Sixty is a magical number, the six and the zero plumply nestled together and then flanked by the stern prime numbers 59 and 61. And 60 is so accommodating, evenly divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6; the next number in this sequence is the remote 420. The pleasing proportions of 60 might have prompted the ancient Babylonians to adopt it as the basis of their number system, whose lasting legacy is 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour and 360 degrees in a circle.
I came of age in the 1960s, and now I want my very own sixties to be just as magical, to be all about me once again. After all I have successfully navigated the transition from my sandwiched responsibilities to the generations on either side of me – children now self-sufficient adults, parents peacefully gone. Blessed with good health and stability, I anticipated that my 60s would be a time of reinvention and personal growth.
And yet, and yet, our culture keeps reminding me that the previous generation has fallen and mine is “next up.”
Some messages are subtle. There are few movies that appeal to me anymore, certainly not the special effects laden summer offerings. And there is the sobering shock of seeing remakes of movies I had seen the first time around. Maybe I am being oversensitive, but at some restaurants I sense that we are seated off the side so that we don’t drag down the average age and visually dampen a youthful vibe. I have clearly fallen outside the target 18 to 54 year-old demographic so coveted by marketers.
Other messages have been more direct – brochures for senior living complexes, or solicitations for AARP membership. But the most explicit hit to my growing sense of mortality was the little 4 X 6 envelope from the “Neptune Society.” My first thought was that the society had something to do with the planet Neptune, or perhaps this was some sort of SCUBA diving society named for the God of the Sea. Intrigued, I opened the letter and was startled to see that this society was “America’s Most Trusted Cremation Service.” Then several days later, I received another similar looking envelope that made no effort to disguise its trade – “American Cremation Services.”
During my occasional bouts of insomniac late night TV, I have snickered at the ads for insurance policies for “final expenses,” but now various cremators were aggressively courting my business. What makes me such a ripe target? Has Google’s hair trigger put out the hit based on my recent internet search on the stars and planets? Maybe I used the word “grave” in a recent post, as in a “grave concerns.” Maybe Google knows more about me than I do.
When the second, third and then fourth envelope arrived, I could no longer avoid the signals and decided to spend some quality time with the promotional material. Both letters used the same coded vocabulary of late night TV ads – final expenses, resting place, “when the time comes,” security, trust. The Neptune Society used floral-edged paper accented with a hazy picture of a man playing ring-around-the-rosie with a group of children. The American Cremation Services’ stationery was bordered by scenes of a contemplative gray-haired man overlooking a mountain vista. Both offered a sweepstakes whose prize was a free cremation. The Neptune Society proudly announced that Marvin E. Brown had won last month’s prize, while Wilma Sue Kirma had won the American Cremation’s Services’ sweepstakes.
I had recently bought a ticket for the record billion-dollar Powerball lottery and had predictably lost, so I thought that I could enhance my winning percentage by participating in what I assumed would be a much smaller pool. But wait! In my lifetime at most I can expect to be lucky enough to win a single lottery or sweepstakes. Why blow my single winning chance on a prepaid cremation? I declined to enter and went out and bought another powerball ticket.
Membership in the Neptune Society goes for $2500. However, a call to my local crematorium revealed that this fee is more than double the going rate. The Neptune Society suggests that this locked-in fee protects the forward-thinking member from the ravages of inflation. In addition, they offer the benefit of managing the cremation wherever you happen to keel over. The only exceptions are Antarctica, Vietnam and North Korea.
My husband Nick spotted an ad in the local paper announcing that the Neptune Society was hosting a free luncheon seminar at a nearby Olive Garden restaurant. I thought what the hell, at the very least this would be an interesting sociology field trip, so off I went on a beautiful fall day to hear about cremation and death. I was surprised to find only five of us and one man of suspect hygiene only seemed to be interested in the free lunch. Why did I think that this seminar would attract dozens? Ken, the presenter, launched into his pitch. He did not mince words, no euphemisms like “final expenses” or “pre-need planning.” We heard about death, not demise, not final rest, but resolutely death, death, death, but it wasn’t morbid. After all we were a self-selected group of people willing to confront our own mortality.
Nobody even cringed when Ken described the Society’s bonus features, which include such amenities as a free cremation for a child or grandchild who predeceases a member. He then noted that if a member burns up in some sort of fiery crash leaving no body to further cremate, the heirs would be refunded the $2500. These grisly scenarios seemed entirely logical and thoughtful.
Ken finished the presentation by mentioning the Neptune’s Society’s underwater memorial reef located three miles off the Miami coast. Here the company has tapped into an unrealized real estate opportunity by constructing an artificial submerged “lost city” complete with decaying columns, arches, steps and even two lions guarding the “entrance,” similar to the proud lions in front of the Art Institute of Chicago. The ashes are embedded in cement and placed inside a column, bench or artificial starfish and memorialized with a plaque. Multiple sets of ashes can be placed in a column, and the Neptune Society notes this would be suitable for an entire family, similar in concept to a conventional cemetery plot. As with any real estate deal, the fee depends on the location. The anatomically correct lion is the most expensive spot. The structures in the reef are designed to attract fish and other marine life to an otherwise “desolate ocean floor,” and this watery cemetery multitasks as a popular dive site.
Ken called a break so that we could savor our glutinous pasta and I introduced myself to my neighbor. She was a social worker about my age, working in the area of elder care, and also a new widow. I had recently gone through an extensive end-of-life experience with my parents, so I immediately felt we had much in common. I opened the conversation with a topic in keeping with the overall tenor of the lunch. “So Jane,” I said, “how do you want to die?”
The anonymity of the overlit room in this shabby Olive Garden and the fact we would never see each other again, enabled us to talk freely, to test out lurking thoughts before springing them on family and friends.
“I wouldn’t mind a smash and grab strategy,” I said, “much preferable to some sort of ‘no end in sight scenario.’ I remember what my Grandfather said when his 85-year-old friend died suddenly on the golf course. ‘Oh how nice for him.’ I think Grampy was jealous.”
Jane shook her head. “I think maybe I’d like a week’s or month’s notice. Good byes, affairs in order, that sort of thing.”
We were not philosophers considering lofty questions on the meaning of life or death, we were just two 60 year olds curious about the circumstances of the inevitable transition between the two.
“You know the way the dogs have,” I said. “Sometimes they just quietly wander off and lay their bones down and die. I’ve seen it happen a couple of times. Once it was my uncle’s dog and he disappeared in the winter snow. We searched and searched, but we never found any tracks. I think that I might like that.”
There was one point that we agreed on – we clearly wanted to avoid the giant sucking vortex of the medical industrial complex in favor of something simple and elegant. As we chatted along, I felt like we had invited Mortality to join us at the table. She sat there comfortably listening to us, her long legs casually stretched out and crossed at her bony ankles. She was no intimidating grim reaper with shrouded hood and sharpened sickle, but a distinguished looking older women, who actually looked like my gentle grandmother. I hoped she was taking notes on my wishes.
She cleared her throat and spoke in a soothing whisper. “Ladies, I can only tell you that I will come back and visit you both at some time in the next thirty years. Timing is difficult so I can’t make any promises. But I would add please make it easy for me, don’t make me bang down the door. I do my best and most satisfying work when I can be a comforting presence at your last breath. You might even find it interesting.”
She got up and misted away as the waiter cleared our plates and Ken asked if there were any final questions. Jane and I shook hands and wished each other luck for the rest of our lives.
The subject did not come up again until several months later when our 30-year-old son Ned returned from a financial planning conference that focused on the costs of retirement, including second to die insurance, health insurance, long-term care insurance, basically how to make sure you don’t go broke in your twilight years. “Boy it costs a lot of money to die,” he commented.
I turned to him and said, “Here is my goal. On time and under budget.”
“Whatever you say, Mom, but just not early, okay?”
The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters. Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem. Scroll down for answers.
When I hit sixty, I began to think about how much time might ******
Until the final thunderclap, perhaps a mishap or a sudden collapse.
Or maybe I’ll be peacefully ****** when I bite the dust,
Something low-tech, elegant and efficient, no muss and no fuss.
****** don’t think me odd, we’ve all thought of the nature of death,
As for me, I want “on time and under budget” to be my final epithet.
Answers: elapse, asleep, please
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