Sallie Tisdale has advice for all of us future corpses. And that is to talk bluntly about death—especially our own.
Tisdale has worked in palliative care and is an end-of-life educator and Buddhist practitioner who holds workshops on death preparation. Her recent book, Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, was named one of the New York Times Top Books of 2018. In it, Tisdale explains the realities that come with dying and the importance of normalizing conversations about death.
Ideas of impermanence and rebirth after death are tenets of Buddhism, yet Tisdale finds they don’t make the prospect of dying easier to grasp. At 62, she still finds it difficult to imagine herself as a future corpse. When death hits close to home, everything feels clumsy and uncertain, she said. “We’re beginners at this. Everything you know falls away.”
Rather than planning too meticulously for a “good death,” Tisdale suggests adopting a “mastery of death”—just coming to peace with the fact that we all must die eventually—because we can’t know how our death will go.
Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare. I spoke with Tisdale, and here’s what she suggested we can do.
Sydney Worth: How has your experience with end-of-life care affected the kind of advice you give in your workshops?
Sallie Tisdale: A lot of what I do as a nurse is to normalize [death]. One of the things I want people to consider if they’re going to be with someone who’s dying, is what do you bring into that room. Are you bringing ideas of what you think is a good death that might start to impact how you care for a person? A good death—most people think that means peaceful, no pain, and at home with family. That’s not realistic for a lot of people. I want people to get in touch with their own state and realize that we’re all carrying around some kind of idea about death.
Worth: Where do you think our avoidance of death comes from?
Tisdale: We in the modern West are in a unique position. In less than 100 years, [death has] disappeared from the home in the U.S. That change happened because families became more mobile and scattered. It’s the current generations that have not been exposed to it very much.
Worth: So, this lack of exposure is a result of modernization?
[Death] may not look like the fantasy we’re still carrying around.
Tisdale: We have a fantasy that we’re going to die in our home like we did 150 years ago, but that world doesn’t exist anymore. [Death] may not look like the fantasy we’re still carrying around. A body gradually loses all of its integrity as we die. We need to say you might have diarrhea at 3 in the morning. How is that going to be handled? And how does that fit into your fantasy? I like this idea of a mastery of death meaning that I am at peace in myself. My dignity and self-worth have nothing to do with what happens to my body.
Worth: Can we start mastering death now?
Tisdale: Notice I didn’t say “master” death, because we don’t get to stop it. Mastery of death would mean acceptance. It’s this old Zen saying, “We love the china bowl because it will break.” We love the fragile. And that’s why we love each other—because we only have so much time. We see the fragility of change.
Worth: What are some things people forget to do before they die?
Tisdale: An awful lot of people never tell their friends or family or doctor what kind of death they want to have. There’s nothing more difficult than being handed this awkward object of a loved one’s corpse and being told what to do with it in a moment when you’re in emotional distress. Why would we consign our family to make that decision instead of being willing to talk about it?
Worth: When should we start preparing for death, then?