The Bucket Interview
My Doctor Told Me I Only Have 25 Years to Live
David Abend, co-founder of The Bucket
By Morgan Baker
Since joining the Bucket team as Managing Editor, I’ve been working side-by-side with Bucket Co-Founder, David Abend, to develop content, write articles and, in general, herd the cats. But today, we sat down on opposite sides of the table to conduct David’s first-ever Bucket Interview. We figured it was a great way for you to understand what The Bucket is all about. And see why I jumped at the chance to join the team last March.
TB: The Bucket. A magazine about mortality. What were you thinking??
DA: Hah. Good question. It does seem a little morbid doesn’t it? But for me, The Bucket is the opposite. It’s using one’s mortality as a leverage point for the purpose of trying to help people lead more fulfilling lives.
TB: How did you come up with the idea?
DA: The genesis of the idea happened about 30 years ago. A friend’s mother had died of cancer. I went to the funeral and learned that the family had actually built, from scratch, a pine coffin for her as a cathartic exercise. That got me thinking that there was no resource for people to educate themselves about how to do that. There was no internet back then and the funeral industry was so mysterious. So I came up with the idea of a magazine that would have articles that showed you how to build your own casket, or just understand how to purchase one — before you were in a time of grief. The magazine would also feature articles about all aspects of funeral planning as well as celebrity obituaries that focused not on that person’s life, but rather the details of their funerals and memorialization. At the time I called it Departures which I thought was pretty clever until I realized that was the name of American Express’s travel magazine.
TB: So you came up with a different name?
DA: Well, not just a different name. A different approach. Over the years, the idea evolved to not be about death, but life. And how the taboo of death prevents us from thinking clearly about our lives.
TB: Your talk about people having a Bucket Age…what’s that?
DA: Your Bucket Age is your life expectancy, minus your current age. Basically, it’s how many years, statistically, you have left to live. I truly believe that we’d get more out of the rest of our lives if we counted our age down, not up.
TB: Do you worry that people will find that depressing?
DA: Maybe. But for me depressing is being on your death bed and having regrets about all the things you didn’t do. And I think there are a lot of regrets people have that are easily avoidable.
TB: Like what?
DA: It’s not so much a what, but a how. Let me give you an analogy. Imagine you take your family to the zoo. You set aside an hour for the “Big Cats” habitat, an hour for the “Great Apes” exhibit and another hour for “Reptile Gardens”, the gift shop and whatever else catches your eye. When you leave, everyone is feeling good. Your planning wasn’t perfect, but for the most part, you hit your marks. The kids are happy. Which means you’re happy.
But what if you hadn’t planned ahead? What if you went to the zoo with no idea of what you wanted to see? No idea of how much time you needed. And no idea when the zoo was going to close. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But for the most part, that is how we live our lives. And the worst part is that when the zoo does close before we’ve seen everything we wanted to, we act so surprised and cheated — as if we had no control. Mortality is sad and scary. I get why people don’t like to think about it. But it can also be a motivator. I call it mortality-based living.
TB: Do you think people are ready for it?
DA: I do. There is a growing movement towards mortality and death awareness. There are a lot of websites that do what my initial idea was all about…educating people about funeral options. There are organizations like the Death Café which we actually have an article about, as well as Ellen Goodman’s Conversation Project who we partner with. There are also a growing number of best-selling books like Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Paul Kalanithi’s, When Breath Becomes Air that are inching us closer to bringing death out of the closet. Then there’s also the will of Baby Boomers, many of whom are looking for more creative, life-affirming ways to be remembered. And every day there is a new website or app that caters to end-of-life, funeral and memorial planning.
Aside from what we can observe, we have also done our own research. What we found exceeded our expectations. 78% of the people we surveyed agree that acknowledging your eventual death can help you lead a more fulfilling life. 65% agree that our society would be better off if we made the topic of death more a part of our life. So yeah, I think people are ready.
TB: So talk to me about the content. What is your editorial compass?
DA: Great question. As we say in the About section, The Bucket is equal parts philosophy and utility. We want to have articles that introduce and debate some fairly existential topics. But we also want The Bucket to have a strong “how to” element. For example, we can preach all day about how you shouldn’t wait until you are too old to do the physically demanding things on your Bucket list. But we’re also going to provide the practical ways to actually do it. In general, I think it’s really difficult in our culture to break out the mold. To take a year off and travel. To change careers. To pursue a passion. I think there are definitely some legitimate reasons why it’s hard. But I also think that one of the biggest obstacles is that we simply don’t know how to do it. It’s our vision that The Bucket will help people learn how.
TB: There are other websites out there that seem to be doing something similar. Ageist.com whose tagline is Live Fast. Die Old. NextTribe.com whose tagline is Age Boldly. Aging2.0 and, of course, AARP. How is The Bucket different from them?
DA: Well, let me start by saying how we’re similar. We are all trying to get people to rethink the way we approach the rest of our lives. And that’s a good thing. Where I feel the Bucket is different is that we are the only ones that really talk about the elephant in the room: Death. It’s our belief that embracing your own mortality is the key to living fast. Or aging boldly. I think our tagline of Live Fully, Die Well does a good job of identifying what we’re all about and how we are different. Sure, there will be some overlap in our content. But I think there’s room for all of us, and then some.
TB: When you first reached out to me to tell me about The Bucket, the subject line of your email was: “My doctor told me I only have 25 years to live”. And, I’ve heard you use that line often when talking to people about The Bucket. Why do you think it is so effective in telling your story?
DA: Yeah, it’s a real ‘aha’ moment for people. And, in some ways, an elevator pitch for me. It just gets to the essence of The Bucket so quickly. We are all terminal, if you will. It’s just a matter of looking ahead rather than keeping your head down and ignoring what time the zoo is going to close. To me, that’s not morbid, that’s motivation. The trick, and the mission, of The Bucket is to give people the perspective of someone who is terminally ill, without having to live through the experience.
TB: But you did have a near-death experience, didn’t you?
DA: Well, yes and no. A year and a half ago I got a blood clot in my leg and what my cardiologist believes was a pulmonary embolism. At the same time, it was discovered that I had Atrial Fibrillation – AFIB. Fortunately, I had an ablation to fix the AFIB, knock on wood. But the cause of the blood clot was never identified. So yes, I guess I could have died. But I never thought of it as a near-death experience.
TB: Has that been part of what has inspired you in creating The Bucket?
DA: I wouldn’t say it inspired me. But I would say it has confirmed my inspiration. I was already well on my way to developing this idea before it all happened. But it was a kick in the ass. The Bucket is the number one thing on my Bucket List so, as Andy Dufresne says in The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’” For me, The Bucket is livin’.
About the Writer
Morgan Baker is the Managing Editor of The Bucket and until recently taught at Emerson College in Boston. Her work can be found Motherwell, Cognoscenti, The Boston Globe and The Martha’s Vineyard Times, among other publications. She can be reached at Mbaker@thebucket.com
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