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.

2 thoughts on “On funerals and death”

  1. Thanks for the vote of confidence. 🙂 I assume you’d want the charity to be maximally aligned to your values, which are close to non-negative [preference? hedonistic?] utilitarianism?

    Like you, I also don’t want a funeral (at least not one that costs money — if people want to meet up and talk, that’s fine and might help them heal).

    1. No worries Brian! That’s right, my views are currently somewhere around classical hedonistic utilitarianism, and I wrote this before realising our ethical stances differed to an extent.

      You raise a good point about the value of funerals. They certainly can help people to heal, and we shouldn’t forget that.

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