When Alvie Singer was romancing Annie Hall, he bought her a copy of Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death.” At the time of this sentimental gesture, I was living in Manhattan and complaining in therapy, just like Woody Allen still does. I look upon those navel-gazing years with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’d like half my money back. On the other, therapy changed me—although in ways my friends tell me are undetectable—as did Becker’s profound and lucid book.
That’s not to say I recommend reading it, except as a cure for insomnia. “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal….” Feel your eyelids growing heavy? A better read is “Nothing to be Frightened Of” by Julian Barnes, who “wouldn’t mind dying as long as I didn’t end up dead afterwards.”
Becker and Barnes have helped me cope with an unseemly and—considering humanity’s 100 percent mortality rate—pointless fear of death. If you are free of this character defect, I won’t pretend you need to work through your denial, a trick I learned from my long-lost last therapist who thought we both would profit from prolonged treatment. But let me ask you this: “Has it made it any easier to plan for a good death?”
A good death is not to be confused with a great death, which is as rare as the Transit of Venus. How many of us get to be of sound of mind and body, make a mockery of the actuarial tables, and not wake up? A good death is more complicated—unless you’re like “Joan,” who would protest my giving her a pseudonym.
Joan is 73, exercises daily, eats prudently, flosses zealously, and has had her affairs in order since puberty. She’s had her affairs, too, relishes life, and is generous to a fault. When we were fundraising to build the Susi Q, she offered to underwrite a Kevorkian Room. Joan, you see, is determined—hellbent, some might say—to live only as long as she can take care of herself. After that, her motto is “B.O.D.” Better Off Dead.
Joan’s plan has the virtue of simplicity. If you are thinking along more conventional lines, as I am, don’t leave things to chance or to other people—especially not to Joan. Your best bet is an excruciatingly detailed advanced healthcare directive and, just in case, well-rehearsed loved ones. To the family’s relief but not surprise, my mother stayed in charge to the bittersweet end. She had to practically beat Dr. Walks-on-Water off with a stick—a tale for another time—before she could die in some peace with the sons of Susi Q at her side.
The postmortem part of a good death is easier to plan and pull off. I’m to be cremated and recycled. Mom was buried alongside my father in what she always called the boneyard, following a sendoff at St. Catherine’s. People still tell us it was the most entertaining funeral they’ve ever attended.
Moral: Not having an advanced healthcare directive is proof that denial is not a river in Egypt.
Laguna resident Chris Quilter is secretly planning to live forever. So far, so good.