Imagine the horror of lying on your death bed knowing you’d never made a bucket list

What drives this list is the fear of dying with regrets for what you haven’t yet done
  • @johnhenrywalsh

I’m a firm believer in lists. Lists importantly titled “Things To Do (Urgent)”. Lists compiled in December of all the new people you met in the previous 12 months. Lists of unpleasant tasks to be undergone, cunningly salted with easily-crossed-off mini-tasks (“Ring emergency rising-damp people. Weigh self. Ring school to complain about child’s detention. Make ham sandwich…”) But there’s one list I can’t bring myself to make: the bucket list, of things you’d like to acquire or achieve before you die.


According to new research by a tour-specialist company, 40 per cent of 39-year-olds now draw up bucket lists. Among those surveyed, a few simply want to make their first million before they die – a uniquely pointless ambition, under the circumstances. Some (one in five, apparently) want to own a Porsche. Others long to have daredevil fun with bungee ropes or lunar expeditions. “It was great,” said the researchers, “to see the emphasis placed on experiences over material aims.”      

I marvel at the age of these people. If I remember rightly, the phrase “bucket list” started life in a 2007 film directed by Rob Reiner, in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman played two terminal-cancer patients who, knowing they were dying, beguiled their final months by whizzing around the world, visiting the Taj Mahal et cetera, hurling themselves out of aeroplanes and learning Important Truths About Life. They were running out of time and striving to cram in some last-minute items, as if they were in the Duty Free at Heathrow. The people surveyed, by contrast, are 39. If we’re all supposed to live until 80, that means they’re planning 40 years of high-energy experiences – taking up zither lessons, swimming with dolphins and scrambling up Ayers Rock.   

So this isn’t about last-minute life excitements any more. The bucket list has mutated into a sort of pre-mortem Fulfilment Catalogue of allegedly worthwhile experiences. It’s been seized on by publishers, who offer us fat books recommending 1001 Records You Must Hear, 1001 Places You Must Visit and 1001 Films You Must Watch before you push up the daisies. I have one here on my desk: 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die (Hang on a minute. If I hold the book in both hands, open it and run my thumb like this...fffllliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick... There! Seen ‘em all! Job done!)  But honestly, do you want to spend weeks listening to hip-hop and thrash madrigal, or watching the works of Godard and Oshima, because they’re someone else’s notion of must-listen music and must-see film?

Look online, and you’ll find recommendations of afore-ye-go experiences all over the place. There’s 101 Things to Do Before You Die, 225 Things to Do, 7500 Things to Do… It’s exhausting just to think about it. And some list-makers have decidedly odd notions about the goals that should be chalked up before the Grim Reaper comes a-calling.  I particularly liked “Achieve your ideal weight” (how marvellous to lie on your deathbed and think, “Well – at least I’ve got down to 12 stone”) and “Join a social etiquette class and refine your mannerisms” (thank goodness, in your closing hours, you’ll know the correct way to address a duchess, should one walk through your hospital door).

Is this how human beings will quantify the value of their remaining years, by ticking a series of boxes marked Rollerblading, Mastering Basic Inuit, Double-Entry Book-keeping, Visiting Luxembourg, Planting a Tree, Knitting a Scarf, Backpacking in the Rainforest…?  I dislike the commodification of experience. It suggests that, whatever random joys you may have had in your life, they don’t really count when set against the universally agreed hierarchy of Things To Do. It makes, say, your explorations of foreign lands seem very partial and incomplete when obviously you should have been in Beijing or Fiji, as recommended by all.  And it makes you live in constant tantalisation and regret that you still haven’t got round to flying a helicopter into a volcano and your life is therefore incomplete.

I’ve done a few things in my time. I have, in fact, swum with dolphins (very nice, especially when they push your feet with their snouts and go faster and faster until you’re standing up in the water.) I’ve seen the Grand Canyon. I’ve played guitar to a gasping and enraptured audience of, ooh, 35 people. I’ve caught 17 mackerel in one afternoon in west Cork. I’ve hung out with Keith Richards for half an hour (okay it was an interview). I’ve had a three-bottle lunch with Harold Pinter. I’ve told Seamus Heaney that his only play could do with a re-write. And if you press me, there are things I’d like to do in the future, that include steering a boat round the Caribbean, tasting a 1959 Chateau Petrus, writing a bestseller that becomes a film starring Jennifer Lawrence, and making a knockout Victoria sponge. But I suspect that none of these things done, or the things wished for, will feature largely when one is lying on one’s terminal divan.

What drives the bucket list is the fear of dying filled with regrets for what you haven’t done in your life. But the real regrets at the end won’t be about insufficient line-dancing or mountain-trekking. They’ll be for the friends you didn’t see enough of, the conversations you didn’t have with your parents, the time you didn’t spend with your children. Rather than striving to see and experience everything in the future, might we not be happier cultivating our meagre garden of experiences in the here-and-now, with gratitude for how the flowers, against all the odds, have turned out?