Monday, April 11, 2016

Death and Taxes

Last day of my 6 days off in a row from work.  Didn't miss work in the least.  Did some reading, checked off a bunch of items from my To-do list, finished our taxes and submitted (this will be the third) posts to my blog.  If this is how retirement will be, plus some travel I hope, it cannot come too soon.

I actually finished our federal taxes, and received our yearly refund last month.  First year without my son as a dependent but still receiving the education credit for my daughter's college enrollment.  Unfortunately, we owe some state and local taxes this year due to my wife's out of state job, hence the delay is finishing those forms. 

It seems strange to me how much anger is directed to the various local, state and federal agencies by most people when it comes to paying taxes.  I imagine is it a manifestation of the "me first " attitude that permeates our society.  We agonize over local taxes, usually school taxes, even directing our anger at the teachers who are often perceived as "those who can't, teach" people who get every summer off in addition to a bunch of holidays.  As if they are merely overpaid babysitters.  Yet, when most people are looking to raise a family, they generally move to an area with good schools.  They know the difference a good education can make for their children, yet still grouse over school taxes as if there is not a correlation between cost and results.  What is even more frustrating is that some of those same people will yell and scream at their local sports team for not spending enough money to attract the best athletes!  I guess it is easy to spend other people's money. 

As for state spending, again, education is such a huge percentage of where our tax money is spent, yet we prefer to focus on the politicians (an easy and deserved target) as if their salaries represent that much of our taxes.  Some people forget that when the state does not do its part in funding education, the burden passes back to the local school districts, hence an increase in local taxes.  And, when it is time to send your child to college, those states that do not adequately fund their state universities mean that the parents must borrow even more money for college, or worse, pass the debt burden on to their children resulting in most college graduates facing at least $25,000 ($300 a month for 10 years) in education debt on day one. 

As for federal taxes, well, education is not as big a percentage, although if you lump it in with other "social" programs, welfare, social security, health care etc, it is a large number.  But still, not anywhere near the $600 billion a year, we allocate to defense.  The next time you complain about ISIS and terrorism, and fear, and clamor for more bombs, and more guns, and "boots on the ground" it may be wise to remember that it is those costs that make your tax burden so high, if you believe it so.  It is easy to generate applause when you promise to cut taxes, but much harder to make the math work when you want to build a wall, or bomb our enemies back to the stone age, or continue to provide businesses with tax breaks to create jobs, or make sure our elderly can choose to live where they want and eat healthy food, while managing their bills on a fixed income. 

Paying taxes can certainly be distasteful, and it is certainly just as important to question how our money is spent while paying our fair share.  But let's not pretend that we can be the policemen of the world, maintain our roads and bridges, provide a safety net for those who deserve it, and encourage the business community to provide jobs, and not pay federal taxes. 

Just as certain, as they say, is Death.  Sure, we can buy the latest in home exercise equipment, take the most recent supplement that defies aging, eat right, reduce stress, etc, but eventually death will make a visit. 

This month's National Geographic has an interesting perspective on death, a viewpoint totally at odds with the predominant societal view.  In a remote corner of Indonesia there is a culture in which the corpses of the dead remain a part of the family long after life has left the body.  The Torajan people consider death as a process, not a moment.  A process that includes (after mummification) time with the body before burial, and even, often many years later, time with the unearthed body.  Funerals, which can be months after death, are celebrations much bigger and festive that even weddings.  And, if you are ready to dismiss this as a tradition for backwards, or isolated tribes, the Torajan are a modern people with cell phones and computers.  Their funerals are as much family reunions and community events as ceremonies for the departed as, family members who have left the islands where they were born, travel thousands of miles to be a part of the event. 

In some ways, this kind of practice, where the person is still a part of the family even after dying, is played out in western hospitals where people who are "brain dead" are kept alive through artificial means for days, weeks, even months after brain activity has ceased,.  It is not uncommon in these most advanced of hospitals for the care givers and the family of the comatose to greet those in coma, talk to them as they care for their bodies' needs, just as the Torajan still talk to, bring food for, dress, and interact with their loved ones once dead.  It makes me wonder if this kind of advanced science, where the body can be kept alive even after the person has gone, has brought us full circle to a time when death was an everyday part of life, and that recognition of the dead was as important as acknowledging the living. 

When the Torajan are questioned about the origins of their death practices and traditions, it is not easily discovered.  Much of their lore was of an oral nature until the 20th century.  But perhaps, as the author suggests, the better question is how our current death practices came to be.  It wasn't that long ago that wakes were held in the parlor of the home of the deceased; my house, built at the end of the 19th century, had two front doors, the second one being wider than the first to accommodate a standard size coffin.  Yet, just a few generation later, the thought of having a dead person in one's home is repugnant to most of us, and so often closed caskets are preferred so we don't have to see how the recently departed has degraded, how time has taken its toll. 

It is all well and good to remember those you love as strong, vibrant people.  I much prefer to remember my father as he was when I accompanied him on his route, the wind in his hair, the smell of freshly oiled knives all around us, the new day's sun rising in the distance as we began the day's deliveries.  He was strong, alive, my example of what it was to be a man.  But just as critically, although perhaps not as pleasant, is the sight of him as he lay prone on a slightly too small bed in the hospice that last week.  He was slowing leaving us, his essence easing from earth to the next plane.  Yet, he will always be with us, in myself, my brothers, my son, my nephews and nieces, and their children and their children's children.  Perhaps, like the Torajan, we would be more comfortable with death, less afraid of its inevitability, if we treated death as just another phase of life, part and parcel to being born. living and experiencing, and aging. 

And, if it is immortality we really seek, well we have that to, in our DNA, each of us the result of all our ancestors combined, each or us an ancestor and part of all those who will follow.


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