Finishing well is listening, watching, engaging, teaching
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday August 18, 2013
During the past year, Mary Sue and I have attended more funerals than ever. It is all part
of growing older. As we move through our bonus years, the fate that awaits each of us
comes to some of us, though most of us fight to delay that fate as long as possible.
Poet Dylan Thomas said it best: “Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should
burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light./Though wise men
at their end know dark is right.”
The passing of a friend or loved one is always difficult for those left behind, but in nearly
every case we found ourselves marveling at the many blessings we and others enjoyed
because our lives were touched in so many ways by the deceased.
In fact, the best funerals are a time of celebration as well as sorrow. And often the sorrow,
especially for friends but even sometimes for family, is the experience of discovering
important dimensions of the life of an old friend or relative – achievements, relationships,
hobbies, interests – that we didn’t know about.
I always walked away from these encounters thinking, “Here’s another lesson about the
importance of asking questions, becoming more engaged in the lives of others and listening
– listening more to what people are saying, what they are telling us.” It is also a lesson in
the importance of family members leaving family trees, writing autobiographies and
passing on the “unifying stories” that make families stronger by providing markers and
morality tales to serve as guideposts for a younger generation. Each of these can be an
important mission or project for those in their bonus years.
We all know that death has medical, psychological and sociological dimensions. We also
know that people – the dying and those left behind – deal with death in many different
ways. Giving some thought to these different aspects of death is important because every
human being lives with the prospect of dying – a prospect that increases as we get older.
The late psychologist Ed Shneidman (1918-2009) was a giant in the world of thanatology,
the discipline that studies death and dying. Shneidman was also a distinguished professor
at UCLA and a pioneer in suicide prevention, publishing 20 books on the subject.
In the early 1950s his research led him to the idea that many people who contemplate
suicide are really looking for a helping hand. So he set up what we now know as “suicide
hot lines,” a telephone number that a suicidal person could call for comfort, counseling and,
most important, a “time-out” to think. Because hot lines seemed to work – like the fireman talking a jumper off the ledge of a building – the practice of using suicide prevention
techniques, like hotlines, spread rapidly throughout the world – and are still being used
Just before his passing at age 91, Shneidman wrote A Commonsense Book of Death:
Reflections at Ninety of a Lifelong Thanatologist. An obituary by a close friend and
protégé noted that “…he managed to meet all the ten “Criteria for a Good Death” that he
set forth in an article with that title published in June 2007, just two years before his
passing. Shneidman’s ten “good death” criteria include:
- Natural. There are four modes of death–natural, accidental, suicide and homicide
(NASH). Any survivor would prefer a loved one’s death to be natural. No suicide is a
- Mature. After age 70, near the pinnacle of mental functioning but old enough to have
experienced and savored life.
- Expected. Neither sudden nor unexpected. Survivors-to-be do not like to be surprised.
A good death should have about a week’s lead time.
- Honorable. Filled with honorifics but not dwelling on past failures. Death begins an
ongoing obituary, a memory in the minds of the survivors. The Latin phrase is: De
mortuis nil nisi bonum (Of the dead [speak] nothing but good).
- Prepared. A living trust and prepaid funeral arrangements. That the decedent had
given thought and made arrangements for the necessary legalities surrounding death.
- Accepted. “Willing the obligatory,” that is, accepting the immutables of chance and
nature and fate; acceding to nature’s nonnegotiable demands.
- Civilized. To have some of your loved ones physically present. That the dying scene
be enlivened by fresh flowers, beautiful pictures, and cherished music.
- Generative. To pass down the wisdom of the tribe to younger generations; to write; to
have shared memories and histories; to act like a beneficent sage.
- Rueful. To cherish the emotional state which is a bittersweet admixture of sadness,
distress, yearning, nostalgia, regret, appreciation, and lament. To avoid depression,
surrender, or collapse; to die with some projects left to be done; by example, to teach the
paradigm that no life is completely complete.
- Peaceable. That the dying scene be filled with amicability and love, that physical
pain be controlled as much as competent medical care can provide. Each death is an
ennobling icon of the human race.
I like them all, but my favorite is “rueful” – which means distressing, heartbreaking,
lamentable, mournful, sad. Why? Because, it says, “to die with some projects left to be
done…that no life is ever completely complete.” I’m inspired by that image – dying with
a “To Do” list where only some of the items are ticked off and a lot remain. Whether it’s
a family project or a book to read; or maybe cars to wash, shoes to shine or a grandson to
teach, there is, as the ancient scriptures remind us, always “work to be done.” And we
should do it – for as long as we can.