From Life Unto Death

Sogyal Rinpoche, Buddhist teacher, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, observed, “Normally we do not like to think about death. We would rather think about life. Why reflect on death? When you start preparing for death you soon realize that you must look into your life now… and come to face the truth of your self. Death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is reflected.”

On All Souls Day, November 2, 2019, Christians commemorated the faithful departed. On Veterans Day, November 11, we saluted veterans, especially those who gave all, as we prayed for their souls and for solace for family and loved ones. Linking those observances with Thanksgiving is conducive to reflection.

In 1964, I served as an Air Force officer at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, Vietnam.  Tan Son Nhut was the main entry and departure point for most civilian and military personnel involved in the growing war. As a transportation officer, a sobering aspect of my duties was to supervise the arrival of causalities and transport to the morgue, as well as arranging for planeside funerals for those making the final trip home. One night, around 2 a.m., a C-123 cargo plane arrived with the remains of a soldier killed up north, in a body bag on a stretcher anchored to the floor. As two airmen lifted the body, a crew member said, “Here lieutenant,  you’re going to need this.” It was a freshly pressed uniform with a name tag and 1st Lieutenant insignia, the same rank as mine.

War often is matter-of-fact until the reality of humanity hits you. No longer was this just another body, faceless remains obscured by a bag, but a young man with a name. A man who got up that morning as I did, proceeded to do his duty as did I, and for whatever reason he was dead, and I was not. Why?

In August, 1964, the Bay of Tonkin crisis occurred and President Johnson ordered a rapid buildup of forces. A college buddy of mine, a pilot and dear friend who I’d see in Saigon periodically, was shot down on approach to Bien Hoa airfield north of Saigon. He was the first Georgetown University graduate to die in the Vietnam War and now rests in Arlington National Cemetery. We both graduated in the same class. He died young in a futile war. I got to come home, marry, have a great career, children and grandchildren, and he did not. Why?

As humans, we’re born to focus on life. We don’t like the word “death.” It’s too harsh, too grim. In a 1789 letter Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” We spend a great deal of time and money each year with accountants and financial advisors trying to minimize tax burdens, making sure we file on time. Yet, given the certainty of death, albeit we don’t know when or under what circumstances, why don’t we do more advance planning to spare loved ones and those who depend on us substantial headache and pain at a time of loss and grief?

The statistics of those who die without wills is startling. The number of widows and families who are struggling financially because a breadwinner died with no insurance, or inadequate coverage, is sad. The numbers of “sandwich generation” daughters and sons dealing with challenges of aging parents who were not prepared for infirmity is heartbreaking. Early in my financial services career, I watched my company blow up because the owner, who died suddenly in his early 50s, had not prepared a succession and transition plan.

Out of experience as advisors we urge as part of ongoing planning, wills, powers of attorney for assets and healthcare, advance directives, trusts where applicable, be up to date. All closely-held business owners, key people who depend on that business, families for whom the viability of the enterprise is the foundation for economic security, have an interest in timely succession and transition planning.

When you’re young, a bullet proof aura of immortality rules. That’s why when you lose a friend, a beloved sibling or other relative, the reality of mortality stings so deeply. Irrespective of age, planning for disability and death is important.

Daily we hear about someone who got up just like you in the morning, and never made it home. If that was you, and a week later you able to come back from the Great Beyond for a few hours to talk to loved ones, what would you tell them? What would they need to know? Why wait to have that conversation? Why wait to take action?


By Lewis J. Walker, CFP®


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