Why Buy More Time?

The news, lately reported, that the life span of humans might be doubled in the next century is cause for sober and deliberate contemplation. Like so much that is baffling and wondrous, the word comes from a conference in Southern California.

Dr. Gregory Stock of the School of Medicine at U.C.L.A., encouraged by experimental successes with roundworms and fruit flies, bats and canaries and mice of different sizes, impaneled his colleagues in the allied sciences to discuss what one of the attendees calls ”the big enchilada” — the prospect of humans reconfigured to live 150 or 200 years. Genetic tampering and evolutionary micro-engineering seem to be the most promising methods.

What seems on the face of it rude good news is coincidental with or perhaps related to the news last month that Service Corporation International, the multinational McMortuary behemoth that owns most of Manhattan’s funeral homes, blamed ”softening mortality rates” in North America for lower-than-expected fourth-quarter returns. The company’s stock price plummeted in late January from the high 30’s to the mid-teens overnight and still hasn’t recovered. Lawsuits were filed by shareholder groups.

Before his retirement last month from his job as president of Service Corporation, L. William Heiligbrodt said, ”Declining death rates pose a challenge for the industry.” We live in oxymoronic times.

People are living longer but suffering diminishing returns on their death-care portfolios. Time, it turns out, is not money. More is less. Surely, the big enchilada can be blamed. The big enchilada, such as it is, is enough within our grasp that Dr. Stock and company pose what seems a sensible question: given adequate financing, given lucky breaks, how far could we go?

Let me hazard that ”too far” is one possible answer. We are a species, and especially a country, for whom, like drunks with drink or politicians with other people’s money, enough is never going to be enough.

It was true of the arms race, deficit spending and TV violence, the impeachment hearings and high-tech stocks — our appetites are insatiable, our habits tend toward gluttony. That less-is-more, minimalist, eco-friendly, paradigm-shifting, salt-free Zen blather about quality time and stopping to smell the roses might be good for the shrink’s office or the downsized employees of the structured buyout, but if the age of merger and acquisition has taught us anything it is that Paul Simon is right on the money when he sings, ”The open palm of desire wants everything, everything.”

Here at the funeral home I operate in middle America, our favorite parlor game is Demographics and Expectancies. It bears a semblance to Trivial Pursuit. In the last century, the life span of Americans rose to 76 years from 47. Such wonders can be credited to antibiotics, indoor plumbing, Spandex and the soybean.

With the extra three decades in most of our lives we neither cured the common cold nor secured peace in the Balkans, but we did invent the Wonderbra and no-load mutual funds. With all this extra time to kill, we went to war more, divorced more, aborted more and Kevorked more than any of the short-lived generations before us.

We also golfed more and watched more sitcoms and built more and safer and more fuel efficient Buicks and Boeings that got us farther and faster to more and more distant places that seemed, once we got there, more crowded somehow. And, though we liberated more of the planet, educated more of our citizens, vaccinated more of our children and empowered many of the formerly disenfranchised; though we increased the minimum wage, exported Coca-Cola and Disney World, put men on the moon and women in the paid work force, the returns on the extra life expectancy are mixed.

We are taller, stronger, healthier and live longer than our parents or their parents. And like our parents and their parents, we will surely die. The numbers on this last fact are convincing.

If our great-grandchildren will have to wait till 90 for the hard-won sense that came to us at 45, if they must endure double the incremental damages of serial monogamy, the 24-hour news cycle, easy-listening music, Tae Bo and infomercials, telemarketers and television preachers, no amount of Ritalin or Prozac or Viagra will make them well, however fit they seem to be at 150.

Maybe instead of doubling our life spans, we might labor for existential parity in the third world. Maybe we could add a decade to Nepal, where the life expectancy is 55, or Guatemala, where it is 62, or Estonia, where it is 65.

Perhaps we should spend some of our adequate financing and lucky breaks and see just how far we can go in, say, leveling the life span playing field between white and black Americans, rich and poor Americans, male and female Americans, Americans with and without health coverage.

To the medicos peddling the enchilada and the Pre-Need Sales Counselors who want to sell us our funerals in advance, maybe ”thanks but no thanks” is the thing we should say — as if we had learned to spread the wealth or leave it to our children, or failing that, to leave well enough alone.

March 14, 1999
The New York Times