This is the End, My Friend?

Timothy Leary was dying, and he was having the time of his life.
Diagnosed in January 1995 with terminal prostate cancer, the bubbly
74-year-old LSD guru was living it up with friends and planning his
demise with humor and practicality. For example, he wore a metal
wrist bracelet with the name and number of a cryonics firm on it
and on the other wrist, reports the Los Angeles Times, a
bracelet with a rival cryonics firm’s number. ‘I want to keep my
options open,’ Leary said. He also said he wanted to pass on
conventional burial — when he drove past a veteran’s cemetery
where the rows of gravestones ‘gave me the creeps … It looks like
they were all index cards.’

Leary viewed dying as ‘the third act … the final scene of the
glorious epic of your life,’ and believed that ‘how you die is the
most important thing you do.’ He’s not the only one — there’s
unprecedented interest these days in death, perhaps because many in
a generation influenced by ‘mindful death’ writings and the revival
of dying at home are themselves facing the final decades. ‘Chances
are you’re bugged by death, too, especially if you’ve attended your
‘Lordy, Lordy, I can’t believe I’m 40′ birthday wake,’ writes Mark
Wheeler in Discover‘s (June 1995) reliably funny ‘Light
Elements’ column. ‘Indeed, it’s got me thinking like 120-year-old
Jeanne Calment, the world’s oldest human, who when asked what kind
of future she expected, replied, ‘A very short one.’ ‘

While not everyone’s laughing, they are talking turkey about
death, a subject that until 1995 had been as Leary notes, ‘a taboo
topic.’ Bestsellers such as How We Die are flying off the
shelf, and listeners flock to places such as the New York Open
Center for lectures on ‘The Art of Dying’ by Kenneth Ring
(near-death expert) and Therese Schroeder-Sheker (‘musical midwife’
to death). More are bypassing funeral homes to create new at-home
goodbye rituals, reports Jeff Elliott in New Age
(March/April 1995). Guides like Lisa Carlson’s Caring for Your
Own Dead
list all the technical details for do-it-yourselfers
who can personalize death as they wish: ‘Grandpa liked Hershey bars
about as good as anything the last few years. So we stuck one in
his shirt pocket, put a straw hat on his head, and laid him gently
into his pine and cedar casket,’ notes one participant in NEW
AGE.

For those who want to practice ‘voluntary dying,’ online
resources are flourishing.

And could it be that as death edges nearer, more of us warm to
notions of our post-death presence? Maybe that explains the
fascination with angels — not a bad afterlife, that; no bills and
effortless flying, with the occasional guest appearance. Maybe
we’ll be around the way the Moody Blues (how’d they know?)
prophesized in some song back when: ‘Timothy Leary’s dead/no,
no-no-no, he’s outside, looking in.’

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UTNE
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