We’ve been having an argument here at Sarasota Magazine. Pam Daniel, our very capable editor, usually gets things right, but every once in a while she “makes a call” that is so bad, so misguided, that all I can do is hold still and take deep breaths. Like her latest brainstorm. She read about this book, the theory of which is that your death should be a peaceful and glorious last chapter, not some frantic, messy experience you keep fighting and dreading. And she wants us to excerpt this “How to Die” chapter.
No! I keep telling her. We have to hide death from our readers. Particularly with our demographic. It’s our No. 1 taboo subject. Even when subscribers die we keep sending them the magazine.
But recently a good friend of mine passed away, and as I observed all the emotional turmoil that this event created, I’m thinking that maybe Pam is right after all. The end of life could use some intelligent thought and planning. And since we can’t afford to pay for the excerpt from the book, I’ve decided to write my own “guide to death.”
The most fun part of dying, I’ve discovered, is writing your will. True, the first time you do it takes a little swallowing, but then it gets easier, and after a while actually becomes enjoyable. It gives you a chance to live on and control people from the grave in new and exciting ways. I’m on my fourth version right now, but have contingency plans for a fifth, depending on the market and whether a certain party in town finally “puts out.”
Sooner or later you’re going to have to face the issue of where to die. I’ve decided on Mexico. Everybody in my family dies there—my grandfather, both my parents. The perfect venue is my sister’s house in the highlands, near Puebla. She built a special wing that she thought would be for guests, but it turns out that it’s perfect to die in. The main room has windows on three sides and it overlooks a sunny garden. In the distance is a snow-covered volcano—Popocatepetl—which is very active and belching white smoke. When it explodes you can actually hear it.
Silhouetted against the volcano is an ancient pyramid, the largest in the world, in fact. It’s topped with a basilica the Spanish built back in the 1500s. So you lie there on your deathbed surrounded by spirituality. You’ve got Christianity, the forces of nature, the ancient religions of Mexico, all right in front of you. And if that isn’t enough, there’s also cable TV.
Over the years my sister has gotten so good at seeing people off that she’s seriously considering opening a for-profit hospice. She has it all planned. Anything you want to eat, with an emphasis on Mexican specialties, round-the-clock nurses who rub your feet (it turns out the dying love this) and a happy hour every afternoon out in the garden. On Thursdays there’s a mariachi band. And just 10 miles away is an international airport, so it’s easy to get the remains back to the States. (You don’t want to be buried in Mexico. They dig you up after 20 years to make room for somebody else.)
OK, so you’re dead. You need a memorial service. Some people feel they’re above this, but believe me, you need to provide closure for your loved ones. You need a final nail in the coffin, so to speak. And you’re much better off planning it yourself. Otherwise it turns out to be a group effort, with everybody arguing and wanting things done their way. God knows what they’ll come up with.
A good memorial service should be under an hour—way under an hour if you weren’t very popular—and the speakers should be warned over and over that they must stay under three minutes. Appoint someone to get your drunken brother offstage. Deciding who speaks is always a problem. Try to snare a celebrity. Nothing validates your life like having a celebrity at your funeral. If he didn’t really know you very well—or at all—try and get him to read a poem.
Diversity. Enough said. Reach out in death as in life. And please don’t forget the Asians.
These days they always want to play a song. I’ve been in on picking funeral songs, and it’s a thankless task. Should it be the deceased’s favorite song? Or the song that sums him up best? I personally am going with Danny Boy, sung by a 10-year-old male soprano. That always works. I’d really prefer Dancing Queen, but that’s open to so many weird interpretations that I’ve decided against it.
You want to hear a really sad story? Many years ago there was a rich woman in Sarasota who thought I was just the cutest, funniest thing going. We happened to be sitting next to each other at a funeral and were talking later about how awful and tacky and boring it was, the way people do, when she was suddenly struck with an idea. “Will you deliver my eulogy?” she asked. “I’ll leave you $10,000 in my will.”
“I’d be delighted,” I said.
So for the next several months we would giggle over our little secret, and I started experimenting with various angles. Then I got the awful news: She dropped dead of a heart attack. I set to work in serious manner, gathering the right jokes, looking for the perfect tone to strike, and waiting for the call from the family. Surely they’d read the will by now.
Well, you guessed it. She died before she got a chance to add me to the will. I thought of calling the family and offering my condolences and saying, “Oh, by the way, the old lady promised me $10,000 to deliver her eulogy,” but even I couldn’t pull off such a feat. She was buried without my help. I boycotted the funeral in frustration and spent the afternoon getting drunk at the Ritz, cursing my luck.
I’ll be glad to write your eulogy. Or you might prefer a tribute video. They’re the latest thing. Bill Wagy and I have started doing these, and they’re really quite nice. We review the person’s life, usually with a light, sentimental touch, and build to a big finish that is guaranteed to have the congregation in tears. You can find out more by calling me here at the magazine, though for obvious reasons, we must receive payment in advance.