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Guide to dying: ‘Always wear clean shorts’

My friend Mike Bratton knows insurance better than most. He’s built one of the most successful insurance businesses in the country by simply selling “peace of mind.” After all, most of us don’t really plan to have a tree fall on our house (it happened to me), tumble from the roof (it happened to me), or whack your wrist with an ax (it also happened to me).

Mike got me thinking about my own peace of mind, as in, what would happen if a piano fell on my head in the next minute? Most of us don’t really think much about our own death, which is why we generally leave behind a big mess for our friends and relatives to clean up. My father’s only advice was to, “always wear clean shorts” in case I died, because there was a good chance someone would have to take my clothes off and get a peek at my personal habits. “That Jeff was a good looking guy, but it looks like he never changed his boxer shorts,” they might remark down at the local mortuary. Word gets around fast in a small town like ours. I know people at the mortuary and I wouldn’t want them to think poorly of me. Or at least more poorly than they already do.

A few months ago another friend gave me a booklet, after learning that I didn’t have a living will. “What would your family do if you dropped dead?” she asked. My friends are always wondering when I’m going to drop dead. I don’t know if it’s out of concern, or just … you know … hope.



The booklet is titled, “A Helpful Guide For Your Survivors When You Die.” It’s been on my desk for a long time, right next to the hair restoration pamphlet, and I thought it was about time for me to crack it open.

The most important thing, according to the booklet, is to make sure my survivors can find the booklet when I die, since it has all the instructions in it. I decided to leave it near the spare change dish on my dresser at home, because that’s where my kids go when they need money. They’d never find it if I left it by the lawn mower or car wash bucket.




The first thing on the list is to determine which clergyman, or “warden,” to notify when I die. Father Jerry retired, so I left that one blank. I’d rather the first call be made to an ambulance. Then it wanted to know if I wanted my body parts donated and to whom. I wrote down that I’d prefer to take my body parts with me, unless they fell off during my death, in which case they should just sweep them up so coyotes don’t get them. I hate coyotes.

It then, of course, wanted to know if I wanted to be buried or cremated. If I chose cremation, it wanted to know if that should be “as soon after death as possible,” or, “after the funeral services.” That was a tough one. I chose “as soon after death as possible,” since funeral services can take days to prepare for and I didn’t want to sit around in some back room waiting. I’ve spent most of my married life waiting to get someplace.

The ashes, I decided, should be tossed on my lawn, since that’s probably where I’ll die … mowing in the heat.

Good thing I chose cremation, because the next several questions had to do with caskets and plots and other details. I don’t own a plot and can’t see swinging for an elaborate casket, since my kids haven’t yet finished college. But the notion of a military funeral was kind of appealing, until I remembered the chow hall food I ate for several years, which will probably contribute to my eventual death.

“Is there any special clothing, or jewelry you prefer to be buried in?” the booklet asked. Another good reason to be cremated. I see no point in ruining a good pair of shoes and I sure won’t be needing a watch, since I won’t be waiting to get anywhere on time … thank goodness.

Then there was the choice of music at the funeral. I had my choice of organ, piano, guitar, choir or soloist. Since I chose cremation, I wondered if they’d play Jose Feliciano’s “Light My Fire.” There were three more pages associated with the funeral, which seemed a lot more complicated than a wedding. It even wanted to know who I wanted as pall bearers. Since most of my friends hate funerals even more than I do, I doubt they’d show. Fortunately, you can carry ashes in a coffee can and there are about three people I know who might be willing to handle that, provided there was no game on television that day and plenty of free beer afterwards.

The rest of the pages had to do with money and assets. It really is important that you list that stuff, or risk having the government, or lawyers, take it. The last page asked me to list my debts, including money that some of my friends owe me. “Frank still owes me $10 for the beer and Greg owes me at least six lunches,” I wrote.

I finished the paperwork and felt better about it. As the rest of the Baby Boomers get older, it might be a good time to make your own list. Some of us have experienced first-hand the turmoil of dealing with the death of a parent, or two, who passed without really leaving any instructions. My wife’s father left seven or eight old cars in the yard and a garage filled to the top with his “treasures.” It took months to clear it up.

So, as my own father advised, before he died and left me with his debt, always wear clean shorts and make sure your affairs are in order. It will provide a little peace of mind up until that moment a piano finally does fall on your head.

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299, jeffa@theunion.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.


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