When it comes to magic, it’s important to remember that death is part of the standard package. If you look at the standard cards in a Tarot deck? Death. It’s in there. And we can cover it over by saying “it represents a significant change,” or some such, but it still means a phase-change of some kind. None of us are expected to survive it.
If you look to astrology, or geomancy, you’ll find the same thing. Any microcosm or mesocosm of the world will always have death in it, because Death is part of the Macrocosm that is the universe as a whole. This weekend, a beloved family member joined the ranks of the Mighty Dead. Not too long ago, I wrote of a friend’s death, too. Death has been on my mind for a few months, but it should really be on my mind fairly often, much more often than it would be on the minds of an ordinary person.
And so it’s important for a magician of any particular tradition to get themselves in the right state of mind with regard to death — the one thing that is certain to happen in any person’s lifetime. Even those Christians who might be inclined to argue should remember that even He didn’t get to live — which is why we have an Easter, after all. This need to understand and ‘get death sorted out’ is particularly important for many magicians, as one of the things that results from any long-term, solid magical practice is a gradual (sometimes quite sudden) diminishment of the fear of death. Death, rightly understood, is a phase-change, or a change of state — hardly an ending, but definitely a transition of some kind. Which is as it should be.
Even as magicians, though, we’re often unconcerned as a societal norm, about the question of what happens to the living after we die. And it’s worth spending some time working magic around these issues. Magic, in this sense, means an alteration of consciousness — and specifically, a change of mindset about how you think about death and how you manage your relationship with its consequences. Maybe you have elderly parents who are somewhere in the last years of their lives; or maybe your parents died and left you to clean up their mess. Maybe you have a relative whose care will fall to you in the even that their forgetfulness progresses to dementia, Alzheimer’s or worse.
And so I offer these four subjects for meditation
The Living Web
Who are you related to? Take a moment to visualize your living family tree. Who is your oldest living relative? Who is your youngest living relative? Who are the parents, the grandparents, the aunts and uncles, the cousins, who separate you from these two, the oldest and the youngest. Visualize this tree the same way you would look at a chart of the kings and queens of England, for example — put photographs in your mind’s eye of the people that you know. Consider not just ties of blood but also of marriage.
Who are the linchpins? If Aunt Bertha died tomorrow, who would make the funeral arrangements? If Uncle David went comatose, who has the power to make medical decisions for him? If you got run over by a bus tomorrow on the way to work, who is the executor for you and your heirs?
These are not idle questions. They have real answers, and the consequences of those answers have real-world effects. It might be that once it happens to you, you won’t care any more — in fact, it’s pretty clear that you won’t care. But someone has to make a decision for you.
Write an Obituary
Take a moment, and grab a sheet of paper or open a new word processor document. In 300-400 words, write your obituary. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to have some clarity about what you’ve done and who you’ve worked for, and who your living and dead relations are. What matters to you in your life? What factual evidence supports that idea?
Once you’ve written your own obituary, print it and put it in a file somewhere with “WHEN I DIE” written on it. Periodically update that file.
Write a Funeral Plan
Now that you’ve identified the important things in your life, identify what happens to your body. Open a second document, and draft an outline of what you want to have happen to your body when you die.
- Cremation or Burial?
- Fancy casket or plain box?
- What happens to the body or ashes?
- Burial or scattering in a specific place or way?
- Funeral (body present) or Memorial Service (no body present)
- Religious affiliation (service in a funeral home/generic, in a church or sacred place)
- Format of the service (religious or secular, formal or informal)
- Sacred texts to be read, songs to be sung
- People to be asked to speak, recent contact information
All of this can cost money-money-money. It’s not unreasonable to think that dying can result in $10,000 in funeral and memorial expenses. There’s a balance between helping the living by creating structures for them to follow, and making your death extra-burdensome.
Print the document, and stick it in your “When I Die” folder. Update this document periodically.
Now that you’ve thought about your own life and the immediate crisis of your death in a little more detail, think about your possessions. Create a third document.
Ideally, this should be in serious legal boilerplate language, with two witnesses, and a copy should be deposited with a lawyer (and a lawyer should draft it and edit it according to your desires). But that’s expensive. You can sometimes get a kit from an office supply store with the basic text written into it, but you still need witnesses to prove that you signed it on a given date and place. I am not a lawyer, and you should consult with one to make this as ironclad as possible.
Here’s what you should cover, at a minimum:
- Order of Succession: from most capable to least capable, list who is chiefly responsible for disposing of your stuff and arranging for its dispersal. This person is called the Executor (sometimes a woman doing this job is called Executrix, which is as cool a title as can be imagined. They have broad leeway to do with your stuff whatever they please.
- Define what happens to the minors and seniors in your care: adult children are expected to take care of themselves; so are spouses. But if you are responsible for your elderly Aunt Veronica with dementia, identify her new caretaker (ideally her next of kin, or your executor will get tied up in all kinds of court proceedings; you can’t assign the job to someone who isn’t related to Veronica against their will). What family member will take in your young children? If your death takes out your spouse at the same time — double-fatality car accident, for example — does that have an effect on who the caretaker of the remaining family members are?
- Define what happens to your money — who gets what, in what percentages. It’s helpful to create two lists here: one that’s definitively inside the will, which the Executor has to follow; and one outside the will, which are gifts that the Executor can make at their discretion or ability.
- Define what happens to your physical stuff. Got a Beanie Baby collection? Or a set of Star Trek collectible plates? Grandma’s heirloom silver from her mother’s 25th wedding anniversary? Again, some of this is going to be in the will, so the Executor has no leeway about it; some of this can be in a discretionary document.
- Define what happens to your digital and intellectual property. I have books on Amazon, for example: who gets the royalties (such as they are)? Who gets the digital passwords to this blog? Who has the right to publish my material? And on an intellectual level, you probably have books and papers of your own writing, or drawing, your own artwork too. All of that kind of stuff has to be assigned — and gain, some of it can be assigned in the will, which the Executor can’t ignore; and some of it can be left to a side-document, managed at the Executor’s discretion.
You should be doing this anyway, for the sake of your own living. But make up a fourth sheet with the names of your bank accounts, the branches at which you do businesses, and the locations of your investment accounts if any.
Make up a fifth sheet with the names of your monthly bills, and their rough amounts.
Make a sixth sheet for your “when I die” file with the names of your insurance companies and their phone numbers.
When you die, the first thing that’s likely to happen is that your bank accounts will be frozen until your will is confirmed, and your executor is named and acknowledge by a special judgeship called the Probate Court. Give your executor a quick heads-up on where to find the money, and what immediate bills might need to be covered.
As you get older, your mind goes more frail; it can hold fewer and fewer passwords; fewer and fewer usernames; fewer and fewer social media services will capture your interest. Chances are you’ll lose interest in most of them.
If you died tomorrow, though, someone would have to figure out how to get into your iPhone, your Facebook and Instagram accounts, and, let’s face it, your bank accounts.
Trying to guess your granddad’s iPhone password is likely to turn it into a very expensive brick.
How will you keep your executor in the loop on all of this?
There are, broadly speaking, five ways of leaving life behind:
- suddenly and unexpectedly with no warning
- slowly and with a long planning window ahead of time
- as a frail mind in a strong body
- as a strong mind in a frail body
- as a frail mind in a frail body
In the first case, no one is going to need your much of your medical information as you leave life: you’ll get struck by a reindeer, or be slain by a jealous spouse in a fit of rage while you sit at center-court at Wimbledon (this was my grandfather’s planned exit, though he didn’t get it), or drown accidentally while diving for Spanish gold in the Caribbean.
in the second through fifth cases, there will be piles of medical information: test results that show you’re dying, documentation proving the infection isn’t going to get stopped, paperwork warning you of untreatable side effects from necessary medication.
You can’t fudge this stuff — either you need a lawyer to draft this document, called a “durable power of attorney” or you have to fill out a form specific to your state, granting this power to a trusted family member. The power can always be overridden by your verbal say-so in a crisis, provided that you’re awake and able to answer for yourself. And it’s revocable; you can take it back at any time. It’s still the case that someone else may have to make a critical decision for you.
You may also want to create a long-range health plan for yourself, and discuss it with trusted confidants. When do you want to be resuscitated? When don’t you want to live any more? What sort of illnesses will make you reject painful medical treatment for the sake of dying quietly at home? How do you want to say goodbye to the world — at home? While traveling? In a hospital bed surrounded by machines?
Create the paperwork, and file it.
Congratulations! You’ve now created a paper-trail of passwords, account information, documentation and legal formulae that, if found by some bad actor or suspicious person, can literally wreck your life long before you die.
Keep it secret, keep it safe.
Except, of course, that there are all sorts of people that need to know that this paperwork exists, and where to find it in a crisis. There’s an important balance between creating the paperwork, hiding it, and revealing its existence to others.
Just because this paperwork exists, doesn’t mean you can file and forget. Some US states and other countries require it to be regularly re-written or re-filed with a lawyer. Sometimes if it’s more than five years old, it doesn’t count, or it counts less. If your life has undergone significant changes in five years, a Probate Judge may overrule your own guidelines. If you suffered traumatic brain injury, a court may overrule your “sound mind and body” will.
So update your files regularly.
Talk to people
Death is a part of life. As the Christian liturgy would have it,
In the midst of life, we are in death; we are in death; we are in death.
In the midst of death, we are in life; we are in life; we are in life.
Talk to people you trust in specific terms about what is in your “when I die” files. Coach them about what to put in their own, when they ask you for help.
The more people know that you have made plans for the moment your life ends, and that you’ve made your peace with the end, the more easily your guidelines and instructions will be followed. You’ll be able to direct a harmonious symphony at the hour of your departure from this life, instead of a cacophonous crisis as someone throws a bomb into the music factory and the notes rain down all over town.
Good and Bad Deaths
When Henry II, king of England, died in 1189, there was cursing and violence at his bedside as Henry tried to renege on the legal and political deal-making of the last ten years of his life. Once he was dead, his servants apparently ransacked the royal household — prying up anything nailed down and hauling away all that was valuable. The king had, in his long-running feud with both France and his remaining sons, neglected to provide much in the way of a pension for his retainers — they took most of his belongings out of spite, and there was little of substance for anyone to inherit. Nor his empire did not long survive him — without a clear plan of succession, the king’s children fought each other and France, and allowed the powerful to strip the kingdom of both wealth and law; Robin Hood grew up in the long shadow of Henry II’s death.
The child of one of those servants, though, a powerful man in his own right, left things in rather better order: William Marshall, the regent of King Henry III, realized he was dying in March of 1219. He summoned the barons of England and its bishops, the leaders of the fledgling Parliament, and the papal legate, to his favorite house. As he lay dying in his sickbed (a strong mind in a frail body!), he specifically rejected particular lords and bishops as the new Regent, chose his own successor with the support of the young king Henry (the Papal legate got the job), and personally distributed his most valuable belongings and goods to his favorites and allies — rewarding them in the sight of everyone who mattered. Thirty minutes after disposing of all of his worldly goods, he joined the Knights Templar as a poverty-stricken old man, in fulfillment of a vow he’d made on Crusade two decades earlier. And a day after that, he was dead — divested of his power and property, a burden to no one, and a cause of no chaos in the world as he eased from this life to the next.
How do you intend to go out?