If you’ve been following the news daily for the last few weeks, you’ve seen an ideal model for how to die. On September 2, we learned that Queen Elizabeth was experiencing mobility issues and would miss a highly anticipated event. On September 8, it was announced that she was under medical supervision and her family was gathering to be with her. And then a few hours later, she died. The progression of her decline through the last stages of her life was on display for the world to see. Her privacy was respected, but it was not a secret that she was nearing death.
Once Queen Elizabeth died, a sophisticated pre-planned protocol kicked into action, in which everyone in her inner circles knew their roles, the expectations, and the timeline. Dubbed “London Bridge,” the plan was detailed down to the minute. The roles and expectations were planned even for her outer circles, meaning the public, as the post-death protocols included specific opportunities for mourners to pay their respects by walking past her casket at designated times and places.
What might it look like if everyone we know could die like a queen? No crisis emerged at the moment of her death, just a recognition of the finality, and a clear idea of what comes next. There were no questions about who to call, what to do, where she would be buried, or any of the many issues that arise in situations where such planning has not taken place.
It might sound far-fetched, but we, too, can die like a queen. By talking about death early and often, we acknowledge the reality that death is part of life. Consider what it might look like if we treated our own lives and the lives of those close to us as if we are royalty. Certainly, death can create a seismic shift in our own circles. And yet, if we’ve planned appropriately, we can alleviate the burden on those closest to us by having detailed plans in place and communicating those plans on a regular basis.
When a former colleague and friend of mine knew she was dying of pancreatic cancer, she invited me to visit to be part of her dying process. During that visit, my friend proudly showed me a looseleaf binder on which she’d drawn and decorated the words, “Keys to the Castle.” In it, page after page contained all of the details of her life those surviving her might need, including passwords to her online accounts, phone numbers for who to call to access her pre-paid funeral arrangements, and more. My friend clearly set herself up to die like a queen. Coincidentally, her name was Elizabeth.
A quick search on Google will result in no shortage of products to help you make your own book or documents for those who will survive you. Hang on, you might be thinking. What’s a rabbi doing peddling death planning? You might think this is counter to Jewish practice. Most of us know Judaism to be about life – from the “l’chaim” toasts to the “Book of Life” in which we hope and pray to be inscribed each year.
And yet, each day we have the privilege of being alive puts us one day closer to the end of this life as we know it. “Repent one day before your death,” Rabbi Eliezer taught in the Talmud. “How will we know when we will die?” his students asked. And from this teaching we can understand that life should be lived with the recognition that it won’t last forever. When we put our own plans into place, we are expressing love and care for those closest to us. Doing so requires us to clarify what matters most to us, and have our say over what happens after we die. What’s your plan?