Two Weeks of Life

I was up far too late last night finishing this

Eleanor Clift, the author, is a reporter whose husband was
dying at home under hospice care during the same two weeks that
Teri Schiavo’s feeding tube had been disconnected.

I had ordered the book when I read the review
in the New York Times,
because one of the things I wanted to use this daily blog to
write about was my experiences last year with the death of my
friend Bonnie.

I had expected to be more interested in the account of the
husband’s death than in the interviews with all the participants
in the Teri Schiavo frenzy. I was, but the Schiavo stuff was
better than I expected, especially the stuff about the role of
the Catholic Church.

For instance,
a small number of weeks before he died, Pope John Paul II had read
a pronouncement that getting food and water through a tube was not
an “extraordinary means” of prolonging life, which was interpreted by
some people to mean that Catholics were prohibited from ordering
the removal of feeding tubes. However, in his own end of life
care, a feeding tube was inserted and removed twice.

One of the links between the two stories is that Clift feels the
hospice movement didn’t do a good job of getting the message out
about what its aims were, when hospice caregivers were being attacked as
murderers by the Right to Life people.

My own experience with the hospice facility where Bonnie spent
her last month was very different from the one described in this
book, probably mostly because I wasn’t being a caregiver, so I
wasn’t getting all the training and support I would have needed
to do that. My difficulties communicating with Bonnie’s
caregivers are another post, but I was certainly glad to have
the internet to look up vocabulary like “active phase of dying”,
because I wasn’t getting good explanations of it from the

One of the points of this book is one I have been trying to make
since last year: that we spend too little time thinking
and talking about dying, which makes it much more difficult for
us to get through it when we finally have to.

Anyway, if you’re interested in any of these issues, this is a
well-written book. It could have used a bit tighter editing:
there are places where the same anecdote is repeated in
different chapters, But on the whole, it’s really well-written
and if you want to think about how to communicate with the
medical profession and how to make decisions about how to die
and what the religious contribution to the politics of all these
decisions is, you should read this book.

Can you open the box?

Some day, you’ll probably end up being the person who makes
funeral arrangements for someone you care about.

This happened to me last Spring, when my friend
Bonnie Rogers

There have been lots of books written about how the funeral
industry takes advantage of people in the first shock of their
grief and causes them to spend thousands or tens of thousands of
dollars they can’t afford. Some of them probably caused
improvements to happen, so that what happened to me was a fairly
mild version of what these books describe.

What happens is that you go to the funeral home the day after
the death happens and sign papers. They have asked you the big
questions on the phone (where’s the funeral, cremation or
burial…), and they have papers drawn up with what they think are
the standard things people want.

Of course you can argue about lots of the charges, but if your
loved one left enough money to cover the standard stuff, you
probably have lots of other things that you need to spend your
energy on at that time, and I recommend not worrying about whether
you’re spending a few hundred dollars more than you need to.

However, there is one question you should ask, which with 20/20
hindsight, I don’t see any way I could possibly have known that it
was important, and getting the right answer would have saved both
time and money.

One decision you have to make when you’re there signing the
papers is what kind of box to put the ashes in. They show you a
selection, and you point out that the ashes are being scattered so
paying for an objet d’art doesn’t make sense. So they
suggest a plain brass box, which costs more than you would think a
box that size would cost, but you’ve decided that arguing about
that kind of thing isn’t worth it.

So you get to the ash scattering event a month later. A dozen
friends who either want to support you through a difficult time,
or weren’t able to come to the funeral and really want a ceremony for saying goodbye
all get together at the spot you’ve picked and you sing some hymns
that got left off the list at the funeral and people read some
things they want to read. And you start to open the box, and
there’s no official way to open it. The dozen people collectively
have several Swiss Army knives, so eventually you get it pried
open without cutting large gashes in anyone’s hands and scatter
the ashes.

But you should have gotten the Funeral Director to tell you how
to open the box.

It could be worse — James Doohan, who played Scotty on Star
Trek wanted his ashes shot into space, and died before the
technology for that was perfected. His son gave an interview
about how difficult all the failed launches were for him to deal

But we have had the technology for making boxes that stay
closed until you want to open them, and then open easily, for thousands of years, and
if you want to scatter ashes, you should make sure you’re buying
that technology.