"Heaven for holiness, hell for the company." - Mark Twain
Nobody wants to think about it. But for all of us mere mortals, death is an inevitable fact of life.
In an uncertain world, this much is absolute: today you're alive, but someday you won't be.
And when you die, you'll leave behind the private business of your life - pensions, bills, creditors, property, insurance policies, belongings, even pets - for your spouse or grandchildren or best friend to deal with.
Will they wrestle with your particular baggage for months (or years) following your death?
Or will you use a tool like Betty Malkiewicz's book, "The Personal Planner," to make it easy for them?
Malkiewicz's book is a wonderful idea but a hard sell, mostly because of our denial. Not just about dying (which is for others, not us), but about the state of our personal affairs. After all, we know where everything is. "It's all right there," we say confidently.
But look at your system - if you can call it that - through the eyes of an outsider. If you keep your bills in the kitchen, your social security card in your jewelry chest and your insurance policies in a metal strongbox behind basement paneling, you aren't making it easy on your survivors. You're leaving behind a most unwelcome puzzle.
Malkiewicz, 57, a lifelong West Side resident, was inspired by her own experiences after a series of family deaths to write a book that she hopes will make the ordeal easier for others.
Widowed when her husband died of heart disease in 1995, Malkiewicz also lost both parents to heart disease and an uncle to Alzheimer's. Even as a little girl, she saw the value of organizing personal information so that others could step in and take care of essential details - not just in the event of death, but also incapacity from illness or injury.
"When I was 9 or 10, my mom was in the hospital every three months," Malkiewicz recalls. "Whenever she went into the hospital, I kept a little book of her medications and care. I carried it around all the time."
When her uncle died after a 15-year battle with Alzheimer's disease, the family had a second struggle to face: managing the details of his estate. It was during those dark days, helping her elderly aunt's search for vital records and papers, that she got the idea for her book.
"I didn't think writing the book was a big deal," she says. "It would be a helpful tool for my family, and I thought, if it's good for me, why not let other people out there have it? There are a lot of people out there who are going through crises like these."
Although the very wealthy have attorneys and accountants who handle every postmortem detail, Malkiewicz says that most people don't have that luxury.
"Lawyers charge $100 to $200 an hour to do the research that I have already compiled, so a book like this saves a lot of money down the road on legal fees. For example, after someone dies, lawyers are the only ones who can get social security numbers from the system. Having the (information) ahead of time saves time and money.
"Lawyers who have looked at my book say: "Wow. It's all laid out here, we don't have to research it.' " When faced with settling her husband's and parents' estates, Malkiewicz found herself overwhelmed by details she never knew existed. She designed "The Personal Planner" to ask the right questions, so survivors have the answers they'll need, when the time comes.
"When it's happening to you, you are so hurt and so depressed that you can't think of what to look for first," she says. "Funeral directors need to record the names of the deceased person's grandmothers and grandfathers. They need to know if he or she was a veteran. So I started with those points."
Taxes, banking and insurance get special emphasis in the book. Malkiewicz says illness and death create financial problems for all families. "Even the rich have challenges, because their money is tied up.
"Most people don't know this, but if someone dies with an insurance policy in New York State, insurance companies don't have to tell the family there is an insurance settlement. It's up to the policyholder's heirs to submit a claim."
The book also includes space for funeral prearrangements, living wills, location of safe deposit box (and key), and other vital facts for survivors or caregivers. Are you a licensed gun owner? If so, there's a place to record the location, permit number and description. Do you have a pet? Write your special wishes for Fido's placement and vet, feeding and other info.
She has endured deep sorrow, but Malkiewicz's attitude is positive and her energy is infectious. She talked to bankers, funeral planners, federal authorities and others, writing and self-publishing her book in her "spare" time.
"You never know when your number is going to be up, but it's better to leave your information in this book, in a safe place, where just one other person knows where it is.
"It doesn't take a lot of time to fill out. That's why I didn't make it three inches thick. This is information you really need to take care of a loved one's affairs."
Malkiewicz wanted to make sure that her own children - one plays in a heavy metal band, one studies biology at Buffalo State College - never go through what she did.
"If I get sick, my kids can come home and say, "OK, Mom, I know exactly where everything is.' Like where the will is, are the kids the proxy - a lot of kids don't know if their parents have Medicare or are veterans and entitled to VA benefits."
What about asking parents to use "The Personal Planner;" won't it imply that we think they have one foot in the grave? Malkiewicz says no, but admits it's a sensitive balancing act.
"Say to them: "By no means are we prying. We don't want to know what you have, we just want to make sure we know what you want, so we can take better care of you.' "
The adult child doesn't keep the book, the parent does. "Ask them to fill it out and keep it in a safe place. Make sure they tell you where it is!" she laughs.
It helps if all the adults fill one out - not just the most elderly member of the family. "Tell them: "I'm filling one out, and I want you to fill one out, too. It's a family affair.'
"It might look like a stupid thing to do, but it really isn't. Because you never know what's going to happen."
She hopes her book will eventually be made into a Braille book for the blind, and she's already planning a sequel.
"My next spin-off book will be for veterans and veterans' families. I'm hoping to sell it through the PX stores on military bases."
Malkiewicz's also dreams of donating enough money to build an Alzheimer's research facility in Buffalo. A portion of each book's purchase price goes to the Alzheimer's Association.
"I want this book to really get going and help fight this disease," she says passionately. "I want to raise our community's slogan from "The City of Good Neighbors' to "The City of Love and Care.' "
("The Personal Planner" costs $19.95, plus tax. To order directly, call 885-4443.)