by J.P. McFarland
One morning several years ago I had an early breakfast of steel-cut oats and black coffee. Then I went to my office in the upstairs guest bedroom and I began to write. Louisa had been pretty surprised. (And annoyed, too, I suppose.)
Anyone who knows me would have been surprised. I sleep in as a rule, usually until 2 pm, and generally I don’t write at all. More precisely, I physically engage in the act of writing, but I’m a scribe, nothing more, decanting the thoughts that were poured into my head during the night. (I dreamt recently of a world where the dead spoke and were understood. The air smelled foul, like stale urine. Glimpses of that place haunted me for many days afterward.)
What, you ask, was I writing there in the dark on a cold winter’s morning? What could have been important enough to rouse me from my fitful sleep?
I did this on my own initiative, without direction, as a favor.
A favor? Why a favor?
You and your questions! I’ll explain.
When someone close to you dies–especially if they die suddenly–the shock is overwhelming. It’s an explosion of grief, a tidal wave of exhausting sadness. Then follows the crushing weight of so many responsibilities: calling friends and relatives; cleaning the house; taking care of financial matters; making arrangements for a funeral or memorial service; telling the out-of-towners: Sorry, no, those guest bedrooms unfortunately are for storage or office use only.
And also, of course, there is the task of writing an obituary: how to locate and assemble so many facts and memories into succinct, typo-free paragraphs with all those explosions going off and the waves crashing around and also a deadline looming?
It’s hardly possible. You only have to read a few to understand. “Lanie was pre-deceased by her horse Buttercup and all of her wonderful friends.” Or this: “Many laughs we had when Butch would tell his stories in his loud booming voice.”
Do we feel we know these people? No. Will the planet mourn the loss of one braying jackass and his ‘stories’? No. (The planet in fact will take its hands from its ears and give a great gap-toothed grin of relief.) And does Buttercup even belong in a celebration of human life? No. No, she doesn’t. (Buttercup likely was a biter, as most horses are, and so it’s always a bit of a mystery to me why so many of them show up in ‘popular’ children’s books.)
It isn’t fair to the dead. We owe them this much: to make them significant in their absence. And we owe it also to the friends of the dead. And we owe it to ourselves.
It’s for this reason that I’ve written so many obituaries, including my own. I owed it to my friends Henry and Louisa, both of whom were not articulate and would in their grief have struggled, I think, to find les mots justes.
Your ‘friends’? These two friends sound suspiciously like an obese black Lab and a fractious Maine coon cat that wails in the night and pees on your pillow when you neglect her by typing away there in your ‘office’ for hours at a time about your wonderful, exciting life with your many fancy degrees from prestigious universities.
Well, in all modesty, one school I attended is in Great Britain and has an ‘X’ in the name.
Oh. Would that be Saint Xavier, the open-access distance learning university?
In any event, writing one’s own obituary is a great gift in the sense that it relieves a significant burden from a loved one distracted by grief. And no matter how little went on in your life, I advise you to do it. No one, after all, cares more than you do about your regional high school debating championship. No one else remembers the name of your first wife, or your favorite cousin. Or the places where you were employed, or the co-workers whom you hated. Or the countries you visited or the letters you wrote arguing for the imposition of the flat tax and the abolishment of seat-belt laws. Or the children’s book you authored and self-published about hugging the lost kangaroo.
By nine o’clock that morning I’d finished writing my obituary with a long empty day still looming ahead. What else to do?
Funeral planning, of course.
I made it clear in my instructions: a big cortege would be in order, twenty cars minimum, with angry Irish limo drivers bursting through the busy intersections and tying up as much rush-hour traffic as humanly possible. They would flash their high-beams over and over so even the police would take notice and stand back in awkward respect. Impatient and furious, the drivers would roll down their windows and reach out with their arms and wave their big fists at the cars jammed to a standstill there at the green lights. They’d blast their horns at the frightened pedestrians frozen on the crosswalks, and scream obscenities at the young mothers pushing their strollers.
No one is more self-righteous than the angry cortege driver. No one is more entitled. The dead will have priority in this instance. It’s their goddamned day until it isn’t.
Nothing, thanks. Just the obituary. The angry cortege. And the cremation. That should do it.
But here’s another tip: after you finish your obituary, leave some instructions concerning the disposition of your ashes. My parents, for example, have been sitting in the garage for over three years.
My sister kept asking: “Are you doing something with them, J.P.?”
“Yes,” I told her, “yes, yes. Eventually. But for now, Maryanne, I’m just listening.”
“Listening?” she’d asked. “Listening for what?”
“Listening for them to tell me where the hell they want to be: Together, apart? In a field, in the ocean? Buried like hidden treasure, tucked away in the pouch of a lost kangaroo? A little guidance would be helpful.”
I’m still listening, and now Maryanne’s husband is in the garage with them. And Maryanne herself isn’t doing too well. Pretty soon I’ll have to move the Volvo.
What do the dead need other than a good write-up? Not water, no, and certainly not cemeteries.
Henry tells me he’s off-leash all the time. And the squirrels, he says, are three-legged and delightfully slow.
Still. Louisa and I miss him a great deal. He was quiet and thoughtful. No one would publish his obituary, but I wrote it all the same.
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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