I was on the final approach to 50, having just convinced myself that half a century isn’t really so old, when the inevitable envelope arrived from the AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons. Unfortunately, mine landed alongside a letter from the Neptune Society extolling the virtues of cremation. Do these people simply work off the same Social Security list, or were they coordinating their efforts to nudge me out the door?
Fifty came and went, and so did 51, and I’m still here. So is my faithful correspondent, the AARP, which no longer bothers to spell out “retired persons.” That seems like a sensible decision, especially if my accountant is right that members of my generation will be working into our 90s. The AARP might want to consider changing its name to the Association for the Forever Employed.
The Neptune Society hasn’t given up on me either. This year, it sent a survey with a cover letter about “facing the truth.” The truth, according to Neptune, is that “death is what makes our lives so precious, exquisite and magnificent.” I always thought that life was what made our lives magnificent and that death was the turd in the punch bowl. My dad thought so, too. A machine-tool salesman with a gift for getting to the point, he used to shrug off his birthday with the phrase, “considering the alternative.” Or he’d say, “Beats pushing up daisies.” After he died, I planted daisies, which were in full bloom when the survey arrived.
“Dear Marjorie,” the Neptune letter began. I was taken aback at the assumption that death and I were on a first-name basis but continued reading. “No doubt,” I had given thought to matters of death and had ideas about my “final arrangements.” Actually, I hadn’t. I’d given a lot of thought to all the terrible ways one can die — brain tumors, earthquakes — and sometimes, when life had seemed truly exquisite, I’d looked around to make sure I wasn’t about to get hit by a bus. But I hadn’t planned what should happen next, let alone picked out mood music for the after party.
The survey asked if I found discussing death (“select all that apply”): “unnecessary,” “embarrassing,” “frightening,” “interesting,” “responsible,” “depressing,” “joyous.” I didn’t know what to check, and then it dawned on me that the reason I’m not discussing death is because I’m too busy not retiring.
Neptune also wanted to know how I would describe my own life, and helpfully listed the options: “fulfilling and meaningful”; “made a difference in the world”; “one big adventure.” This was not a survey for slackers or existentialists. I wrote in “other.”
The rest of the questions were mostly about final arrangements and which of its services (including “ecofriendly cremation” and “green funerals”) I might want.
Honestly, I knew that some people planned their own funerals, but I had never understood why. Now I see it’s a way to have the last word.
The survey asked whether I would consider building a photo message, writing a speech, making a recording or preparing a multimedia show and-or Web site for my “end of life” celebration. For a moment, I contemplated the possibilities for airbrushing the blemishes out of my own history and adding a few flourishes, say, a Nobel Prize. I began to consider the invite list for my Facebook page.
But then I remembered: I don’t want to celebrate the end of my life. I want to keep on living.
Marjorie Miller is a Los Angeles Times editorial writer. David Broder is ill. His column should return next week.