Last Things

 

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.

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  1. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    Last year when I discovered a lump in my breast I had about 5 seconds of sheer terror. I assumed it was cancer and indeed it was. Then I amazed myself by feeling incredibly calm and not afraid of death, And I am not a person of deep faith or religiosity. As a result, as I told each friend and relative, including my husband, I preceded the announcement with “Now don’t freak out”. And they didn’t, at least not where I could see them. During the last year we took care of business and I am now cured. And I know that I am not afraid of dying.

    So I think if loved ones are gathered around my deathbed I will say “Now don’t freak out!”. I would have it on my tombstone but I’m going to be cremated and my ashes scattered in a mountain stream.

    Justmein, thank you for your response. I have prostate cancer, now in remission for nine years, and I get a bit anxious each time I go in for a blood test.  I don’t think I’m quite as sanguine as you are about dying. 

    I’ve got a lot more out of life than I deserve, but I find myself wanting more.

    • #31
  2. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):

    KentForrester: 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.

    Or, with somewhat less optimism:

    “Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
    Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
    Oh, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
    Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!”

    Hamlet

    Matt, I don’t remember that passage from Hamlet.  I should have. I’ve taught the play.  It’s a great quote and very characteristic of Hamlet, whose mind was on death throughout the play. 

    • #32
  3. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    aardo vozz (View Comment):

    KentForrester:

    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 would also suggest that you include a picture of you, Marie, AND Bob.🙂

    (Great post!)

    Thanks, Aardo. I believe I’ll take your suggestion. 

    • #33
  4. E. Kent Golding Member
    E. Kent Golding
    @EKentGolding

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    Bruce, I think it was Oscar Wilde. But I don’t have a quotation dictionary with me.

    I think it was Wilde too.

    Since we all have a quotation dictionary with us, I checked. It was.

    Wild!

    • #34
  5. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    America was better when the spirit of Twain, Ambrose Bierce and HL Mencken permeated journalism. A studied non-partisan cynicism that never bought into the spin and could laugh (darkly) at brazen charlatans like Curley or Edwards. Howie Carr’s treatment of the Massachusetts political class is in that proud tradition.

    The humorless self-regard and pitiful herd mentality across academia and the MSM needs a Mark Twain as ombudsman.

    Great reply, Old Bathos.  I’m with you. That last sentence of yours should be inscribed on a bronze plate and superglued on the wall of the Capitol Rotunda.

    “Humorless self-regard and pitiful herd mentality” — inspired phrase, that, Old Bathos.

    • #35
  6. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    Morbid thread, this.

    Stephen Wright has said that he wished his first word had been “Quote,” so when he dies his last word could be “Unquote.”

    It’s hard to top W. C. Fields’ epitaph: “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Although if he could see Philly as it is today there might be a revision.

    I’m personally planning on cremation and having my ashes scattered, so as to get ’em back into the environment ASAP and cost my family as little as possible in the process. Most of what passes for funerals these days strikes me as excessively morbid and much too expensive. Although I must admit, I would consider some variation of Eugene Shoemaker’s interment, since a capsule of his ashes was crashed into the Moon at the end of the Lunar Prospector mission. It’s a shame that he never got to visit the Moon but at least he’s buried there.

     

    I’m surprised at the number of people here who are of my mind about funerals.  I”m quite a fan of  Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death.

     Great reply, Doug. 

    • #36
  7. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Scott Wilmot (View Comment):

    Lent and Advent compel us Catholics to ponder the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. And today in particular, Holy Saturday, reminds us of the fact that Christ died in the flesh and made the underworld tremble. There is hope for the resurrection of the body. Believe and do not be afraid.

    The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.

    Scott, thanks for your response.  I think that Catholics give more deep thought about death than almost anyone else. The matter of death is an important part of the rites and rituals of the Catholic Church. 

    • #37
  8. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):
    I’m personally planning on cremation and having my ashes scattered, so as to get ’em back into the environment ASAP and cost my family as little as possible in the process. Most of what passes for funerals these days strikes me as excessively morbid and much too expensive.

    I haven’t researched this thoroughly but I am under the impression that the most cost-effective way to dispose of your remains is to donate your body to a medical school.  I am with you on the desire to curtail needless expense.

    • #38
  9. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    See, I TOLD you I was sick!!

     

     

    • #39
  10. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    Last year when I discovered a lump in my breast I had about 5 seconds of sheer terror. I assumed it was cancer and indeed it was. Then I amazed myself by feeling incredibly calm and not afraid of death, And I am not a person of deep faith or religiosity. As a result, as I told each friend and relative, including my husband, I preceded the announcement with “Now don’t freak out”. And they didn’t, at least not where I could see them. During the last year we took care of business and I am now cured. And I know that I am not afraid of dying.

    So I think if loved ones are gathered around my deathbed I will say “Now don’t freak out!”. I would have it on my tombstone but I’m going to be cremated and my ashes scattered in a mountain stream.

    Awesome.  I like that a lot. 

    • #40
  11. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    I’m not famous and never expect to be.  No one will know anything about me in less than a hundred years and possibly only my daughter long before that. I have no intention of having last words.  I do not intend for any such trivia.  No one will care.

    My life does not exist to impress others with pithy words or anything else. My life has value because I enjoy it. When I’m dead I can no longer enjoy it.  I simply hope that my family has the sense to spend as little on the death taxes as possible so that whatever pittance is left can still be used for people I love to enjoy life and not members of the funerary lobby.

    • #41
  12. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Skyler (View Comment):

    I’m not famous and never expect to be. No one will know anything about me in less than a hundred years and possibly only my daughter long before that. I have no intention of having last words. I do not intend for any such trivia. No one will care.

    My life does not exist to impress others with pithy words or anything else. My life has value because I enjoy it. When I’m dead I can no longer enjoy it. I simply hope that my family has the sense to spend as little on the death taxes as possible so that whatever pittance is left can still be used for people I love to enjoy life and not members of the funerary lobby.

    Skyler, I think you need to get out of the house and into the sun and air. You may be letting the self-sequestering Coronavirus thing get to you.   Don’t worry, be happy.

    • #42
  13. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    When my best childhood friend died about 20 years ago, his wife was quite distraught at the expense of all of the funeral arrangements. She had had Jim cremated and had picked out an urn within which she planned to inter his ashes. Unfortunately she was informed that Jim’s final remains were larger than what she had planned for. The funeral director sold her several more expensive boxes and said “you know, your husband was a big man”. I doubt if he weighed more than 185 pounds. It sounds like you, Kent, have taken that into account since you are only saving a portion of your remains in your primary container. Let us know when you decide on what your final message will be. We are dying to know.

    • #43
  14. Django Member
    Django
    @Django

    OkieSailor (View Comment):

    See, I TOLD you I was sick!!

     

     

    “Does anyone know what that was all about?”

    • #44
  15. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz
    @aardovozz

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Great reply, Old Bathos. I’m with you. That last sentence of yours should be inscribed on a bronze plate and superglued on the wall of the Capitol Rotunda.

    “Humorless self-regard and pitiful herd mentality” — inspired phrase, that, Old Bathos.

    And it would still be insufficiently cynical.🙂

    • #45
  16. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Southern Pessimist (View Comment):

    When my best childhood friend died about 20 years ago, his wife was quite distraught at the expense of all of the funeral arrangements. She had had Jim cremated and had picked out an urn within which she planned to inter his ashes. Unfortunately she was informed that Jim’s final remains were larger than what she had planned for. The funeral director sold her several more expensive boxes and said “you know, your husband was a big man”. I doubt if he weighed more than 185 pounds. It sounds like you, Kent, have taken that into account since you are only saving a portion of your remains in your primary container. Let us know when you decide on what your final message will be. We are dying to know.

    Pessimist, some people divide up the “cremains” to distribute them in various places that were important to the deceased: a favorite walking path, a garden, a river or lake, the ocean, etc. 

    Marie and I took a small part of the remains of the husband of a friend to Japan.  We tossed the ashes into a pretty lake. She wanted to distribute her husband’s cremains around the world. 

    • #46
  17. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    Justmein, thank you for your response. I have prostate cancer, now in remission for nine years, and I get a bit anxious each time I go in for a blood test. I don’t think I’m quite as sanguine as you are about dying.

    I’ve got a lot more out of life than I deserve, but I find myself wanting more.

    I’ve got prostate cancer too. It runs in my family; my dad and brother died of it. I was watching for it and as soon as the PSAs went up I had the surgery, but the little stinker got out into my lymph system. I have been doing hormone therapy, which isn’t fun but beats the heck out of chemo, and it hasn’t lit anywhere. If we can keep the PSAs down to zero for a few more months we might be able to re-stage, but if I have to carry on like this I can do it. I’ve got plans for the next 15 years. Besides, my family has not given me permission to give up.

    • #47
  18. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    Justmein, thank you for your response. I have prostate cancer, now in remission for nine years, and I get a bit anxious each time I go in for a blood test. I don’t think I’m quite as sanguine as you are about dying.

    I’ve got a lot more out of life than I deserve, but I find myself wanting more.

    I’ve got prostate cancer too. It runs in my family; my dad and brother died of it. I was watching for it and as soon as the PSAs went up I had the surgery, but the little stinker got out into my lymph system. I have been doing hormone therapy, which isn’t fun but beats the heck out of chemo, and it hasn’t lit anywhere. If we can keep the PSAs down to zero for a few more months we might be able to re-stage, but if I have to carry on like this I can do it. I’ve got plans for the next 15 years. Besides, my family has not given me permission to give up.

    Justmein, your treatment was quite different than mine.  I had radiation to begin with.  Since then I’ve had shots in the belly every six months.  My last PSA result was 1.3.  That was down from 1.5.

    • #48
  19. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    I used to think about leaving famous last words behind for those who might mourn my passing. Just checking my Ricochet  profile I see have posted 124 original posts and 2064 (now 2065) comments. Maybe for a small fee Ricochet can send a thumb drive to my remaining family when I pass.

    • #49
  20. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    Justmein, thank you for your response. I have prostate cancer, now in remission for nine years, and I get a bit anxious each time I go in for a blood test. I don’t think I’m quite as sanguine as you are about dying.

    I’ve got a lot more out of life than I deserve, but I find myself wanting more.

    I’ve got prostate cancer too. It runs in my family; my dad and brother died of it. I was watching for it and as soon as the PSAs went up I had the surgery, but the little stinker got out into my lymph system. I have been doing hormone therapy, which isn’t fun but beats the heck out of chemo, and it hasn’t lit anywhere. If we can keep the PSAs down to zero for a few more months we might be able to re-stage, but if I have to carry on like this I can do it. I’ve got plans for the next 15 years. Besides, my family has not given me permission to give up.

    Justmein, your treatment was quite different than mine. I had radiation to begin with. Since then I’ve had shots in the belly every six months. My last PSA result was 1.3. That was down from 1.5.

    @kentforrester I believe your reply was meant for @douglaspratt. Ha, ha. But I can agree that chemo was not fun!

    • #50
  21. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Skyler, I think you need to get out of the house and into the sun and air. You may be letting the self-sequestering Coronavirus thing get to you. Don’t worry, be happy.

    I’m not sure why you say that.  I am very happy.  I don’t expect to be happy after I’m dead.  I won’t be anything after I’m dead.  My daugther, presumably will survive me and I would hope she is happy.  In the end, that’s all that matters.  The question, as is pondered by everyone for all time, is what makes people happy, and that’s for another time to discuss.

    In other words, I’m not at all morose.  This is my deeply held opinion.  What happens to me after I’m dead doesn’t matter to me because I won’t know the difference.  I encourage my daughter to not spend money on my corpse, and rather invest it for her future.

    • #51
  22. Django Member
    Django
    @Django

    This sums is up for me. Someone at NR once said this was the favorite poem of WFB, Jr.’s wife. 

    Vitae Summa Brevis 

    They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
    Love and desire and hate;
    I think they have no portion in us after
    We pass the gate.

    They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
    Out of a misty dream
    Our path emerges for a while, then closes
    Within a dream

    by Ernest Dowson

    • #52
  23. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Django (View Comment):

    This sums is up for me. Someone at NR once said this was the favorite poem of WFB, Jr.’s wife.

    Vitae Summa Brevis

    They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
    Love and desire and hate;
    I think they have no portion in us after
    We pass the gate.

    They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
    Out of a misty dream
    Our path emerges for a while, then closes
    Within a dream

    by Ernest Dowson

    Thanks for posting the beautiful poem, Django.  

    • #53
  24. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Southern Pessimist (View Comment):

    I used to think about leaving famous last words behind for those who might mourn my passing. Just checking my Ricochet profile I see have posted 124 original posts and 2064 (now 2065) comments. Maybe for a small fee Ricochet can send a thumb drive to my remaining family when I pass.

    Interesting idea, Pessimist.  I’ve left behind a lot in the 130 some posts I’ve written.  Almost an entire family history, in bits and pieces, in the last three years or so. 

    • #54
  25. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):
    I’m personally planning on cremation and having my ashes scattered, so as to get ’em back into the environment ASAP and cost my family as little as possible in the process. Most of what passes for funerals these days strikes me as excessively morbid and much too expensive.

    Another advantage of cremation is there’s no rush to have the service.  The grieving family isn’t in the position of making quick decisions under duress, and out-of-town relatives have more time to plan travel to the service.

    • #55
  26. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    “Here, hold my beer . . . . “

    • #56
  27. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    My famous last words: “This is a piece of cake…”

    • #57
  28. AlanForrester Lincoln
    AlanForrester
    @AlanForrester

    This post reminds me of one of my favorite songs by Tom Waits

    The spirit don’t leave knowing,

    your face or your name

    the wind through your bones is all that remains.

     

    Waits, T., 1992. Dirt In The Ground. [CD] Cotati: Island.

    The AMA citation was included because my dad was an English professor.

    • #58
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