Speaking of Death

Alum Turns Mortality Into Conversation Starter
by Sala Levin '10 | Illustration by Ryumi Sung

Gail Rubin’s life work is to prepare others for the end of theirs. And if doing so calls for a visit to a Death Café, a tour of cemeteries or a grim but informative evening playing “The Newly-Dead Game,” she’s just showing how facing our final rest doesn’t have to be so funereal.

Certified by the Association for Death Education and Counseling in thanatology (the scientific study of death), Rubin ’80 writes books, gives talks and hosts events focused on getting people to “think about, talk about and hopefully do something about our 100 percent mortality rate,” she says.

Though there’s no quick fix for mortality—at least not on this metaphysical plane—Rubin encourages people to take steps to make their deaths easier on loved ones: write a will, create medical directives, plan a funeral. She uses humor and film clips—from movies and television shows like “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”—to take some of the fright out of death.

“I’m a very upbeat person,” Rubin says. “I’m not a goth or gloomy or anything like that.”

Maybe not, but death has long been an interest of Rubin’s. Decades ago, when she and her classmates in a Maryland film production course were assigned to make a film that featured bubblegum, most students “had car chases and then ended with something about bubblegum,” she says.

Rubin instead spoofed Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal.” In her version, a medieval knight (played by her friend Eric) tries to charm the grim reaper (Rubin’s then-boyfriend and now-ex-husband, Bob) with a stick of gum.

“In the end, death gets his man,” Rubin says.

After a career in public relations and event planning, Rubin shifted professional focus following her second wedding in 2000. To celebrate in her new home of Albuquerque, she planned “a creative Jewish-Western wedding.” The bride wore a beaded, fringed jacket and cowboy boots; the groom, a Western tuxedo and bolo tie. A Western swing band fronted by a rabbi played klezmer music during breaks.

Inspired, Rubin decided to write a book about creative life cycle events and landed a monthly column in The Albuquerque Tribune called “Matchings, Hatchings, and Dispatchings.” Realizing the death-related columns were the most popular, Rubin completed her 2010 book, “A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die.”

Since then, she’s coordinated events like the New Mexico offshoot of the global Before I Die festival, including visits to cemeteries and funeral homes, panel discussions on end-of-life issues and even a Death Café, “which is an opportunity to talk with strangers about whatever’s on your heart or mind about mortality issues while you have a little coffee or tea with some cake and cookies,” Rubin says.

She’s also given a TEDx talk on how to plan for death and created what she calls the “Newly-Dead Game,” a play on “The Newlywed Game” in which couples are asked about each other’s last wishes.

This year, Rubin was honored by the publication Albuquerque Business First as one of 20 Women of Influence, recognizing her as one of the city’s most prominent women.

Rubin has taken some of her own advice. When the time comes, she plans to have a traditional Jewish funeral with a Western twist: a display showing off her 18 pairs of cowboy boots. “Those of my women friends and relatives who have size 9 feet can take a pair to remember me fondly,” she says.

Before Death Comes a-Knocking

What can you do to plan for your end-of-life care and funeral? In her own words, Gail Rubin ’80 lists five tips to get started.

  • Write Your Advanced Medical Directives Whether you do or don’t want heroic measures to keep you alive, such as ventilation or intravenous hydration and nutrition, spell it out in writing. Name the people who will speak on your behalf when you can’t. Update this document every three years.
  • Prepare a Will Even if you don’t have a big estate, a will prevents the state from dictating who gets your worldly goods. This is especially important for those who have been married more than once, and for same-sex couples. Update this document at least every five years.
  • Collect Your Financial Information Your loved ones can’t access accounts and insurance policies they don’t know about. Make a master file of important information, including usernames and passwords, for online accounts. While you’re at it, compile a contact list for friends, relatives and financial/legal advisers.
  • Shop Before You Drop Visit local funeral homes before you need their services. It’s a fascinating shopping trip, and you can gauge each business on their personnel, pricing and facilities. You’re not morbid to plan ahead. You’re being a wise consumer.
  • Talk to Your Loved Ones Let your family know what you might want for your disposition and life celebration. Just as talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about funerals and end-of-life issues won’t make you dead.


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