It has become the de rigeur after-dinner conversation – something that had become a steadfast part of our family tradition that if you couldn’t quite set your clock by it you could still at least expect to hit the same familiar steps – part waltz, part metronome, a comfortable routine built-in with the emotional woodwork. There would be brandy and ginger ale– my grandfather laying out the glassware with a practiced elegance – and my gran would place out the good mints. We’d have settled into the easy warmth of the dying evening and from across the room, settled in her chair my gran would matter of fatly say – as if commenting on the weather or what she had for dinner “Well, it’s going to happen sometime.” My grandfather would hum in quiet agreement and we’d talk about death.
Unless it’s in our direct periphery it can so often feel like death is a thing that happens to other people. I know in that abstract way that I will die. In the way I know if I have tea at home or what’s on my bookshelf – not really in focus until it’s in front of me, but entering like a passing thought, a bird at the corner of my eye. Everyone I love will die. The people I barely know will die. That as I shift through life we’re all ultimately heading towards the same foregone conclusion. But of course, death happens to other people. Not to us, right?
I don’t have a will and I don’t have a spouse, but I have a cat and an excellent book collection (same thing, right?) I’ve sat across from friends and family and talked about a desire for a natural burial over cremation (and the preferred grounds.) I’ve spoken about what kind of legacy I’d like to leave (looking over Glasgow, peeling at a cinnamon bun, thinking that maybe a bench would be nice but probably not very me.) They also know I’d like to be an organ and tissue donor.
On the 26th of March 2021 Scottish legislation regarding organ and tissue donation is changing into an opt-out system. This means that if you’re over 16 and you haven’t registered that you don’t want to be an organ or tissue donor you may be considered as a possible donor when you die. While deciding where you stand on organ donation may not be something you’ve considered – registering to donate or to opt out takes about five minutes, even if the decision to get there takes much longer (and I’d actively encourage you to make some space for this.) It never stops with ticking some boxes (yes, take everything you possibly can to those with their own reservations) but requires a conversation with your family, chosen or otherwise about what you want. And revisiting it. While the register certainly is there to take note of your wishes – the people around you should also be up to date if your feelings have changed over time and best help honor your wishes.
“I mean I’m not sure how much use it’ll be, but I’m not taking it wherever I’m going – they can take what they can” – is my Dad’s approach – speaking about his body as if dismantling a car for spare parts. “I’m not sure how much use my corneas will be, but they are certainly willing to try” I’d quip back knowing that I used to be extremely short-sighted and had laser eye surgery and are likely not to be of use for anyone (though I stress, they are certainly willing to try.) This detachment doesn’t come from a place of cruelty, instead of with the familiarity of retreading old ground – the same tired jokes tinged with ease as much as an absurdity. Death of course carries weight, but if we’re waiting for the anvil to drop then there’s a new tension added. I don’t know if I’ll die tomorrow or sixty years from now, but it doesn’t feel too soon to have these conversations. Even with being registered as an organ donor I still might not be a viable candidate to donate. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be talking about it.
Speaking about death with the people closest to you, despite any discomfort remains one of the most important conversations you can have. It’s not out of misery or existential dread that these conversations come up. I believe planning for your death is less an exercise in morbidity and more an act of compassion. I also don’t think a checklist and a guiding map is a way to minimize grief. Death colours my everyday conversations. It’s practicality that doesn’t need to be romanticized but is as much of the defining features of how I understand the world as anything else. It’s sharing a fervent love for Susan Black over voice note or in the late Summer sun talking about death positivity. It’s visiting cities and standing in a Church of bones or driving under a fathomless sky and asking what you’d do if you had only 24 hours to live. It’s those quiet moments of permissible grief, a desire to understand and be seen. Allowing ourselves to approach our death should not be a radical act but a human one.
I know one day I’ll die. And I hope that if I’m lucky to be remembered it’ll be with all the depth of having allowed myself to be known out loud. As a complicated chaos of contradictions, in equal parts joy and sadness, as selfish and kind, as stubborn and curious. Planning for the inevitable is not a substitute for feeling pain, it isn’t a zero sums game where if you eek it out and flirt with the fear of it, it’ll hurt less later. But when things are hard, knowing that you could possibly ease a burden or help someone else is worth doing, exploring, and talking about. I want to help others if I can. I want to be buried in a forest. I want to cut holes in my pocket and scatter my gran’s ashes like laughter caught in the wind. I want to love those who loved me best by honoring them and when they go – as we all do – help them have a death that is good. And maybe, if I’m lucky, a long time from now, I can have one too.
To register or opt-out of organ donation in Scotland:
Organ Donation Scotland – https://www.organdonationscotland.org/
Funeral and end of life planning
Order of the Good Death http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/resources/funeral-end-life-planning
Creating a death plan – from finances to living wills, a checklist
Money Saving Expert – https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/family/death-plan/
Talking About Dying
The Art of Dying Well – https://www.artofdyingwell.org/