More Than Money
Issue #22

Money and Death

Table of Contents

“Second Chances”

In 1888, Alfred Nobel had the unsettling experience of sitting in his office reading news reports of his death. Confusing his brother's death with Alfred's, several European daily newspapers published detailed obituaries surveying Nobel's life and work. This macabre experience left Nobel deeply shaken.

Outside of the important fact that he was not dead, the reports were remarkably accurate. They recounted how he had begun working as a scientist and went on to build a multinational corporation on the strength of his most famous invention-dynamite. Less comforting to Nobel were the detailed descriptions of his company's long history of monopolistic price-fixing, market-rigging, and influence-peddling. More troubling still was the attention paid to the carnage resulting from Nobel's lucrative contribution to modern warfare and terrorism. Many of the obituaries referred to Nobel as the "Dynamite King," and one French obituary was published under the headline "The Merchant of Death." This, Nobel saw in the printed pages before him, would be his lasting legacy.

Often pictured as a cynical man, Nobel was also a man deeply troubled by moral qualms. Reading his obituaries detonated emotional dynamite long buried under the thick walls he had erected against his own idealism. Nobel soon hinted to some of his closest associates that his "second" life was going to be very different from his "first." He was right. Over the remaining years of his life, he sold off his business interests in munitions, became active in philanthropy and peace advocacy, and set up, through his will, the Nobel Prizes for Peace, Literature, Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine.

Nobel's life-changing experience is not unique. In a 1998 article on "Near Death Philanthropy," the Wall Street Journal reported that personal brushes with death, whether through illness or accident, have caused many wealthy donors to rethink the purposes of their fortunes and lives. Any experience that shocks people into facing their mortality can enhance the power and creativity of their lives. People begin to ask "what really matters" and make changes accordingly.

Some people experience positive changes in their lives from just imagining their deaths. In his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People , Stephen Covey invites his readers to imagine that they are present at their own funerals and listening to the various speakers offering eulogies-an immediate family member, a friend, a professional colleague, and a fellow volunteer at a service organization. As part of the exercise, Covey urges people to write down what they imagine being said about themselves and how they feel about each imagined eulogy. According to Covey, "If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience, you will find your definition of success." He adds, "It may be very different from the definition you thought you had in mind."

Exercises that mimic a near-death experience can help families as well as individuals. Bonnie Brown, the founder of Transition Dynamics Inc., leads workshops on contingency planning for family businesses. In one of her workshops, called "Practice Dying Until You Get It Right sm," she helps family members imagine their deaths and explore together what the likely impact would be on the family members and businesses left behind.

How do people respond when asked to grapple with questions such as "What if my spouse dropped dead tomorrow?" or "What if I went in for a routine physical and the doctor found a lump in my breast?" According to Brown, "After people get over their initial shock, they often find these questions compelling and come to understand the urgency for contingency planning. They can then deal better with the tangled issues of money, power, and love in their families."

Alfred Nobel discovered a second chance to live a more meaningful life by living with the end in mind. While our choices might not be as drastic, maybe we can too.

- anonymous author


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