February 11, 2018

Funeral Arrangements


After years of looking, early this past December I finally got my hands on the original soundtrack recording for Brian DePalma’s darkly satirical rock opera, Phantom of the Paradise (1974). I’ve always loved that soundtrack, filled as it is with toe-tappers written (and sometimes performed) by the great Paul Williams. Soon as I unwrapped it, I slapped it on the stereo, and wasn’t disappointed.

            When we reached the closing credits theme, “The Hell of It”—a bouncy, up-tempo number whose chorus includes the line “Nobody likes you, you’re better off dead”—I commented, “I want this played at my funeral.”

            “Really?” Morgan replied. “Okay, but you better make a note of it someplace.”

            It was an empty request, I guess, given I’d always made it clear I wasn’t interested in a funeral. I’d been to too many over the years, and soon recognized they were all pretty interchangeable, no matter who was being planted. After some dreadful music, a holy man of some stripe comes out and spouts some mumbo-jumbo about the Life Eternal. Then after  some more dreadful music, a couple of the cadaver’s friends or family members step up to say a few generic words about how the dead one in the box was “a devoted father/mother/friend/child” who “always had a smile, always brightened whatever room he or she stepped into, was always ready to help and always gave back to the community.” Then everyone recites that godawful Twenty-third Psalm before heading to the cafeteria for ham and cheese sandwiches.

            Christ, I wasn’t about to make anyone sit through that shit on my account. Just cremate me, spread my ashes to the four winds, and be done with it. Lord knows I didn’t want any ceremony, didn’t want to be buried anywhere, and didn’t want a headstone. It’s all too damned expensive and dull, as well as a useless waste of space and marble. As Morgan and I wander through Greenwood Cemetery, I’m always amazed at all these people, now completely forgotten, who were so unfathomably arrogant they arranged to have fucking pyramids or Greek temples built to house their rotting corpses. Probably bankrupted their families in the process, just so complete strangers can come along decades later and say, “Wow, he must have been a real asshole!” Even those people who shell out for enormous, ornate angel statues mounted on their graves seem a bit presumptuous, right? I mean, how can they be so sure about the outcome?

            Nope, none of that for me. When I croak, just use it as an excuse to make a little more room on the planet and forget about it.

            That said, however, I do seem to spend an inordinate amount of time every week thinking about a funeral that will never happen.

            A few minutes after the album ended, I further told my wife, “And I think I’ve decided I want my epitaph to read, ‘Boy, I sure didn’t see that one coming!’ With an exclamation point. You don’t see nearly enough exclamation points on headstones these days.”

            A couple of weeks ago I was talking to Grinch, who was telling me about a funeral he attended a few years ago where he was quite unexpectedly asked to give a eulogy. He had ten minutes to come up with something nice to say about a guy he didn’t like very much. A few other people had been put in a similar spot, so at least he wasn’t alone.

            “If she hadn’t been there,” he said, referring to one of the other speakers that day, “it would have devolved into complete farce.”

            “Well Grinch,” I told him. “When I die, I want you to make absolutely certain the proceedings devolve into complete farce.”

            Maybe that’s all it is—playing with the idea of a funeral, trying to imagine how such a thing could be carried off in the funniest, most tasteless (and hence most honest) way imaginable, short of buying one of those KISS coffins.

            Consider the musical selections. Most standard funerals these days include tasteful renditions of standard religious hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” In fact I think I’ve only been to one funeral in my lifetime that didn’t include one or both of those, and that was a secular memorial service for our friend Jennifer. But even that one included a beautiful, heartbreaking performance of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and some selections from Wagner. It was a definite step up, but still deadly earnest.

            Well, I have my own list of preferred musical selections, which includes songs by The Residents, my friend David E. Williams, The Mentors’ “Judgment Day” and “Goin’ Through Your Purse,” and now with Paul Williams’ “The Hell of It” as a closer. And if that doesn’t get people scrambling for the doors, I’ve got more planning to do. Maybe Grinch could do a Pain Amplifiers tribute in medley form.

            Then there are the speakers. I have a list of preferred speakers, too. Presuming they all outlive me (which I hope they do). Apart from Grinch, who knows his mission, I haven’t told any of the others I expect them to give a eulogy, so won’t mention any names here. Ideally I suppose the plan would involve grabbing complete strangers off the street and forcing them to the microphone to say a few heartfelt words, but I probably can’t count on that. Sticking with people I actually know, I hope they’d understand I’m not in the least interested in any weepy nonsense, no cheap lies about what a “kind and giving soul I was, beloved by all who met me,” let alone how “my ever-present smile always brightened up the room.” Bullshit. I’d much prefer they stand up and say without reservation, “Yeah, you get right down to it, he was kind of a drunken jerk most of the time. It was, what, a garbage truck that hit him? Seems pretty fitting, you ask me.” Man, now that I think of it, I wish I was still in contact with that foul-mouthed ventriloquist I knew in Minneapolis—that would be fucking awesome.

            I’d also want to make certain any newspaper obituary contained blatant and obvious misinformation, lots of typos, random obscenities, and repeated jokes in extremely poor taste. Rather than focusing on any so-called “accomplishments,” I’d prefer it concentrate, in grotesque detail, on the cause of death (“The driver of the garbage truck attempted to back up off the body but, back wheels still spinning, it only succeeded in spraying bits of his internal organs across the sidewalk, splattering half a dozen pedestrians in the process.”)

            Of course the big joke here is on me, as all of the above fantasizing rests upon the premise that anyone will even notice, let alone give a fuck when I kick. No, I really do just want to be dumped in the oven as quickly as possible, no fuss, no muss. At least until afterward.

            Of course even ashes have tasteless potential. Back when I was married to my first wife, I actually had a real will drawn up in which I specified I wanted my ashes distributed at Coney Island.

            That was my second choice. In a reference to the end of Samuel Beckett’s first novel, my original plan involved having my ashes dumped on a barroom floor, only to be swept up at the end of the night and flushed down the toilet. The lawyer told me there was no way in hell she was going to include that in a sober legal document, so I went for option two.

            At the time Coney was a reasonable second choice, because it was still crumbling, desolate, and half abandoned. It was scary. It was dangerous, and no one went there anymore. It was my favorite place on earth, the one place I felt at home, so why not mix my earthly remains in with the sand and the trash and the used needles? In the years since, Coney’s become slick and bright and polished, rebuilt with fancy new rides and corporate money, it’s become family-friendly again and completely lost its seedy soul. Which explains why I haven’t been there in years. Who would want to spend eternity there if there is no Ruby’s Bar? So I contacted the lawyer again and had the will nullified.

            Thinking about it now, though, while I still prefer that bar toilet idea, Coney once again seems a viable option, but only on a warm Saturday in July when the place is absolutely packed with happy, smiling families. There also has to be a strong offshore breeze. Afterward, some teary-eyed accomplice could explain to the cops, Homeland Security officials, the press and all those hundreds of angry people coated in my remains, “But he just loved Coney Island so much!”


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