This is the latest in a series of essays titled “Man has premonition of own death”
When I was young, I joked about death. I told people that this was what I wanted done at my funeral: I said I wanted the room to be prepared before the mourners arrived. I suggested that the room be kept nearly dark, lit by a few flickering candles. I wanted some of my favorite music playing — Dylan and Beatles mostly, but also a little Bach and some blues — Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin’ Wolf. As the weeping mourners entered the room — and it would have to be a large room, for there would undoubtedly be many mourners — a spotlight would suddenly switch on and illuminate a comfortable chair, where my still young and beautiful corpse would be sitting up, supported by pillows. Wires would be attached to my head, arms and legs. Push a button: I cross my left leg casually across my right. Push another: My arm raises a cigarette to my mouth, which has been fixed by the mortician into a bemused grin. Push a third button: My head tilts ever so slightly. Push the button that says SOUND and a prerecorded tape — prerecorded by me — plays the sound of my voice saying “I’d like to welcome you all to my funeral!” At this point, I imagined, screams and hysteria and sobs would erupt, while I sat there silently surveying the scene.
Here’s what I think now: What the hell was I thinking? Did I think that somehow death would transform me into Tom Sawyer, an onlooker at my own funeral? Did I forget the important fact that when Tom watched the goings-on at this own last rites, that he could be comforted by the knowledge that he was actually STILL ALIVE? I realize now that this was an important distinction, and I think the reason is that when I was ultra-cool and in my early twenties, death was symbolic, a concept, an imagining, unreal, something that happened to people when they grew old — and I, of course, would never grow old. Sure, I knew about your James Deans and your John F. Kennedys, your Jimis and your Janises, your Rimbauds and your Plaths. But these deaths at an early age were flukes — car crashes, overdoses, assassins were possible but highly unlikely causes of death.
But now I’ve come full circle. Thirty years have passed since I planned my theatrical funeral performance. And somewhere, somehow, at a time and place I don’t remember, something clicked inside my brain and said: “Hey, wake up. You’re going to die. Everyone’s going to die. All of your friends are going to die. Your whole family is going to die. You know when you drive down the street? All those people you see in all of those cars? Every one of them is going to die. When you walk through Penn Station or Grand Central Station? All of those people scurrying to and from trains? Doomed to die. When you’re at a baseball game and there are sixty thousand people around you? Sixty thousand corpses! Every single person you’ve ever encountered. Everyone you’ve ever known. Everyone you’ve ever glimpsed. Everyone dies. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Absolutely nothing. And…It could happen right now. It could happen as you’re thinking this thought and typing that word. Any second. Like a thief in the night? Yes, indeed!”
When Dylan put out that string of incredibly crappy albums during his born-again period, back in the 1980s, he recorded an incredibly crappy song called “Death Is Not the End.” Fine and good, and I hope ol’ Bob still believes that, and I hope to God it’s true, and maybe Dylan wouldn’t mind teaching me to play the guitar if and when he and I and all of our brothers and sisters find ourselves at one with the universe as we gaze blissfully upon the very face of God. Or something like that. I’m finding it hard to get to the point, and I’m thinking that probably IS my point, or at least part of it. Death is such a huge, overwhelming topic, so impossible to grasp, that my thoughts about it are related but rambling, directly linked but still inevitably disjointed, hard to explain but also hard to avoid — everywhere I look I see death, in every song I hear I hear death, gazing upon every person I see and gaze upon the face of death.
So I find myself like Dante, poised at that gate with that daunting message, that taunting directive that I should abandon all hope if I intend to enter there, find myself trying to complete the novel my agent keeps urging me to finish but instead getting distracted by thousands of thoughts, thousands of images, all of them having to do with death and dying. And I find I am compelled to put these thoughts into words, to try to turn these words into sentences, these sentences into paragraphs and chapters and perhaps a book, a sort of diary about death, but with the understanding and realization that I am not obsessed with death.
No, I am not grim. I am not morbid. I realize that my motivation and my preoccupation stem from the fact that I cherish life. I like being alive. I want to live forever. When I die, I may make the happy discovery that Bob Dylan was right, that death was not the end. Or maybe death will be the end — and I won’t even know it. Or maybe death is not the end, but a fate worse than death awaits me and all of you too. But look me straight in the eye. Tell me that you haven’t thought these same thoughts, don’t feel like this too. Why do you rubberneck at auto wrecks? Why do you read the obituaries every day? Tell me that you haven’t looked at the smoking mangled cars and thought: There but for fortune…Tell me that you haven’t looked at those creepy memorials on the obit page and pictured your photo there under the gilded headline that says something like 8th Anniversary in Heaven…Always In Our Thoughts…Until We Are Together Again. Tell me with a straight face that you don’t fear death — don’t think about it constantly — don’t see the Grim Reaper down the road with his razor-sharp scythe in one hand and his other bony hand with its thumb extended as your car approaches on a dark road on a gloomy rainy night.