Becky Daniel talks about her new book Checklist for Mortals, and why she thinks death doesn't need to be intimidating.
Question: You have a book coming out this month called Checklist for Mortals: Preparing for Death's Arrival. Can you give us a quick synopsis of what the book is about?
Answer: It's 10 simple steps that anyone can start doing now to make their death easier on their family. It's a highly illustrated 36-page book, so you feel like you're reading a children's story. Most people find the idea of getting ready for death overwhelming, so my illustrator Devi Halim and I wanted the book to be as inviting, fun, and the least intimidating possible.
Why did you write the book?
I wrote this book because in 2016 when my father passed away and my brother went to collect his body from the hospital, we had no idea what to do. My parents were divorced and we had never been responsible for someone else's end-of-life plans before. My brother and I are in the typical sandwich generation — aging parents on side and kiddos on the other. We had no idea how to close my dad's estate, and honestly it was a super overwhelming time to try to learn.
When I was griping (as daughters do) to my mom about how difficult this process was, she interrupted me. Would I jot down notes so I could tell her later what to do to make her death easier on my brother and me?
This launched a five-year quest of interviews, focus groups, artist concepts and illustrations, and endless rounds of editing, until we're finally here! The book is being launched this month. I'm so excited to be able to share this book with my friends, family, and every human who needs it.
Have you ever written a book before?
This is my very first published book! The process is not for the faint of heart, that's for sure.
Who is publishing your book?
My friend, Phil Whitmarsh, at Redbrush (an independent publishing service) helped me publish my book. He caught the vision right away and has been such a wonderful supporter, guide, and promoter in this process.
How are you marketing it?
I have a website, www.ChecklistForMortals.com, and many friends who have been asking about this project for years. I'm finally able to share it with them and they've been my biggest promoters.
Please tell us about the illustrations.
Devi Halim is a graduate of Union College, like me, and an extremely talented graphic designer. She lives in Australia and does freelance. When we talked, Devi and I had discussed how intimidating the topic of death is. It's associated with grief, confusion, pain, sadness. And that's why it's so hard to plan for our own mortality — it's wrapped up in all those emotions. So, we wanted to show the opposite.
Devi drew Death as half the size of an average adult, who has a furry pet like so many of us. Death is friendly. All the colors in the book are bright and fun. It looks and feels like a storybook for children. We hid metaphorical easter eggs in the illustrations, so you may read something over and over and then pick up on something new.
Also, as Adventists we know Death will not be around forever. And in this book, he walks through the steps preparing for his end — because the best way to teach others (the reader) how to get ready for mortality is to plan for our own.
Using a Grim Reaper on the cover is not a typical illustration for books by Adventists. Why did you choose this figure?
The Grim Reaper is a widely recognized personification of an idea that scares us. And I wanted to make that point that death doesn't have to.
Who is your intended audience? You aren't specifically targeting Adventist readers?
This book was written for all humans. It's especially for those of us with aging parents. It's especially, especially written for those who have aging parents and don't know where to start, what to ask, or what to do when our parents pass away.
Do you think talking about preparing for death might be a more difficult conversation with Adventists than others, because we profess belief in the imminent coming of Jesus?
It was more difficult for me to write, because I struggled with whether a book on preparing for death was saying I didn't believe Jesus would come before I died. Ultimately though, Jesus healed sick people, even though He was going to come back and take them to heaven. He fed people who were hungry. We’re called to help people with their basic earthly needs first, what will make the most impact right now. For most of us, a huge emotional, financial, and physical impact is the death of a loved one. Even Jesus had to deal with the death of His earthly father, Joseph.
So, do you see it as a ministry?
I see the book as an opportunity to help people who are hurting. So, in that sense, yes. When people realize you're open to talking about death, you hear amazing stories. Sometimes they're sad, sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they talk about spiritualism or faith. But whatever we do — whether we're washing dishes, writing a book, or walking down the street — our goal is to let God’s love be shown through us and give Him opportunity in our conversations.
You have said funerals are better than parties. Really? Why?
One of my favorite sermons is by Morris Venden as part of the "More About Jesus" series called, "Why I Like a Good Funeral." He makes a couple of good points. One is that no one thinks of their mortality at a party. Funerals hold space for those moments that help us recall what really matters, how we want to be remembered, and what comes after death.
As Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart."
Do you know of any similar books out there?
I looked hard! I wanted to buy the book and save myself a lot of work. Unfortunately, the book didn't exist yet.
There are some great books out: I'm Dead, Now What? and Your Legacy Wardrobe: Do You Know What's in Your Drawers? are two of my favorites. And there are gigantic manuals out there that cover every possible scenario and encourage you to fill out the entire book every year (who has time for that?). But there is no book that gives you a complete framework that every human can do — my book is like finding the edges of the jigsaw puzzle. A Checklist for Mortals doesn't cover every possible scenario. It gives you the vocabulary and framework around death. You'll understand the context, so you'll know the questions to ask and where to find the answers for your specific situation.
Where can we buy your book?
A Checklist for Mortals: Preparing for Death's Arrival is available as a standard e-book (or Kindle) and in paperback at www.ChecklistForMortals.com
Tell us a little bit more about you, please.
I'm the luckiest person in the world — I've never had a job I didn't love.
I graduated from Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska in 2008 with a Communication degree, emphasis in Journalism. I was a corporate journalist for a while, then came back to Union to work in the enrollment office. I created the student visit program, the employee mentorship program, ran the first digital ads the college ever created, and automated their marketing materials. I learned a lot in my nine years there and had the privilege of working alongside wonderful and inspiring people.
Today, I have my master’s in Integrated Media Communications from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and work as a marketing automation manager at Nelnet. I have an amazing team, interesting challenges, and talented colleagues who I learn so much from daily. I have a lot of fun at work.
What do you do in your free time when you are not researching and writing about death?
Researching data privacy and compliance laws currently. Or listening to podcasts about Agile marketing methodology. Or walking outside with my family and puppy. After this pandemic though, I plan to have a much more exciting answer.
What is your next big project?
Living! This project has been all-consuming for my “free” time. I'm looking forward to sharing this book with the world and enjoying my family.
Photos courtesy of Becky Daniel.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
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