John White – USA
[A Practical Guide to Death and Dying was originally published by QUEST books in 1980. This particular version was previously published in the Theosophical Digest, y1992 v4 i2-p90.]
Planning Intelligently for Your Demise.
A number of books offer pragmatic advice on what preparations should be made and how far in advance they should be carried out. Your will, for example, should be made even when you are young, and it should be reviewed every five or ten years. A will is a contract with death. Because of that, many people avoid making one, but you should face the situation squarely. If you die intestate without a will — state and federal taxes can take a much larger bite of your property than you’d like, leaving less of an estate for your spouse, family, friends, and favorite charities. Wills can also be used to leave instructions about funeral proceedings.
Some people buy a cemetery plot at an early age because they realize that, like almost everything else, the price will continue to rise. Not only is it possible to plan your own funeral, you can also pay for it before you die.
“Everyone should sit down with their spouse and their children and talk about the funeral arrangements they want.” The best thing is to put your desires in writing, make several copies, and distribute them to everyone who will be involved, from the family to the funeral home.
The best publication I’ve found on these and related matters is A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial by Ernest Morgan. Since its first edition in 1962 it has sold several hundred thousand copies. A review of it in The Whole Earth Catalog says that in 64 pages it quietly tells you how to avoid “the ghastly system of converting human leftovers into products packaged as ‘funerals.’ In simple language backed by intelligent sympathy, it suggests ways to surround the act of passage with appropriate rites of passage that offer real meaning to people in need of meaning.”
There are four parts to the manual: Death Education, About Funeral and Memorial Societies, Simple Burial and Cremation, and How the Dead Can Help the Living. Each is packed with the most practical and far-sighted advice you can ever hope to find on this subject.
A useful “Checklist of Things to Be Done” when death occurs is also to be found in Part III. I am reproducing it in full here to help you in considering all aspects of your own death, and especially in preparing intelligently for it.
Checklist of Things to Be Done When a Death Occurs. Assuming that the family belongs to a memorial society and that the matters above [i.e., discussed in the manual] have been taken care of, there still remain numerous details, many of which can be taken care of by friends though others require the attention of the family. Scratch off the items in the following checklist which do not apply; check the others as they are taken care of:
- Decide on time and place of funeral or memorial service(s).
- Make list of immediate family, close friends and employer or business colleagues. Notify each by phone.
- If flowers are to be omitted, decide an appropriate memorial to which gifts may be made. (As a church, library, school or some charity.)
- Write obituary. Include age, place of birth, cause of death, occupation, college degrees, memberships held, military service, outstanding work, list of survivors in immediate family. Give time and place of services. Deliver in person, or phone, to newspapers.
- Notify insurance companies, including automobile insurance for immediate cancellation and available refund. Arrange for members of family or closer friends to take turns answering door or phone, keeping careful record of calls. Arrange appropriate child care.
Coordinate the supplying of food for the next days. Consider special needs of the household, as for cleaning, etc., which might be done by friends. Arrange hospitality for visiting relatives and friends. Select pall hearers and notify. Notify lawyer and executor. Plan for disposition of flowers after funeral (hospital or rest home?) Prepare copy for printed notice if one is wanted.
Prepare list of persons to receive acknowledgments. Check carefully all life and casualty insurance and death benefits, including Social Security, credit union, trade union, fraternal, military, etc. Check also on income for survivors from these sources. Check promptly on all debts and installment payments. Consult with credits and ask for more time before the payments are due. If deceased was living alone, notify utilities and landlord and tell post office where to send mail.
The last part of A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial tells how the dead can help the living. “If we truly accept our own mortality and genuinely identify ourselves with humanity, we will gladly help in every way we can,” it states, noting that many lives can be saved, and health and sight restored to thousands, through the intelligent “salvaging” of organs and tissues. In addition, medical and dental training requires thousands of bodies each year for anatomical study by future doctors and dentists. Last of all, medical research needs cooperation in the form of permission for autopsies and the bequeathal of special parts, such as earphones of people with’ hearing difficulties.
Helping Yourself by Helping Others — Volunteer Organizations for the Dying.
The Shanti Project is a San Francisco Bay area counseling service that offers caring, on-going support to patients and families facing life- threatening illness. Completely nonprofit and volunteer-staffed, it was organized in 1975 by Dr. Char-les Garfield.
Hospice, a word familiar from the Middle Ages, means “shelter for the traveler.” Originally provided by religious orders for pilgrims, these communities for sojourners broadened their mission to include care for the sick and wounded.
Today the name describes a form of treatment designed to give comfort to the terminally ill and their families.
The hospice approach honors the dying: It helps them face death without pain or fear and makes no attempt to cure or prolong life. In addition to medical care, it offers fellowship, not only to the patient, but to his family unit as well. In fact, hospice philosophy makes the family the primary unit of care. As one hospice member put it, a hospice adds life to your years, not years to your life.
The Institute’s goals, the article stated, include “changing attitudes toward needs of the terminally ill and their families. Hospice puts several things ahead of simply prolonging biological life, such as maximum freedom from pain, spiritual well-being — and informing the public as to the needs and how to meet them.” Another goal will be increasing the level of skills of all care-givers and enlarging their sense of values as they relate to patients and their families. To do so, courses lasting from one to five days are offered to the public.
The Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Center. No one has done more than Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to change medical attitudes toward death. At Head Waters, Virginia, she has established her own nonprofit organization, Shanti Nilaya, which is Sanskrit for “Home of Peace.” Her passion is to educate members of the healing arts and the lay public about her conviction that death provides the key to the meaning of human existence and life itself. As she put it in the concluding chapter of Death, The Final Stage of Growth:
“Death is the key to the door of life. It is through accepting the finiteness of our individual existences that we are enabled to find the strength and courage to reject those extrinsic roles and expectations and to devote each day of our lives — however long they may be — to growing as fully as we are able. . . . Humankind will survive only through the commitment and involvement of individuals in their own and others’ growth and development as human beings. This means development of loving and caring relationships in which all members are as committed to the growth and happiness of the others as they are to their own. Through commitment to personal growth, individual human beings will also make their contribution to the growth and development — the evolution — of the whole species to become all that humankind can and is meant to be. Death is the key to that evolution. For only when we understand the real meaning of death to human existence will we have the courage to become what we are destined to be.”
Clear Light Society. “The practice of meditation is ultimately the only exercise with any degree of significance for learning to die without fear,” Patricia Shelton told me. Founder-Director of the Clear Light Society in Boston, she described the society’s work in an interview.
The Clear Light Society has both service and educational objectives. First and foremost, it exists to assist the dying, not only in months or weeks prior to death, but at the time of death itself. “The assistance a person receives at the moment of death is very crucial,” Shelton said. “It’s not just a matter of sitting there meditating with the person. We do things — quite specific things—to keep the patient in the state of what we call ‘profound relaxation, peaceful heart and clear mind.’ ”
What are those specific things? They are available in Clear Light Practices for the Dying, a unique training manual written by Shelton in which she gives exact instructions of what to do and what to say, moment by moment, as the dying person makes his or her transition.
The Society also works with the family of the dying patient. The program is designed to give emergency training to family members in the skills necessary to assist the dying relative into a peaceful state, and is tailored to the religious belief system of the family, whether Christian Jewish, or other. No charges of any
kind are made by the Society to the dying or their families. There are fees for practitioner training, but they are geared to one’s income.
The Hemlock Society. The Hemlock Society, a Los Angeles- based membership organization, believes in “active voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill.” A brochure says it seeks to promote a climate of public opinion which is tolerant of the light of hopelessly ill people to end their own lives in a planned manner. At the same time it approves of the work of those involved in suicide prevention and does not encourage suicide for any primary emotional, traumatic, or financial reasons in the absence of terminal illness. Contrary views held by other religions and philosophies are respected by Hemlock. “The final decision to terminate life is ultimately one’s own. Hemlock believes this action, and most of all its timing, to be an extremely personal decision, whenever possible taken in concert with family, close friends and personal physician.”
To be continued