January 9, 2010

USA: Passing along life's lessons

. LOS ANGELES, California / Los Angeles Times / LA Now / January 9, 2010 SANDY BANKS Passing along life's lessons PDF: My mother's long-ago letter Despite today's era of advance funeral planning and online legacy sites, a simple, long-ago letter proves all the more comforting because it is so pure, so un-orchestrated. By Sandy Banks As a woman who hasn't managed yet to thank her Facebook friends for last year's birthday greetings, it seemed odd to be online this week making arrangements to let them know when and where my funeral will be. I was creating my own legacy at Bcelebrated.com, a website that lets you record everything attendant to your death -- who gets your heirloom china, what you really think of your son's girlfriend, what dress you want to be buried in. You can tell your life story and construct your own legacy; "put your affairs in order and say your goodbyes now," the website video offers, "in case you don't get the chance later." I passed on the cross and flowers and chose an image of a palm-tree lined beach for the template that grieving visitors will see. Finding a photo to post was not so easy. "Close up will work best," the Bcelebrated cyber-advisor said. I looked at my options and wondered if it's vain to airbrush a photo that no one will see until I'm dead. I never got to my autobiography; I couldn't decide between narrative, journal or thematic form. I was at a loss for words about what to write on my private pages, to "comfort loved ones when you are gone." I couldn't figure out how to keep the automated e-mails that will go out "to notify your community of your passing" from landing in my friends' spam folders. :: It seemed like such a tidy and practical approach to death when I heard about Bcelebrated from its founder, Debra Joy, a Santa Monica businesswoman who launched it last fall with her filmmaker husband, Mark Schwartz. She e-mailed this week after reading my column about my discovery of a letter my mother had written to her sister almost 60 years ago, when my mom was 19 years old. My mother has been dead since 1974; the letter was a treasure, and a revelation. I had never seen that side of her. Joy saw a parallel in Bcelebrated. "It can be a link between generations and family members," she said. The couple created the website to take care of both the practical issues that death leaves -- where to find financial information, how to notify people -- and to ease the passage emotionally with private messages and mementos. Subscribers pay $99.95 for a lifetime membership or, if you believe your days are numbered, $19.95 a year. For your money, you create your site, update it as time passes and designate trusted "activators" to unleash it when you "pass on." About 300 people have signed up. No one has yet had to activate a launch. It's not the only service of its kind. I found online sites like My Last Email, Legacy Lockers and Private Matters that notify friends, unveil post-death messages and even interact with social networking sites to "resolve online personas." Even mortuaries and cemeteries have gotten in on the action, letting you choreograph and script your own funeral. The death-planning industry is aimed at baby boomers who have the technological savvy to upload videos, export contacts and link to soundtracks from their MP3 players. And, unlike me, who have friends who won't be creeped out by an e-mail that says "This is to notify you that Sandy Banks has passed away. This is her memorial site. She wanted you informed as soon as possible." "It's for people 50 and up who have experienced their own mortality and thought about death," Joy said, because they've had friends and family members die. That would be me. But there's a difference in thinking about it and spending hours at a computer walking prospective mourners through a retrospective of your life. After an hour on the site, I felt more than a little depressed by all the in-your-face references to my death. Read related story by Sandy Banks A Mother Feels the Pain of Her Mistakes My reaction wasn't uncommon, Joy said. "People are either 'Oh my God, I want nothing to do with this' or 'This is a Godsend.' . . . I had a minister who couldn't do it. Some people don't want to face the fact that they are going to die." :: I remember the summer before my mother died. I was 19, and had moved back home from college because she had been diagnosed with cancer. We spent a lot of time in the kitchen; she taught me to cook from her wheelchair. As we rolled dough and made spaghetti sauce, she would blurt out odd confessions: a detail about a former boyfriend; an embarrassing moment in her adolescence. I realize now, she was offering me lessons: Don't worry if this happens to you. Heartaches heal. Everyone makes mistakes. She gave me a glimpse of the woman she had been, before she became my mother. I realize now that it was her way of managing the intrusion of death in an era before hospice care, funeral planning and online legacy sites. She delivered her message in the only way my 19-year-old mind could absorb -- in the breezy, chatty, girlfriend-y style that I recognize now from her long-ago letter. It's only now -- sitting at the computer, facing the blank screen that is supposed to be my legacy -- that I realize how difficult that unburdening must have been. And how impossible it is for me to know now what kind of messages and lessons my daughters will need when I die. My mother couldn't have known how much comfort her long-ago letter would bring me. And the fact that it was so pure, so un-orchestrated, only makes it that much sweeter. [rc] Sandy Banks E-Mail: sandy.banks@latimes.com Copyright 2010 Los Angeles Times