Saturday, May 18, 2013

Dying Suddenly and Unprepared

"...from violence, battle, and murder;
and from dying suddenly and unprepared,
Good Lord, deliver us"
(The Great Litany, Book of Common Prayer)

I was talking to a friend the other day about a woman who had died unexpectedly. I mentioned that "dying suddenly and unprepared" was one of the things that members of my church prayed to be delivered from. He asked "how do you prepare for death?" and the first word out of my mouth was "Compline." This is what happens to a person whose favorite vacation destination is a Benedictine convent. When the day is broken into sections divided by the services from The Monastic Diurnal, it's really hard to forget God (a feat that is easily accomplished in today's secular world). Compline is the last service of the day, right before bedtime, and it starts with the general confession, so by the time I go to bed I'm at peace with God, even if I'm not precisely in a "state of grace" as defined by the medieval church. That would required the "last rites": the sacraments of confession, holy communion, and extreme unction (anointing a body at the point of death). When people believed that unbaptized babies went to Limbo, they baptized them within two days of birth, and when they believed that a person who did not die in a state of grace went to either Hell or Purgatory... that was practically its own industry: prayers for the dead, indulgences, pilgrimages.... I remember the first time I attended a Roman Catholic funeral: they started the Dies Irae and I turned to my mother and whispered in total bewilderment, "What are they talking about? Hugo was a good man!"

There is, of course, a secular definition of "dying suddenly and unprepared." I don't know what it does to your soul, but it can make life hellish for your survivors. Dying without a will is not a good idea. Dying without a will when you are legally separated but still married and have various children by different women, when the youngest child is both illegitimate and a gets messy. Then there was the writer who had five half-siblings. His father had three sons by his first marriage, and his mother had two more children by her second marriage. He died without a will, and the trust I work for is still paying royalties to his estate. We tracked down all the heirs, but the next challenge was convincing them that we weren't playing an elaborate joke.

So, in addition to prayer, to prepare for death: make a will (even if you don't think you have enough to need one); have an Advanced Directive/Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare; keep an inventory of your possessions, especially anything not located in your home; label your keys (especially safe deposit box keys--include bank name and address); have a list of your bills, bank accounts, insurance policies, etc.; and, in this digital age, keep a list of the online accounts you have: e-mail accounts, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, etc. My list is currently 114 lines long, but at least it will tell whoever is handling my estate what they need to cancel. Directions for your funeral service and the disposal of your body (for mine: donate usable organs; cremate remains; and send the ashes to the cemetery where I already have a place for them) are helpful as well; the fewer decisions your loved ones have to make right after your death, the better.

Remember that, despite what the insurance companies say, it's "when you die" not "if you die." You are going to die. Prepare for it as best you can--and with regard to the people you love, tell them so. Every day. Sudden death is really hard on the survivors, but knowing that the last thing you said to the person was "I love you" does help.