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 a 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 or where your ashes will be sprinkled, tossed, strewn; you can have your ashes mixed with seeds and grow yourself into an apple tree; you can be thrown into the wind, off a cliff, flushed down the toilet if you so ordain. Again, this is all after you are dead.
But what about the death event itself, the one where you get to attend? (Where everyone else goes home, and you do too – sort of.) Will you keep it simple like you did when you got married, with just a few attending, or will you go extravagant. If you can pick your pallbearers, why not choose who to invite to your death? Guests need not bring gifts. In fact, you may have to pay them to attend, or include them in the will. Of course, you must choose a venue. Where will you die? Online quizzes at places like playbuzz and GoToQuiz “playfully” try to predict where you might die. But they have nothing to do with choosing a location. They assume that you have no control because you can’t know when you will die. (There are plenty of other quizzes about that.) You can’t send wedding invitations without setting a date and the same applies to your death party. Where you die is inextricably entangled with when.
Notably, suicides choose the time and place of their death. (Although that applies a liberal definition of “choice.” Is suicide a voluntary act?) 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) transformed the American literary landscape, stuck a shotgun into his mouth. Many of us already know this, but probably few know where exactly it occurred. He was of all places in the foyer of his Idaho home. The foyer? 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 up at the ceiling? What was on that ceiling? Plaster? 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 that often appear on the inside of our 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, so let’s move on to something a little more cheerful. How about assassination? That’ll lighten it up. What about JFK, his last view? Was it the cheering crowd all waving in adoration? Rolling along in a convertible, the top down, on a sunny day in Dallas, waving and smiling, a thoroughly happy demise. He never regained consciousness so that’s good. Let’s believe that 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 Georgia retreat having his portrait painted when struck with a “terrific pain” in the back of his head, 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, checking into burial arrangements at Arlington, and impossibly difficult questions, 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 – the devil might be in the bad trip. 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 and your last view lots of fun, just like good wine at a wedding.
First and foremost, we avoid death. Beyond trying to live forever and failing, we plan our funerals. Trying to also 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 still be alive. He accepts his fate. “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.