“A YEAR TO LIVE.” That’s the name of a class I’ve been teaching on and off for the past 20 years. My hope: Participants will gain more understanding, acceptance and peace about one of life’s few guarantees—death. This year’s class members have a little over five months left to live.
Every group is a little different. Some people resist the practicalities of preparing for death: putting things in writing, making medical and funeral arrangements, and divvying up their possessions. Others struggle with the spiritual and emotional preparations, such as making amends, letting go of control and telling those close to them how much they’ve meant.
Last month’s homework included visiting a local cemetery to reflect on how we’re doing. Less than half of this year’s class made time for the cemetery visit. Those who did reported little impact, saying that—since they plan on being cremated—the cemetery didn’t mean much to them.
I visited our local historical cemetery for the first time. I’ve loved cemeteries for as long as I can remember. I make a point of visiting them whenever I can. They’re one of the few public places where we acknowledge death.
Normally, I start by finding famous people’s plots, which are often a pilgrimage site. But this time, I couldn’t find the famous politicians’ or national championship coach’s resting places. I decided to find a shady spot, sit on a bench dedicated in memory to a loved one, and meditate. I was surrounded by the graves of Edward who died in 2017 at the age of 86, Nancy who died in 2013 at 77, and Titus Elijah who died at seven. Ken was born in 1942 and Jacqueline was born in 1947. No dates of death yet.
I was reminded, once again, that the rich and famous—like the rest of us—all end up in the same place. Some of us will have fresh flowers placed next to us once a year, some will have plastic year-round, and some will be strewn in a forest, an ocean or amongst the stars for eternity. I also thought about how much time and energy we spend making sure that our portfolios are just right, or that we have the best guaranteed rates on our annuities and certificates of deposit (CDs).
Planning and preparing for our financial future, and ensuring we have as much security as we can for ourselves and our loved ones, is a good thing. But so too is planning for, preparing for and, dare I say, embracing the one ultimate guarantee that comes with life—our death. We didn’t have much to do with how we came into this world. But we have a lot to do with how well we leave it—and how well we say goodbye to others.
If you haven’t visited a cemetery lately, I encourage you to do so. Fall is a lovely time to be outside and contemplate where we’re headed and will end up one day. Imagine the lives of those around you and think about what you have left to do before you say your last goodbyes. Maybe you have wills and medical directives to complete. Maybe you have some things to check off your ultimate to-do list. Maybe you have amends to make to yourself and to others. Spending a day remembering what ultimately awaits all of us has a way of clarifying our priorities and providing a sense of urgency for what we know we need to do.
Nobody can really predict where interest rates are going, or how much income our next CD ladder or dividend fund will produce. But we do our best to learn and study, so we achieve the best that we can get.
By contrast, everybody can predict where our life’s journey will end. Hopefully, we can all do our best to learn and study, so we get there with as much peace and preparation as possible.
Don Southworth is a semi-retired minister, consultant and tax preparer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He recently completed his Certified Financial Planner education. Don is passionate about the intersection between spirituality and money, and he encourages people to follow their callings wherever they lead. Follow Don on Twitter @Calltrepreneur and check out his earlier articles.