Saturday, May 8, 2010

Memento Mori

Memento Mori – Remember, You are Mortal

As you are now, I once was; as I am now you will be.

Words on a New England gravestone

If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life, and only then will I be free to become myself.

Martin Heidegger

I don’t want to achieve immortality by living on in the hearts of my fans. I want to achieve mortality by living on in my apartment.

Woody Allen

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klien quote both Heidegger and Woody Allen in Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates. (This version of the Woody Allen quote is somewhat different than the one they use. I’ve been repeating it this way for years and like it better.)

My sister-in-law, Loie Drew gave me this book when I was visiting Portland, OR. She said she thought it would “feed the blog.” Turns out she was right.

I think death is just the ultimate lights out. When my body gives out I’ll be gone. Just as I didn’t have any existence before I was born, I won’t have any existence after I die. I accept this as a fact. When I think about it, I feel some sadness about the things I won’t be around to experience, but no great fear, no anger. I don’t feel any tendency to “rage against the dying of the light.” In fact it seems like a good plan to “go gentle into that good night.” Dylan Thomas was only thirty-seven when he wrote those lines of advice for his dying father. Despite the fact that Dylan was a hell of a poet, I bet the older Thomas had a different perspective than his son. The poet was dead at 39. He never got to have an old man’s perspective on dying.

Heidegger and a Hippo… points out that even people who believe as I do are likely to find themselves wanting to negotiate about their life coming to an end. Sometimes I’ll catch myself saying in my mind, “Just let me make it to 75 in good health and whatever happens after that I won’t complain.” I have no idea who I could be addressing those words to. I don’t believe there is anybody rolling the dice and even if there is, the dice only obey the rules of chance.

My favorite ploy in my negotiations with death is planning my own funeral. My pleading goes something like this, “I know I’ll be dead and gone, but it would be so cool to have a great funeral. I can sort of enjoy in advance an extra week or so of life by visualizing the amazing send off I’ll have.”

I love the scene in Tom Sawyer where Tom and his sidekicks attend their own funeral. They had gone off to play pirates on the Mississippi and stayed away long enough that the town decided they had drowned. A funeral was organized. With exquisite timing the boys sneak back into the church and hear themselves eulogized. The pastor re-imagines the “dead” boys as lovable, well intentioned, and upstanding. The whole town buys into this revisionism. There is not a dry eye in the house. However, reality makes a quick rebound when the boys walk down the aisle as healthy and rascally as ever.

I don’t actually want to make an appearance at my funeral. I just want to control what happens. Below are some ideas about how my funeral should be organized.

Things should start off with my friend Bob Cohen singing “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Bob sang this song at my wedding as a way of acknowledging that our friend Francis Giambroni was no longer among us. It seems to me to be the quintessential mourning song. If I out live Bob anybody with a suitably soulful voice can fill in.

I'll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
All day through.

In that small cafe;
The park across the way;
The children's carousel;
The chestnut trees;
The wishin' well.

I'll be seeing you
In every lovely summer's day;
In every thing that's light and gay.
I'll always think of you that way.

I'll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I'll be looking at the moon,
But I'll be seeing you.

Following the song, let the eulogizing begin: open mike, anybody can come up and say anything they want about me. I make this suggestion in full knowledge that the same spirit that gripped the Pastor in Tom Sawyer will take over. Only the best things about me will be remembered. Besides as you get older people cut you more slack. They hold fewer things against you.

During the eulogy vendors should circulate selling cotton candy, grilled corn on the cob - Honduran style rubbed with butter, lemon, salt and chili - and clam cakes, preferably from Aunt Carries ( Someone should be in charge of calling a break in the eulogizing from time to time so the Mariachi Band can perform.

After everyone has had their say let the dancing and the drinking begin. The open bar should serve a variety of beers, of course, and Cuba Libras made with Havana Club, mojitos, and margaritas on the rocks with salt. For a while, do whatever kind of dance you want, but eventually it is going to come down to the punta.

The punta is the Honduran national dance. There is a popular version of it for parties and clubs. I did it a couple of times and Hondurans said I wasn’t bad. Of course they are way too polite to have told me anything different. There is also a performance version. There are national punta troupes, which I still hope to see someday. Apparently they verge on the pornographic. But my real interest in the punta being danced at my funeral lies in its origins. Everyone agrees it comes from the Garafuna, the people who populate the North Coast and are descendents of black Caribbeans, black Africans and indigenous people of the coastal area. They have their own language and in many ways are quite distinct from other Hondurans. Beyond the fact that the punta was originally a Garafuna ceremonial dance, everyone has a slightly different version of what it means, but here is my distilled version. It started as a dance to the dead. Nine days after the passing of a member of the community there is a big party/memorial service. There is food, drink, drumming and punta. The dancing goes on all night and passes from sensual, to erotic, to sexual and eventually blends into lovemaking. This is quite intentional and is rooted in the Garafuna belief that when someone dies a new life will come into the community to replace that person. The punta is the conduit. It is the ultimate tribute to the one who has died. Obviously, I love this image of life and death bridged by sexuality. Those of you who plan to outlive me should start practicing. Here are a couple of You Tube videos to get you started. The first one is for technique. The second one is for attitude.

As people leave the funeral they should be encouraged to take a baggie of my ashes. Anytime they go to a movie they should sprinkle a little of me on the floor of the theater. I’ll live on at the multiplex.

The Portrait

This is a composite of six self-portraits. Three were done about ten years ago and six were done last week. I have plans for these babies. Stay tuned.

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