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Writing My Own Obituary & Funeral

A dear friend, a Professor in Human Development, gave one class the term paper assignment to write their own obituary, thus to contemplate what they hoped to do with the rest of their life. How would they like to be remembered.

When she told me about this, I first gave a rather flip response, but then I got to thinking about it and wrote an outline.. I write this more developed version shortly before my 73rd birthday and a few days after the public self-designed funeral of John McCain.


Writing My Own Obituary & Funeral

(contemplating one's accomplishments and one's future, death and possible afterlife)

by Pam Green, © September 2018

My dear friend Rose, emerita Professor at UC Davis, when teaching courses in Human Development, was given to handing out challenging term paper assignments. Some of her students came up with truely creative responses.

One year in her course on Giftedness, a course I audited (that's how we met), the assignment was to write about "right brain , left brain functioning". One student responded with a marvelous painting in which the left half of the person depicted displays typical left brain motifs (eg holding a slide rule) and the right side displays typical right brain motifs (eg holding paint palatte and brushes) . I was absolutely in awe of this creative response.I really envied the brillance of that student.

A few years later the assignment was "define talent, define handicap". I wasn't in her class then, but when she described the assignment, but I felt compelled to imagine my response. I would have wanted to respond with a painting, a triptych with the left panel being blind John Milton, the right panel being Stephen Hawkings, and the middle panel being Temple Grandin. Dr Grandin is the most trenchant "answer" because her "handicap" (autism} is inextricably intertwined with her great gifted achievments in revolutionizing livestock handling.

So recently Rose told me about having assigned in a class on Life Stages or Personal Deveolopment (I don't know the exact title of the course) the task of writing one's own obituary and/or funeral services.

immortality as an answer

My intitial answer is that I would claim to be immortal and thus would never need an obituary. Rose agreed that if I could back up the claim, she would have accepted that as a response. But that was a very flip answer. It ignored the many problems that would confront an immortal. As a reader of science fiction, classic and modern, I could not be unaware of at least some of the issues.

eternal life without eternal health

In the great SF classic, Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift had pointed out the main issue in Gulliver's third voyage when he described the Struldbruggs. They never die but they continue to age, thus by age 80 or so, in addition to the usual physical infirmities, they become mentally senile. Swift gives a description that can easily be recognized as classic Altzheimer's. What a horrible fate, a fate worse than death to anyone who values intellect.

The Greek myth of Tithonious is similar. Tithonius was loved by a goddess of whom he asked the gift of eternal life. But he forgot to specify eternal youth and health. So he aged and aged and finally shrunk down and became a cricket.

eternal life with health and non-aging

But even with continued youth or middle age and continued health, the immortal faces other serious problems

Many SF writers since then have pointed out the other great issue of extreme extended life, the loss of friends and loved ones whose lives are so much shorter. Repeated bereavment has to take a toll, probably eventually a huge weight of sorrow. As a dog lover, I understand this all too well, having by now loved and lost far too many deeply adored dogs. (Also horses.) Surely eventually the burden of sorrow would make death seem to be a desirable release.

The other problem for the super long lived and unaging or the unaging immortal is that one will have to change identities, change locations, abandon relationships, when those around one begin to suspect there is something odd about one's continued life (aging might be faked to a degree if one is a skilled actor and uses Hollywood level make-up and prosthetics). One has to fake one's death or just move far enough away that one can dissappear, then one has to create a new identity of one's adult self. Creating a new identity used to be easy, but it's gotten harder. And if one fakes one's death, which can be hard to do without a body that cannot be identified as not-you, then there will still be a funeral or memorial service and an obituary. Leaving one's friends behind poses much the same problem as outliving friends. Either one ceases to care very much about anyone or else one carries the burden of loss and betrayal.

So claiming to be immortal really doesn't get me out of doing the assignment.

contemplating the possible after-life (or lack of it)

There are three general themes of what happens to one's consciousness when one dies.

The Judeo-Christian-Muslim views present an Eternity of either Reward (Heaven) or Punishment (Hell). (Judaism doesn't put much emphasis on Afterlife. The emphasis is one living a decent honorable life and on survival of the community.) YOLO : You Only Live Once. No chance to repair your mistakes, no chance to learn and do better next time. It seems so unjust. At least Dante suggested that the degree of Punishment might vary according to the nature of one's sins and that the intermediate state of Purgatory likewise varied (though everyone has to pass through the Wall of Flame that purges the sins of Lust).

The Hindu, Buddist , and Pythagorean views all are versions of Re-Incarnation, with the nature of one's next life being somewhat determined by one's actions (good or bad) in the life one is leaving. For Buddists and Pythagoreans (I am not familiar with the Hindu view), in one's next life one has the oppertunity to use the lessons of the previous life and do better this time around. It's rather like getting to repeat a grade or subject one hasn't mastered, master it, then go on to the next level. (The film "Defending Your Life" presents a similar view.). For Hindus and Buddists, one may eventually graduate into the state of Nirvana, escape from the "wheel" of reincarnations and the sufferings of living. SOLANO : Several Oppertunities (to) Live Again, Not (just) Once. (note : I live in Solano county, California, just outside of Yolo county.)

The third view is that death is oblivion, cessation of all consiousness. While many people assume that this view is inescapably consequent of atheism and that a deist cannot have this view, I question that. An atheist certainly can be a Buddist as Buddism does not require any deity (and may not require non-existance of deities). And certainly it is possible to imagine a deity or deities who consider us disposable, perhaps consider us as simply figures in the equivalent of a video game, vanishing when the game ends. I'd tend to call the view that death is oblivion to be the view of the realistic biologically educated person who knows that consciousness and self-awareness require brain function, thus when the brain ceases to function, dies and rots, there's no vehicle for consiousness.

(I'm not going to describe the ancient Egyptian , Greek, Roman etc views. The Egyptians did have "The Book of the Dead" (which might today be titled "What to Expect When You Are Expiring"), in which eventually one's soul is weighed against a feather by Anubis. That implies survival of the soul at least for a while.)

My real expectation is absolute oblivion, non-existence, something that is both scary and comforting.. But perhaps I will be either pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised.

assuming Heaven

What kind of Heaven would be worth going to ? Is Heaven actually preferable to Hell ? Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw had a lot to say about the boring deficiencies of Heaven (as imagined by Christain mainstream), and Shaw said a lot about why Hell would be far more interesting.

Deacriptions that resonate with me :

So clearly there will be dogs and horses in any Heaven to which I would consent to go. And since Heaven is supposed to be a place where those who have earned entry are to be provided with whatever makes them happy, if my dogs demand that my presence is essential to their happiness, then I will get in on my dogs' merits. I could be content to spend Eternity with my dogs and horses..

The Rainbow Bridge mythology postulates that our beloved dogs are waiting for us to join them in some kind of presumably pleasant Afterlife. There's no description of what goes on there. No description of any punitive afterlife for those who abused dogs.

What would Heaven with dogs and horses be like ? Plenty of leisure, just resting companionably in comfort in shade or sun.. Plenty of walks together, dogs off-leash and free to check out the myriad of scents. . Perhaps horses would invite one to ride, bareback and bridle-less, by placing themselves next to a mounting block or tree stump and giving a inviting gaze. The ride would be in whatever manner the horse enjoyed most, including sports.. For dogs who liked "work" and liked competition, there would surely be oppertunities to do their favorite sports. Some of the horses might enjoy sports too.

(Hell, of course would be consiousness without dogs, without horses, without books, without means of writing , drawing , painting. Solitary confinement. I would be irretrievably insane in very little time. In any case, as I've already described, my dogs will get me into their own Heaven.)

assuming re-incarnation

Buddists and Pythagoreans teach that humans may be reincarnated as animals and vice versa, men as women and vice versa. Pythagoras himself stopped a man from beating a dog, saying that this dog was the reincarnation of a friend of Pythagoras

So maybe I will come back as a dog, and maybe I've been a dog in one or more previous lives. Maybe that's why I am so very tuned in to dogs. Maybe I've been a horse or will be one. As a child I sometimes pretended to be a horse, and in grade school my friends and I were "the Dingos" and got together in a circle to howl.

But if I am back as a human , what qualities do I hope to have. Above all, I would like to keep my intelligence. Even better to keep some hard earned knowledge as well as intelligence.

Maybe next time around I will be a veterinarian. (Back 50 years ago, when I was the right age, the vet schools barely admitted one token woman per year. Today the vet schools are all over 70 % women.)

Or if women's rights and equality are still in peril, still inadequately established, perhaps I will go to law school, become an ACLU attorney, teach at a law school, hope to eventually become a Judge, then Appellate Court Judge, and so on.

Of course there are so very many undesirable possibilities that the idea of another life is really scary. What has my karma earned ? Does having saved the lives of a lot of dogs earn me enough karma to get me a pleasant life.

My funeral or memorial gathering and my Epitaph

the memorial gathering

Absolutely no religious clap-trap. As a life-long atheist ("I never met a god I didn't dislike") I would be terribly offended by any such nonsense. Though a prayer that I be welcomed by "Chelsea Queen of Creation, her Adopted Son Bones, and the Eternal Invisible Puppy Keya" would not offend me. (it might offend some of my other dogs.) I remind you all that no one ever started a war, a Crusade, or a Jihad in the names of Chelsea, Bones, and Keya. No one ever conducted an Inquisition against those who didn't believe in Bouviers as the most Divine dog breed.

Perhaps someone would like to read "The Bouv is My Shepherd" . That would be appropriate.

Just let my friends gather and tell stories, not necessarily stories of praise, but the amusing stories. Stories about my various mishegass are quite acceptable. Mark Twain wrote a burlesque on books of manners, with advice on attending funerals. Mostly not to criticize the guest of honor (the deceased), but he ends it with "don't bring your dog." Of course for any festivities held in my post-mortem honor, everyone should bring their dogs (excepting only bitches in heat and dogs who are dog-aggressive).

Some of my friends might like to go as a group to scatter the mixture of my cremains with those of my dogs along our very favorite walking path above South Fork Putah Creek or perhaps under the lightening damaged "Survivor Tree" that stands on that path. Bring your dogs and enjoy a good walk.

the epitaph

I have long thought of "She tried to be worthy of her dogs and horses.", but after reading Swift's epitaph (in Latin) "He has gone where fierce indignation can lacerate his heart no more" , I think perhaps "She has gone wherever her dogs and horses went" would be equally appropriate.. Of course an obituary could include both phrases. Maybe open the meeting with the first of these and close with the second.

update :

A couple of months ago, quite unexpectedly, I got a phone call from one of my old rescue and training buddies, one who lives quite a distance away. She wanted to know if I was still alive. Since I was answering the phone, I wanted to respond in Spock's tones, "obviously". She said that a rumor had been going around that I'd died. So I replied "as Mark Twain would say, those rumors are somewhat premature" (Note : I don't expect to last until the next appearance of Halley's Comet.)

I can only guess that the rumor was based on someone reading this current Obituary. Perhaps a reader who didn't notice that this was written as an excercise in self examination. It's now more than a year later, and I am still alive.

the Survivor Tree, lightening damaged but still alive.

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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 8/05/2018 revised 9/08/2018, 10/15/2019
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