When It’s My Turn to Take a Bow (Feb. 20, 1995)

According to Benjamin Franklin, “In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes.” I don’t think I need to show you my I.R.S. filings for the past dozen years to convince you that I’ve done a much better job of planning for the taxes than I have for the death.

It’s not that I’m ignoring death. Not at all. Death is ignoring me; and for this small favor, I am thankful. No, I started out thinking about death at a very early age. I grew up next to a cemetery. I would mow the grass there, and sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d get paid to fill in a grave after a funeral. To me, death had great significance: it was worth $25.

That cemetery still matters to me. It contains my great­-grandfather’s grave. He was probably the only relative I’ll ever have whom they’ll allow to be buried there. When I was younger, I would go down and look at his tombstone. Then I would be off for a game of hide-and-seek with my friends, using the graveyard as a playground.

I went back and visited that cemetery a couple of weeks ago. It was pretty much the same, except that, like everything else back home, it seemed to have shrunk. The big trees weren’t so big anymore. I don’t know. Maybe they had cut down the really big ones and these other, smaller trees had grown up in their place.

Oh, and this time around, I recognized more of the names on the gravestones. Art Mertz was there, and so was one of the Kammerers. There was a tombstone for Don and Shirley Williams, too. They weren’t buried there yet — they’re still living in town — but I guess maybe they’ve been thinking ahead, about where they’re going to go when they leave that retirement home. I recognized some other names on those headstones, and I said to myself, You know, there are some damn good people buried here. They’re dead, and that’s a hard thought.

Ben Franklin was right: death is certain. But more than that: it’s inexorable. It doesn’t quit. It’s like the forces of nature, constantly eroding the earth: sometimes it’s a hurricane, and sometimes it’s just a gentle current in a quiet stream. You might read that famous poem by Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

but you know that the old guy he was singing to, his dad, was probably in a cancer ward somewhere.

Rage? Oh, yeah. Right. As though death weren’t a lot more cunning than that. You think about those lines from the Bible — O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?–) and you know that the writer was talking about salvation or something. He sure wasn’t talking about how the mourners feel. You attend a Christian funeral, or any other, and you watch the people there, and you know: it stings, all right.

I am not an old man, but I’m probably old enough to reach a few basic conclusions about death. The main thing, I think, is that death is bigger and smarter than me. It will be around a hundred years from now, and I won’t. A head-on confrontation, me versus death, would be like that movie, Bambi Meets Godzilla: it was a good flick, but terribly brief and one-sided.

By the time I was eleven years old, screwing around in that cemetery, I had already realized that the better strategy, for me personally, was to negotiate. So I made a deal with death. The deal was this: I will live until I die, and then I will die and shut up. Some people may say that I could have gotten more, but it was not a bad deal, and I was comfortable with it.

I did overlook an important point, though. I didn’t realize how much it could hurt to lose someone else. At a certain age, you begin to suspect — no matter what they say in the movies — that death is not the ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate sacrifice is loss. It doesn’t go away, and it can’t be filled. It’s a hole, an emptiness.

And yet, I don’t think that’s the end of the story. I know that, at my own funeral, I am going to want my friends to cry, make noise, and then get over it. Like I say, I’m not in a rush to die, but when I do, I believe I will make the adjustment successfully. Why should anyone else make more out of my death than I do?

The obvious answer is that I’m just a loveable guy, and they don’t want to lose me. But the other obvious answer is that they are all control freaks. They have some rosy memory of who I am and what I stand for, and now they think I should be playing that role for the rest of eternity. I mean, I would do this for them, but I suspect that if we actually talked about that magical moment in their lives, the one they’re remembering so fondly, we would find that they and I do not remember it the same, and we’d probably wind up arguing about it.

Better, I think, for me to make a big splash, do what I’m going to do, and then exit. My friends should come to the cemetery, let their kids play hide-and-seek on my grave, and count their blessings that they, too, have not yet experienced this unique way of taking a break. That is the way I feel about my death. I can’t help it. It just makes sense to me. And so, unless someone notifies me otherwise, this is how I’m going to think of them too.

And it seems right. I like to believe that if my great-grandfather and Art Mertz and those other dead folks down at the cemetery are watching me, or if they sent me off with any final thoughts, it was this: Relax. Live your life and prosper, and then, when your time comes, come lie in the dust with your fathers. That, too, is a Biblical perspective — and it sure beats the image of them running around in some poorly lit afterlife, yelling “I’m dead? Oh, no! This wasn’t supposed to happen to me!

So at the funerals we’ll be scheduling in the next 50 or 100 years, I hope we will all have the courage to be ourselves and to tell good, happy stories about each other. I know, I know: in America, the tradition is to let the person in front of the audience set the tone for the entire group. I’m just trying to say that the corpse at a funeral should be one exception to this tradition. The grey, stiff look has been out of fashion for years.

There will come a point with each and every one of you, my friends, when I will not see you any more. I don’t know whether that point will come because we die, or because we get mad and stop speaking to each other, or maybe just because we drift apart. It’s all the same. What I want is to do the best I can: to make sure that the time I spend with you now is good time, and to do you justice in my memory. That is, after all, what I hope for in return.

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  • Kathy Hall  On August 9, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    First of all, I’m confused. The heading on your message says 1995 and here at the bottom it says August 9, 2014. I agree with most of your message and I’m not sure what you meant by the grey, stiff look being out of fashion, but it is my plan to be cremated and then my family and friends have a celebration of life, with a picture of me doing something I love.

  • Ray Woodcock  On August 9, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    Hi, Kathy. I wrote it in 1995 but only posted it now. The “out of fashion” remark was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I’d revise it to eliminate that ambiguity, but I’m just posting it as originally written. In any case, your plan sounds sensible and positive. Here’s hoping that day does not arrive for many a year. Thanks for writing.

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