A Gift from the Dying
I’ll cut to the chase: we’re all dying. It’s the only guaranteed fact of our lives: we die.
Atheopaganism doesn’t promise an afterlife. There really isn’t compelling evidence to support the idea of one, and so we conclude (tentatively, at least) that it is unlikely that there is one.
This is the life that we have. And it ends.
Personally, I no longer fear death much. I don’t want for it to come any time soon, but I was dead for 13.7 billion years before I was conceived, and I don’t expect it to be any less pleasant when I am dead again. I simply will not be; there will be no suffering.
That said, in this culture we have to make an effort to try to guarantee that we receive the kind of death experience we hope for (barring accidents and sudden deaths, of course). We must state clearly, for example, and in legal terms that we do not wish heroic measures and machinery to keep us alive.
This is a good time of year (in the Northern hemisphere) for contemplating death and our wishes around it. Life is drawing down all around us as the year dwindles to the death of Hallows.
And so it is the time of year when I update my Death Packet.
The Death Packet is a compilation of documents to inform and guide our loved ones in facilitating our wishes as we die, and afterwards. It contains two elements:
- A filled-out copy of the Death Planning Workbook–a very helpful piece of work originally created by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and which I have modified and updated slightly. It gathers all the financial information, passwords, etc. that your loved ones will need when you are gone, your will, your authorization of a proxy to make health decisions for you if you are unable to do so, your wishes in regard to resuscitation and end of life care, your wishes for how your body is to be disposed of, any farewell messages, and your wishes for any memorial services, rituals or observances. This is an editable Word document; a pdf you will have to fill out by hand is available here.
- A page outlining the legal requirements for your survivors in the event of your death (varies by country and area–here is an example from California–search the Internet for what is required where you live)
I can’t speak to the specifics of legal requirements in all states and countries: you’ll need to make certain your will and your advanced directive regarding health care are legal. But the workbook will give you a roadmap for outlining your wishes and then you can adjust details to make sure everything is legal.
The kindness and generosity of creating a Death Packet and making sure your loved ones know where to find it cannot be overstated. Grieving people are adrift in their pain: having clear guidance about your wishes and the legal power to carry them out is not only a wise move for yourself, but a true gift for those who will survive you. A completed packet gives them the details they will need, but also expresses your preferences in matters such as how you would like your deathbed experience to be, what you would like done with your body, how you would like to be memorialized, and any farewell messages you would like to leave for the living.
Once you have your Death Packet, print out a hard copy and have the documents signed and witnessed, as required by law. Then put the packet somewhere that your loved ones will know to look when they need it.
I also keep a copy of the digital file, compiled into a single document, on the desktop of my computer. The file is called “My Death”, and has a cute little skull icon.
It only takes a few hours to pull all these things together, for most people. And it is a kind of meditation on dying; an opportunity to sit with the fact of our mortality and start to become more comfortable with it.
Some may find the suggestion of doing this death work uncomfortable. I understand that. But just as talking about sex won’t make anyone pregnant, talking about death will not accelerate its onset. Doing this work can only make it an easier transition than it might otherwise be, and it ensures, for example, that if you don’t wish to be kept alive with machines when you have little prospect of recovery, your loved ones will know this and have the power to act on it.
There is a revolution taking place in society’s relationship with death, which in many places (including the U.S.) has been dominated for more than a century by the for-profit funeral industry and its efforts to sell expensive, unnecessary and usually environmentally destructive funereal processes to grieving families. Through movements such as Caitlin Doughty’s Order of the Good Death, people are again learning to see death as a natural part of life: one which deserves neither fear nor disgust, but rather consideration and care and kindness. I see ecologically and economically benign funeral practices such as home funerals and natural body disposal (without embalming or expensive caskets, grave liners and the like) as completely consistent with Atheopaganism’s efforts to resacralize the major passages in a human life, and to take back to ourselves power which has been destructively usurped by corporate interests.
We have a few weeks until Hallows. My goal is always to update my documents as needed by Halloween itself, Oct. 31.
I invite you to join me. We as Atheopagans seek to live well: to lead joyous and principled lives. Let us die as we live, conscientiously and with integrity.