Talk About Your Death While You’re Still Healthy: Michelle Knox (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Michelle Knox’s Talk: Talk About Your Death While You’re Still Healthy at TED conference.


To kick the bucket, bite the dust, cash in your chips, check out, depart, expire, launch into eternity. These are all euphemisms we use in humor to describe the one life event we are all going to experience: death. But most of us don’t want to acknowledge death, we don’t want to plan for it, and we don’t want to discuss it with the most important people in our lives.

I grew up in an Australian community where people got old or sick and passed away, and only the adults attended the funeral. My parents would come home looking sad and drained, but they didn’t discuss it with us.

So I was ignorant to death and of the grieving process. At 15, I got my invitation. A dear neighbor who was like an aunt to me died suddenly of a heart attack, and I attended my first funeral and did my first reading. I didn’t know the tightness in my chest and the dryness in my mouth was normal. The celebrant got some of the facts wrong, and it made me really angry.

He talked about how she loved knitting. Knitting — He didn’t mention that, at 75, she still mowed her own lawn, built an amazing fish pond in her front yard and made her own ginger beer. I’m pretty sure “keen knitter” isn’t what she would have chosen for her eulogy. I believe if we discuss death as part of day-to-day living, we give ourselves the opportunity to reflect on our core values, share them with our loved ones, and then our survivors can make informed decisions without fear or regret of having failed to honor our legacy.

I am blessed to lead a wonderful, culturally diverse team, and in the last 12 months, we’ve lost five parents, including my own father, and most recently, a former colleague who died at 41 from bowel cancer. We started having open and frank conversations about what we were experiencing. We talked about the practical stuff, the stuff no one prepares you for: dealing with government agencies, hospitals, nursing homes, advanced care directives, funeral directors and extended family members, making decisions about coffins, headstones, headstone wording, headstone font size, all while sleep-deprived.

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We also discussed some of the issues triggered by our various cultural backgrounds, and we realized there can be some significant differences in how we honor the passing of a loved one. A great example of this is “Sorry Business,” practiced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

During Sorry Business, family members will take on specific roles and responsibilities, protocols such as limiting the use of photographs, saying the name of the deceased, and holding a smoking ceremony are all a sign of respect and allow for a peaceful transition of the spirit. These customs can be a complete contrast to those we might practice in Western cultures, where we would honor the memory of a loved one by talking about them and sharing photographs.

So my lesson from this last year is, life would be a lot easier to live if we talked about death now, while we’re healthy. For most of us, we wait until we are too emotional, too ill or too physically exhausted — and then it’s too late. Isn’t it time we started taking ownership of our finale on this earth? So let’s get going.

Do you know what you want when you die? Do you know how you want to be remembered? Is location important? Do you want to be near the ocean or in the ocean? Do you want a religious service or an informal party, or do you want to go out with a bang, literally, in a firework?

When it comes to death, there’s so much to discuss, but I want to focus on two aspects: why talking about and planning your death can help you experience a good death, and then reduce the stress on your loved ones; and how talking about death can help us support those who are grieving.

So let’s start with planning. How many of you have a will? Put your hand up. Oh, this is fantastic. In Australia, 45 percent of adults over the age of 18 do not have a legal will. You’re a little bit above average. This is a startling statistic given that writing a will can actually be quite simple and inexpensive.

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So I started asking my friends and neighbors and was really surprised to learn many of them don’t have a will, and some couples don’t realize they need individual wills. The usual explanation was, well, it’s all going to go to my partner anyway. So keep in mind that laws vary from state to state and country to country, but this is what happens in New South Wales if you die without leaving a legal will.

Firstly, a suitable administrator must be appointed by the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Chances are this is someone who would never have met the deceased. That person is then responsible for arranging your funeral, collecting assets and distributing them after paying debts and taxes. And one of those debts will be the bill for their services. This is not someone who would have known you want the four-foot wooden giraffe in your living room to go to the person who helped you carry it halfway across the world, and yes, that’s in my will.

If you die leaving a spouse or a domestic partner, then chances are they will receive your estate, but if you are single, it’s far more complicated, as parents, siblings, half-siblings and dependents all come into play. And did you know that if you make a regular donation to charity, that charity may have grounds to make a claim on your estate?

The most important thing to know is the bigger your estate, the more complicated that will will be, and the more expensive that bill. So if you don’t have a will, I ask you when else in your life have you willingly given money to the government when you didn’t have to?

I lost my father in February to a progressive lung disease. When dad knew his death was imminent, he had three clear wishes. He wanted to die at home; he wanted to die surrounded by family; and he wanted to die peacefully, not choking or gasping for air. And I’m pleased to say that my family were able to support dad’s wishes, and he achieved his goals, and in that sense, he had a good death. He had the death he planned for.

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Because dad wanted to die at home, we had to have some pretty tough conversations and fill out a lot of paperwork. The questions on the forms cover everything from resuscitation to organ donation. Dad said, “Take whatever organs you can use.” This was upsetting to my mum, as my dad’s health was deteriorating rapidly, and it was no longer the right time to talk about organ donation. I believe we need to discuss these issues when we are fit and healthy, so we can take the emotion out of it, and then we can learn not just what is important, but why it’s important.

So as part of my journey, I started engaging my family and friends to find out their thoughts on death, and how they wanted to be remembered. I discovered you can host a “Death Over Dinner,” or a “Death Cafe,” which is a great, casual way to introduce the topic and gain some wonderful insight.

Did you know that your body has to be legally disposed of, and you can’t just be shoved off a cliff or set fire to in the backyard? In Australia, you have three options. The two most common are burial and cremation, but you can also donate your body to science. And I am pleased to report that innovation has touched the world of corpse disposal. You can now opt for an eco-funeral. You can be buried at the base of a tree in recycled cardboard or a wicker basket, and for those who love the ocean, there are eco-friendly urns that will dissolve at sea.

Personally, I plan to be cremated, but given that I get seasick, I can think of nothing worse than having my ashes flung into a huge ocean swell. I’ve actually bought a plot in the rose garden next to my dad. I call it my investment property. But sadly, there’s no tax deduction. So if you plan for your death, then your survivors will know how to experience a healthy bereavement without fear or guilt of having failed to honor your legacy.

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