaustively complete, which is why making one was so stressful -- my thought was you wouldn't get a second chance to get it right.

Besides the other documents, I told him to go ahead and come up with a new draft of the will along the lines he suggested. A few weeks later he faxed over the drafts, and with a few tweaks here and there, we came up with a much simpler document, without the effluvia that cluttered up the old one.

And, while I don't propose to make any specific gifts public, I thought this might be as good a forum as any to document my wishes regarding what should happen to me when I have shuffled off this mortal coil.


The first thing I would like to say is that I greatly regret being dead. This world can be a pretty wonderful place, and I will certainly miss being a tiny part of it.

I can only hope that, however I met my end, it happened reasonably quickly, and without a lot of mess and inconvenience to my family and friends. The last thing I would want to have happen would be to drag out the process unnecessarily or burdensomely; I expect that my advance medical directives would have kept that from happening.

Most funeral arrangements I have seen in my life have bothered me. First and foremost of all, the traditional rituals as scripted by the funeral directors seem stupefyingly routine and dull to me. Frankly, I believe that the whole funeral business is, to a greater or lesser extent, a well choreographed racket designed to skim not insignificant sums of money from the bereaved family at a time when they are psychologically vulnerable, with not too much obvious value provided in return.

Secondly, the overarching objective for my last rites is that they contain only the minimum daily requirement of solemnity and sadness. While I hope my passing is not cause for rejoicing, I would much prefer that those who knew me focus on fonder memories and not so much on wailing and gnashing of teeth. I have found the atmosphere at every funeral home I have ever visited tended towards being heavy and oppressive, a depressing and saddening experience for all concerned.

So here's what I would like to do about that.

First of all, I would like to have my remains cremated after my death. I have always found cemeteries to be miserable places; the only good ones are ones where either I don't know anyone there, or I was only there to visit the graves of famous people who I didn't really know myself. I understand the desire to have some place to go to "commune with the deceased" as it were, but I can think of many more beautiful and cheerful places than a cemetery for doing that. In addition, I just think that cemeteries are, to a large degree, a waste of space; often the "in perpetuity" care one thinks one is getting is subject to change when the ownership of the cemetery changes or the owners go broke, or if the place just runs out of room. As I write this, even Arlington National Cemetery near Washington is running out of space, and will either have to expand (difficult and expensive) or will have to resort to "doubling up" more than one casket in a given burial plot (which may not be exactly what the families of those buried there had in mind). I prefer not to attempt to leave behind a final, lasting footprint on the earth as my primary legacy.

Second, as I mentioned, I would prefer to bypass the whole funeral parlor route to the maximum extent possible. I know that there are certain, indispensable functions that funeral directors perform (like actually performing the cremation, for example), but beyond that, I would just as soon not have anything to do with them, keeping any outlays to and interactions with them to the barest minimum possible. I have always found the keeping of "viewing hours" more than a little unnerving. Anyone who wants to say goodbye to me certainly doesn't my corpse in a box at the front of the room dominating the proceedings.

What I propose instead is to provide an environment for family and friends to get together and socialize in a more relaxed and cheerier manner than in in Room 3 of the local funeral home. Instead of spending all that money on embalming, a casket, and viewing time, I would instead go to a good local restaurant and rent one or more dining areas there for a "private function" over a day or two. People will then have comfortable chairs in which to sit, a variety of things to eat and drink, and a non-oppressive atmosphere in which to interact. As family and friends get older and go their separate ways, it seems sometimes that funerals are the primary motivations for getting the extended family together -- if so, it should at least be done in a comfortable and enjoyable environment. There should be drinking, music, and dancing if anyone feels so inclined.

And by the way, many of the other little things that funeral parlors "do" are really unnecessary -- at least for me. Posting an obituary notice in the local newspapers is one example. 99.99% of them are a bare recitation of names and dates, which are not really meaningful or understandable to anyone except friends and family -- so what's the point of publishing them for all to see? And by being written using a fill-in-the-blanks approach, they are boring and monotonous to the nth degree. I would challenge my family and friends to challenge the newspapers to do a different kind of "obituary" for me, perhaps by something like relating anecdotes about my life: after all, the space is paid for, and might as well be put to good use.

I am a religious person, and my Catholic faith has always been important to me. So as contrary as I may seem regarding the secular aspects of my funeral, I would like to have all the proper last rites of the Church, albeit with some specific requests. For example, please talk to the priest and tell him that it's really not necessary to talk about me very much -- priests often don't know their parishioners very well and not always personally, so it's better not to pretend otherwise, which always seemed well intentioned but always sounded a bit hollow to me. I would much rather have a "real" sermon proclaimed than having to sit through superficial pieties about me.

I have a specific gospel reading in mind, rather than the routine ones one usually hears at a funeral Mass. Out of all the gospels, the one reading that has always resonated with me is that of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14). From when I was very young, I have always felt that parable was directed to me; I have always thought of myself as the quiet guy in the back of the church, not really worthy of the many wonderful blessings I've received throughout my life. I've always felt humbled and fortunate for all the good that's happened to me, which always was sufficient proof for me that there is a God who loves us and wants us to be happy. (Ben Franklin felt the same way about beer, a thought with which I also agree.)

As you may have expected by now, I am not enamored of most of the music and hymns used at funeral Masses. Many of them I find trite and obvious in a whack-you-over-the-head kind of way. I would greatly prefer that the musical interludes at the Mass be kept to a minimum, perhaps just during the processional and the recessional portions of the ceremony. I've always been partial to the music of J.S. Bach, and it seems entirely appropriate to make use of it here: the Crucifixus and the Benedictus from his Mass in B Minor would probably be good choices. Another possibility would be Bach's Air in G, which, although secular in nature, seems reasonable and appropriate. After all, Bach frequently inscribed his compositions at the beginning with the initials "PPD" (pro palma Deus, "for the glory of God"), so I think his music would not be amiss at Mass.

And those are my main wishes in a nutshell. I'm not going to talk about specific bequests here; my wife knows what those are and where to find the list of them. But as far as my funeral goes, I don't want it to be a depressing or sad occasion. One old saying about the Irish is that they weep at births and laugh at funerals, saddened when souls come into this world with its sorrows and disappointments, and happy when they are delivered from it. I've had my share of unhappiness in my life, but on the balance, the good things far outweigh the bad, and I would hope that my family and friends would remember that and feel the same way.

Posted Sep 30, 2007 at 17:51 UTC, 3084 words,  [/richPermalink

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