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  • Jan Flynn

The Big Trip Nobody Wants To Plan

But it’s a journey we all take one day. So let’s talk packing tips 

Here’s a snippet of an article I read once: A cardiologist gave a speech to a room full of health professionals. “One-quarter of the people in this room will die of heart disease,” he said, and then waited a beat before continuing.

“The rest of you will die of something else,” he added.

That’s the entirety of what I recall from the article, but that remnant has never left me. I wish I could remember the doctor’s name, because if my heart ever decides to go sideways, he’s the guy I want on my team.

The point is, nobody gets out of here alive. Not even me

William Saroyan is supposed to have said on his deathbed, “I know everyone has to die, but somehow I always thought an exception would be made in my case.”

I think we all feel that way to some extent. Even though we know better, even when we’ve reached an age where members of our cohort are beginning to, as the Brits so charmingly put it, pop their clogs.

Mortality, as a topic, is a guaranteed downer, the ultimate wet blanket. We might be okay with contemplating it in theoretical terms, cushioned with the philosophical, as in:

“Delusion means mortality. And awareness means Buddhahood.” Bodhidarma

Yep, yep, sure. I guess. But thinking about our own, actual, inevitable, personal demise is not only a bummer, it’s sort of impossible. Given that all we can possibly know of existence is what we can perceive of it, how are we supposed to imagine being in a state in which we’re no longer capable of perception?

Or maybe we will be. Who knows?

All that, dear reader, is beyond the scope of this article. What I’m talking about here are the hard, cold (sorry) facts. The practicalities. The stuff nobody likes to talk or even think about unless maybe you’re someone with the ego and mindset of an Egyptian pharaoh.

Because no matter what you believe will become of you after your passing, the fact is that when you go, somebody’s going to have to deal with that mortal coil you’ve just shuffled off.

Unless, by odd chance, you’re blown to unrecoverable smithereens, perhaps while on an ill-advised private submersible with your billionaire pals (too soon?).

The odds of that happening are low, however, so it’s safe to assume that after you’ve departed for what Hamlet calls “the undiscovered country,” your body will be left behind.

Figuring out what’s to be done with it — what the mortuary industry coyly refers to as final arrangements — is something we’re more tempted to procrastinate about than any term paper we’ve ever had coming due.

Google “why do people procrastinate” and you’ll find abundant reasons: low motivation; an “intention-action gap”; task aversion; emotional overwhelm; and an irrational desire to delay that is stronger than the desire to take action.

Add in the fact that when it comes to making those final arrangements for yourself, there is rarely a firm due date, it’s no wonder that only about 21% of Americans have any kind of plan in place for the Big Sleep.

But if you don’t make plans ahead of time, someone will have to — someone who’s likely grief-stricken, under duress, and up against a remorseless clock. If you’ve got friends or family you care about and who are likely to outlive you, they will be faced with a whole lot of unpleasant decisions right at a time when they’re least prepared to make them.

I’ve been there. It’s traumatic

My first husband died of sudden cardiac arrest at age 54. I don’t fault him for not having plans in place; who thinks they’ll be ejected from life, without warning, while right in the middle of it?

But having to confront all those choices about what, how, where, and when — without guidance, while trying to consider sometimes conflicting expectations of family members who were just about as freaked out as I was — it’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

In contrast was my mother, a sweet and self-effacing lady who was the last person in any gathering to state her opinion let alone insist on having her way. When she died, it turned out she’d arranged to have her body collected and cremated, her ashes scattered at sea, without us having to do anything but write her eulogy and arrange a memorial celebration at her church.

She died at the age of 96, so she had more time to put things in place. But it was a vast relief and a real gift to her grieving daughters.

Another example is one of my brothers-in-law, a highly devout man who has not only planned his funeral and his wife’s but who has purchased plots for nearly every member of his immediate family. As long as he was still able to, he spent untold hours mowing the cemetery grounds wherein those plots lay.

That’s overdoing it in my opinion. But his intentions are lovely.

I have both a big birthday and a big trip coming up

No, not that trip, at least I hope not. My husband and I, along with my younger son, his wife, and her parents are heading off on safari in Kenya this summer.

I don’t really have a bucket list, but if I did, this would be near the very top. Lions! Giraffes! Elephants! Warthogs, the all-time champions in the So Ugly They’re Adorable category! Squee!

I recognize my great good fortune, both in being able to travel like this and in reaching age 70 (wait, what? Is that even possible?). With all this momentousness taking place, it only makes sense that I heed the promptings of destiny — and do my survivors a favor by making plans for the unscheduled yet undeniable.

Which is why, one afternoon next week, a nice young man from the Neptune Society is going to be paying us a house call to get everything arranged.

I’m not from a culture or family that goes in for big funerals complete with a viewing (the thought of people surveying my boxed carcass frankly creeps me out) and traditional burial (did I mention I’m claustrophobic?), so this is the option that makes the most sense, given where I live.

Although I rather like the idea of an Irish-style wake.

Honestly, if I had my druthers, I’d be composted. Human composting is available in a few areas, but not anywhere near where I’m likely to be when I, um, become compostable. Given that the prime directive of my mission here is to save my loved ones from unnecessary complications and expense, that option is out.

Another option that is catching on is “water cremation,” or alkaline hydrolysis:

During alkaline hydrolysis, a human body is sealed in a long, stainless-steel chamber, while a heated solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent sodium hydroxide passes over and around it . . . The process dissolves the bonds in the body’s tissues and eventually yields a sterile, liquid combination of amino acids, peptides, salts, sugars and soaps, which is disposed of down the drain at the alkaline hydrolysis facility. The body’s bones are then ground to a fine powder and returned to the deceased person’s survivors . . .”

That’s what I call liquidation. Alkaline hydrolysis is more carbon-friendly than traditional cremation, which has approximately the same carbon footprint as a 600-mile road trip.

But it’s not widely available, at least not here in Idaho, nor is it inexpensive at this point. Besides, I’ve taken road trips way longer than 600 miles, and I will again, God willing. Again, practicalities carry the day.

There are other funereal practices that may appeal in theory. One is a Viking funeral, in which the body is sent off in a boat before being set aflame with burning arrows launched by the deceased’s buddies.

I don’t know anybody who’s that good at archery.

Another tradition I find weirdly appealing is sky burial. Practiced in Tibet and parts of India, the body — often shrouded and sometimes dissected into parts — is exposed to the elements for vultures and other wild animals to consume.

Talk about recycling!

Of course, sky burial doesn’t exactly have enthusiastic support in the U.S.A., where it might in fact cross the legal line into desecration of a body. And again, practicalities reign.

Like most things in life, and apparently also death, you do your best

If I do something so stupid while in Kenya that I turn into a meal for wildlife, well then, that’s the circle of life. I’ll accept it (like I have a choice). But it’s more likely things won’t be so definitive, so cut and dried, when the time comes.

None of us can foresee everything that might happen. That doesn’t excuse us from taking responsibility for the things we can reasonably anticipate.

Besides, making plans is a great antidote to anxiety, if you have any such tendencies in that direction as I most certainly do. Just knowing I have the appointment with the nice fella from Neptune Society (with prices locked in! For eternity!) gives me a sense of ease.

Because when I go, unlike Charlton Heston, nobody is going to have to pry a gun from my cold, dead hands.

My To Do list? Now, that’s a different story.

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