My Old Friends Is and Was

Where I first met Is and Was

Professor Joe Goldblatt

The man who had the audacity of play God in the movies, the late beloved comedian George Burns in his nineties was once asked how he spent his days. He famously remarked “I get up every morning and read the obituary column. If my name’s not there, I eat breakfast.”

Although I am not nearly as wise as Mr Burns, I admit that I have now reached an age where I often search the internet to see if those I admired throughout my life are still alive and well. My usual source for checking this important detail is Wikipaedia where the first words following the persons name are often the verbs “is or was”.

Just before pressing enter upon my keyboard I secretly hope that the verb “is” will appear and other times I suspect the verb “was” is waiting for me and I am relieved when “is” appears. Unlike Mr Burns, I have not yet reached the age where I search for my own Wikipaedia listing to check up on my own immortality.

However, this process of ageing and how we acknowledge death and loss is something that has long interested me. Forty years ago, in Washington, DC I actually taught an adult education class entitled “Thoughts on Death and Dying” that was based upon the principals of the well respected psychiatrist Dr Elisabeth Kubler Ross. Ross described several stages in the process of death and dying with the final stage as one entitled acceptance. Ironically, on the same day as I was teaching the death and dying class I was also teaching introduction to tap dancing. I accidentally walked into the death and dying classroom slightly confused and told the students, many of whom were bereaved, to stand up and I would teach them “Shuffle Off to Buffalo!” The were not amused.

I suppose, although I have thank goodness, not been diagnosed as terminally ill, each of us is by our nature as human beings, ultimately terminal in some respect. Therefore, I have begun planning for that day when my Wikipaedia listing magically transforms from “is” to “was”.

The first step in preparing for the great transformation was for me to remember the advice of the best selling business author Dr Stephen Covey, the author of “Seven Habits for Highly Effective People” who wrote “Begin with the end in mind.” Therefore, I began to have discussions with my wife about our final resting place which I hoped would be together.

I first suggested that I would like to be intombed with my mother in a beautiful mausoleum in New Orleans, Louisiana. My wife of 43 years responded “I am not going to New Orleans. Do you know how hot and humid it is there in the summer?” I then replied that if she wished, each August I would bring her back to Edinburgh for the festivals.

A few months later we were in Italy burying our 93 year old Aunt in a magnificent cemetery and I suggested that this might be a good final resting place. My wife looked at me incredulously and said “You know I do not speak Italian!”

After these two responses, I decided that I had best pause this discussion and instead reduce my funeral and burial preferences to writing. My instructions followed the KISS principle of “Keep It Simple Sweetie.” Death is such a tumultuous time that I wanted to be sure that I made it as easy as possible for my loved ones. Here are my current instructions.

  1. Do whatever my wife wishes.
  2. My body has been accepted by the University of Edinburgh. Call them. However, do not call them during the Festive Season as they do not accept donations at this time due to limited staffing. Please keep me on ice until they eventually arrive.
  3. Scatter some of my remains in Holyrood Park, at Yesnaby in Orkney, and send the rest to New Orleans to be with my mother.
  4. List on my tombstone, “Professor Joe Jeff Goldblatt (1952 – ) Citizen and Philanthropist. (My proudest achievement in life has been trying to be a good citizen and although I am a small donor, I do provide regular donations and wish to encourage others to do so as well.)
  5. Re – read instruction number one.

Many years ago I made the decision to donate my body to the University of Edinburgh Medical School. I did this because I wanted to contribute to medical science even after my death and I also wished to avoid any funeral expenses being charged to my estate.

One day after I had received my acceptance letter from the University I met a woman who I suspected was in her early eighties . She recognised my foreign accent and asked “Are you visiting?” I replied that I not only was a resident, I was now a permanent resident because I had just agreed to sometime in the future donate my body to Edinburgh University. She smiled, patted my knee and replied confidentially “Me too!”. She then explained that when she was a young woman she hoped to attend their medical school but women were not being easily accepted at that time. Now, however, thanks to her anatomical donation she had been finally accepted to the Edinburgh medical school. She seemed delighted and when we parted she said “I will see you at the medical school!” I replied “I hope not too soon!”

As more and more friends and family are now having their official description shift overnight from “is” to “was” I must say that I regret the way that I am notified of their passing. The worst was when a beloved Aunt died and one of her children texted me with the curt message stating “She died.”

I often find out about the death of a loved one through a brief mention on Facebook. I find these forms of communication inappropriate for something so sacred and precious as the end of a human life. When my mother died nearly twenty five years ago I remember telephoning friends and family to announce her death. It took a long time and I still treasure the precious moments I spent on the telephone with her loved ones as I listened to the sound of their voices and answered any questions about her sad demise. Although I have not instructed my descendants to telephone my loved ones, I hope they do make a few phone calls and at all costs avoid texting, email, and social media to announce my passing.

I suppose I am just old fashioned in that I greatly respect people’s feelings at the time of a death. In my Jewish tradition, at this time of year we conduct a memorial service in conjunction with our New Year and Day of Atonement. During this time we pause and remember all of those who were near and dear to us. We also, similar to Kubler Ross’s system, have a process for grieving that involves an entire year of mourning to allow us to gently begin the transition of accepting that our loved one has transitioned from “is” to “was”.

Whilst I shall not yet begin checking the daily obituary in this publication to see if my name appears, I shall instead squeeze every ounce of life and living I can into my days to come because I know from personal experience that the period of “was” is much longer than “is” and I wish to be remembered for the “is” and shall attempt to vigorously dedicate each day of the remaining “is” to this noble endeavour.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and is an organ donor to the University of Edinburgh Medical School. To donate your body to the University contact To read more about Professor Goldblatt’s views regarding philanthropy visit

3 thoughts on “My Old Friends Is and Was

  • September 26, 2021 at 1:42 pm

    Great article Jo, you’ve got me thinking now.

  • September 26, 2021 at 3:25 pm

    Lovely, poignant piece, Joe. But is there not a tense typo in your profile para, where “is” is used to describe your planned organ donation to Edinburgh University? Surely it should read “will be” an organ donor to the University of Edinburgh Medical School? Don’t you have to be a “was” before you can be an “is” in terms of organ donation? Or are you gradually harvesting your organs while you “is” still here (in which case, you will be a “was” sooner” than planned, I suspect.

    • September 26, 2021 at 5:18 pm

      ThanksTom. I corrected this before Mr Burke saw it an got any ideas. You are truly a lifesaver!


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