Lately I’ve seen a bevy of observations that teachers are writing their wills as part of their preparation for the fall semester because they are scared of dying in the inevitable spike in Covid-19 cases that in-person classes could cause. I don’t want to make light of the fear; it’s a very real fear, and we should take it very seriously. However, something seems off about the way that the headlines and tweets assume that writing a will is something only someone expecting death in the near future ought to be doing, and I want to talk about that assumption.
American culture is death-avoidant. We don’t like talking about death. We don’t like facing our own mortality. This is evident all over the place, and not just in my brother-in-law shutting down the conversation any time I start to talk about death and mourning culture (which is something of a hobby interest for me and always has been; in his words, I’m “morbid”).
We shut away those who are near to death in hospitals and nursing homes, where we don’t have to face their suffering except for scheduled, contained visits on the terms of the well person, not the terms of the sick or dying. When people die, they’re carried out of those sanitized spaces in carefully disguised gurneys and whisked away to a funeral home where they aren’t typically seen again until they’ve been embalmed, dressed up, and given makeup to make them appear more “natural,” as if being dead were somehow unnatural. Then they’re viewed, again in scheduled, contained visits, and either cremated or buried. We no longer use outward signs of mourning: no black armbands, no mourning jewelry to tell people around us “Hey, I’m grieving, please be gentle with me” as we move through the “normal” world. Cemeteries are often empty of visitors, despite all the effort we put into making them into nice places. Our workplaces give us a day or two off and expect us to be back to regular productivity as soon as the earth covers the body. And heaven forbid we involve anyone else in our grief; that stuff’s private.
This “death denial” in American culture is well documented (I recommend starting with Caitlyn Doughty’s books; they’re very accessible). The result, however, is that if someone decides to make their will, or wants to discuss what they want done for them in the event that they’re incapacitated (a “living will”) or that they die, it’s assumed that they must have some dread diagnosis or be terribly sick. And that’s a problem.
We need to normalize making wills and discussing our death plans with our loved ones. We need to have these conversations when we aren’t dealing with the dread of an impending threat as well as when we are. Of course, it can be comforting to have these conversations when we expect some threat; it’s something we can control in the face of the awful, inevitable, uncontrollable future. But we also need to sit with the discomfort of knowing that death can come unexpectedly as well, and so we ought to be prepared for it even when we’re healthy, young, and otherwise expected not to die.
This willingness to sit with the uncomfortable feelings that addressing our own mortality can bring can be framed as part of a growing movement called death positivity. Death positivity doesn’t mean we look forward to death, or that we want to die. It also doesn’t mean we erase the awfulness of death. It means that we talk about it, that we consider our options when we’re not actively dying or afraid of death, and that we hold open space for death and mourning for the dead as a normal, dignified part of human life.
In this frame, making out a will isn’t some dramatic action that normal people in normal times should never have to do. It’s a responsible thing to do that should be done regularly if you have any preference for how your body is treated and how your assets are distributed.
I don’t say this to dismiss the fears of the teachers who are making out their wills. Indeed, the pandemic has prompted my husband and me to have some difficult conversations about our death plans and whether or not we need a will (we’ve decided it isn’t strictly necessary at the moment as we don’t have much to protect, we’ve had a lot of these discussions regularly with family, and the legal defaults are fine by us for now). If you don’t have a will right now, and you have anything you want to protect (such as children) or any specific ideas about what you want done with your body or your possessions, then, yes, you should be making out a will. There is no better time than now.
But I don’t want you to think of it as an act of desperation. It’s an act of control and maturity, in facing your own mortality and recognizing that, while you can’t control when and how you die, you can control at least most of what happens when you do.