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Thinking about Death

Posted 2/2/2014

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  I sat here and debated for several minutes about how to title today's entry. As you saw, "Thinking about Death" won, and I hope that at least a few people click on it and spend a little time reading this marvelous essay. I do think that anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer has thought about death. It is not like "anyone can be hit by a bus"; it is much more immediate and personal than that.

  Many women, whom I have known through the years, have spent a great deal of time thinking about the final details: legal business and funeral arrangements. Here is one great story: Some years ago, I knew a terrific woman who was doing fairly well, but understood that her cancer would end her life. She prepaid all of her funeral arrangements, using a credit card that gained airline miles. And then she used those miles to take a trip around the world.

  Most of us don't do anything that creative, but many of us do think about burial locations and music and even speakers. Sure, this has to do with trying to hold on to control, but it also can be a gift to one's family who then, in the middle of grief, don't have to wrestle with these plans. This is, I think, a beautiful essay from The New York Times, about a man, knowing that he would soon die of pancreatic cancer, who made his own coffin. Don't click out immediately; please take a few minutes to read it.

Ashes to Ashes, but First a Nice Pine Box


PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. — NOT long ago, my wife and I had a good friend over for a glass of wine. We had drunk just enough to feel pleasantly liberated in thought. Or at least that’s how I felt. Probably that’s why it seemed a good moment to bring it up. So, I calmly announced to my wife: “I’m going to build my own coffin. I just thought you should know.”

It didn’t go over well. Her first reaction — silence — quickly turned to blind anger. Then came demands for explanation, then commands to desist. Finally she fell silent again, this time not in disbelief but in punishing disapproval.

I hadn’t anticipated so much resistance. The plan didn’t seem so extreme to me — no more extreme, anyway, than my circumstances. I have incurable Stage 4 prostate cancer, which I learned I had at age 54. I’ve been living with it for 11 years, and in that time I’ve tried every conventional treatment and many trial ones. All in all, I think I have done extraordinarily well: I’ve been able to travel, to photograph, to write. On most days, I walk over four miles. And although I did have to give up my surgical practice, the extra time has let me become much closer to my family and friends.

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