Beach view

Beginning with the end in mind

Heads-up! This article discusses potentially uncomfortable topics like illness, aging and death. If you choose to proceed, do so with heart and mind wide open 🙂

I started writing this in the final week of December 2021 – as apt a time as any to reflect on topics like love, loss, decline – even what happens after we die. So here are some musings and suggestions from me – in no particular order. Some you might find encouraging, others a needed nudge (a.k.a. gentle kick in the derriere). I hope they help bring into focus the difficult conversations we need to have with loved ones, a spiritual advisor, our lawyer or – even and most importantly – ourselves.

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Recently, while stuck indoors during a downpour, I finished reading Caitlin Doughty’s From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. The title’s rather misleading though. It’s not a book about the dying process but rather on how bodily remains may be handled, preserved or otherwise disposed of after death.

Doughty also takes a look at how different types of funerals or memorials shape the way our loved ones might come together to remember us after we die: A high-tech LED-enhanced columbarium? A quiet grave beside a forest? NPR highlights how, even in death, Archbishop Desmond Tutu beckoned us towards humility and better environmental stewardship with his simple pine coffin and eco-friendly “aquamation”.

Two days after Christmas, we observed the first anniversary of my uncle’s passing. We gathered for a family lunch at a beachside restaurant, looking out to the sea where we scattered his ashes a year ago. Just three weeks earlier, I’d packed my brunch in a brown bag and sat down on the same beach to remember and “talk to” my uncle there.

No doubt, such visits by an open sea feel a lot less precise than, say, standing at a numbered columbarium niche or a gravestone bearing his name and profile photo at the cemetery. But isn’t this what we really are after death? Freed from the limits of space and time – still in the hearts of those who survive us, but also with the Spirit who receives us eternally.

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Someone commented yesterday: “It’s good you got to spend time with your folks this holiday season. We never know how much time we have with them.”

I replied: “We never know how much time any of us have, really. For all we know, my time might be up before theirs! Age isn’t always the predictor of who goes first.”

So I’m glad that in these past few weeks, I also took some time to go on a road trip and marvel at the elephant ferns of Fraser’s Hill, explore Penang’s Little India, catch an indie film and even speakeasy-hop with good friends I’d not seen in two years or more.

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My childhood bestie and I have, over the years, kept each other informed of the hymns we would like sung at our funeral. We started exchanging “requests” in our teens and I think it’s time for a refresh. My list has certainly evolved!

I confess that I’ve rolled my eyes at the predictability of What A Friend We Have In Jesus, Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art as Christian wake/funeral service staples. That said, I appreciate that familiar songs spare our minds from grappling with new words or tricky melodies – especially when there’s already so much for a mourner to come to terms with.

Which songs comfort, inspire and strengthen you? Might these be the same songs you’d like your spiritual community and family to experience as they commemorate your life?

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After many months, even years, of dithering, my immediate family and I wrote our wills in 2021. We have been facing the uncertainty and hassle that comes when a close family member dies intestate. This was further compounded by restrictions and delays during a year of lockdowns.

Despite how awkward it can be to tackle this matter, be reassured that preparing a will is perhaps the last act of kindness our loved ones experience from us – certainly one that outlives our physical presence among them.

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A friend with kids recently posted on Facebook with the sniffle/teary emoji: One day you’ll set your child down and never pick them up again.

For anyone with aging parents and loved ones, some parallel thoughts might be:

One day your mom will turn off the car ignition and never find the confidence to drive again.

One day your granduncle will walk into the house by himself after dinner and never step out unassisted again.

One day you and your friend will debate politics loudly over dinner for the last time before a stroke completely transforms the pace and content of your conversations.

But meanwhile, how do we balance the authenticity of everyday life – giving ourselves permission to enforce boundaries, sometimes be more impatient or less chatty, and yet appreciate the routines and rituals that could at any moment become milestones?

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If you had only one year left of good health and mobility, what would you do with it?

At some point, this question stops being hypothetical and becomes reality. Most of us just don’t know when our own 365-day countdown begins.

So embrace your extra-vagant love handles. Hush your stage fright to embrace volunteer teaching, whether in a refugee classroom or over YouTube! Launch that side business you always dreamt of. Grab the karaoke mic without worrying that you’re sometimes “out-of-tune”. And schedule that road trip even if there’s no Miss/Mr Right to take it with (yet 😉

May the year we’re starting be a beautiful and fulfilling one for you.

The Old Protestant Cemetery in Penang is a pocket of calm near the heart of George Town – a place of remembrance and peace and beauty. (Sometimes mosquitoes too, so pack some bug spray to help you reflect without all that pesky scratching…)

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