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Death Tourists

by J.P. McFarland

The Roman generals — most of them — were not much over five feet tall. They consumed about two thousand calories a day. Medical care didn’t exist. But back then these were the guys living large: after a successful campaign someone would walk behind and every now and then tap them on the shoulder, keeping them anchored there in the world of serious people: “Remember, you. You also are mortal. So pay attention.”

Most Romans had no need for that sort of thing: “I had the eight kids: all dead.  My husband was enslaved (he died last year), and me, I’m starving and I live over there in that ditch by the side of the road. So yeah, thanks for asking.” Then a few lines in D minor: “Lately I’ve been a bit blue. And sure, death is on my mind–but I’ll get by, I always do.”

You see where I’m going with this.


Listen: most Americans live a lot better than any Roman general or medieval king, but no one reminds us about mortality. Instead, we get the here-and-now stuff, the razzle-dazzle, the shiny objects offered in silky voiceovers. A special pillow, boner pills, a portable oxygen tank. Also surf-and-turf.

Death? Death is background music, a form of entertainment. Millions have paid money to see corpses on bicycles and corpses holding poker hands and corpses dressed in evening clothes dancing.

Were you one of those people? Did you take your children?

We’re born pre-wired with knowledge of death. We don’t test for it like radon: we know it’s there the same as gravity and air.

Play a recording of a robin’s song for a housecat that’s never once been out of doors: it might show an interest. It may even bare its teeth and growl. A hundred millennia of programming won’t be overridden by tuna treats and a litterbox.

Similarly, we’re born pre-wired with knowledge of death. We don’t test for it like radon: we know it’s there the same as gravity and air, no need to see it in action. And no matter how it arrives, it’s familiar and also expected, and we figure things out well enough when it shows. (Sometimes the meeting at first is awkward, okay, but only because we don’t get in any practice.) It doesn’t mean to catch us by surprise.

How could it not be that way?

Well, take the arrogance of Sir Walter: a man once precise in calibrating the moods of the Court, and judicious also in his choice of patrons and companions. Age and the toll of travel, and the death of his queen, all had made him somewhat complacent and open to misdirection. He wrote his wife from the Tower: “Bess, a misunderstanding, nothing more.” A week later his head was in a bag. She placed it under her pillow at night and listened to his lame excuses. “Maybe I forgot to pay attention,” he said. “Something like that.”

This is how it works: they walk them over to the guillotine or take them down from the Tower, and the only way a lot of these prisoners get their legs working under them is to believe in a mistake, in a world where what’s happening isn’t really happening. They’re meek as can be and almost apologetic, tipping the executioner and saying a few words, the whole time thinking about the angry letter they’ll write once this silly situation gets resolved. And hopeful, too, right up to the moment the blade hisses down. Then their eyes go wide: Jesus Criminy, who ever saw that coming?


At the First Battle of Bull Run, spectators handed out sandwiches to the troops, and later in the day, which had grown warm and uncomfortable, American corpses were posed naturally in their uniforms throughout the landscape. By that point the non-serious people were all gone, although these had been the ones most passionate about the whole thing: they’d packed up their picnic baskets because of the noise and the flies and the bodies that bled and smelled and weren’t pumped full of plastic, and after that they pretty much stayed away. The war continued nonetheless.

And here we are, a civilization, a people shopping on-line and struggling to lose weight. A people, many millions, not paying attention. Buying tickets to see plastic bodies doing handstands.

We’ve taken our eye off the ball. We’ve mistaken the peel for the banana.

A dog might sniff at a corpse, but not as a way to pass the time. Not as something to do. We say ‘look at that’ when we should be saying ‘that could be me.’ We’ve taken our eye off the ball. We’ve mistaken the peel for the banana.

But listen: if we choose to visit our own life as a gawker and not establish permanent residency there, what next? A tenant is not invested in the neighborhood. He might steal laundry from the basement or even take a sledgehammer to his apartment. A visitor to a museum might touch a painting or damage a sculpture, and at the zoo there’s always someone willing to throw food or much worse at the monkeys. A tourist, too, might litter or pocket some object, knowing he’ll likely never return.


Pose those plastic dead? And people pay to see them?

“Well, we had their permission, smartass, so why don’t you just drop it? ‘Bend me up like a pretzel,’ they said, ‘the children will like that. Show me naked and riding a vacuum cleaner with a snake crawling out my ass.’ Here, it’s in writing and all legal, okay, so fuck you.”

No, I don’t think so. No. This wasn’t their decision to make.

Death is neither to be trifled with nor admired. Nor displayed.

The living shouldn’t be allowed to contract on behalf of their dead selves, not anyway to do something foolish like posing plasticized for the amusement of people already too distracted by bunny-brained thinking. That sort of thing is void or voidable as against public policy and also a violation of divine law. Death is neither to be trifled with nor admired. Nor displayed.

Nor should death be made to seem trivial or mocked, not in the courts or anywhere else, and this was something those Civil War picnickers figured out fairly quickly, and also what the Roman generals understood too, with their bones now resting safe at the bottom of the Tiber.


So what’s next? What are all these people getting us into when they’re not standing around open-mouthed staring at the remains?

They don’t know. They’re not paying any attention.

Editor’s Note: Reference to the exhibit the author is referring to can be seen here.

About the Writer

J.P. McFarland has long been a believer in the power of negativity and feels that people shouldn’t be afraid to listen to their inner “no” voice. For example, he suspects children would talk less if their parents were more willing to say “No, that’s wrong,” or “No one cares about your stupid opinion.” In addition, well-timed words of discouragement might have prevented the development of many useless inventions (e.g., the space shuttle, foam pillows, mayonnaise, etc.). If invited, he would lecture on this topic or write a scholarly article. He currently is working on a self-help book entitled “Your Silence is Golden.”


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