Planning your last big party

Calgary Herald, April 7, 2018: I know Jack is going to die, I just don’t know when.

I’ve been watching Netflix with my fingers over my eyes as Jack Pearson, the loving father and husband in the dramatic series This is Us, goes about his final days. Will he crash while slamming beers while driving to Cleveland? Will he get knifed in that bar fight? Will he get some terrible terminal diagnosis?

I’ve already seen snippets of his teenage kids standing at his graveside. So I know as sure as that guy in the red shirt with Spock ain’t beaming back up, that Jack is going to die. I gather from Googling with my fingers over my eyes that his death is revealed in the second season, which has already aired on NBC, and which I’ll see when it shows up on Netflix in September. I guess that’s when I’ll have to deal with Jack’s death. I’ll pick a convenient time to sit down with a cuppa tea and a box of tissues, a scheduling luxury we don’t have when people we care about die in real life.

Most of us don’t like to talk about death too much before we have to. But like Jack, it’s coming for all of us. And some of us are definitely more prepared than others. There’s the paperwork; the business of dying — a will, a list of your passwords and instructions about your burial or what to do with your ashes (a nice big planter on the patio with pretty flowers every spring, please). Music fans may consider a soundtrack for their service including what’s playing as people arrive (Great Big Sea’s Ordinary Day, thanks) and as they file out afterward (that’d be School of Rock doing a face-melting version of ACDC’s It’s a Long Way to the Top).

Or you could forget the canned music and jump on the growing trend of hiring singers to perform at your funeral. Not everyone has a church choir, a talented cousin or Elton John available to belt out a favourite song. Which is why, after singing at her grandmother’s funeral in the U.K., Penelope Shipley started London Funeral Singers to perform at strangers’ services. “More often than not, you come out wishing you’d known the person who died because you’ve just heard all the most wonderful things about them,” she told Vice’s women’s interest channel Broadly. While most people want hymns like Ave Maria, The Lord’s My Shepherd and Amazing Grace, Shipley’s crew have sung their share of pop songs, too. “Google says the most popular funeral song is My Way by Frank Sinatra,” she says, “but we haven’t had a single request for that yet.”

If you’re lucky enough to make it to your 80s, 90s or even hit triple digits, you’ve likely heard My Way more than a few times at friends’ funerals and you may have formed an opinion about whether you want the Chairman of the Board crooning at yours. If you can manage it, it’s nice to pass that info along to your loved ones so they don’t have to guess too much.

A friend in his early 50s has one of those terrible terminal diagnoses and is beginning to think about what he wants for his big shebang. He and his wife, sensible people, had a dinner party with close friends to discuss the particulars of each of their final goodbyes. After all, everyone around the table will die. My friend, who is likely first up, had prepared a series of questions to spur the conversation. I’m willing to bet a mahogany casket there was way more laughing than crying at that dinner party.

Another friend wanted to crash his own celebration of life. He and his family decided to ditch the whole gathering after the fact and have a big “pre-mortem” party instead. He laughed along with the tales recounting his too-short lifetime of shenanigans and said goodbye to his pals in person. He died a week after his party at 55.

While helpful to the people you will leave behind, I’m not sure organizing your own funeral alleviates your fear of death. That’s a pretty tricky nut to crack. Even some Buddhist monks have a hard time, according to a recent study by a couple of philosophers and other academics. They identified different factors around fear of death and measured them in groups of Hindus, Westerners and three types of Buddhists. They found that Monastic Tibetan Buddhists showed “significantly greater fear of death than any other group.”

So the rest of us scaredy cats are in good company. Maybe the best way to help keep the fear at bay is to focus on living so that when you go, you can at least be satisfied that you put in a good shift. And maybe you’ll manage to throw a few parties along the way to talk about dying.

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