The Death Book

Allison Gustavson
9 min readAug 25, 2021

What do my 101-year-old Grandpa’s instructions for his death reveal about the world he occupied and the one we are left to reckon with?

A few years ago, at the urging of a therapist, I visited a woman in Salem, MA with a reputation as a masterful practitioner of past-life regression. (There, in that first sentence, already a death: a small but perceptible death of the part of me that is barely able to admit, even to friends, that she has seen a therapist. Good riddance.)

The regression experience itself — designed to widen the lens on my current life while implicitly reassuring me that this is not, in fact, my only shot at the whole thing — was absolutely useless. While supposedly in a trance state, I found myself responding to my guide’s verbal prompts with imagery lifted directly, if unintentionally, from the fictionalized account of World War II I’d been reading in her waiting room.

Only two things remain vividly alive for me from that day. First, the blend of shame and judgment I felt on that couch, knowing that I was both bullshitting and — even as I sheepishly admitted as much to her — being seemingly bullshitted right back (“Not to worry, dear — just stay with the images that come. You are on a train, it feels like 1940s Germany, you see nursing shoes…”).

Second, and most relevantly, though, was the chilling admonition she casually tossed my way during our pre-consultation, when I told her that I had only been old enough to really remember the death of my maternal grandmother: “So you’ve experienced the loss of just one person so far? You, my dear, have a lot of death ahead of you.” Yikes.

That was about six or seven years ago, though, and still, thank God, nobody close to me has died.

My grandfather (great-grandfather to six, including my own two children, now fifteen and twelve) is a robustly cognizant 101 whose impressive Covid existence includes crossword puzzles, weightlifting with canned goods in his kitchen, watching Shabbat services on the computer, writing his Congressman, and making (and remaking, with no discernible underlying logic) lists of a seemingly inexhaustible number of accumulated objects he’d like to bequeath to various family members.

A lifelong educator who lost my grandmother to Alzheimers after devoting many difficult years to her care, Grandpa spent his early retirement years in the dismayingly-named but otherwise cozy retirement community of Leisure World in Silver Spring, MD. A year or two after Grandma died, Grandpa met Dotty, who was widowed and wealthy, and when they fell in love and married, he wound up in her newly built $2 million condo in Chevy Chase; not without some reservations, mind you, but acclimating rather quickly, as most of us would, to the luxurious trappings of a residence earmarked for the 1%.

His ongoing disbursement of household objects (Lladro figurines, Jewish ephemera, Grandma’s many needlepoints) is part of a larger and ongoing project of Grandpa’s: preparing for his death. It’s a layered and complicated affair under any circumstances; for Grandpa, who has been retired for more than 40 years, it has been at least a peripherally organizing force for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and it was supposedly all perfectly contained in what Grandpa has come to refer to as his “Death Book.” I say “supposedly” because while the effort is most certainly well-intended, I have recently discovered that it is far from the tidy, austere handbook I’d imagined.

I encountered the Death Book first hand only a few weeks ago, after offering to help my dad, who was ultimately tasked with managing it all for his father-in-law. I was shocked to realize that the Death Book proper — the item that gives the project its name, and its critical mass — is nothing more than the same generic denim-lined binder I’d used throughout middle school. It almost hurt my heart, the way that cheap notebook held evidence of an unfathomable finality as casually as it would a science test or some long-forgotten math homework. Flipping through, you can practically smell the cafeteria, feel the scratch of marker on rough material, trace the heart-shaped longing of a fleeting seventh grade crush. (Whatever that feeling is, though, this is its opposite.)

But it really should have been called the Death Pile, when you took into account the scattered notes and loose papers that accompanied the notebook and more than doubled its actual contents. It was all there, and Grandpa had truly thought of everything in his effort to make absolutely sure that it was all there; the problem was really just that he thought of everything over and over again and seems to have simply shoved in notes, ideas, and directives as they occurred to him on any given day. I may not know much in this life, for example, but I do know this — if you decide to hold a funeral on a Sunday, the cemetery is going to charge you an extra $400. I unearthed this nugget no fewer than five times, in five different places, attached to five different documents of questionable relevance.

The Death Pile contains, of course, the obvious stuff: procurement of the burial plot, wills and codicils, lists of people to contact, life insurance policies, Veterans Affairs. There are also the documented distillations of the complex, greed-infected family dramas that seem to lurk under the polished veneer of even the most seemingly functional families; in our case, a failed attempt by at least one of Dotty’s children to stake a baseless legal claim to Grandpa’s life insurance payout, and a list of payments made to various individuals I’d compiled into a folder I chose to label “Loans to Deadbeats.”

Then there are the softer, more narrative elements of Grandpa’s collection: letters tracing a self-portrait of how he’d like to be remembered, and for what, and by whom. Stories he doesn’t want you to forget, compliments he’s received, honors bestowed, ceremonial flourishes he’s requesting for his funeral. Much of this content is written in his almost-indecipherable handwriting on papers ripped from notepads of varying sizes and precariously clipped to legal-yellow sheafs covered with the same inscrutable scrawl.

Sorting through this life-pile was an exercise in two opposing forces: this was primarily the hard-angled administrative, left-brained activity of processing a mountain of information with speed and precision, and it was at least somewhat emotionally unencumbered by the fact that Grandpa is, thank God, alive and well. But it was also a confrontation with its implied negative space; you can’t help but look through the Death Book and feel a discomfiting existential inventory.

It was like entering a hall of mirrors: as I looked through that poignant summary of a life, I saw Grandpa seeing himself, and saw myself seeing him see himself, and then myself as I might one day wish to be seen, which was a thought quickly put aside.

We all undoubtedly want to be remembered by our loved ones and our communities with fondness, respect, and dignity. But Grandpa seems to have taken it to the next level: from his request for a full military salute (which is technically valid but, at least in the eyes of our family, an honor that might be more appropriately reserved for those with a more extensive military commitment and sacrifice) to his enlistment of Bill Cohen — former Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton and an acquaintance who happens to live in his building — to speak at his funeral, Grandpa’s directives are a bit, well, revealing.

Into these choices I read a certain egoic fragility, an eagerness to prove that his was a significant and unimpeachable life. And on the one hand, this is obvious and natural; of course Grandpa wishes and deserves to be remembered that way, especially since, by every metric imaginable, the truth is congruent with the aspiration. Grandpa’s life has been significant, his choices unimpeachable. He is beloved by all who encounter him, and always has been.

Confronting death is as momentous as it is unfathomable to those of us, like me, who have gratefully yet to do so; those depths are mined only in the most inaccessible recesses of each human soul, a place to which I rightfully have no access and clearly have no business.

And yet two questions nag as I contemplate Grandpa’s Death Book:

  • Why the grandiosity, when Grandpa’s life speaks so eloquently for itself, and what does it say about our culture’s infatuation with a specific brand of visible heroism?
  • At this precarious, despairing historical moment, how do we separate the Death Book from the particular soil — mid-century American life with its GI bills, manicured front lawns, pensions, and general archetype of the good man, good veteran, good husband, good citizen, and even good “whitey” (yes, there’s actually an anecdote in there about being called, by a Black colleague, a “whitey I can dig.” I’ll probably steer clear of that one in my eulogy) — that gave rise to this individual and successful life? A soil that feels trapped in amber, like an insect from a distant geological era?

Aside from Secretary Cohen, I’m Grandpa’s only other designated eulogist. But I’m not sure I can tell his story the way he wants me to, and I am so grateful, on every level, that I don’t yet have to. I think my ambivalence comes, at least in part, from the dissonance between the markers of exceptionalism on display in the proposed funeral versus the very real, personal, intimate and multifaceted ways that Grandpa has demonstrated, at every stage of his life, a deeper and — at least to me — more meaningful greatness.

On my most exhausted and self-pitying days, I have longed for the simpler American narrative that Grandpa’s life and Death Book largely portray, and for the uncluttered, optimistic confidence it bestowed upon even the most ordinary activities just a couple of decades ago: grocery trips that didn’t involve complex calculations adjusting for human exploitation, GMOs, carbon footprint, animal cruelty, and deforestation; the unbearable simplicity of heading to Florida — land of sunshine and palm trees and orange juice, not yet the shriveled foreskin of conspiracy, virus, and raging MAGA it has become — to visit Grandma and Grandpa for spring break; and even the blissful, privileged ignorance of my Obama-era self, who naively imagined that we had boarded the train and were well on our way to racial justice and could all be proud of our accomplishment.

Perhaps, though, hidden in my angst are the seeds of a new idea to replace an outmoded, dying one: a recognition of the futility of trying, day in and day out, individually and collectively, to project a perfection that we will never attain. From the endless, water-wasting struggle for the flawless lawn to the hundreds of dollars I spend trying to cover my gray hair to the unattainable image of white-toothed American glamour we’ve exported across the globe, maybe we should try working backwards from our own inevitable Death Books and organize our lives accordingly.

Because Grandpa’s Death Book, in all of its denim earnestness, reveals to me the impossibility of truly inscribing our legacy on those we leave behind; no matter how much we may aspire to greatness or permanence, the shifting sands of time and memory continuously rewrite our story.

Rather, then, let’s put aside myth-making in favor of the moments of true connection which really and always make a life. None of these moments are outlined in the Death Book, but they are absolutely the ones on which my (God-willing, “far into the”) eulogy for Grandpa will focus: my muscle-memory of the very specific pleasure of pressing upon Grandpa’s satisfyingly squishy thumb pad, our summers together playing Boggle on the beach in Ocean City, and the hours we’ve spent on the phone, talking about the state of the world and what to do about it. The laughs we’ve shared, sometimes even at his own expense, and the countless family dinners and seders and celebrations, the untold personal treasures that define a loving relationship between a girl and her grandfather. The endearing memory of Grandpa and Matthew, my son — then 95 and 6, respectively — getting changed, very slowly, in the pool locker room, having an animated conversation while fully naked: that one will persist. Two bodies at opposite extremes, perfectly comfortable in each others’ presence. While I didn’t actually see it, gratefully, and don’t like to picture it, obviously, I just love the idea of that.

I’m sure the regression therapist was right: I do have a lot of death ahead of me. Loved ones will die, pets will die. And as much as this whole essay seems to have focused on the fact, it has also assiduously avoided the truth that yes, Grandpa will die, and I will tell his story.



Allison Gustavson

> teacher > mom > writer > activist organizer > candidate for state rep in coastal Massachusetts > TBD in Colorado foothills >