THE BLOG

12 Loving Ways To A Beautiful Death

01/01/2016 9:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
NEW! HIGHLIGHT AND SHARE
Highlight text to share via Facebook and Twitter
Gregory Adams via Getty Images
Two candles burning in front of holiday lights. Lights on Christmas tree are out of focus providing nice pattern.

I'm writing this because one day you'll call it in.

You'll shuffle your mortal coils.

You'll die.

You won't know when it will happen, or how. You won't know if you'll be young or old when you go, whether by disease or sudden accident, violently or quietly in your sleep.

What is certain is that whenever you go, you will leave behind the loose ends of your life. There will be your papers, your properties, your dues, your debts, your Facebook page, all the daily debris and unfinished business of a life in progress.

You can find hundreds of helpful articles on how to live well, but hardly a handful on how to die well. Thinking about death is simply not that much fun. And yet it's the one eventuality every living creature will face.

Dying well means that you haven't left a chaotic mess for your loved ones to sort out in your wake.

Why not make sure your death, like your life, is the very best it could be?

Dying well means giving intelligent thought and tying up all those loose ends well before that moment comes -- and leaving this world with grace, dignity, knowing that the last chapter in your book was written by you. Dying well means that you haven't left a chaotic mess for your loved ones to sort out in your wake. It means that you have no unfinished business that someone else will have to figure out.

I call that a beautiful death, a fitting end to a beautiful life well lived.

This post is about how to die well.

Before my father's death, my attitude towards my own death had been straightforward: I was only responsible for my body as long as I was alive. Once I was dead, it became someone else's problem. A dead person could not possibly be expected to decide what to do with his own remains.

Not true.

Hours after my father died, we found an envelope he'd left for me with step-by-step instructions on what exactly I, his eldest son, should do next. He had identified the crematorium where his body should be incinerated, and included its phone number, contact person and cost. It also included a list of debts owed to him and by him, and instructions on the settlement of each.

Thanks to his memo, in my moment of deepest grief, I didn't have to search through Yellow Pages and figure out what to do next, with tears streaming down my face.

So let's do this logically and make three lists.

Since you don't know when the summons might come, your first list is the early list: things you should get out of the way from just about the time you're old enough to be pulled over for drunken driving. This includes creating your last will, your living will, and designating the ones to carry out your wishes. Just remember, you're never too young to create a will.

Thanks to [my father's] memo, in my moment of deepest grief, I didn't have to search through Yellow Pages... with tears streaming down my face.

The second list will include things that will change grow and evolve throughout your life -- such as possessions, passwords, software serial numbers, investments and properties.

In the third list will be things that grow with the passing of years. The older you get, the longer will be the list of people you've hurt, offended, shouted at, helped or hammered; and people who've walked over you, stabbed you in the back, betrayed you or walked over you. Equally long might be the list of strangers who were kind to you, people who came into your life like angels to save you, or people who you reached to in your time of need. This is the list of gratitude, regrets, and forgiveness.

Here are 12 specific things, divided into these three lists, which you can do to make your final exit beautiful, graceful and memorable.

death will

THE BUCKET LIST

1. Make a Last Will

Who'll get your things after you're gone -- your Toyota Prius, your lace gowns, your priceless books, the money in your bank accounts, your expensive sound system, your jewellery, the farm? The person who gets your farm might not need your hand-me-down pants and shirts. If you don't express your wishes, your "next of kin" -- nearest living relatives -- will automatically inherit everything, whether they want them or not, and spend months squabbling over what to do with them.

Be smart -- make your Last Will young, decades before the eternal footman comes knocking. Make a will as soon as you start earning and owning things.

The legal document that spells out your wishes is known as the Last Will and Testament, or just Last Will. Most people die without making one -- leaving their relatives to deal with years of bureaucratic tangles and legal paperwork.

Be smart -- make your Last Will young, decades before the eternal footman comes knocking. Make a will as soon as you start earning and owning things.

Laws governing the Last Will vary from state to state in the US, and from country to country in the world. Spend some time studying the laws governing wills in your own country or state. Since a will is a legal document, you should consider involving a lawyer. One of the finest general guides to creating your will is here.

There are free and paid online sites -- like this one -- that simplify will-making for you by walking you through a comprehensive list of questions and compiling your answers into a draft Last Will.

Revise your will every year, if you can, or every time your possessions increase, such as when you buy a country house. Or an island in the Caribbean.

hospital unconscious

2. Make a Living Will

A Living Will -- quite different from a Last Will -- is for that unimaginable situation in which you're still alive, but have lost the ability to communicate anything. This could happen at any age -- for example, through an unfortunate highway collision that leaves you paralyzed from the neck down at the vibrant age of 32. A disease such as Alzheimer's or a stroke in later years could do the same, leaving you unable to communicate at best, and comatose and in a persistent vegetative state at worst.

Nothing is quite as stressful or traumatic for your living kin than to have to take medical life or death decisions on your behalf, and trying to second guess what you might have wanted if you could have communicated.

Nothing is quite as stressful or traumatic for your living kin than to have to take medical life or death decisions on your behalf...

When my mother died, we -- her four children -- struggled to guess what she would have wanted had she been able to express herself. Would she have wanted a tracheotomy -- which would mean having a permanent opening in her throat to push a tube into her lungs? Would she, such a marvellous cook and appreciator of good food when younger, have wanted to be fed through a PEG tube directly into her stomach? Would she have preferred to die than suffer, or would she have expected her children to keep her alive as long as possible?

We'd hold her feeble hands and whisper these questions in her ears, asking her to squeeze with her left hand for Yes and the other hand for No. But she had already grown too weak to squeeze anything.

In a Living Willing (also known as an Advanced Care Directive, or ACD) you get to spell out your wishes in such situations, including a Do Not Resuscitate clause, which indicates when you would like to be allowed to go rather than be resuscitated.

A good guide to writing a Living Will is here. A detailed downloadable explanation of a Living Will is here.

For those in the US, state by state Living Will templates are here.

A typical Living Will looks something like this.

safe

3. Designate trusted executors

You have to designate someone to carry out the wishes in your Last Will and the Living Will -- and they might not be the same person.

You'd like the Last Will to be carried out by someone who outlives you, so most likely you wouldn't pick someone older. You'd also like it to be someone who would be notified at once, normally in the event of a disabling accident or death.

Be sure to give your lawyer or executor the legal power (known as a power of attorney) to sell, transact, and administer your possessions after you go.

You can always store your Last Will in the home safe, but a safe could be destroyed in the next tsunami. A more idiot-proof option is to leave it in the care of a lawyer or legal firm, who could not only guide you through any legal loopholes and guidelines local to your state or country, but also deposit your will with the court and make it "legal". Be sure to give your lawyer or executor the legal power (known as a power of attorney) to sell, transact, and administer your possessions after you go.

Your Living Will, in contrast, is probably best left with a brother, sister, son, daughter or close relative, someone more likely to be at your bedside in a medical crisis. Pick someone you trust implicitly, and who could carry out your wishes dispassionately. Definitely do not pick someone so attached to you emotionally that they might find it difficult to take a medical decision that could end your life.

funeral india

4. Plan your funeral

Be like my father. He planned every detail, including the crematorium (one near our house). Later we unearthed months-old correspondence between him and a friend about "the right temperature for a vessel that could take you from one world into the next". Being an air-conditioning scientist who had built systems to cool people down in baking hot Indian summers all his life, he had been deeply interested in the temperatures within the crematorium's furnace.

Depending on your religion and customs around death, the disposal of the body may take place soon or after a few days. My father, a Hindu, was cremated the night he died, in accordance with his wishes, but I know families where the corpse was kept in the morgue while kin flew in from distant places.

It's your death, why should someone else pay for it? Research your rites of passage and make deliberate choices...

Since such decisions are taken in the minutes and hours after death, it is best that these instructions be available somewhere handy, like a safe at home, with all the closest family members fully informed of its existence and location (including the combination to the safe!).

It's your death, why should someone else pay for it? Research your rites of passage and make deliberate choices of how and where you would like to be interred. Cost every little item that you know will be associated with the disposal of your mortal remains.

Create a funeral expenses fund -- and let people know about it. The fund could be a bank account jointly with someone you trust, or even money in an envelope in a safe at home, or with a lawyer. In all cases, make sure that those who will need it one day know that it exists.

kindness

THE SUCK-IT-UP LIST

5. Acknowledge kindnesses

I was shivering on the hard wooden berth of an Indian Railways coach at 3am on a freezing winter night when I heard footsteps. The train was parked on a siding, not due to leave till sunrise, but I needed to sleep somewhere. I stayed very still -- and in the darkness heard the footsteps stop very near me, and then slowly move away. Ten minutes later, they were back, and this time I felt a stranger place a warm woollen blanket over me.

My life has been full of such of kindnesses. But while I do not know who the stranger in the train was, since then I have always interrogated my Samaritans and have their names, addresses, a quick iPhone photo and an email address. The copper mine engineer in an airplane who paid $50 for my visa in Zambia. Or the taxi driver in Bangkok who drove 15km back and searched me out in a hotel to return a camera I'd forgotten.

Wherever possible, capture the name, address and other details of your benefactors.

These are people who belong in my life as much as my closest friends and relatives, even if we never met again. These are the ones who re-affirmed my faith in the basic decency and compassion that resides in us all in a world that seems evil and dark and deluded beyond belief.

What will be your tribute to them? First, keep a small notebook in which you record these kindnesses, so that you will never forget them. Wherever possible, capture the name, address and other details of your benefactors.

Here are three suggestions:

  • If you are well enough to do so, get in touch with them, let them know you still remember their kindness. It will mean the earth to them.
  • If you are too ill to do this, then leave a thoughtful gift for each of them, with a hand-written (not printed!) letter.
  • If you don't have names and addresses, then call your friends and family for an evening of remembrance, and immortalise these little kindnesses by sharing them with others.

sorry

6. Say your sorries

There is a wonderful person who does much work to help downtrodden women, but I've never quite warmed to him. In conversations, I've been aloof, sometimes sharp, and for no good reason. I've never been proud of my behaviour, but never stopped myself either.

There is a dear school friend I've cut ties with after he made an unwarrantedly cruel remark to me about someone close to me. I erased decades of friendship in an instant.

There are others -- subordinates I have judged unfairly, colleagues I have been shabby to, people I have let down. These are loose ends and moments no one but you will know about. The men and women in this list will probably not be there at your wake.

Think back over your days and draw up a list of as many as you can remember of those you have wronged... find a way to say you're sorry.

But a death that leaves these stories incomplete is a poor death. What can you do? Here are a few thoughts.

Think back over your days and draw up a list of as many as you can remember of those you have wronged. Find out their contact details. If possible, meet them for coffee or a meal. Revisit that irksome moment you both share and find a way to say you're sorry.

If you are not well enough to meet them, then be sure to handwrite letters to each of them, perhaps with a small gift attached, with instructions for the letters to be despatched after your passage.

google facebook

7. Sort out your online afterlife

A dear friend of mine, Jay, died of colon cancer, rather quickly. She was unmarried, and had left no instructions. To this day, my eyes tear up when I see her name on my Facebook friends list, looking as though she was alive and well.

If you have an online presence -- be it Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Google+ or any other -- give some thought to what you would like done with these vast pulsing repositories of your thoughts, photos, meetings and sharings after you are no more.

Facebook probably has the most developed policies and processes in place for dealing with the account of a person who has passed, and you can read about them here. The key point here, of course, is that Facebook has to be told that you have moved on to a better place.

Since you, the dearly departed, cannot do this, you get the chance to nominate what Facebook calls your Legacy Contact, the person you authorise to deal with your FB account in your aftermath. Among your options, which you can set up while you are alive and well, are deleting your account entirely, leaving decisions to your Legacy Contact, and setting up a remembrance page where people may do exactly that -- share stories about what a regular guy or gal you were.

If you have an online presence ... give some thought to what you would like done with these vast pulsing repositories of your thoughts, photos, meetings and sharings...

Google, as you might expect, has its version that I think of as Google Death. Google calls it the Inactive Account Manager, through which you can "control what happens to your account when you stop using Google", i.e. kick the bucket. You can specify the period of inactivity after which Google should act, give them a list of contacts they may write to, and select which parts of your account you want to give them access to.

password

THE LIST OF LISTS

8. List your Internet passwords

We live within a web of usernames and passwords, far too many to remember. Most of us use some password management application like SpashID or Apple's Keychain. The person who handles your post-mortem affairs -- mainly financial, investment, insurance and similar issues -- will need to log in as you. Make a list of at least the following usernames and passwords and store them in a securely for release after you've gone:

  • Your bank accounts
  • Your online banking logon credentials
  • Your credit and debit card ID details
  • Your investment portfolios
  • Your tax-related identification numbers (such as the Taxpayer Identification Number [TIN] in the United States, and the Personal Account Number [PAN] in India
  • The logons and passwords for all your devices -- phones, laptops, computers, and any others.
  • Passwords to any digital subscriptions
  • Your various email accounts [Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail etc]
  • Your blogs' logon credentials, if you write blogs.

Remember that many logon credentials include secret questions to which only you have the answer, so make sure you include those.

candel

9. Make a list of all the people who should be told

In today's networked world, where all news, trivial and large, spreads like wildfire, chances are most people who count among relatives and friends will get the news within a day or two.

So why make a list of who should be told?

Only because there are people in your life who should not hear of your passing through a Facebook post. Think about that a little.

[T]here are people in your life who should not hear of your passing through a Facebook post. Think about that a little.

Are there people who you value so much that you'd like them to be called within hours and informed by phone? Are there people who would feel hurt if they weren't informed individually?

Who else should be notified by phone within 24 hours?

Who should receive email within 24 hours?

Who should be informed about the cremation/burial?

Make separate lists, with phone numbers or email addresses, for the following groups:

  • Inform within one hour by phone
  • Inform with one day by phone
  • Inform within one day by email
  • Inform about cremation/burial
  • Invite to remembrance/wake/requiem.

Though it's never a bad idea to make such a list as early as possible, it need not be secret, and you will probably want to keep updating it.

Apps like Evernote are excellent for making these lists and sharing them with others.

deficit debt

10. Make the debt list

It was not till my father passed away that we learned about his secret life as a roadside philanthrope. Though he was not a moneyed man, he apparently helped out many ordinary people with small loans. A fruit vendor whose pushcart got broken by police because he refused to pay protection money; a plumber who needed school fees for his child. There were many others, but none of them received a handout. In each case, my father helped them keep their self-respect by offering that they could repay the loan over whatever period was comfortable.

The letter contained regularly updated details of each loan, its current pending amount, and instructions like please follow up and collect or write off, this family is really poor.

Your debts might be different from my father's -- but you will have them. They may be debts owed to you or debts you owe others. They may not even be monetary.

Maintain a living list of all your debts, owing and owed to. Update the status, and leave clear instructions about both collections and repayment, including sources of money where you are the debtor.

memorabilia

11. Compile your memorabilia

We all have memorabilia -- photos, special letters, mementos, certificates, tokens, the first appointment letter, the wedding card, the first family photo. There will be others online, in your photo collections. Would you like them to be disposed of along with your other aging junk when you've gone? Would you prefer that your grandchildren discover them and wonder who that odd-looking person in the pictures is?

A beautiful death takes as much attention and hard work as a beautiful life. And most of the time, it's not about you but those you leave behind.

Remember, these photos and stories will be all your children and their children will have of you after you have gone. A little time spent attending to them will make someone you love smile years after you've gone. Here's what you can do, with help from no one.

  • Go through all your collectibles while you still can, and decide which one you'd like to pass on, which ones you'd like to dispose of.
  • Scan all the best photos of the moments you cherish with those you love, and put them in a folder. Create an archive with any special documents.
  • You can find great photo album templates in software like Apple's Photos or Adobe's Lightroom that you can use to create an album embellished with photos, memories and stories.
  • Have it printed, gift-wrapped, and stored in the vault.
  • Convert all your videos, with a title or a commentary, into a single DVD, also for the vault. Any photo studio will have a service that does this for a small price.

christmas gift

12. Leave gifts for the next generation

I always missed not having come to know my own grandparents, because I was too small to.

If you survived beyond your 40s, the chances are that you have descendants -- perhaps teenagers, or even married sons and daughters with their own children. If you are not disabled by sickness, then you have a chance to reach out to your children and grandchildren -- years later, when they are passing through the milestones of their lives.

You do have a chance to be a part of their lives; it just takes a little planning. Here are some things you could leave, in that vault with your lawyer, with clear instructions as to when they should be delivered and to whom.

  • A letter to your son for when he graduates from college
  • Greetings and blessings to each of your children when they get married.
  • Gifts and a message for your grandchildren when they enter teenage, finish school, and join college.

A beautiful death takes as much attention and hard work as a beautiful life. And most of the time, it's not about you but those you leave behind.

Most of the time, you won't have the time to do all the things listed here. Disease or crisis has a way of overtaking your life with very little warning. But leaving life is about letting go.

Here is a verse from a poem I wrote after my father passed away. It may help you remember what dying is all about.

2015-12-31-1451546921-633371-gopinathpoem.jpg

If you enjoyed this -- please visit my blog at www.cygopinath.com and share your email with me. I'd love to stay in touch with you and share my writing.

Like Us On Facebook |
Follow Us On Twitter |
Contact HuffPost India

Also on HuffPost:

11 Women Who Made A Difference Using Social Media

More On This Topic