Philadelphia Metropolis


Saying No to a Bitter End

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By Stacia Friedman

I grew up in a secular Jewish family in which death did not exist.  We children were not allowed to go to funerals or cemeteries. We had no concept of Heaven, other than a once-a-year excursion to the Concord Hotel in the Catskills where we were allowed to stay up late and hear comedians tell obscene jokes with Yiddish punchlines.  Even better, there was no Hell. At least not after my parents put my sister and me in separate bedrooms.

So what happens when we die?  "Nothing," said my father, the doctor. "It's like unplugging a TV."   I accepted this with an air of superiority.  When religious friends of all stripes spoke wistfully of dear, departed relatives being "in a better place," I rolled my eyes.

Ironically, when my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 79, he gave voice to the ancient Jewish belief of an Afterlife in which one is reunited with all those who have gone before. "But it doesn't make sense," he reasoned. "I can't imagine flitting around up there with everyone who ever lived. It would be too crowded."

Six months later, I had to deal with the most appalling aspect of my father's death. The retail side.  Dying, as it turned out, was big business. While my mother grieved, the funeral director guided me through a showroom of gleaming coffins. Given their price, I knew Dad would've opted for being buried in his Camry. Then, there was the cemetery plot, apparently, a prized piece of real estate, the gravestone options -- carved by Michelangelo or a do-it-yourself kit -- and, of course, the shiva.  Mountains of smoked fish. Acres of pastries. Top-shelf whiskey, laughter and second cousins, twice-removed.  Why do we throw the best parties for our loved ones when they can least appreciate it?

Thanks to drugs that controlled her cholesterol and blood pressure, Mom didn't die of heart disease at 80 as expected.  Instead, she lived another dozen or so years, drifting in and out of the fog of dementia in a series of assisted-living facilities and nursing homes that seemed to have been designed by Martha Stewart  in cheerful peach tones and staffed by former Guantanamo guards.  That's when I decided.  Hell, no, I won't go! No long-term care insurance for me.  No home-health aid watching Jerry Springer while I pee my pants. And, get this. No saving up thousands of dollars for a silk-lined casket, a cemetery plot and perpetual care by a parolee with tattooed knuckles. (If I have to spend eternity in a $5,000 box, it better say Neiman's on the outside and contain a full-length mink coat.)

I'm willing to go along with a shiva in my honor but, damn it, I'll be there. I've already spoken with the caterer and picked out the menu.  Barbecue brisket sliders, mini-potato pancakes and coleslaw. There'll be a sushi chef, a Martini bar and a DJ.  Traditional, yet edgy.  And yes, I know music is of questionable taste, but it's not like they'll play "It's Raining Men." I'll stick to early Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  Maybe a touch of Adele for the younger set.

Friends are supportive but concerned. What if I get dementia or cancer before I can put my plan into practice?  No problemo.  Having seen what modern medicine has to offer, I'll take what's behind door Number Two, thank you. Nothing as morbid as a Kavorkian cocktail. There are lots of other ways to check out.  I could inspire road rage by maintaining the speed limit on the New Jersey Turnpike at rush hour.  I could blithely cross a picket line and get fitted for cement shoes. Or simply snatch a dress out of another woman's hands at the annual Running of the Brides at Filene's Basement and holler, "I saw it first!" 

Actually, I have something less violent in mind. I'd like to fly first class to Paris, take a room at the Plaza Athénée, linger over a four-hour dinner at La Tour d'Argent and, with a red rose in one hand and a bottle of Dom Perignon in the other, jump merrily into the Seine. If the French find my actions gauche, just remind them of the mess DSK left behind in Manhattan.

There's no getting around it. We Boomers will live longer than previous generations. So many of us will reach our 100th birthday that Willard Scott will run out of Smuckers jars. But at what cost?  Not just to future generations, but to the quality of our lives.

The healthcare system has dealt us a losing hand by extending our lifespan but not our capacity to enjoy it.  Anyone who has watched an aged parent exchange their dignity for wheelchair Bingo knows what's at stake. God bless Betty White, but I, for one, have no desire to stick around to find out if Depends will come in high-fashion colors. And I honestly don't want to know what Lindsay Lohan will be up to 25 years from now.  Rehab? Just a guess. No, I'll take matters into my own hands, as I wave goodbye and say, "Th-th-th-thaaaat's all folks!"

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