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Memento Mori

For some, preparation for death starts early, even in childhood, with first thoughts about what happened to grandpa, where did he go? What is he doing? Will I see him again? Ever after this, speculation will lurk in the back of your mind, not rising to the level of obsession, or even awareness for the most part.

This is not, strictly speaking, preparation for death, but acceptance that it will come by and by, at some unimaginably distant time, is a start.

The next step is considering who should get your treasures when you are dead, whether this is a beloved teddy bear or a villa in the south of France. This starts small, say, when your college roommate says, “Oooh, love that hat,” and you reply, “I’ll leave it to you in my will.”

Again this doesn’t really amount to anything. You’re young. Death is far away, but you understand that disposition of property is a part of life.

Then you grow up. You get a job. You get stuff. You buy some. You inherit some. Some of it is valuable, so finally you find yourself in a lawyer’s office making a will. Your first real act of preparing for death. The lawyer talks about trusts, perhaps, executors, specific bequests, funeral arrangements. This all makes it sound so real, you are happy to get out of there.

Then your parents wither and die and, more importantly, one or two of your own contemporaries die and others are struggling with ailments of the elderly: arthritis, dementia, heart problems. At the same time, your hair is seriously greying, your knee hurts more than it doesn’t and your doctor is always fussing about your blood pressure.

You look around your house at all the overstuffed drawers and cupboards and closets and sheds; the furniture, the camping gear, the old bicycles and broken lawn mowers, and finally the long overdue purge begins. This is the flip side of nesting, a process whereby the young surround themselves with stuff that makes them feel secure and happy in anticipation of the arrival of new life. But now, in the deconstruction phase, the object is to simplify in readiness for your inevitable departure, dismantling that nest twig by twig.

This is also the bucket list phase where you do those things that you never got around doing when you were fully alive and productive, postponing them until you had the time. Well, now is the time. If you still have the will, the stamina, and enough scattered blobs of memory to remember what they are.

This is also the list-making stage, where you need to leave hints for your beneficiaries as to where you have squirreled away the valuables: the family papers, the grandmother’s jewelry, the furniture and artwork that may actually be worth something.

It is also the time to establish or update your powers of attorney both financial and medical in which you designate somebody to take up the reins of your financial life, pick your nursing home, pay your bills, and somebody else to make medical decisions for you. On some soft afternoon when you are feeling happy and complacent, spend some time thinking about the people you have chosen for these roles, and consider that they will have absolute control over you when you are as weak and vulnerable as you were at your birth. This should get your heart pumping.

Finally the preparation for death is no longer an indistinct intention tucked far back behind your quotidian concerns. It has wormed its way forward, unnoticed, and is now barking and snapping at your ankles. You may live for another 20 years, but this will be your constant companion.

If you have done your homework, the logistic part of your preparations are complete. You have resolved your beneficiaries, the children, the charities, the durable goods. You have arranged for your end-of-life care and maintenance. You have purged the detritus of a long, acquisitive life, and now all that remains is the wait.

Now is the time for your spiritual preparations, whatever they may be. You have purged the rubbish from your living space and now need to look inward and purge the internal clutter you have been carrying around for decades. Think about all those resentments that have been rankling forever, the hatreds, the anger. Do you even remember how they started? Besides, your mother’s dead, right? And that pimply kid that teased you in junior high is probably long dead from a dissipated life. They are Gone. Let go. You need to make peace with the people and situations that surround you now, that you will be leaving behind. Whatever is to come cannot be changed. Go to church if it comforts you, or tend your garden if that does.

Then you will be ready to join your grandpa.

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