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Mark Twain once wrote, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” I’ve always liked Twain, probably because his temperament and philosophy pretty much match my own. I’m in a Twain state of mind this morning, so I thought I’d use Twain as my spirit guide as I write a post on last things.
OK then, first things first: last words. I don’t know about you, but I want to leave a good last impression. Here’s Mark Twain with a hint to help us to do just that: “A man should be as particular about his last words as he is about his last breath. He should write them out on a slip of paper. . . .and never leave such a thing to the last hour of his life.”
Let me show you how things can go terribly wrong if you don’t prepare. As he was being prepped for a dangerous surgery that he didn’t survive, big band drummer, Buddy Rich, was asked by a nurse, “Is there anything you can’t take.” Rich blurted out, “Yeah, country music.” The nurse was talking about medications.
If a contest ever offered a prize for the most banal last words, Robert Comer, a murderer, would win going away. In the moment before he was lethally injected, Comer said, “Go Raiders.”
The most embarrassing last words, however, were spoken by the General of the Union Army, John Sedgwick, who said confidently, with the enemy a half-mile or so away, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist. . . . “
Steve Jobs, however, pulled it off with style. His last words were, “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!” Perhaps Jobs, in a flash of prescience, was seeing something wonderful beyond the grave. I tend to think, however, that Jobs had already prepared those words for posterity. They just seem just too good to be an off-the cuff remark. He probably wrote them down on a little slip of paper, as Twain advised.
Like Twain, I don’t believe in an afterlife. But instead of getting all gloomy, let’s look at the upsides of oblivion. You might end up, for instance, mixing with the rich earth that encourages a crocus to emerge out of the snow in the spring. Or compacted into a diamond that graces a sweet young girl’s ring finger. Your consciousness, of course, won’t survive the transition to flowers and diamonds, but let’s look at the upside of that: You will no longer have your heart broken by an unfaithful lover, there will be no more bosses to call you an idiot, and there will be no NFL quarterback to complete a Hail Mary pass in the last seconds of the Super Bowl and thus ruin what, till that moment, was a winning bet that you were going to use to buy a massage chair from Sharper Image.
By the way, I have no bones to pick with those who disagree with my version of the afterlife. We pluck the fruit that pleases our taste and leave all the rest. Or as the ancient Romans used to say, “De gustibus non est disputandum.” That is, there’s no sense arguing about taste. And in metaphysics, it really is little more than a matter of taste — that is, until someone comes back with a selfie of him and Charon crossing the river Styx.
I’d like to be cremated, preferably by my daughter Annie, a funeral director. Then my wife Marie can pour some of my ashes into a freezer bag and put it in this little box that I made a while back. It’s a simple thing: two strips of maple inlaid into a wood called cocobolo, the top attached with a piano hinge. I did embellish it a bit by carving a little face into it for my and my grandkids’ amusement — and for the puzzlement of later generations.
I’ve already put little objects in the box that will accompany my ashes: my Army dog tags, a blue ribbon from a ping pong tournament I won as a kid in 1954, a few jigsaw pieces, my Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen membership card, a couple of perfectly completed Saturday (the hard day) NY Times crossword puzzles, and a photo of Marie and me drinking a beer in Berlin.
I have two more little boxes already there on the mantle, one with my mom’s cremains and one with my dad’s. I’d like my box to be placed alongside theirs. (You see, I am a sentimentalist.) So there we’ll be, three Forresters, all in a row, a little memento mori to inspire those who walk by to reflect on their own mortality. Marie will join us later, but she’s a sturdy woman five years younger than I am, so I suspect I’ll have a while to wait. In the meantime, I’m counting on Marie to keep our boxes dusted and shined every now and then with carnauba wax.
I think I’ve got this whole thing all figured out — if only I can come up with something interesting to say just before leave all this behind. I’m going to have to give that some more thought.Published in