By Ron Culberson. With a master’s degree in social work, Ron Culberson spent the first part of his career working in a large hospice organization as a clinical social worker, middle manager, and senior leader. As a speaker, humorist, and author of "Do it Well. Make it Fun.The Key to Success in Life, Death, and Almost Everything in Between", he has delivered more than 1,000 presentations to associations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporations. His mission is to change the workplace culture so that organizations are more productive and staff are more content. He was also the 2012-2013 president of the National Speakers Association and is a recognized expert on the benefits of humor and laughter.
A friend of mine recently said that it seems like more people die in January. I don’t know if January leads the calendar in deaths but since it’s often noted that nothing in life is guaranteed but death and taxes, I would expect April to hold that honor.
At sixty one years of age, I’ve just made a simple yet profound observation. It seems that I know more people who have died than I used to. Before you jump to the conclusion that I have not been paying attention to the logical trajectory of life (birth, school, work, golf, death), you have to admit that most of us don’t really pay attention to this phenomenon on a regular basis.
But we should.
A friend of mine died recently and her daughter noted that she had planned out every detail of her funeral right down to where people should sit. My friend said, “It made things so much easier.”
You see, when people die, their loved ones are tasked with many details that must be handled. Initially, it’s the funeral plans. Then, there are car titles to change, bank accounts to be transferred, and pesky social media accounts that must be deleted but can’t be without the password that was kept on a slip of paper and stored in a secret drawer somewhere in attic. And when survivors are also dealing with the effects of grief, they aren’t in a state of mind that makes these tasks easy. So, anything that is pre-planned can be a wonderful relief for the loved ones.
A few years ago, my wife and I were hanging out with some friends, all of whom were all in their early fifties, and the topic of wills came up. We discovered that we were the only ones who had drawn up wills and advanced directives. In other words, these folks were willfully unwilling to will up. On top of that, they had children still living at home who would inevitably take on the heavy responsibility of making decisions should their parents become ill or depart this world unexpectedly. While this kind of unpreparedness can be avoided, it’s not uncommon in our culture.
Many years ago, death was more popular than it is today. Well, let me restate that. It’s never really been that popular, as most of us prefer to stay in the have-not-yet-died category, but it was a less hidden. You see, before funeral homes came into prominence in the 1860’s and people began to leave the communities where they were born, death was a part of everyday life. I’m not talking about the reports of death we constantly see today in the news but the deaths we encountered when we lived for years in and around our neighbors and relatives. Back then, death happened in the home, bodies were viewed in the parlor, and we understood that the end of life was part of life.
Today, however, we avoid death like the plague. I guess we also now avoid the plague like death but that’s an issue for the CDC to sort out. It’s as if we seem to think our own death won’t happen anytime soon so we ignore our biological clocks and trudge on through life.
So that brings me back to my original pre-planning preparedness stance. All of us over the age of twenty-five (random number that just seems right) should probably have a will and an advanced directive. It doesn’t have to be complicated but it needs to specify our wishes. I worked in hospice care when I was in my mid-twenties and saw a number of difficult situations play out when people did not specify the kind of medical care they wanted or how their loved ones should handle their burial and funeral. So, I’ve been an advocate for clear communication ever since because, as my friend’s daughter said, “It makes things so much easier.”
So, keeping that in mind and realizing I had put more thought into my legal documents than my funeral planning, I started a “Ron’s Funeral Wishes” list. I considered potential speakers, a selection of readings, and music. Now, I fully support the idea that funerals are rites of passage and that part of the purpose of a this ritual is to encourage the grieving process. But I don’t want my own funeral to be a sob-fest (although I’m sure my demise will be devastating for most in attendance). There needs to be some balance.
To get some ideas of what others have done music-wise, I did an internet search on the “most popular funeral songs.” As I scrolled down the options, I saw the usual tunes: “Amazing Grace,” “Hallelujah,” “Ave Maria.” These are undeniably beautiful songs that would bring a heartfelt tear to any funeral. But I also saw AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and the Snoop Dog/Willie Nelson duet called, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I’m Gone.” I immediately added both to my list. I get giddy just thinking about how people will react—assuming anyone actually attends my funeral.
As someone who grew up in a small town and attended numerous funerals in my childhood, and then worked for a decade in the hospice industry, I’ve been aware of end of life issues for years. However, please understand that I don’t live in a state of fear nor do I carry a continual cloud of anticipated grief with me. I see death for what it is—the last part of my life. I think this perspective is how we can cope with its inevitability as well as to plan for it more effectively. This is true for any of the inevitabilities of life. The more we prepare for these “death and taxes” moments, the smoother the experience will be for us and our loved ones.
This whole discussion reminds me of a story I heard about a preacher who proclaimed to his flock, “Every member of this congregation will one day die.” A man sitting in the front row started laughing. The pastor stopped his sermon and asked the man why he was laughing. The man said, “I’m not a member of this congregation!”
And there you have it.
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