Envisioning your funeral sounds morbid, but research suggests that contemplating your mortality has real psychological benefits
I’m driving my kids to school, trying my best to block out the intermittent screams from the backseat as they squabble over snacks, when a scene from my own funeral flashes into my mind.
“I loved my mom because she was so generous,” says my older son, who is somehow a well-dressed adult with his same freckled, five-year-old face, which is wet with tears. My other son nods in agreement from the pew, thinking back to all the times I bowed out of plans with friends or rearranged my work schedule so I could tuck him in at night.
It sounds kind of morbid, but I regularly catch myself thinking about my death — not really the act of dying, but what comes afterward. What my world looks like without me around. It’s not that I think I’m going to die sometime soon, or that I wantto. I’m just keenly aware that, at some point in the near or distant future, I won’t exist anymore.
To be honest, coming face-to-face with my own transience on this planet mostly makes me uncomfortable. For most people, death is too mysterious to make us feel anything else — none of us have died, obviously, so it can be hard to wrap our heads around what it even means.
But for some, like the people who gather at death cafés or take classes at the Art of Dying Institute, that’s exactly why entertaining the idea of mortality is so important: Thinking and talking about this mysterious concept makes the whole thing less terrifying and more approachable. And there’s plenty of evidence that keeping death at the forefront of your mind can have a positive influence on psychological well-being: One study of funeral directors, for example, found that industry veterans who had attended more funerals were less anxious about death than their less-experienced peers. Another study found that repeated encounters with death leads to a sense of “renewal” in the lives of hospice workers.
And it turns out my morbid little habit of envisioning my funeral may have benefits beyond providing a mental escape from a chaotic minivan. Kathleen Gilbert, a professor emerita at Indiana University’s School of Public Health and a fellow in thanatology — that’s the scientific study of death — for the Association for Death Education and Counseling, says reflecting on your own death creates a context for your life. Contemplating your mortality might seem like a distraction from reality, but the opposite is truer: It can actually be grounding.
“In our culture, the focus on the future is so intense that people don’t even think about enjoying where they are now — everything is in the context of how things will be later,” says Gilbert. “Thinking about death can help you center yourself and ask, ‘What is it in my life that brings me joy or makes me happy or fulfilled?’”
But it’s not just about enjoying the present. Thinking about your own death also gives you an opportunity to make adjustments — to use the time you do have to become the type of person you want to be.
Katherine Arnup, an associate professor of Canadian studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, volunteers regularly at a local hospice and is working on a book about death and dying. She says because a healthy awareness of death can clarify what really matters to you, it can also help you make decisions that align with your values.
For example, when you’re more keenly attuned to the brevity of life, you might rethink your miserable desk job or finally book that European trip you’ve always dreamt of — or, in my case, spend more time thinking about how you want your loved ones to remember you. (I’ve found that it’s much easier to summon my last reserves of patience when I imagine that the way I respond to my kids’ meltdowns as the potential material for my eulogy.) There’s also evidence that mindful awareness of death can make people less defensive about their worldviews and more selfless toward others.
That’s probably because facing the reality of death is humbling. Arnup says of her hospice work, “It was my weekly reminder that we’re all going to die: young people, old people, good people, and not-so-good people.”
The key is moderation. Gilbert says trying to avoid thinking about it altogether isn’t healthy. But neither is obsessing about your own mortality. Thinking about your future death should help you live a healthy and fulfilling life in the here and now.
As my imaginary funeral crowd celebrates my selfless life, my older son asks for something else to eat. I snap back into reality, with all the opportunities in the world to be the kind and generous person I want to be — starting with snacks.