On funerals and death

“Imagine at the next funeral you go to, you hear in the eulogy that they died because people at a previous funeral didn’t donate their time or money instead.”

I just returned from a funeral where I thought some long thoughts. This essay is them, and also serves as an informal will, seeing as I don’t have one.

As I sat in the pew of that church, I couldn’t help but wonder at how many people were present; it must have been at least 200. My thoughts quickly turned to what I would want if it were my funeral. And I realised that I don’t want a funeral at all, and not just because I’m not religious.

Like most people, I care a lot about others, and I want to reduce the amount of suffering and loss in the world. One of my earliest motivations for this was when a friend’s mum passed away from cancer. When I offered my sincere condolences, they told me that there was nothing I could have done. That stopped me. Why? Perhaps there was something I could have done. I started to think about ways to stop cancer, but I quickly realised that suffering can come in many forms, and it is the suffering that I want to end, not necessarily just cancer.

So eventually I realised that I could donate $4,000 AUD to the Against Malaria Foundation and save a life. One whole life for the cost of a holiday. It suddenly seemed hard to justify ever going on a holiday again. If my reaction to death is wanting to stop it, and I have the opportunity to easily stop it, how could I possibly turn that down for some leisure?

Back to the funeral – 200 people in a room for 90 minutes. Assuming that many people would come to my funeral, that’s a lot of person hours (300 to be precise). In my funeral, they are offering my family their condolences and remembering my life, sure, but what if they could use that 300 hours to save another life. Let’s say those people are able to earn $20 an hour on average. If they each spent 90 minutes working instead of being at my funeral, they could make $6,000, enough to save 1.5 lives.

Of course, people can’t always just work at moment’s notice, so this is meant to be illustrative only. But now we’re getting at something – death is awful, but what if you could prevent a death in the time you spent mourning a life? I foresee getting some criticism at this point, so let’s try a thought experiment.

Imagine you’re on your way to a funeral and you see a person lying on the side of the road bleeding out. You stop your car and spend the next 90 minutes performing CPR until the ambulance arrives. You miss the funeral, but the paramedic tells you that you quite literally saved a life. Do you think you were justified in missing the funeral? Do you think the person who died, or their family, would forgive you?

Ah, you say, but I can’t make $4,000 in 90 minutes, so this is an unfair analogy. Ok, well let’s now ask whether you would do the same for a cat you had just driven past. Same situation, CPR until the vet rocks up, and you’re told that you saved the cats life. This is probably a trickier choice, but I imagine a number of people would still pick the cat over the funeral. As readers of this blog would know, a donation to one of the animal charities recommended as being highly effective by Animal Charity Evaluators can reduce one year of animal suffering for just 60 cents (USD). And so if you make $20 an hour, in 90 minutes you could spare 33 animals from a year of suffering.* Even if you would drive past a single cat, you probably wouldn’t drive past a truck full of 33 cats bleeding out.

Of course we can go 1 step further to organisations working to reduce the chance of existential risk where estimates of the impact of a dollar donated range from saving 1 to 1,000,000 lives at some point in the future (albeit with significantly more uncertainty – but on expected value this may check out).

So while people can’t necessarily spend 90 minutes working extra for money at will, they could do a range of other things, like doing some high impact volunteering (I don’t mean working at a local soup kitchen or handing out blankets, which wouldn’t have anywhere near the kind of impact I’m talking about). Add onto that the $5,000 that I estimate a funeral of that size to cost, and it seems quite perverse for me to ask people to come and honour my life for 90 minutes.

So in lieu of having an actual will, I formally request here that, in the event of my death, if you would have come to my funeral, please instead donate 90 minutes of your salary to [insert whatever I think is the most effective charity at the time here – at the moment I suspect it’s one of Machine Intelligence Research Institute, ACE, Foundational Research Institute or Raising for Effective Giving**] and ensure that the $5,000 that would have otherwise been spent on the funeral goes there too.

Of course, I fully accept that we don’t keep promises or go to funerals for the dead, we do it for the living (and I don’t think that not going to a funeral to make $4,000 would be anywhere near as socially acceptable as saving a life on the road, even if you donated it to AMF, and even though I think it should be***). And yet, I can’t imagine that spending 90 minutes mourning in a group is really a better thing to do than to arrange to save so many lives.

Imagine at the next funeral you go to, you hear in the eulogy that they died because people at a previous funeral didn’t donate their time or money instead.

* I use ‘year of suffering’ instead of ‘lives saved’ here because the charities tend to either reduce the amount of suffering experienced by farm animals or reduce animal product demand/create vegans to remove animals from being brought into a life of suffering. But this is still valid, and since many farm animals live for less than a year, I feel justified in using this example.

** The best cause/organisation to give to will almost certainly change over time. In case I don’t update this (or get around to making an actual will), I would be comfortable with giving either Michael Dickens or Brian Tomasik the right to decide where these donations (and any leftover assets I have) end up going. I don’t know them very well, but they are two of the few people I trust to make a mostly rational decision, and to care sufficiently about both non-human animals and the far future.

*** At this point, one might reasonably ask why I go to funerals. I don’t have a great answer. I personally think that my going to funerals is more selfish than staying home and working on some problem, because by not going people would think less of me.

Should you donate to Animal Charity Evaluators even if you’re not vegan?

If you haven’t heard of Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) yet, there’s a really neat summary of them here, but in short, they are doing research on the most effective ways to help animals and reduce their suffering. They perform foundational research on a range of things from the effectiveness of various interventions, such as leafleting to encourage people to go vegan or eat less meat, to the scale of wild animal suffering (it’s huge).

They also produce recommendations on which charities to donate to in order to reduce animal suffering. Perhaps counterintuitively, they don’t recommend animal shelters. This is because the impact of creating one extra vegan on animal wellbeing is so high that it makes the impact of sheltering one extra animal look tiny in comparison. ACE estimates that Vegan Outreach, one of their standout charities which does leafleting at universities, can spare 1.87 animals from a life on a factory farm per dollar donated. By reducing the demand for meat, the animals are, in theory1, never brought into existence in the first place. If you believe like I do that a life of immense suffering is worse than no life at all, this is surely a good thing.

Let’s suppose that rescuing and sheltering one animal costs $50. I have no idea what it costs but I think this is a safe underestimate. Therefore, for the same cost that it takes to shelter an animal, Vegan Outreach can spare 93.5 animals from a life of suffering. Unless you value shelter animals much more than you do food animals, you should donate to Vegan Outreach (or better yet, ACE, to multiply your impact). I don’t think you should value shelter animals more than food animals though. They can all suffer, and in fact pigs are more intelligent than dogs, so if capacity to suffer is what you care about, you should probably care about pigs a little more than dogs.

So this is why I would argue you should donate to an effective animal charity rather than a shelter, but what about the original question? There are many great reasons to go vegan, and it’s really easy, yet many have still decided to not go vegan because they enjoy the taste of animals too much.  Even if this is you, I think you should still donate to ACE. Most people who eat animals still claim to care about animals, so if you want to be at least partially consistent with that belief, the very least you could do is donate to a charity which is reducing their suffering. Of course, I think being vegan is far easier than people think, and you should do this as well because it’s not one or the other (see this video for how to literally go vegan overnight). I’m also not saying that anything but a vegan lifestyle is ethically justified, and don’t want to make it sound like I’m supporting that. But if you can’t bring yourself to be completely vegan, at least donate a chunk of your money to ACE2. Last estimate I heard was that it costs $500 to create one vegan through Vegan Outreach, so you should donate at least that much3. But why stop there?

Let’s go one step further and say that you currently donate to charities that focus on humans. Arguably the most effective charity working on poverty and global health, the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), saves a human life for around $3,300 USD. In effect, you would have to value human life something like 3,000+ times more than the life of an animal to donate to AMF instead of a top animal charity.


1 I say in theory because other factors such as market elasticity are at play which dilute your effect.

2 I’m wary that such a stance will make people less likely to go vegan and to just donate a bit of money to ACE and think they’re ok. I think, on balance, this article is more likely to have a net positive effect than a net negative effect (otherwise I wouldn’t have posted it), but I want to make it doubly clear that I think you should do both.

3 An interesting conclusion comes out of this which might be uncomfortable for those who aren’t consequentialist in their ethical beliefs. If donating $1 is expected to save 1.87 animals from a life of suffering, that means that by not donating, you have confined 1.87 animals to a life of suffering, because there is no morally relevant different between an action and an inaction (think walking past a drowning child in a shallow pond when you could easily save them). By extension, if you’re vegan (or even if you’re not) and you spend $20 on a nice restaurant meal when you could have eaten for $5, having spent $15 on yourself needlessly instead of donating it to a top animal charity, you have consigned 28 animals to a life of suffering. Consider that next time you dine out. This leads to questions like ‘well where does it end then?’ Maybe it doesn’t. Living on less is easy and arguably better for your wellbeing, and you get to save a ton of lives. Why wouldn’t you?

Disclosure: While Michael has worked with ACE in the past, he has never been an employee or an official volunteer.