Sunday 23 Oct 2016

Where There's a Will
Sjef Frenken

I could tell that Jack was a bit upset. For one thing, he was pacing in front of the Bay entrance on the third floor of the Bayshore Shopping Centre, instead of waiting for me in the food court.

I said "Jack, have you had your lunch yet?"

"I can't eat," he said, "I'm too agitated."

"What gives?" I asked him. "What's up?"

"I'm thinking about writing my will," he replied. "Have you ever written one?"

I said: "Yes. It's not that hard. Especially if you don't have much by way of money or possessions. Let's go get a bite to eat, or at least sit down. This is serious."

We found an empty two-seat table in the food court and sat down.

I said: "I don't mean to be nosey or anything, but how much are you worth?"

Jack said: "That depends."

I said: "On what?"

He said: "On a lot of things. For instance, I read once that a person's body, when you break it down into its components, is worth about 20 dollars on the open market -- the carbon, the nitrogen, the gold, the magnesium, what have you. It isn't much."

I said "Jack, you're rambling. You're nervous, you're being facetious. You know what I was asking. Get serious."

"OK," said Jack. "Alive or dead?"

I said: "Start with alive. Save dead for later. That's the usual order of things."

"Alright. Alive, I probably owe. I've got a house, but I owe more on the mortgage than I have in equity. My car is due for a replacement. I still owe on the new freezer and stove. Of course, there's my government pension and a bit of money in RIFs. Enough to keep me alive, I guess. If I don't live too long," he added.

I said: "How about dead?"

Jack said "I have some money in term life, but that's only protection, not savings, and I'm not sure how long I'll be able to afford that: the rates go up rather steeply at our age.Most people are worth more dead, but for me it's no advantage."

I said "There are other advantages to not being dead."

"Yeah," said Jack with a pensive sigh.

We sat ruminating for a while.

Then Jack said: "Apropos of nothing, I remember a professor at university telling us about different ways to determine the value of a human life."

I said "You're right, that's not really on the topic, but go ahead: how much is a human life worth?"

"It depends," said Jack, pulling a pen out of his shirt pocket and grabbing a leftover paper napkin from a neighbouring table. "Say Queen's Park wants to build a road from Ottawa to Pembroke. If it builds a three-lane highway, it would cost, say, 100 million, amortized over 20 years. If it builds a four-lane highway, it would cost 160 million, amortized over the same 20 years. But say statistics show that a three-lane highway over that distance leads to 3 deaths per year; a four-lane highway only 1 death per year. The 60 million difference would save two lives per year for twenty years. You save one life for 3 million bucks per year. So three million is the cost of saving a life."

"That's a lot of money for one life."

"You're right," said Jack, "the actual figure that governments use in their calculations is closer to half a million. That is, if you figure it that particular way. There are other ways, like calculating how much people in very hazardous occupations earn extra over the average span of their working life, depending on how many workers die of accidents in each category. Or the earning potential of the average person in the course of his life."

I said "It all seems rather bizarre, but I guess it keeps the actuaries and economists busy."

Jack said "I've also been thinking about pre-burial arrangements. I don't want the kids to spend any more on my funeral than they have to."

I agreed, it was better to take care of that matter beforehand.

Jack said: "I've also been thinking about what I want to have put on my gravestone. I checked on the internet, and it looks as if all the good epitaphs have already been used. Do you have any idea what you want put on yours?"

"Actually, yes, I said. "I've been thinking about it for a long time, and I think I've got a good one. But you can't have it."

"Let's hear it, anyway," said Jack.

I said "Here lies Sjef Frenken. He'd rather be composing than decomposing."

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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