How a practical book on death turned into a passing fancy

I had been telling people what I want when I’m dead for years. When I was 40, 50, maybe even 60, I said I wanted a Catholic Mass with incense and music, specifically “Here I Am, Lord” and “On Eagle’s Wings.”

I said I wanted to be buried in my favorite white blouse (It was cotton and lace and beautiful. I bought it in Mexico when I was in my 30s and kept it in my closet even though I almost immediately outgrew it. I told my kids to cut open the back and bury me in it, anyway.) I said I wanted an open casket (so people could see the blouse) and a wake that ran from 2 pm to 4 pm, then from 6 pm to 8 pm, because standing and greeting people from 4 to 8 without a dinner break is torture.

I also said that I wanted to be buried at Canton Corner Cemetery (I’d bought two plots). And that the after-burial party should be at my home. (Finger sandwiches and wine.)

But that was then. Now that I was older, I didn’t want any of these things (except for the Canton Corner Cemetery part). Which is why I bought the book: to set the record straight.

I planned on answering all the questions right away. I came home from Maine, talked about the book, showed it to everyone who happened to stop by. But I wrote nothing, not even my name, despite the fact that I had all the long months of the COVID-19 lockdown to complete it.

Last Sunday, I decided today’s the day. No more procrastination. I am going to fill out my “I’M DEAD. NOW WHAT?” book right now. I grabbed my favorite pen, sat down at the kitchen table, and started to write.

But not for long. The questions were not ones I wanted to answer. Legal name and maiden name and phone numbers and important documents and what to pay and what to cancel. And iinsurance policies and hidden valuables, all important questions, I know. But not important to me.

“My Social Security card is located _____ (fill in the blank)” was the 10th question.

My Social Security card? The one I got in Quincy Square when I was 14? Am I required to have this? I checked the strongbox, where I keep old papers and found the menu for my wedding reception. (A chicken dinner from soup to nuts was $4.75 per person) and a letter from George Bush (the original, not W) but no Social Security card. I checked the box under my bed where I keep my Kennedy for President memorabilia. But it wasn’t there, either.

I closed the book. Then saw the tab that said “My Wishes.”

Right around the time I bought “I’M DEAD. NOW WHAT?” my friend, Lois Edgerly, died. I don’t know how I got so lucky to have Lois as a friend. She was older, wiser, gentler, kinder. She led by example, guiding me not in any obvious way. But I learned so much from her.

At her memorial service, her granddaughter played the guitar and sang “The Glory of Love.” She played it quietly and simply. It was profound. Of all the songs I have heard sung at funerals — and I have been to many funerals — this is the one that moved me.

Writing about “My Wishes,” I thought of Lois: I don’t want a wake, I want a party. I don’t want a funeral, I want a celebration. I don’t want church songs, I want show tunes, “What I Did for Love” and old tunes, “What a Wonderful World” sung by all my singer friends, and something by John Denver, maybe “Goodbye Again,” or “This Old Guitar” played by my son and grandson, and raised glasses full of Prosecco, and people laughing and telling stories. And photos everywhere. And maybe books, too. Take a book home and remember me.

I’m not sure, even if I live to be 100, that I will ever complete my “I’M DEAD. NOW WHAT?” book, although I know I should. It is the ultimate place for everything: personal information, medical information, important documents, what beneficiaries can expect.

But if I don’t? And if I never find my Social Security card? It won’t matter. What matters is what I learned from Lois. What matters are memories shared in pictures and stories and songs.

Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at bev@beverlybeckham.com.

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