by John Newmeyer, Ph.D.
Living Wills allow people to specify at which stage of decrepitude to "just let go". I estimate that the Terri Schiavo case will provoke a million Americans to prepare Living Wills. In the rich tradition of irony in our country, those who fought so hard to keep feeding poor brain-dead Terri intended the opposite, i.e., the promotion of a "culture of life". But people want the freedom to die at their own pace.
If we have Living Wills, why not "Living Wakes"? I propose that American culture adopt the "Living Wake" as new mode whereby to understand and cope with this awesome new freedom of choice. For that's what we truly have: the freedom to decide our own fate in our nineties or whatever age when one evolves into physical collapse. Let's take a hard look at this freedom.
A Living Wake is like an Irish wake, in that dear ones pay their respect in the presence of the departing body- amidst food, drink, and gOOd conversation. The Living Wake takes place in that interval of time after the decision to pull the plug is made, but before that decision takes effect. In a Living Wake, the dear one is not departed, but departing.
As with the Irish Wake, the Living Wake should transpire in a commodious place. A hospital won't do. A hospice is OK; better still would be the Departerís home, or the home of a friend. There should be a hall (or vestibule, or porch) for greeting of arrivals; a living room (or front parlor, or great room) where the Departer lies comfortably, a kitchen; and a dining room (or family room, or media room) where large quantities of good food and drink are laid out to celebrate and sustain the ongoing lives of the living.
One should arrive promptly to a Living Wake, out of respect for the Departer whose time is so very short. After a brief reception, one should view the Departer and speak a few words of thanks to him for his having been part of one's life. Family members may choose to express gratitude to the Departer for the Living Will "which has saved us so much agony and expense and uncertainty". The great virtue of a Living Wake is that it enables all these kind words to be spoken to a living person- a thing meaningful to the speakers even if their words aren't really "heard". For this reason, the Departer should lie in whichever room of the house confers the most dignity to the occasion- the living room, not the bedroom.
After the ceremonial words and the sharing of food and drink, the visitors may leave at their own pace- perhaps with the admonition, "last one to leave, turn out the lights and pull the plug... "
So much the better if the Departer has instructed that his worldly goods be distributed promptly upon death: the Living Wake is a perfect time to do so. "Came into the world naked, leave the world naked" can be the Departer's blessing to his family and friends as the place is stripped bare.
It's possible that some dear ones won't leave at all but will form a remnant "family", convinced that there's hope for recovery and that the Departer "would have meant us to consider that hope most carefully." This group would need to agree among themselves how the renewed burden of expense and caregiving would now be shared.
Important to the logistical support of Living Wakes will be portable life-support machines- ventilators, feeding tubes, vasupressors, and suchlike. We can be confident that appropriate technology, transportation, and skilled labor will be supplied, at a price.