Most of us, not giving it much thought, would prefer to die with our boots on. That means dying with a sense of purpose and actively engaged in life — impossible for the millions of us who are fated to die by choking on a chicken fajita or contracting Ebola at summer camp. But if you decide to die with your boots on, it’s best to be embarked on a noble or at least not a laughable endeavor when your moment comes. For example, if you are a gardener, you may wish to pass on while lovingly pruning your rose bushes. But if this is your choice, make sure that irritable bees don’t align on your face in the shape of a beard, so that a passing state trooper mistakes you for an escaped convict and shoots you dead on the spot, or that you don’t do a home lobotomy trying to reshape your eyebrows with a hedge-trimmer. Dignity counts, and your relatives want to be able to hold their heads up at your funeral, especially if they’re paying to have it catered. Remember: if you can’t die with your boots on, then die with them off, since that completely removes dignity from the equation. No one expects your barefoot cadaver to show dignity, and to underscore casualness, arrange to have the toenails painted green.
Given the ever-worsening prospects of earning enough to retire on, many of us will opt to die at work. While this is a worthy goal, be sure your occupation warrants this choice. Bus drivers and jet pilots and brain surgeons who opt to die while on duty may risk the safety and even lives of others by doing so, and should have backups standing by to fill in. Waitresses and car mechanics and bank tellers may also seriously inconvenience others by an on-the-job demise. But if you’re a pollster or a tax collector or an artist, go on and break out your rigor mortis.
Most people, after thinking the matter through, decide they want a gradual death rather than a sudden one. Better, they think, to sign off as the result of a long illness than to abruptly cash in their chips while speeding through a red light or sunbathing in the path of a hurricane. This reflects two widely held beliefs: that a long life beats a short one, and that even intense pain is preferable to no sensation at all. People would rather lie around for years in a soiled hospital gown talking to their spouse’s family and receiving hourly injections than have the Reaper sneak up on them and surprise their pants off.
The fact is that most of us want all the life we can get, up to a point. Where that point occurs varies from person to person. For some, no longer being able to play five sets of tennis or climb K2 without oxygen support may bring on a death wish, unlikely as that may sound to the more sedentary among us. For others, life continues to hold meaning even when they must be tied down to a chair to keep them from boarding a bus wearing only pajama tops and they can’t remember to eat unless someone shouts “food!” in their ear and hands them a fork.
What’s key here is setting a “decent interval” for your life. None of us wants to hang onto a meaningless, unfulfilling life. To do so is deemed “indecent” by society, whoever they are. But what makes for a decent interval will naturally vary among individuals. If you invented Facebook and became a billionaire in your mid-twenties, you are unlikely to think that 25 years was a decent enough interval in which to be you, but it’s time to push off and not be you beginning year 26. We can probably all agree that a decent interval has ended when your shrunken spine curves like a question mark and you walk around helplessly staring at your feet. The cost of medical treatment is also a clue. When it turns out you need the equivalent of the Kennedy Space Center to monitor your breathing and your insurance premiums rise to 25 percent of GDP, it may be indecent to draw another breath. That your insurer refuses to cover your third donated heart is another sign that the miracle of life has lasted long enough.
When you have determined that your decent interval is over, naturally you are faced with the problem of dying. Few of us are so fortunate as to be carried off at the last decent second, and so you may need to facilitate the process. Since Dr. Kevorkian is no longer listed in the Yellow Pages, here’s a tip: have a glass or two of soothing wine. My preference would be Merlot, but I’m a red fancier. Any wine will do. Then take your medications, all of them, equal to a six months’ dose. Wait 15 minutes, then crawl into a warm tub and shave with a straight razor.
Alternatively, if you want to go out on a high note, plug in a Marshall amplifier and play “Purple Haze” on an electric guitar while soaking.
If you’re still alive after that, you really are indecent.