Danna D. Schmidt
Master Life-Cycle Celebrant®
Ordained Wedding Officiant
Master Life-Cycle Celebrant®
Ordained Wedding Officiant
Life is short. Drive fast. Leave a sexy corpse.”
Stanley Hudson, (The Office; Season 8, Episode 15)
I am all about the first and final words in this motto…and perhaps less about the driving fast part these days. Life itself drives fast enough – way faster than we might like. And yet knowing this, most of us don’t prepare enough for the inevitable even as we know how this movie called living is going to end. (Spoiler alert: we’re all going to die.) Sorry, not sorry, to be such a buzzkill but it’s true. Death is coming for us all sooner or later. And because we don’t know which it will be – sooner or later – it’s not such a terrible idea to start thinking and planning for the sexy corpse thing.
Dying well is sexy. It just is. Consider David Bowie, whose last will to us is both living testament and artist’s statement on how to transfigure death. As much as he was careful not to permit the world’s voyeurism in the form of a one-man cancer treatment peep show in the years and months prior, he leaves us to ponder how art imitates life imitates death. Omni-present in his last works are how permeable the triad lines are that connect art, life and death. He remained a master artisan to the very end in his deliberate choosing of the Lazarus motif, and in doing so, showed us how to tell a new and different story with our last days.
A good death is tantalizing and alluring and it’s something many of us aspire to pull off. Granted, we likely won’t get a say in the circumstances of our death, but we still get to call the shots on how we say goodbye and continue to be remembered. Here are 10 simple yet sexy ways to die well:
1. Befriend Your Death. Recent studies suggest those who befriend their own dying are happier and more at peace. Starting to think about and admit to our eventual death, and make room for it in our daily living is a healthy first step to accepting the inevitable. To do so helps us muster the courage and conviction to plan ahead. Begin by simply noticing death around you. Read the obituaries and lean in rather than away from stories and news headlines about death. Notice how natural it is, most especially in the natural world. Pay attention to good death stories, books, film shorts and documentaries, and what they have to teach us about living. And finally, pay attention to how embracing a kind of death consciousness helps enliven your life choices and discomfort with risk.
2. Talk About It. Death Cafés have taken the world by storm. Chances are there is one happening in your community this month and if not, there’s definitely an online gathering in the near future. These are great ways to enter into the conversation. The Conversation Project is ideal for caregivers who want to have “the chat” with loved ones who are transitioning though later life stages. Similarly, the card game, My Gift of Grace, is a way for you to host your own chat with willing friends, family and acquaintances. Or host your own fun(e)REAL parlour card game. Have everyone contribute a death conversation starter to the basket and take turns passing it around, having each person choose a slip of paper and literally discussing the topic to….umm, until you’re done.
3. Get Your Shit Together. No really, it’s a thing and it’s necessary. The gist of it is brought to you by the good folks at GYST. One of the downright sexiest things about dying well is to have all or most of the details sorted out in advance rather than unintentionally leaving loose ends to be inherited and sorted out by our next of kin, who will, in fact, be busy grieving. Case in point, I know a guy whose husband died recently and when I asked him about his spouse’s wishes for either burial or cremation, he admitted that they had never discussed death. Sadly, this is an all too common tale. And it’s avoidable. Dedicate a couple of hours a week over the period of a season to doing this paperwork. For the more twisted of humorists among you, schedule it in your daytimer with a skeleton sticker, and call it your Date with Death.
A word to the wary though: if last things are the last things to light up your energy meter, might I suggest you consider forming a small group, taking a class or working through a workbook? My mother-in-law gifted us a 144 page book a decade ago entitled When I’m Gone: Practical Notes for Those You Leave Behind, which she completed from cover to cover in impressive detail, and which includes everything from where to locate important documents to hymns and scripture she would like included at her memorial service. I will be encouraging her to brag about this at her new assisted living facility because for a woman who grew up on a pioneering homestead, she continues to exemplify that spirit and be an example for others who have not yet done this good work.
4. Bequeath Your Heart In Advance. In the weeks before my father died this last November, I urged him to speak the words to his various family members that he had so carefully written and hidden on the inner walls of his heart. He did so but had he but more time and energy, sending pre-recorded video messages or letters to these loved ones would have made for treasured keepsakes. Legacy letters are the perfect first step. Beginning now. Today. No really, I mean this.
If this list of 10 things feels like too much, and you take away just one thing, let it be #4. Consider who your legacy letter recipients are, and then both date and craft a love letter to each of them and tuck that away in a box to be opened upon the occasion of your death. What would you bespeak to them if you knew they would be reading this after you are gone? Empty your heart (because you can’t take it with you), write those words, seal the letters away in a box or on a flash drive where your executor will easily be able to find it, and make it an annual tradition to include addendum notes like so many postscripts that will live forever. Call this your Love Actually project. Because there’s nothing sexier, in corpse terms, than loving large.
Or you might want to think about loving large as a living digital tribute project. Who in your family has a milestone coming up that could benefit from this kind of gift of love and appreciation? And if you want to delve into even more digital options, click here for some resources.
5. Define Good on Your Own Terms. A good death is one in which you do just this: define it in your terms. It is informed by solid pre-planning and knowing what you want. It necessitates having the foresight to imagine the unforeseen and to plan accordingly – life support, cancer, accidental death, organ donation, hospice, pain and medications – it all must be considered. A good death is one in which you determine how and where you might want to die, given the choice, and in which you imagine how you wish to be celebrated, pre or post death, or ideally both. It makes room to “call the midwife” and vigil at home, and for co-crafting your own celebration of life arrangements (often called a pre-need) with the likes of a celebrant like me. And it entails taking holistic inventory of your life and all the coveted or unfinished things you will be leaving (or failing to leave) behind.
6. Live Your Ideal Eulogy. Upon doing the visioning work of picturing your one wild & precious good death (ideally a long day into the future from now), it might occur to you that you have not done nearly enough living to be celebrated in the style to which you might like. Perhaps you envision a Dixieland band tribute but have never been to New Orleans to see one up close and personal. Or perhaps you want your loved ones to hire a skywriter to inscribe your name across the heavens that day as a kind of fly-by epitaph, yet in life, were too chicken to hop on a small airplane. If you want to be the congruent protagonist of your own amazing eulogy, the best way to do so is to, well…start living it.
Draft that bucket list. There are countless apps to help you scheme one, including iWish, 2DoBefore and 111 Things. I’m old-fashioned. I prefer writing out the list of big and small dreams on cards with expiry dates, and stapling them together like a kind of coupon card book that I carry with me. I then redeem each one when it’s time and once complete, I place them in a small bucket as signal to then craft a story about that experience. These, too, go in my secret legacy box of goodies. These stories help inform how I lived my eulogy throughout my life and make for a compelling Show & Tell storyboard for the celebration of life.
7. Write Your Own Obit. I love a good obituary – who doesn’t? – and I make of habit of collecting innovative ones. Taking a stab at writing your own obit is a stealthy way to face your mortality. The act of doing so forces you to consider all the important things that occur after your date of birth ~ namely how you have lived that dash between dates, and how you must continue to live with the mystery of your date of death. It’s a humbling albeit surreal experience, if only because it gets you facing death on the page. There are all kinds of brilliant obituaries online and some of the best are ones the deceased has pre-written themselves.
8. Pre-shop ‘til You Drop. Death and all its accessories comprise a big expenditure, but it doesn’t have to be so. It’s never too early to set aside an account for your funeral expenses, and begin to make a wish list of the kinds of things you might splurge on. You can then add to or change items on this list as time goes on. I have started my own list and it’s beginning to resemble a sizeable gift registry list of sorts. For instance, I have an urn picked out, well two actually – in the unlikely event I opt for cremation.
I have my go-to list for DIY caskets and shrouds, including affordable ones marketed by a fellow celebrant who started Last Dance Shrouds. I know my chosen green burial land, until such time as Urban Death Project breaks official ground. And in honor of my uncommon love of Halloween and the Mary Oliver line in her poem “When Death Comes” about being a “bride married to amazement,” I know that I will need to commission a costumer to stitch a simple white gown for me to wear. And in defense of my own irreverently reverent nature, I need confess that if this has you now thinking of a certain animated movie about corpses and brides, so much the better.
9. Practice Dying. I don’t mean that you should literally flirt with death, of course, but continually letting go and saying farewell – be it to people, to places, to things, to grief, to regrets – is a healthy and necessary step in that final act of letting go. The more we can ritualize acts of release and renewal, shed our very shoes, and walk barefoot to the edge by knowing each day is a miraculous gift bequeathed to us; the more prepared we will feel. The practice of death can also be as close witness to another’s dying. Volunteering at your local hospice organization is one of the best and most rewarding ways to be present for and learn from others who are navigating their own death, often alone.
Even as we are a death phobic culture, the times they are a changin’. As Boomers age and palliative care becomes a term familiar to many who have navigated elder care and the death of their parents and/or grandparents, a new epoch of death awareness is upon us. An early pioneer in the good death movement, Stephen Levine, wrote a seminal book entitled A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last, which he published some 20 years ago, that beautifully addresses how to begin to let go and hold our death like a precious future stone of beingness. He recently died at home after a long illness, and I have no doubt that he died as consciously and intentionally as he lived. He had, after all, been apprenticing himself to and preparing for his own death for most of his adult life.
10. Carpe Your Diems. A friend of mine confessed this week to never having seen the infamous TED Talk on gratitude. I sent it to her and took the opportunity to watch it again. I love the video, with Louie Schwartzberg’s time-lapse nature cinematography and Brother David Steindl-Rast’s compelling narration on gratefulness. It reminds me of how many truly lasting moments it’s possible to pack into my days, if only I would dare to live more audaciously and awakened.
Leaving a sexy corpse is about that. It’s about staring death down and saying, I see the giant card you play in my life and I’ll raise things up a personalized notch. It’s about living fiercely awake with the prescience that we all live on borrowed time. It’s about risking more in the event that there might not be a tomorrow, or very many tomorrows.
Just for fun, or perhaps fear, do the math on where you fit on the continuum of the life expectancy of 78.7 years. Multiple your years to date on this planet x 365 and subtract that from your total projected time of 28,725 and a half days. In generous terms, that’s your ticking time clock. Now just for more fun and fear, start jotting that number down in your day planner or on your desk notepad, minus one each new day, or if you prefer, download the Deadline app.
And then get busy ~ get busy living. Get busy driving ~ whatever speed feels most your pace. And for goodness and death’s sake, get busy scheming your own definition of what it means to die well and leave a sexy corpse.