I applied to intern at an online will storage company during a LionSHARE binge brought on by desperation to stay in New York for the summer. Had I actually bothered to research at all, I probably wouldn’t have sent that one of the 20 cover letters I churned out that night. I ended up taking the job because it paid well. Later on, my boss, Jess, sympathized.
“It’s kind of hard to have to talk to, um, normal people about what we do.”
What we did, I soon found out, was provide an online place where people could—for a nominal fee, of course—upload their final wishes, wills, and any other death-related documents they might want delivered to their families in one big PDF package after their death. I was in charge of writing handy guides for end-of-life planning, such as “How to Talk to Your Children About Death,” “Estate Planning For Military Families,” and “Wills vs. Trusts: Which Is Best For You?”
I’ve only ever been to three funerals: for my great-grandmother (lung cancer) when I was three years old; for my best friend in middle school’s dad (an explosion at an oil refinery in Texas City) during which I laughed, not knowing what else to do; and for another friend’s dad (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) at a Korean church two days after Christmas. Somewhere between seeing my friend’s mom sitting at the edge of an open grave sobbing for a man she had met two weeks before their wedding day and listening to my grandmother tell us that my 80-year-old grandfather was afraid of dying, I came to believe that death was an insurmountable obstacle. An obstacle not only for the deceased, but for their families as well.
The first few days at my internship did nothing to dispel this. To accustom myself to the legalese—things like wills, trusts, and probate court—I read online forums. I had some vague ideas of what these processes entailed, but I soon learned that the procedures were complicated and full of a bureaucratic sadness. The forums were replete with elderly widows wondering if probate was supposed to last all of two years (it almost never does). One woman worried that her lawyer was swindling her, but he was her friend’s nephew and she didn’t want to think badly of the boy. There were concerned children, wondering how to talk to the doctors without mom’s advance directive or struggling to pay dad’s funeral bills.
Writing and researching articles led me to the more eccentric side of the afterlife. I read about siblings who got into a legal fight with Yahoo because it wouldn’t terminate their deceased mother’s account. It had been hacked and continued to send them daily reminders of their mother’s absence in the form of male enhancement ads. While researching customizable funeral plans, I found out about LifeGem, a company that specialized in pressing ashes into wearable gems for grieving widows and pet owners (complete with thrilled testimonials), and Eternal Reef, an underwater ash garden. An article about online memorial services led me to discover Facebook tributes; dedicated sites with online candles that flicker, GIF-like, into eternity; services that will tweet for you after your death; and TED talks about the possibility of creating artificial intelligence versions of the deceased, extrapolated from digital data postmortem.
Many of the articles and comments I came across were inspiring: an 80-year-old man who lived with his son had not only written an advanced directive, but kept it in the freezer with a note for the paramedics on the front door. Another post was written by a woman whose husband had died far too young; yet she was provided for because he had a will and life insurance—the types of things hardly anyone ever thinks of until they get sick. One particularly touching comment detailed the story of a mother who had prepared notes for her son for every year after she passed until he turned 18.
Other people’s stories were inspiring not because of the deaths they experienced personally, but because of how they reacted to the tragedy in others’ lives. I read about a woman whose son was in class with another little boy whose mother was very sick, so she organized rotating play dates for the boy and meals for the family. I read about bikers who rode across the country to shield widows and mothers from Westboro and buglers who donated their time to prevent veterans of all ages and ranks from being buried to the tinny sounds of a recording of taps.
These were people that took death seriously. Yes, they felt the grief of it, but instead of turning into the sorts of Miss Havishams I expected, they prepared, they lent hands, and made life easier for themselves, for their families, and for complete strangers. Everyone in every post I read talked about the sadness brought on by death, even years later. For the ones that seemed most at peace, though, there was also a sense that death is like a long backpacking trip. It’ll all be OK so long as you remember to cancel your newspaper delivery before you go and find someone to water your plants.