I’ve been working on a music playlist to give people after I die (hey, do I have anything better than to do?) I imagined it as a kind of final gift to the world, but what’s preventing me from making the list today?
It’s a good playlist, a compilation of favorite tunes with a lot of emotional range and nostalgic touches. But lots of other playlists do that too. Nothing is really unique about the one I have been cobbling together.
I do like the idea of a musical playlist. These are less about my creative expressions than the auditory artefacts I have stumbled upon during my life. I have always needed music to keep me going. It’s hard to imagine a life before a person could listen without interruption to recorded music or listen. Digital music comes with the tradeoff that we have to deal with global warming, a carnage of birds, rapidly declining biodiversity and noise pollution that people a century never had to deal with: leaf blowers, car horns, jack hammers and the incessant trodding on highway concrete. Before the era of digital music people played musical instruments or sang or recited poetry or went to the theatre. A few hundred years later our multimedia will become more ornate and sophisticated and autonomous, but I suspect people will still be listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Beethoven symphonies and Machaut motets. So a musical playlist — while not as creative as a novel or diary — will still be able to display a person’s personality and emotional timbres from that person’s life well beyond one lifetime.
It is a nice fantasy to imagine one’s own funeral. Who would be there, who would be fraught with grief, etc. Actually, over the years I’ve heard about many people whose deaths were unremarked upon and practically unnoticed. This is practically a given for any author who hasn’t won an international prize. No matter how prolific your output was or how committed you were to the artistic craft, if it didn’t make a lot of money or bring a national prize, your literary output will probably count for nothing at a funeral. Your family will still have to pay for your obituary.
Probably the best way to have an eventful sendoff after death is to be married and have children (or grandchildren). This is proper because family-oriented people make sacrifices to their offspring; having a decent funeral for them is the least one can do. If you can’t do that, it helps to be married or at least in a long term relationship. What this means at the age of your death is unclear. The people who stayed with you for this long may have done so for reasons more practical than romantic or spiritual. In those later years, your siblings have to take up the slack. And what if you have only one sibling or none at all? What if they all died before you? Frankly, old age is terrifying for people who are single or unattached. Who’s going to clean up your mess? Manage your financial affairs? Manage your health care decisions when you are unable to?
I currently live with my mom. At 80 she is still reasonably healthy, but frankly her healthfulness is diminishing; it’s unclear how quickly little issues will become big issues and (one day) fatal issues. I cannot comment about that, but I’ve noticed just how stressful the financial aspects of health care can be for her. The bills are inscrutable, the sticker prices are ridiculous, and it’s time-consuming to get a question answered. A visit to the doctor or hospital can spell financial ruin. And she’s not really experiencing any serious medical problems! I’ve long been an advocate for health care reform for financial reasons, but practically speaking it would reduce stress levels and the energy one has to expend just to understand the financial responsibilties.
In addition to having children and grandchildren, it helps to be rich because it makes it easier to accumulate a retinue of assistants and recipients of your charity. People active in the church probably are going to have good funerals as well (in a way that morticians and funeral parlor directors are going to make their final farewells tasteful and appropriate). Religious people are already aware of the importance of ritual and future salvation.
Helping professions often get good send offs. Doctors, teachers, social workers, nurses. These are tough professions to have during their time on earth. Grateful recipients of their care will be in heavy attendance. It also helps if your peers and cohorts are still alive. People under 30 will almost always get a good sendoffs — if only to console parents and siblings. A funeral for people of that age is an acknowledgement of the enormous potential never realized. A 20 year old dead from an auto accident or cancer will cause people to wonder what the person would have made of their lives if it were allowed to continue a few more decades.
Many an old person finds that a majority of his friends are no longer alive — many are randomly scattered across the country. When you get over 50, even if you feel relatively young and healthy, depending on your job situation and social life, you can spend a lot of time around people significantly younger than yourself. You end up wondering, Is this anecdote I’m going to tell about X going to resonate with this younger person? Or will it simply call attention to the age gap and reveal my different perspectives and priorities? You learn to omit discussing your past — on your resume, dating profile and cocktail party conversations; instead you focus relentlessly on the latest TV shows and music. The hard lessons you learned in your 20s or the overseas travel you took to Africa several decades ago might have been meaningful to you, but it may not be relevant or interesting to someone in their twenties now.
I mentioned before that single people don’t make out particularly well at funerals. Poor people too, but these two groups can overlap. I read somewhere that on average a single person in USA has a shorter lifespan than a married person. (The statistic has been disputed somewhat). From my youth I assumed that I would always get married and have kids, but things didn’t turn out that way. and I’m fine with it. I just can’t figure out how single people manage death and dying. I am mainly talking about finances; perhaps single people retire with more assets to help them than married people do, but that definitely won’t be true for me.
Poor people often have a wide circle of friends and family to help out during critical times. Frankly though people have become more relaxed about funerals, calling them “celebrations” and scheduling them like ….whenever. I like that. There’s no longer any urgency about a funeral or cremation. My friend Jay died and then had a celebration of his life months later. That allowed friends to fit it in their schedule so more people could attend. It turned out to be a very memorable occasion. Sure, we were all bummed out by Jay’s leaving us early, but we had already had time to process our grief and frankly, everyone was up for a little party. (Jay was a wild character too with many friends, so it made for a very good mix of people).
The obvious thing is that if you are dead, the self or soul that is you is completely indifferent to what happens afterwards. The you who lives in the current moment cares a lot more about your legacy than the mass of decaying cells (or its burnt remnants).
I remain hopeful that during my lifetime it will be possible to transplant my memories into a machine. But who knows? Maybe the best I could hope for is a chatbot whose speech/language patterns resemble my own. Then again, I’m a writer, so it’s not hard to make such a thing. Most people don’t write all that much, so the best one might hope for is an avatar made of a composite of photos, videos and audio.
I remember an episode from the TV show Cheers where someone announces the death of someone and the people in the bar give a cheer. Apparently there was a stipulation in someone’s will that the last surviving relative would inherit some massive amount of cash, and one by one the relatives were dying off, leaving only two people remaining. I found that amusing and actually thought it would be a good idea to have some kind of door prize for any funeral or life celebration. Doesn’t need to be as crass as cash, but maybe some heirloom with more than merely sentimental value. I’ve read that much of what people leave behind is worth significantly less than it was when purchased — even rare items like jewelry and furniture. Sometimes an item may hold the potential to be sold as an antique, but most of the time, it is too much trouble to locate a buyer willing to pay a fair price. Speaking only of books, I haven’t tried to collect rare or valuable books, but my collection is pretty great, and there’s a fair number of semi-rare books that I’ve gathered over the decades. Still, my family has no love for the books or even an appreciation of its economic value. Indeed, later generations find books less relevant, just bulky souvenirs from a time when almost nothing was digital. I fully accept that my books will be disposed of in as painless way as possible. What else do I own — TV, computer equipment, a phone, a digital music collection? Perhaps those would be suitable doorprizes for any funeral — and an incentive for people to show up at least.
Other events might be scheduled to make the evening special.
Of course, there will be no gravestone, but a symbolic gravestone might be set up in a remote area of a field somewhere so anyone (but presumably male) who wanted to could piss on it (one at a time, for the sake of privacy).
Perhaps two funeral separate funerals could be held — one for people whom I didn’t particularly like. This alternate funeral could feature things that I despised or drove me crazy. People could watch the football game together, or eat hamburgers from an overpriced restaurant, drink Starbucks coffee or sing karaoke or make videos for social media. Lots of alcohol could be served and a Trump imitator could be invited to talk about how great a person he (meaning Trump) really is. Perhaps everyone could get together and do housework or mow the lawn in the blistering heat. Perhaps everyone could visit the gas station to fill their tanks with gas (assuming that those things are still around). There will be a reading of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom and perhaps even the Bible. The event would end with a marathon playing of the card game Uno (I feel certain that the devil himself will insist that all of hell’s inhabitants play this game nonstop).
A certain tasteful ceremony of remembrance will be scheduled for ex-girlfriends and those who regretted never becoming romantically involved with me. They should be able to pose with a life-sized cutout of me, perhaps making lewd gestures or mock kisses. At the end all attendees should be presented with a certificate (signed by me) thanking them for their affections and offering my heart to them for an eternity. This certificate should be written in a way to avoid having to specify the name of the woman, and yet despite tinges of light-heartedness and silliness should have no hint of satire or mockery (but be totally sincere).
A trivia contest will be held to test their knowledge of my life and tastes in TV shows, food, books and music. The winner should receive a check (signed by me) for 10 billion dollars.
A reading of the will be scheduled, but with imaginary poetic assets instead of actual ones. (“My literary license which has provided endless hours of entertainment will go to X;”). It would only be appropriate to conclude with a showing of the Saturday Night Live sketch called Betty Davis Video Will starring Bette Davis’ (Jan Hooks) family watches the long, rambling video will she created before her death. [SNL Season 14, 1989]
A 3 mile bike ride will be scheduled at a cool part of the day to visit the local library (or its current equivalent). Afterwards, there would be a pool party at a nearby swimming pool, with watermelon, veggie burgers, Diet Coke.
The evening part of the ceremony will feature the showing of several comedy movies I enjoyed: My Cousin Vinny, Hear My Song, Daytrippers, Breaking Away, Life of Brian, Les Comperes, Withnail and I, Stranger than Paradise, Clueless and Talladega Nights.
20 years after this party, there will be an academic symposium to discuss my books and perhaps my influence on future generations. Big announcements will be made in publications and social media, and venue space will be rented — a ballroom at a fancy hotel for instance, with catering and break out rooms. Then, when nobody actually shows up, the local homeless shelters will be notified, letting people without means have a nice catered meal and a nice air-conditioned room to relax (for the day at least). And maybe rewatch My Cousin Vinny ….
(Playlist will be coming very soon!)