Since beginning to blog, I’ve become a bit of a child again: grasping and sometimes greedy, ranging through the aisles of the cyber-store pulling down sites, programs and possibilities like so many penny candies. With my basket already full of images and words to play with, I want more. I want to design my own site. I want to learn html and master CSS. I want to frame images, create smooth, fluorescent lime-green buttons and carve out text like so many Roman columns. I’ve seen people chrome-plate cherries, make ordinary ponds shine with shimmering light and turn Tom Cruise into an alien. I want to do those things, too – just for fun.
Luckily, there’s a site where I can learn to do all those things: Worth1000. I affectionately call it “Photoshop Run Amok”. Whether you’re ready to learn, drool in the presence of striking images and photographs or simply are curious about what’s out there, it’s a terrific site, capable of dissolving hours of time.
Roaming around the site one evening, I came upon one of the funniest images I’ve ever seen. Created by Andrea Guglielmi for the Celebrity Tombstones contest, it’s entitled “Pacman”. Even non-gamers recognize PacMan, and I burst into laughter at the visual joke:
After the first giggles had passed, I kept laughing because the image recalled another, quite real cemetery experience that reduced an entire carload of mourners to near-hysteria, the kind of laughter that leaves you unable to breathe, with tears running down your face.
At the funeral of a friend, I was invited to join some family members on the trip to the gravesite. We chatted and reminisced as we drove through quiet San Antonio neighborhoods, until we reached the cemetery entrance. As the driver paused at the gate, six people saw the sign at the same time: NO PLANTING WITHOUT PERMISSION. Surely the administrators meant only to discourage unofficial geraniums and mismatched petunias, but their ill-considered phrase couldn’t have been funnier, even given the circumstance. As we gasped for air, the driver grinned and said, “Don’t worry about it. Happens to everyone.”
Certainly death is a serious matter, but more often than we admit it also can be an occasion for high hilarity. When a dear friend in Salt Lake City was dying of cancer, she talked freely about her wish to be cremated. She seemed to enjoy pondering possibilities for distributing her remains but one day, apropos of nothing, she announced, “Whatever you do, don’t sprinkle me over water.” She loved the water, but to our great amusement and her own laughing chagrin, she admitted her reluctance was grounded in the fact she couldn’t swim.
A few years later, cremation again became the subject of conversation at a party in Houston, when a group of friends began talking about cremation vs. burial. Eventually, the talk turned to tombstones. One of the men asked, “Well, if you were buried, what would you want your epitaph to be?”
We sat and pondered the question through another bottle of wine, until an entomologist with the Texas Department of Agriculture suddenly erupted in great peals of laughter. “I know!”, she exclaimed. “I know exactly what I want on my tombstone – You Can’t Bug Me Any More !”
It was the beginning of a delicious evening. After a little more time and a little more wine, a couple who both enjoyed successful careers in television news designed a double tombstone with two matching, blank television screens and the words, Stay Tuned – We’ll Be Right Back.
A woman whose husband died only a month after abandoning her for another woman giggled and giggled before gaining the courage to admit she wanted her stone to say, Buried Single, But We’re Double Dead. She enjoyed the sentiment so much she took the next step and created a full parody of Barbara Mandrell’s song. I hear she still sings it now and then, under the right circumstances.
I wasn’t varnishing boats at the time, but now that the career change has been made, there’s no question what would be on my own tombstone: a bucket, a brush and the phrase, She Varnished From Our Sight.
Every now and then I think of those epitaphs, and I’m just as amused. They don’t seem improper, twisted or frivolous. They’re funny; they help to put a human face on an inescapable reality: the experience of death. According to family legend, my Great-Aunt Rilla used to travel out to the cemetery to gaze on her own little plot of ground. Questioned about it, she’d dismiss the impertinent soul with a wave of her hand and one of her favorite malapropisms: Tempus Fidgits.
The truth, of course, is that time flows its inexorable, mysterious way while we are the ones who fidget, unwilling to accept either its course or our own inevitable end. As people knew centuries ago and as Annie Dillard so eloquently writes today, the memento mori – a reminder of death in the midst of life – focuses the attention and clears the eye, enabling us to accept the world and our place in it with a degree of realism and serenity.
Dillard’s essay in the November, 1973 Atlantic, later included as a part of her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, makes the point in a manner both eloquent and true:
The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. It is a covenant to which every thing, even every hydrogen atom, is bound. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die; you cannot have mountains and creeks without space, and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death. The world came into being with the signing of the contract. A scientist calls it the Second Law of Thermodynamics. A poet says, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age.” This is what we know. The rest is gravy.