by Angie Littlefield
I was shocked to learn a few days ago that a very hearty seventy-three-year-old acquaintance had died. The entire community was upset and not just because this lovely lady touched a great many lives as a wife, mother, and friend as well as a choir, orchestra, and musical-theater director. The fact that her sixteen-year-old grandson found her corpse on the kitchen floor was simply too awful an image.
I ran versions of this lady’s final scene in my head. Had she been up for a late snack after an evening out, dressed in one of her elegant long black skirts with a sparkling top? Was she up early, dressed in blue silk pajamas, and had just pressed the button on her espresso machine when she fell to the white tile floor? Was she dressed in one of her smart, colorful jackets ready to go to a rehearsal? What did she look like when her grandson found her?
I knew why I was fixated with what she looked like. My mother had always cautioned me to dress appropriately and take care of my appearance. “You never know what will happen. You don’t want people to find you in dirty underwear,” she would say if I appeared the least bit disheveled. Once as a teenager I had fainted at home and smashed my chin open against a record cabinet. I awoke to see my uncovered feet on the gurney as the ambulance men wheeled me into emergency. Should have cut those toenails, I thought, just like mother said. Lesson learned.
I determined to get my body “corpse ready” a few decades later when I faced a medical procedure that had the potential to go sour. I soaked my feet and went overboard with the pumice stone. I depilated everything I thought appropriate and manicured my fingernails. I am not a candidate for the world’s longest finger or toe nails (frightening images if you have ever looked up the record holders on the internet), but if I was to die in hospital, I hoped that, like Norma Desmond, I would be able to say to Mr. Death, who I imagined leaning into the operating table with his scythe tucked behind him, “I’m ready for my closeup.”
My mother-in-law lived with us for her final two years and, through her, I witnessed another type of preparedness, one not obsessed with appearances. I had heard the soft murmured exchanges in her upstairs quarters as she discussed her funeral service with the minister of her choice—a sweet empathetic person. She picked out the hymns and the readings and prepared a “guest list.” Being a very thoughtful person, my mother-in-law checked with everyone on the list before she added their names and contact numbers. She gave me copies of who to contact, and every person came, even those who had to travel from a distance. Mind you, my mother-in-law had three sons, a serious heart condition, and had been in and out of hospital for years. Her preparedness was apropos and incredibly helpful. She had a beautiful funeral.
My husband has a “Dead Dave” folder on his computer. He updates it constantly and apprises me of its location. He could care less about his funeral service but is determined to ensure that, should the need arise, I will know how to deal with matters post-his-mortem. It includes everything from online bill payment to bank accounts, with hyperlinks to documents. The past two years, since his retirement, he has fine-tuned inheritance matters with our daughter so that legal matters go smoothly, allowing as many items as possible to slide into her hands with a minimum of tax loss. It is his version of caring and corpse-readiness.
Back in 1967, my sardonic great-uncle Willy was engaged in the troubling process of dying of emphysema. His humor and tomfoolery had been the mainstay of our family for decades. This was a man who had seriously inquired about buying a gun to contend with “the Indians” before his first visit to Canada in the 1950s because he had fallen for the movie and literary stereotypes. I had watched my mother pummel him with a wet dishcloth when he taught me a crass German phrase before he sent me to the kitchen to ask my when supper was ready. I guess dummes Luder was not a good thing to call my mother!
We all dreaded Uncle Willy’s demise, and he knew it. As an artist, he could paint pictures, even with words, and he did so. He instructed us: “I want one skinny, hairless leg dangling out of the casket—you know how your brother was ashamed of those legs when I sat down on a patio restaurant beside him wearing my shorts—and I want a wreath dangling from that leg. And have military music playing. You know I avoided military service in two world wars.” And on it went in rapid fire German with broad comic gestures until we all laughed out loud.
Our family did not follow Uncle Willy’s instructions when that fateful day arrived for us to sit in front of that casket, but I am sure there was surprise among the mourners when my parents, brother, and I broke out in giggles. The skinny, hairy leg, with wreath, and the military music had made their ghostly guest appearance in our minds. In death, as in life, Uncle Willy regaled us with his humor. Emotional preparation for his departure was Uncle Willy’s version of corpse-readiness.
Covid, cancer, strokes, and other sad situations often do not allow either sufficient time or energy to do financial, practical, emotional, and personal care preparations for our demise. What can be done, however, should be done. I learned that recently from the lovely lady who ended up as a corpse on the kitchen floor.
Here is an end-of-life planning checklist, adapted from online articles with my own added input:
- Speak positively to your survivors about how to deal with your departure.
- Prepare end-of-life documents such as a “living will” about medical decisions and your Last Will and Testament for financial matters. Talk these over with those close to you.
- Make a list of assets including where to find them physically around your residence and virtually (with passwords).
- Write down your final wishes for funeral and burial arrangements.
- Create your own obituary or death notice.
And my own personal obsessions:
- Look to be “corpse-ready.”
- Always have on clean underwear.
Photo credit by: Mayron Oliveira @m4yron
Angie Littlefield is an author, curator, educator, and editor. She has written three books about Canadian artist Tom Thomson, the most recent of which is Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends. Her eclectic interests include curating art exhibits in Canada and Germany and working with children from Nunavut and Tristan da Cunha to produce their books. Her other books include Ilse Salberg: Weimar Photographer, Angelika Hoerle: Comet of Cologne Dadaists, and The Art of Dissent: Willy Fick. She co-created www.readingandremembrance.ca, a website with lesson packages for Ontario educators. Angie lives in Toronto, Canada.