Making Plans for My Money (and My Body) After I Die

Photo credit: Arnold Gatilao, CC BY 2.0.

The following is to be read upon my death — and also, I hope, well before.

Almost as long as I can remember I’ve thought about death. At the age of four I associated heartbeats with measurement: that we were only given so many, and that with every pulse the little doomsday clock inside of me moved a tick closer to midnight. This childhood logic led me to believe that I could dodge the inevitable by avoiding exertion and moving as slowly as possible.

Then some playground game or other ended in tears. I hadn’t lost or felt cheated, but in the excitement I’d forgotten to slow down and my heart was racing from the sprint. When I realized the mistake I ran to my mother, careless how I used the few remaining beats, so I could apologize for my wasted life then go die somewhere I might more easily be retrieved.

My mother assured me that’s not how it works, that the benefits of exercise far outweighed any perceived cost, and I was not about to drop dead from a game of tag. I’ve since revised my thinking and long since left behind the molasses stage of my development — a relief, I’m sure, to my mother — but still I can’t help but feel that my own death to be something for which I’m personally responsible, indeed culpable. That I am, in fact, to blame for it. And yet I’ve put in very little planning for how to go about it.

There are near daily reminders on the basics of self-preservation all throughout one’s life — thirty minutes of exercise, plenty of fruits and vegetables, a yearly physical, floss — and yet so few lessons on how to sensibly and satisfactorily self-destruct. It only occurred to me after I opened an IRA; my first act, beyond general good health, towards a safe and well-provided retirement. Yet I had no idea what would happen to that money if I died before I could enjoy it. Come to think of it, I didn’t know anything about what would happen at all if I just flat out died.

I don’t mean how I would die. I’m not that morbid. And besides, at my age I’m most likely to die from what the CDC refers to as “unintentional injuries,” which is to say something sudden, swift, brutal and complete (collision, lightning, getting devoured by an orca). That suicide is the next most common cause of death for men my age is sobering, but I assure you, in my case, not applicable. So it’s somewhat of a relief to know that in all probability I won’t have to plan for the exact moment of mortality. But being unexpected does not mean I should be caught out unprepared. It was then that I decided I needed to start what I privately referred to as The Death Talks.

First I called my sister (all right, texted my sister) and asked if I could sign her up as the beneficiary to my bank accounts. I have two sisters, both older. Kate: married with children. Anne: unmarried and without. I considered setting the money up in trust for Kate’s children, my niece and nephew, to be used for college expenses when they turned eighteen, but I quickly changed my mind. It seemed a little presumptuous to assume they would even want to go to college. I don’t need to decide their lives for them. Not to mention they’ve already got both their parents’ families behind them for support, and by the time they’re old enough for it the whole thing might be free anyway.

I didn’t even consider leaving it to Kate. With a husband and family to spare, not to mention a house and a pension, she seemed fairly well-provided-for should anything happen. Anne was the natural choice. Or as she put it, “sure (since I’m alone and have no one to support me) I’ll be your inheritor.” In our family guilt is the preferred coin of exchange.

It was actually fairly quick to get her set up; about a fifteen-minute process once I had the necessary information: contact telephone, mailing address, Social Security Number. All she would need to lay claim is a death certificate (mine) and some form of personal identification (hers). I let Anne know the protocol.

“Yes! I’ll be rolling in it” was her celebratory text.

I informed her that I could also, if I later decided, remove her, should she predecease me or we get into some heated and irreconcilable argument. She was glad to hear she was replaceable.

I was surprised to learn that if I hadn’t set anything up, then after four years of inactivity Bank of the West would turn everything over the state, and anyone interested in getting the money would probably have to spend far more in legal fees to get it out than they could ever gain from it. So there’s one headache avoided.

After money came my worldlies, which are likewise precious little. But while there are some items of sentimental value to myself, there is nothing, I think, that would mean much of anything to anyone else. So here I will take inspiration from John Keats, who had the best of instruction in his final poem: “My chest of books divide among my friends.”

I don’t think I could, much less desire, to punch out a last will and testament in iambic pentameter. I lack the patience for verse. But of my cameras, books, and photographs, I trust my friends and kin to take from there what they most want. What remains, they may donate, sell or burn.

And now to the final clean-up.

I’m a bit embarrassed that someone else will have to deal with the ugly task of lugging my dead guts around. If I could manage it at all, I’d much prefer to dig the grave, do the embalming, and drive the hearse myself. DIY is almost always less expensive.

Death is a pricey business. The average funeral costs between eight and ten thousand dollars. Small wonder that, with millions of funerals held annually in the United States, the mortuary industry represents a $20 billion economy. (For comparison, major league baseball is about a $9.5 billion industry, making passing on more than twice as expensive as America’s favorite pastime.)

If I had to choose a final resting place in keeping with standard practice, there’s a rather nice graveyard in walking distance of my old apartment. I often went there for walks or picnics; even took a few dates there. I wouldn’t mind staying there for a bit, or however long eternity is nowadays. The views of Oakland, San Francisco, and the Bay are all spectacular, even if the majority of locals are in no position to appreciate them — six feet under, or else shut up in marble.

Taking in all those old and admired mausolea, I can admit that there is a certain appeal in the idea of a tomb, swank and stylish, lacquered in the kiss-prints of ardent visitors, and in daydreaming of romantic young men, their heads made soft by too much story, committing all the acts of unutterable indecency at my graveside, drinking themselves silly on cheap red wine and Veuve Clicquot.

But, that’s all just pleasant fantasy. The pricing is far too prohibitive. Even with both checking and savings emptied, and the IRA to boot, my survivors would be as much as $5,000 in the hole just to get me in a hole.

Besides, beyond disposal, what is the point of a grave? Your family can visit, for a while; after that, a few curious descendants might stop by to shadow in the lines on the sparer branches of the family tree. At some point you just become a rock with a name on it. So, a personal appeal: No holes. No stones. Just save your money and donate me to science.

This is not a sudden decision. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time — though I can’t stress enough that I have no intention to die any time soon, and very little reason to suspect that I will. It is just rare that a healthy, young (or at least relatively young) person chooses to donate. The majority of donated bodies are of elderly or sickly individuals.

So ship me whole, please. Straight to the cutting room. None of this organ donation. Whatever possible economic benefit to the gross domestic product, I don’t want the living parts of me divided. No. When I’m dead I want to be all dead, no bits of me going on inside of someone else. Let me be laid out and gutted by residents, their latexed hands groping their way around my abdomen as the surgeon points out the exposed and glistening viscera as though offering a tour of the Hollywood Hills.

According to the info page on the Bay Area Funeral Consumers Association (was there ever a more cheerless name?) there are three suitable options for me: UC San Francisco, UC Davis, and Stanford. I also learned that whole body donation is the least expensive option for disposing of human remains, and that I could, with with a little strategic expiration, make the cost effectively $0.

At this point I began considering my options in my the same way as when I had first applied to school. Who had the best program? Who offered the most prestigious certificate? UC Davis will accept body donations free of charge within a 50 mile radius of campus. (My home in Berkeley is 64 miles away. I moved Davis to the back of the deck.) UC San Francisco will pick up bodies free of charge anywhere in Northern California, but does not offer return of the cremated remains after studies are complete; they scatter the ashes at sea, which is nice, but I’d like to give my family the option of having them returned. Stanford will pick up any donated body within 150 miles of their Palo Alto campus (39 miles from Berkeley), and return ashes upon family request. That’s how Stanford became my top choice and UCSF Medical my safety school, a sentence I never thought I would ever have cause to write.

As I worked through the forms for Stanford, I was surprised to find out that though they were labeled “registration,” it’s actually more of an application process. Prospective donors are occasionally rejected, which I suppose is in keeping with a university as selective as Stanford. Just because you apply doesn’t mean you get in. Then I got to the section that asked me to confirm that I had informed at least two people of my intention to donate my body. I hadn’t told anyone.

That’s when I began round two of The Death Talks.

During our weekly phone call I let my parents know of my decision: that I was setting up financial protocol in the event of my death, that Anne would get my money, that, yes, she had instructions for how to get it, that I didn’t really care what happened to my belongings, and that they wouldn’t be on the hook for any funeral expenses because I was applying to have my body accepted at Stanford. And if Stanford said no, I would settle for UCSF.

They were fine with it. Not excited, just… accepting. I was a bit surprised. I thought they might be proud their son was finally going to med school.

Funerals are for the benefit of the living more than the dead. In the event of my own death, I don’t want to deprive my family of the chance to fully and ceremoniously grieve. Instead, once my sister claims my money as my beneficiary, I want the family to take it all and get a group reservation at The French Laundry. The restaurant is consistently rated among the ten best in the country; often among the top ten in the world. Of course, I’ve never been. I simply can’t justify the expense of renting a car, then spending a week’s wages on a nine-course tasting menu.

But you can’t take it with you, and once you’re gone someone else may as well take it. Though all my savings put together is not much, it is plenty for the entire family to get the nine-course tasting menu of their choice — typical cost $270 per person — plus car rental, wine, and tip. And, while it is not on the menu, I would like them to bring at least one bottle of Veuve Clicquot. After they drink it, I’d like them to sign it, put my name on the label and below that my dates: 1984 till whenever. They can write a little more if they like, and kiss the bottle if they must, and that’s all the memorial I need.

My mother spoke up first.

“You mean we’ll have to make a trip?”

She had, this past year, after much debate, left the small town in rural upstate New York where she and my father live to finally travel abroad… to Niagara Falls. (To be fair, she did make it all the way to the Canadian side.) I’m not even sure my death and last wishes would be enough to get her out to California. I might need to include the cost of hiring a few professional kidnappers in my final financial reckoning.

My father, when I told him the whole thing — inheritance, body donation, French Laundry, etcetera — was even more critical.

“You want us to go to a restaurant that you’ve never been to?” he said. “How do you even know it’s any good?”

I explained that it felt like a fitting send off for his son the gourmand and budding food writer, and that I would much rather the people I love enjoy themselves over a good meal than sit under a crucifix and talk about how sad they all were.

“I was trying to give you permission to go while you’re still alive,” my dad said, a bit sheepishly.

“Well here’s an idea, you could just come visit and we can go together,” I said. “Ten years I’ve been living in California and you still haven’t come out here. Why am I always the one that has to get on a plane?”

“Because the young visit the old.”

This from the man who tells me each week how uneventful and boring retirement is. His weekly reports always sound like an extended Tuesday evening spent listening to public radio. The news from Lake Wobegon without either news or lake. Why not come stay with his son for a few days? Hit up San Francisco, rent a car, go to Big Sur, and then together we can go Napa and blow three hundred dollars each at the French Laundry?

“No thanks,” he said. “I’m saving it for the funeral.”

No parent wants to outlive their child. Sometimes, though, children actively fantasize about outliving their parents.

So now it’s all settled, at least two people know my intentions and I can safely go on with the forms. And if after inheritance, and donation, and fancy French dinners, my family wants my ashes back, they’re welcome to them. But a final request: No matter how nice the urn, don’t put me on a shelf. Let me be useful.  Don’t make me decoration. Just save yourself some money on rock salt and sprinkle me on the driveway.

Cirrus Wood is a bike messenger and freelance writer/photographer. He lives in Berkeley and works in San Francisco.

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