Depending on where you live in the world today in part sets a base-line for the cultural and social beliefs one has regarding aging, dying and death.
I was born and raised in South Africa, and for approximately the last 15 years have lived in the United States. This gives you an idea of what might be some of the personal and mass cultural beliefs that have influenced me to now.
Death and dying were not unfamiliar topics in my family’s house. Much like most other people, I was raised with a certain set of beliefs of what happens when a person dies - their soul, their consciousness. Dinner table conversations as you can imagine, were very interesting!
People died - a grandparent, a friend of my parents, a fellow classmate in high school, a distant relative. As I reached an age where I could more deeply relate to what was happening on a mental and emotional level, I went to some of these funerals.
It would not be until later in life when I began work in the financial services industry that I would be exposed to the availability of financial instruments as it related to dying and death. And even then, I was in my early twenties with a presumably long life ahead of me. Contemplating my own death was not really at the forefront of mind. As the years went on, certain life events began to shift my ideas and understanding of living, dying and death.
I have fond memories of conversations with my now deceased grandmother, sharing our ideas with each other about dying, death and the afterlife. Towards the end of her life, we talked about being ready to die. She was never afraid and she had a peaceful attitude to her own mortality. I miss her.
I had been thinking about this when we (life partner + me) had recently sat down to review how we want to plan for our respective deaths. It was during this conversation that I realized some of the ways in which this would be uncomfortable for many people to think about, let alone say out loud. Over the years of our relationship, we have often talked about dying and death. By the time we sat down recently to craft a joint plan and vision, we were already clear about most of our intentions, particularly as it related to ourselves. For instance, I decided many years ago that when I leave my physical body, I want it be cremated.
Mass advertising campaigns present in my view, a fairly myopic and unrealistic view not only of life, but of death. Open any fashion magazine and you find great emphasis on youth, being youthful and extending youthfulness as you age. Think “lotions & potions” for keeping skin looking “young & supple” as an example. Our culture is fixated on being young. And when you eventually retire at the ripe old of age of 55, there are cruises and vacations to be enjoyed. Interestingly, I don’t see any advertising for cremations…
A funny side note. As I was posting this short writing piece on my blog, I did a search within the online library of images available. I was curious what would come up when I typed in "death". That's the first image. The second search I typed in was "dying". That's the second image.
It’s thus no wonder that thinking about dying let alone planning for it conjures up all sorts of fears. So often the mind fabricates stories that in reality, are no big deal. But the stories get in the way, and make even starting the conversation difficult. It certainly does not have to be this way.
A practical approach with a good dose of humor is a good place to begin. Because as a friend said to me recently, writing your will today does not mean that you are going to die tomorrow!!
I recognize that for some people, thinking about where to start is half the challenge. In my experience, I have found that when I am afraid of something, the antidote is to turn fear into curiosity. When I am curious about something, the desire to know and learn is engaged and the initial fear that was there begins to drop away. For example, asking questions such as “what do I believe will happen when I die?”, or “what are the biological processes of a human body at death?” can get the ball rolling.
From what I observe, I think that the conversation is slowly changing. There are more books out now that talk about dying, end-of-life care, sharing different cultural perspectives and practices around death. And of course a lot of information on the internet.
Really the key reflection for me in this process is taking a common sense approach to considering the end of my life. The way I see it, theres similarity in the way I would plan for a vacation. Bookings, an itinerary, and schedule are all planned weeks and months in advance of the actual travel. Once the plans are in place,
I focus on today because tomorrow has not yet arrived.
Next up for me/us is the writing of a living will. That should be interesting!
In the meantime, if all this talk about death has you left you feeling a little down, check out this animated cartoon! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKf01xEGOjw