Can you control your death, give it parameters, give it stage direction and make it dramatic, pastoral, humorous? Sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? Most of us have trouble managing life, and death just happens. Typically, it’s out of our control. That doesn’t stop us from trying, nor should it. After all, we try to avoid head-on collisions. But, aside from the various purgatorial outcomes, you either make it or you don’t.
Perhaps that’s why we put so much emphasis on controlling what happens after we die. We can choose eulogies, flowers, type of service, music, prayers, pallbearers; in short, we can arrange our funeral with the verve of an obsessive bride. You can even write your own epitaph. Aphra Behn, Restoration era literary role model for women, presumably wrote, “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough against Mortality.” Bill Blake forever claims innocence, “Was hanged by mistake.”
However, despite the endless jokes, your death is not a wedding. You don’t really attend your funeral in the way you would a wedding. For the most part, as far as we know, only your bodily remains attend, which may or may not constitute who you are, or were. You can choose where you will be buried, you can have your ashes mixed with seeds, grow yourself into an apple tree. You can be thrown off a cliff or flushed down the toilet. Again, this is all after you are dead.
But what about the death event itself, the one you attend? Will you keep it simple or will you go extravagant. If you can pick your pallbearers, why not choose who to invite to your death? And you must choose a venue. Where will you die? You can’t send wedding invitations without setting a date and the same applies to your death. Where you die is inextricably entangled with when.
Suicides choose the time and place of their death. (Although that applies a liberal definition of “choice.”) Implicit in the location of death is the guest of honor’s last view. Forget about last thoughts. We can barely record our living thoughts. The planned epitaph or the inevitably incomplete note aren’t really last thoughts. We have a better chance conjecturing about their last view.
Famous suicide Ernest Hemingway who (as an aside) also transformed the American literary landscape pressed a double-barrel shotgun to his forehead. He was of all places in the foyer of his Idaho home. Why did this consummate outdoorsman choose to die inside? Perhaps he didn’t have much of a choice after all. Was his last view the parallel barrels illusorily connecting at the trigger? Or was he looking at the floor? What was on that floor? Confessional poet Sylvia Plath must have enjoyed cleaning ovens, otherwise why stick her head so far into hers and let loose the gas. Her last view the dark safety of an appliance. Probably both Hemingway and Plath had their eyes closed at the last second, in which case technically their last view could have been splendid flashes of color and images on the inside of their eyelids. Perhaps we should also include the smell of gas, the sound of the wind rattling Hemingway’s front door.
Maybe suicide is a little too depressing. What about JFK, his last view? Was it the cheering crowd all waving in adoration? Rolling along in a convertible on a sunny day in Dallas, a thoroughly happy demise. He never regained consciousness so that’s good. Let’s believe he didn’t see anything bad on the inside of his eyelids. But JFK’s happy last view was hardly of his own choosing. And Lincoln, was he enjoying the play?
Perhaps assassination isn’t cheerful enough, so what about sudden death. FDR was at his beloved Warm Springs retreat having his portrait painted, his last view perhaps of himself unfinished. My Cuban exile friend Luis went upstairs to write a letter, had a heart attack and slumped onto his desk. Not so bad. Writing. A happy view maybe, black ink on white paper. My good friend Bob died in a nursing home. Is it possible to have a happy last view in such a place? And what about my younger brother? What did he see before he passed out? From the position I found him, I’d say it was the dirty cob-webbed ceiling of his bedroom.
My 95-year-old Dad has “cheated” death many times in WWII. He now faces the inevitable. He can’t get out of this one. In the frenzy of updating wills and checking into burial arrangements at Arlington, should I ask, “Dad, have you thought about your last view?” Timothy Leary’s last utterance was “beautiful,” but he took lots of acid. Imagine that view. Since, as far as I know, my Dad never took acid, I’m not sure his death would be a time to experiment. Maybe mushrooms are an option. In a recent New Yorker article, “The Trip Treatment,” Michael Pollan writes about exciting research into using psilocybin to relieve “existential distress.” Under the right circumstances, hallucinogens could make your death party lots of fun, like good wine at a wedding.
First and foremost, we avoid death. Beyond trying to live forever and failing, we plan our funerals. Trying also to plan our last view may be futile, but it’s worth a try. In the 1970 film “Little Big Man,” Old Lodge Skins (played by Chief Dan George) ascends a hill to the Burial Ground and declares, “It is a good day to die.” He lies down waiting for death. Raindrops splatter his eyelids. The brilliance of the scene lies in clearly depicting an often unexpressed wish and illustrating the difficulty in attaining it. Old Lodge Skins seems only slightly disappointed to be alive. “Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.” Arranging your last view takes “magic” few of us possess and, even for Old Lodge Skins, it rarely works. Dying on a good day is our ultimate challenge.