Death & Taxes: All We Can Do Is Prepare

Death and taxes

In a 1789 letter to the scientist Jean-Baptiste Leroy, Benjamin Franklin wrote: "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Now as April 15th (Tax Day) approaches, we are yet again reminded that the great patriot was right. Today we look into the language of both these inevitabilities, and though the thought may seem morbid, fear not: your income taxes are but another undiscovered country.


IRS stands for "Internal Revenue Service," the bureau of the Department of the United States Treasury responsible for collecting taxes. Satirized as being able to "squeeze blood from a rock," the IRS makes sure that every citizen is paying his or her civic dues. The agency began during the Civil War when Congress, under the direction of President Abraham Lincoln, created the office of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue to enact an income tax to cover war expenses. Though the name officially changed to IRS in 1953, the taxes are here to stay.


If you're ruminating on life's harsh realities, perhaps it's time you join a long tradition of creative taxpayers and write a thanatopsis. From the Greek thantos meaning "death" and -opsis meaning "a view," a thanatopsis is a written contemplation of death, often composed in the form of a poem. The 17th century American poet William Cullen Bryant delineated the style with his poem Thanatopsis. It might be comforting to think that when the "Earth that nourish'd thee...claim[s] thy growth," thy tax dollars will have gone toward planting the tree thou fertilize'th.


Form 1040 is the US Individual Tax Return, the primary form used by the IRS for personal federal income taxes. The first Form 1040 was written in 1912, a time when the IRS (then known as the Bureau of Internal Revenue) had fewer than 50 employees. It is alleged that Nina Wilcox Putnam, a young accountant who went on to become a successful screenwriter, composed the form that generations of taxpayers would use yearly to determine their bill. The first complete form was not approved for use until its fortieth draft and was thus dubbed the 1040.


In Greek mythology, Elysium (also known as "Elysian Fields") is the abode of the blessed in the afterlife. Often described as an island or series of islands at the edge of the earth, Elysium is home to heroes like Achilles and Aeneas, brave warriors descended from the gods. But Elysium can also be a state of mind as Emily Dickinson describes: "Elysium is as far as to the very nearest room, if in that room a friend await felicity or doom." Perhaps the poet's friend was awaiting a tax return...


A dependent in American English, or a dependant in British English, is a person who relies or "depends" on someone else as their primary source of income. This is most often a child, spouse, parent, or other relative. If you find yourself supporting a dependent, you can list them on your tax forms and claim a deduction or possibly an exemption. The word is derived from the Latin dependere meaning "to hang down," and although your dependents may hang on you financially, they can certainly lighten your taxes.


A tax exemption is a circumstance in which a citizen doesn't have to pay taxes at all, unlike a tax deduction which is removed from taxable income (the amount you earn on which the IRS can levy taxes). Certain charitable organizations or individuals with a high number of dependents or extremely low incomes as well as veterans and clergymen can receive tax exemptions, and if you've ever bought anything from a duty free shop in an international airport, you've already enjoyed a small one. The word is derived from the Latin exemptus meaning "removed."


A tax deduction is an expense that is deducted or removed from taxable income (the amount of money you earn on which the IRS can levy taxes). If you've made a charitable donation, or had an important business lunch at a fancy restaurant, you can deduct those amounts from your taxable income. The word deduction is derived from the Latin stem deductio meaning "a leading away." Though no tax payer would ever dream of depriving his or her government of revenue, it can pay to research the deductions to which you're entitled.


In Christian tradition, perdition is the state of final spiritual ruin, where the wicked are condemned to eternal damnation. The term is derived from the Latin perdere meaning "to lose" or "to ruin," but because the first amendment to the US Constitution grants citizens separation of church and state, you can think of this next term as a kind of federal perdition.


This little unassuming word is every taxpayer's worst nightmare. If you claim an extra eight dependents, or go to Tahiti for a month on "business," it won't be long before an ominous knock comes on your door and two agents in suits proceed to investigate every aspect of your financial life. Granted that fearsome knock might be a fearsome letter, but the result is the same: the dreaded audit. Here ends our story of death and taxes, and though neither can be avoided, let us think of public schools, libraries, and national parks and remember the pleasures of life that our taxes pay for.