The tale of two deaths. Aretha Franklin and John McCain
Much has been said and written about John McCain’s funeral. That he was true to his maverick, straight-talk to the end. That it wasn’t about party (he asked both George W. Bush and Barack Obama to eulogize him), but about morality. But whether you admired McCain as a politician or not — what’s undeniable is that his final act was a courageous one, he faced his impending death straight on and left his family and friends few questions about his final wishes.
Over half of American adults don’t have a will, and many more have never talked to their loved ones about what they want done with their remains or what kind of funeral they want. McCain, in contrast, attended to every detail, gathering a group of people to start planning after he was diagnosed with glioblastoma. Months ago, he personally reached out to those he wanted to eulogize him, going so far as to summon former vice president Joe Biden to his home to make the request. While his family clearly suffers as they mourn him, his clarity about what he wanted stands as a tremendous gift, the gift of not having to make endless complex decision during the peak of grief.
If we contrast McCain’s death planning with that of Aretha Franklin’s we face more questions than we do answers. According to her nephew, Aretha didn’t talk about plans for her funeral, though she was seventy-six and had terminal pancreatic cancer. The family ended up asking a pastor who had spoken at other family funerals to eulogize her, and afterwards her nephew issued a statement about how aggrieved and offended they were by the content of the eulogy. When the Queen of Soul died, she also did not leave a signed will, which means her estate settlement will cost many legal dollars—and many years-- to sort through. An attorney who handled entertainment matters for her for thirty years repeatedly urged her to put together a will and a trust. She understood the need, but he said that “It just didn’t seem to be something she got around to.”
I can’t know why Aretha Franklin didn’t want to talk about her impending death, but it is not uncommon, and the complexity of this inquiry cannot leave out the fact that the growing “death positive” movement has been largely built by and primarily serves white America. As the founder of Death Over Dinner and the host of hundreds if not thousands of conversations about death over the years, I’ve seen the resistance, resistance that cuts across race, age, geography. Talking about death is frightening, it’s emotional, and it also can feel a little bit like you’re inviting death in by speaking its name. A colleague of mine, Chyna Wu, grew up in Hong Kong and said she’s always been surprised by the Western discomfort in talking about death. She said that her friends consistently discourage the use of the word “death” in her marketing materials—and yet she’s a grief specialist. If she won’t use the words death and dying, who will?
John McCain was not afraid of talking about death and was very clear when he shared the bleak survival statistics for his aggressive glioblastoma that while he would fight it, he had a lot of projects he needed to finish up in a hurry. Those included an HBO Documentary, a book with longtime collaborator Mark Salter, and a forty-page document outlining his memorial plans. McCain made the decision to end treatment himself. And as Cindy McCain wrote of her husband’s death: “He passed the way he lived, on his own terms, surrounded by the people he loved, in the place he loved best.” It’s how many of us would like to go. But though 80 percent of people say they want to die at home, only 20 percent do. Because we’re not communicating our wishes, our family members don’t know. Death is not a medical act, and it’s not a Political one; Death is human and the humans in our lives will be undoubtedly be better if they know how we want to be honored.