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Over these past two pandemic years, the shadow of death and grief has touched many of us. I recently saw a billboard for a local funeral home: “Good grief comes with instructions. Preplan.” Boy, that hit home.
My longtime friend Gary Mayhew had taken my advice. He’d written an 11-page letter titled Upon My Death. What a gift that turned out to be.
Tall and skinny, witty and kind, Gary was a man of math and music. He taught advanced mathematics to high school students. He could play all kinds of music on guitar, from Bach to folk. I loved that he could sing and play humorist Tom Lehrer’s song, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” – by heart.
He was a confirmed bachelor and creature of habit. Monday and Thursday, he played strategy games with “the boys.” Wednesday night was guitar group. And every other Tuesday, Gary and I went out to dinner. This continued after I married my husband, Dave. Gary played guitar at our wedding 21 years ago. Dave joined us dining out, and Gary always picked up the check.
Gary’s Upon My Death letter addressed his sister with his characteristic humor.
I am addressing this document to you because you are the family member most likely to bear the burden of cleaning up after my demise…. Frankly, I wish there were some sort of hassle-free automated system to take care of these end-of-life matters quickly and painlessly, but sadly, there is always work to be done by those closest to the deceased (that would be me, in this case). The best I can do is to smooth the path as much as possible. That’s the purpose of this letter.
Gary smoked earlier in life. Smoking led to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. For more than five years, he was tethered to an oxygen tank or a concentrator. Eventually, walking just a few steps exhausted him. He recently died after being on home hospice care for three months.
Now Gary’s letter and preplanning proved so valuable. Upon his death, the nurse made the official pronouncement and called the funeral home where Gary had pre-arranged his cremation 10 years earlier.
I called his sister in California. His friend Rick would call the gaming buddies. Doc would call the music friends. I let his landlord know his 20-year tenant had left the building.
We knew where to find important papers and the passwords for online accounts. He provided contacts for his bank, credit card, retirement pension, and utilities. Three pages of his 11-page document were devoted to describing his multiple guitars, their history and value.
When Gary’s sisters arrived a week later, we had a plan to disperse his possessions in three days. The guitars were professionally crated and shipped to California. Friends were invited to come take what they wanted. There were hundreds of vinyl albums and books, games, DVDs, household goods. Most of the albums were donated to Goodwill. They filled the cargo area of my Subaru Outback. A service called Junk King cleaned out what was left in 45 minutes.
Gary wrote, I request that I receive no funeral, but I think Gail will insist on organizing a memorial service. I’m ambivalent about that, but being dead, there isn’t much I can do about it. Of course, we held a memorial service, outdoors in a park near my house, then a party.
One of the items I saved from Gary’s house was a Tom Lehrer songbook from 1954. It includes the song, “Be Prepared.”
Be prepared! That’s the Boy Scouts’ marching song. Be prepared! As through life you march along. Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well. Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell. Be prepared!
Because good grief comes with instructions.
Gail Rubin, Certified Thanatologist and The Doyenne of Death®, is an award-winning speaker, author, and coordinator of the Before I Die New Mexico Festival (www.BeforeIDieNM.com). You can download a free planning form to write your own Upon My Death letter from her website, www.AGoodGoodbye.com.
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