Estate Planning And Other Existential Agitations

Though he's in excellent health, my friend's father has prepared for his death down to the very last detail. He's told my friend not only where his money and assets are going, to whom and when, but where he wants to be buried, what he wants on his epitaph, who should come to his memorial service, and why.

I'm in awe of this kind of planning. I got a trust together years ago but haven't really planned for life two years from now, never mind when I'm in the Great Beyond, since I'm too busy planning for the Great Here And Now. Ironically depending on what source you look at, roughly 58 to 64 percent of Americans haven't done any form of estate planning whatsoever, which makes me something of a planner.

The resistance to the process is as logistical as it is ontological, because estate planning is linked to the unpleasant task of death planning, and who wants to think about that? But when children come into the picture parents often enter the Kingdom of Anxiety, and concerns about what we leave behind are harder to sweep under the carpet.

What prompted me in this department was learning that in the absence of a trust, lawyers and the state -- i.e., decisions of a probate court -- might determine not only where my assets will go but who will care for my children. No thank you. We're all familiar with the famous Woody Allen quote, "I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be there when it happens." Well, we may or may not be "there" when it happens (because we're already gone, right?) but other people continue on in our absence, and those people aren't necessarily our friends.

On a rudimentary level, one problem with estate planning is the word "estate" itself, which is a misnomer. It suggests ownership of a giant stock portfolio and a lovely mansion -- two things most mere mortals, including yours truly, don't have. But even people with no assets and few possessions would rather dance on hot coals than tie up the myriad details of life in anticipation of death. This not only involves significant emotional complexities, but also dealing with insurance companies, banks and assorted bureaucracies.

Of course there are many companies that are happy to help you out. One such company, KeepandShare, offers a list of lists, including a Funeral Arrangement Checklist, a Post Death Checklist, a Social Security Death Checklist, and a What To Do In The Event Of A Death Checklist. Talk about death by checklist.

In her bestselling (and now classic) "The American Way of Death," Jessica Mitford meticulously examines the death and funeral planning business. The sobering reality is enough to make the idea of moving to India and perishing in the Ganges almost appealing. There's also suspicion woven into all this -- that is, the notion that if you plan for your death you might somehow conjure it and make it happen. This form of magical thinking is on par with, say, forcing your mind to keep an airplane aloft if you have fear of flying. I warded off mild suspicions and did not enjoy the estate planning process at all, but miraculously I survived it. If I don't implode right after I upload this blog post, I hope to put that suspicion to rest forever.

Add to this cocktail of concerns the many existential questions that emerge in the process, no matter what your religious convictions might be, and you have some serious heavy-lifting to do. But while statistics suggest that we're a nation divided between big planners like my friend's father and the rest of humanity (not to mention those who even talk about their own passing, and those who don't), we all share inextricable and existential bonds.

In his lively and sometimes irreverent book "The Whole Death Catalogue: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End," crime writer Schechter reminds us that "of all the traits that distinguish human beings from other animals -- language, tool-making, the urge to buy other people's unwanted stuff on eBay -- perhaps the most fundamental is our awareness of our inevitable deaths." What we do with that awareness is another story entirely.