Unfinished Business

If you are a devoted reader of the local obituaries, it always feels like a bonus when a well-known person dies. The obits for prominent figures are usually pretty interesting – and if you want to read an example of a really good one, check out what ran when Ed Dague died in 2019. It captures his humanity in a way I never appreciated when I worked with him – and it also contains this stirring sentence, something that stopped me cold:

Born in Buffalo to a violent and physically abusive father, Ed did perhaps the most challenging thing possible – he broke the cycle of domestic abuse that he was raised under and became everything his father was not.

Wow, heavy shit. This isn’t a remembrance, it’s a peek into his soul — and all of us should be memorialized so well.

So, how do you get something like that? Obituaries are often composed in haste and under the worst possible circumstances, so why not do everyone a favor and write your own? Sit down, get it done, and make sure it’s in the hands of your family. Believe me you’ll be doing everyone a favor.

Pick some things that are speak to your character and beliefs, the things you held dear, and the qualities strangers would seldom see. It’s your chance to shine.

For all my preaching on this subject – this is not the first time I’ve written on this topic – I haven’t done a great job of following my own advice. I pulled out my own obit recently to see if I could whip up a final draft, but was unable to complete it. I think there’s a part of me that’s reluctant, as if this is a Twilight Zone episode where the man who finishes his obituary dies.

As if I need another excuse to not finish a piece of writing. My wife keeps saying, “You better not die before giving me something. You don’t want me writing it.”

True. Few of us will have an Eliza Hamilton to tell our story, so best do it yourself.

Cremains of the Day

A local funeral business ran an ad on the obituary page over the weekend promising cremation services that “do things the right way” with “no short cuts or compromises.” And what’s all that supposed to mean? The  bottom line is that they promise “peace of mind that the cremated remains you receive are those of your loved one.”

Ah — so this is a big problem, getting the wrong remains returned?

Mistakes and intentional abuses may happen in the funeral industry, including the mishandling of cremated remains — but there is no evidence that this is a widespread occurrence. It seems especially unlikely in New York, where the business is heavily regulated.

But these people are planting the idea in your head that instead of receiving the remains of your loved one, anybody or anything could be in that urn. Since I was curious, I went to the advertiser’s web site and looked at the FAQs. They include this passage:

“Since it is illegal to perform more than one cremation at a time, and the vast majority of crematories can only cremate one body at a time, it is next to impossible to receive the incorrect remains.”

Ok, so which is it: We should be worried about mistakes, or it’s next to impossible to receive the incorrect remains?

I hope that the nonsense in this ad doesn’t raise irrational fears in people. There’s already enough to worry about when someone dies, and it seems unfair to throw one more uncertainty into the mix.

But what the hell, death is a business like everything else. Somebody’s gonna get the client. May as well be you.

Bandwidth

There are some things about blogs that I hate, like when people allow their site to sit idle for months at a time.

I have become what I hate.

What I hate more is when people write about why they haven’t been writing. I’m always like, “Oh, shut the fu*k up and just write a post. We’re here to read what you wrote, not why you didn’t write something.”

I’m about to become that, too.

There was a time I could churn out interesting (in my opinion) blog posts on a regular basis. I’ve always figured that once was the minimum one should try to hit, and if you don’t have anything to say once a week, maybe you shouldn’t have a blog.

Based on that, I shouldn’t have a blog.

But best I can figure, this isn’t about interesting topics. I have loads of random ideas about things that could be a blog post, and in fact, I can usually take just a tiny thread of thought and make it into something sort of relevant.

So what’s going on?

I think it’s the thing my young management consulting friends call bandwidth. This refers to the amount of resources needed to complete a task, and in my case, I just haven’t had the bandwidth to focus on this thing. Extra demands at work and home eat up my mental energy in a way they didn’t used to. Things that were once easy now require more effort.

This is funny because I’m in very good physical condition right now, better than I’ve been in a couple of years. But my bandwidth? It just ain’t what it used to be.

The irony. I expected this to be the other way around.

Pickup or Delivery?

Late one night I was backing up the ambulance at one of our fine local hospitals. Parked near the emergency department entrance was a dark minivan with tinted windows. I wouldn’t have even noticed it — but then a man emerged from a set of doors wheeling a cot. Even in the dim light, it was unmistakable that he was removing a body.

As we unloaded our patient, he was fetching a customer.

OK, they weren’t coming out the same doors we were going in, but it was pretty darn close. If this surprised me, imagine how you’d feel if you were on our stretcher and looked over to see the undertaker picking someone up. Not very encouraging.

Considering how busy these places are, it always surprises me how shabby emergency department entrances can be. Rather than projecting a professional impression, many look more like a place where the hospital brings out its trash. It would go a long way to have them clean and well-lit — and you’re receiving so many patients, why not have someone stationed to meet the ambulance and begin the intake process?

If nothing else, let’s move the mortician access to someplace a little more discrete. I think we all have enough reminders that our last ride is on the way.

O-Bits

What’s better than sitting on the back deck early in the morning with a cup of coffee and the obituary page? I’ll tell you what: having a cigarette while you do that — but I digress.

The obits are certainly one of those things that are better on paper. Something about the ephemeral nature of newsprint that matches our own brief shelf life. That’s pretty deep, if I don’t say so myself.

But today, obits live forever online — as long as you don’t mind them served up with a few ads.

I did a completely random check to see what ads appear on the obit page and here’s what I came up with.

OK, Natalie Merchant at Tanglewood. Personally, listening to Natalie Merchant would make me feel better if someone died. Some might say her music could make you feel worse, but if it takes your mind off your grief, that’s a win-win in my book.

And PODS? Well, moving is often a byproduct of someone’s death — or at least getting rid of their stuff, so I judge both of these ads to be contextually appropriate and useful in your time of grief.

What do obits cost? Here’s a rate card I got from the Times Union, and believe me, if you’re going to have an elaborate obituary, it will cost some money. A few basics:

The first 10 lines are free the first DAY that the obituary runs, the customer pays for those lines every time after that.

After the first 10 lines each additional line is $4.75 per line with an additional $16 service charge.

A line constitutes roughly 22-25 characters including spaces and punctuation.

So, they throw in the first ten lines, which is maybe 250 characters, or, less than two Tweets. Want a picture? That’s $47.50. Cash up front unless you’re a funeral home — and yes, they have procedures to prevent fake notices from being placed.

I advise you to write your own obituary. This will take a lot of pressure off your loved ones, and hopefully, they’ll publish whatever you leave behind, regardless of cost. Seriously, do you think your family is going to edit your obituary? I mean, I might do that — but remember, my edits are always to make your work better.

Sudden Death

“This is nice because if I die, there will be less of my stuff to sort through.”

That’s what I said this morning when I opened the door to my newly tidied closet.

It’s hard not to think about dropping dead when you reach my age — and I suppose it doesn’t help that my wife reads me the obits of guys in their early 50s every morning.

My father died at 62, but it may have been lifestyle that lead to the second heart attack. There is some longevity in his family, but that didn’t help him; one of his sisters is over 90-years-old, and another who turns 90 in September, is in better shape than most 70-year-olds.

So, I’m starting to plan there are some things to do in case I die:

Write an obituary. You shouldn’t don’t trust anyone else with this job. If you die suddenly, somebody will get stuck doing it who has other things on their mind, which is why there are so many half-assed obits in the paper. Nope, DIY is the way to go.  I’m considering writing mine in the first person, which is something you don’t see very often — and I’m leaving a space for cause of death. Seriously, what’s the point of obituaries being so evasive about that? Don’t make people guess — just say how you died.

The funeral home experience. I like the idea of having an iTunes playlist that they can put on during the wake. I’ve already picked out some of the songs, which include some unlikely things like Johnny Horton’s Battle of New Orleans, and Mary Hopkin’s Those Were the Days, songs I loved as a child. I might put a few things in there for laughs, like Seasons in the Sun. A lot of people do some sort of slideshow, which is also a nice touch.

The Funeral. I just hope some people show up! I suppose it’s a good idea to choose a few readings, and some churchy songs. On the short list are Simple Gifts and Amazing Grace. Morning Has Broken is nice, and Battle Hymn of the Republic, while bombastic, can be a real showstopper. I’d also like Danny Boy.

And as for my mortal remains? Cremation. I once joked that I want my cremains mixed with the dog food, but that may not be good for them. The ashes  can be buried if you feel the need to bury something, but if not, take them down to the ocean and pour them in the water. That will do. Don’t do it on a windy day.

Spring Has Sprung

Around here, spring comes in fits and starts. Everybody has a different idea on when it begins, but me? I was finally convinced that spring is here this morning during my run, when I noted three indisputable signs of the season:

1. Peepers According to my research department (Wikipedia), peepers “are heard early in spring not long after the ice melts on the wetlands.” This morning I noted that the peepers are peeping — and while the wetlands near my house are diminishing, thanks mostly to hideous and ill conceived residential development, the peepers still peep.

2. Skunks I don’t know where the skunks go in the winter, but in the spring they emerge from their hidey holes and stink up the neighborhood. Never champs at crossing busy roadways, I found one this morning that had become the proverbial dead skunk in the middle of the road, as imortalized by Loudon Wainwright III.

3. Worms Another mystery of nature, the spring brings worms who slither out onto the sidewalks and driveways after rain. There were many of them this morning, albeit very skinny ones, for it has been a long winter. It is my observation that they do not stick to running shoes. Could squished worms be used to improve a product or process? Perhaps.

So, welcome spring! None of us will be here forever, so don’t take it for granted.

Less Talking, More Shooting

SPOILER ALERT! Didn’t see Walking Dead on 3/11? Stop reading.

On “The Walking Dead” this week, Shane plots to kill his former best friend and the show’s protaganist, Rick Grimes. He lures him away alone and they stop in a clearing. Instead of just shooting Rick, Shane launches into a bunch of chatty nonsense — and WHAM, Rick has the opportunity to shank Shane. This is a prime example of what’s referred to as evil gloating.

Evil gloating, or as Roger Ebert called it, The Fallacy of the Talking Killer,  is all about bad guys who can’t shut up — and lazy film and TV writers who lean on the technique to build tension.

Outside of Hollywood, people who are going to shoot you don’t deliver a lecture about what they’re thinking and how you’re going to die. No, they just start shooting. How many people have slipped away thinking, “Hey, wait! You didn’t talk before shooting me!”

No. The real world is cold and brutal and things fly at you without any preamble. Even if you did have a chance, you’re probably not going to foil someone intent on getting you. And you won’t even come back as a zombie to even the score.

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

I don’t know about you, but I’m mildly concerned about the giant asteroid passing by Earth this evening. Sure, that’s irrational –but hey, you never know.

So, how large is this chunk of space rock? According to news reports, it’s as big as:

  • An aircraft carrier
  • The Empire State Building
  • A skyscraper
  • A city block
  • Four city blocks
  • Four football pitches

While I like “four football pitches” it doesn’t really convey volume, does it?Anyway, I hope to see you tomorrow. If not, bon voyage!