I’m not talking about typing THE END—one of my favorite moments of writing. I’m talking about the final end, the end of days: death.
Or in the timeless words of John Cleese in Monty Python’s skit:
He’s not pining! He’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history! He’s off the twig! He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!
Apparently, Alex and I are on the same psychic wavelength once again because while I planned on writing about death, she was planning on making me an ex-writer. All I ask is that she waits until I’m done with my current book!
My mom has been organizing my office for me and last week she found hidden in my bookshelves a morbid little book called THE WHOLE DEATH CATALOG. My editor sent it to me because I’m a fan of Harold Schechter, who wrote one of my favorite research books, THE SERIAL KILLER FILES.
In college, I took a Philosophy class to fulfill a requirement, and I absolutely hated the segment on Death and Dying. Odd, perhaps, because I write about murder and criminal psychology and a lot of people die in my books. I’m more interested in the whys of death—homicide or natural—than in the process of dying. This probably explains my fears as well—death (as in the final outcome) doesn’t bother me. It’s the path to being dead that I don’t like to think about.
So I’d forgotten about THE WHOLE DEATH CATALOG until my mom found it. I picked it up and flipped through it. There’s a lot of interesting, albeit morbid, trivia and a lot of research about how people viewed dying across time. What makes it almost fun is the author’s voice, illustrated well in this paragraph from the introduction:
“Concerned that you lack the necessary skills to throw a truly memorable funeral, one that expresses the unique, inimitable (albeit now defunct) you? Not to worry. A new branch of the mortuary business has lately sprung up, composed of experts who, taking their cue from professional party planners, will help you arrange the perfect going-away-forever affair, complete with specialty catering, appropriate music, and even giveaway “funeral favors.” Sort of like a really top-flight wedding or bar mitzvah, only with a cadaver as the guest of honor.”
Some of the fun tidbits from the book:
The motorcycle hearse. Schechter’s research uncovered that the first known biker burial was in the UK immediately after WWII. Now, the practice has spread to the US and if this is the way you want to go to your grave, check out Biker Burials.
Then the question: To Burn or Not to Burn? The history of cremation. The different types of caskets explained, including some of the not-so-successful ideas in coffin-making: the glass coffin, the cement coffin, and the rubber coffin. I really didn’t need to read the history of embalming; however, I did have a spark of an idea for a future book.
One of my favorite stories was about (surprise) serial killers William Burke and William Hare. Prior to 1830, it was extremely difficult for medical schools to obtain cadavers for anatomical study, according to Schechter. Some people became grave robbers, digging up freshly buried corpses and selling them to “anatomy schools.”
Not so for Burke and Hare. When an elderly lodger of Hare’s died owing money, Hare sold the corpse to an anatomist. When he saw how much money he could make, and disliking the “difficult, dirty, and dangerous business of grave robbing,” Hare and Burke opted to create their own cadavers. First hastening the deaths of the elderly in Hare’s boarding house, until they were all dead, they next preyed on prostitutes and the homeless. Fifteen people died this way before they were caught.
There is even a chapter on Death in the Movies and another on Death Lit 101, perhaps of more interest to Murderati readers.
For example, the “Most Emotionally Satisfying Death” according to Schechter?
Dirty Harry (1971). Few, if any, other moments in cinematic history are as profoundly gratifying as the climax of this two-fisted classic, when Clint Eastwood’s heroic police officer puts a well-deserved .44 Magnum slug into the worthless carcass of the sniveling long-haired psycho killer after asking, “Are you feeling lucky, punk?”
“Most Shocking Death in a Classic Film Noir”
Kiss of Death (1947). In a scene that still shocks with its brutality (even in our age of Saw, Hostel, and other works of cinematic “torture porn”), a cackling psychopath named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) ties a crippled old lady to her wheelchair and hurls her down a flight of steps—basically just for the fun of it.
And in “Death Lit?” Most of us have probably read many of the entries: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved Ones”, and Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” Schechter also writes about W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” (one of the scariest stories I have ever read!):
“Playing on a proverbial theme—be careful what you wish for—this classic tale of terror (arguably the scariest ever written) serves as an effective reminder that the very human impulse to pray for the return of a deceased loved one might not be such a hot idea.”
In SUPERNATURAL, one of my favorite television shows, it would have done the Winchester Brothers (and their dad) some good to read “The Monkey’s Paw.” In the season two opener, the dad John agrees to exchange his life to save his son Dean. At the end of Season Two, Dean makes a deal with the crossroads demon and gets Sam’s life back (he’d been dead a couple days, but didn’t seem to suffer the decomposition process—I had to put aside the disbelief on that one) in exchange for his own. Dean has one year, then he’s going to Hell. Season Three is spent trying to get Dean out of his deal, but to no avail. He goes to Hell. (He comes back in Season Four.) And one of my favorite characters, who’s only been in two or three episodes, is Death (played by Julian Richings.) Creepy and perfect for the role. A lot of death and afterlife (afterdeath?) in this television show!
What is one of your favorite movies or books with death as a central theme? Something that made you laugh or reflect—or both. And if you can’t think of one, what kind of funeral celebration do you want? Somber and traditional, a lively wake, or maybe hire a party planner so your friends and relatives will talk about your funeral for years?
Does HAMLET count? It's a play, not a novel, but I've always enjoyed its murder mystery aspect (Hamlet trying to expose Claudius as Old Hamlet's killer) and its musings whether anything lies beyond death (Hamlet wondering if murdering Claudius or committing suicide will lead to worse consequences in the next world).
I don't think about my own death much, but I suppose I'd like a traditional funeral. That's not to say those in attendance should be sad. I think of death as the end of earthly existence, and I will have done everything I could while I was here. I'd like my death to be treated as the completion of my work. Much like writing "THE END" on a manuscript, it should be celebrated.
I'd rather people threw a party – just not anytime soon.
A few years ago I was asked what epitaph I'd like on my tombstone, and I came up with:
'International all-time best-selling author, died while snowboarding in Vail at the age of 110.
Taken before her time.'
I know it's unlikely – I never learned to snowboard ;-]
I'm in denial about death so no funeral talk here. Despite my denial, I loved the show Six Feet Under. The series ending killed me though (pun intended).
Allison, the psychic connection floors me. I always find it eerie to read your books because of the random coincidences – the same obscure towns, a setting for a murder, a motivation for a killer. The stories are completely different, but it just freaks me out.
'm with Gerald – Hamlet's ruminations on death and what comes after are unparalleled.
A bit more recently – I love ALL THAT JAZZ for the way it portrays Fosse's literal flirtation with Death – a sly and radiant Jessica Lange.
And for the funerals – my sister has made it clear that she wants free flowing champagne and men throwing themselves weeping onto her casket. I can't top that.
My favorite take on Death is that old Twilight Zone episode with Ed Wynn as the street peddler. Remember? And Mr. Death comes to take him? If you haven't seen it, I won't spoil it for you here. Find a way to watch it. It's called "One For the Angels." 1959.
Also, people have asked me what is the one thing I would like people to say about me as they gather around my coffin. I would like them to say: "He's moving!"
Great post, and I must get my hands on that book…
As to movies with death as theme, I love “Heaven Can Wait” with Warren Beatty and “Death Becomes Her” with Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep.
And “Six Feet Under” just cracked me right up….
Gerald, I LOVE Hamlet! Great example–I wonder why Schechter didn't use it?
LOL on the epitaph Zoe! 110 sounds good to me. And that's why you probably bit it at 110, you never learned how to snowboard . . .
I never saw SIX FEET UNDER, and I don't need another show . . . I just downloaded LUTHER because my cousin said it was terrific.
Alex, the connection between humans in general amazes me sometimes . . . like how two different people who've never met can have the exact same unusual invention . . . or two writers who come up with a similar premise at the same time or plot point . . . or reading sometimes how agents will get a slew of submissions on something really bizarre they haven't seen before. Almost like our subconscious is connected in an unseen way.
James, I'm almost positive I've seen that TZ episode, I've seen most, but not for years. My husband has a bunch on tape I'll have to see if he has that one.
I enjoyed this post but must admit I have never really thought too much about death in movies or books. I do enjoy books and movies about vampires but those are after death has happened. I have worried more about death – my own – since hitting 50 when I see all these people in my age group in the paper. I still have two teens to get raised so when reading the paper I always which the would list COD. My funeral – I am guessing my family will have it traditional. Good subject today – makes you think!!!
Mary Roach's STIFF. Best ever.
MEET JOE BLACK. I absolutely love that film. Brad Pitt as Joe Black, AKA Death, and Anthony Hopkins as William Parrish, the man who's going to die. It's unexpected and sweet and horrifying and sad and uplifting all at the same time, with some deliciously subtle dialogue.
And in more bizarre psychic connects, I've been reading Joan Didion's THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING this week. So death is on my mind, too.
I feel a little old, here, but my favorite death-centric movies are THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY and HAROLD AND MAUDE. Perhaps I like to chuckle at death so I'm not afraid of it.
As for funerals, I don't care what they do with me. I won't be there. But it would be nice if my tombstone read, "She was really, really old."
I don't know my favorite with death as a central theme, but sometimes I wonder if I'm too attracted to death itself. I'm kind of curious about what happens when we die, what becomes of us. I'm not scared by death, and I know I want to be cremated. I never thought of mu funeral per se, but I want a pink urn. Also, I'd like my funeral to be funny. I love dark humor and am always making jokes at funerals (I'm really hoping God has the same dark sense of humor as I do) and I really hope people laugh at my funeral 🙂
I'm not sure a "scholar" would agree, but a book that I think just reeks with death is Dickens' Great Expectations. Not just the characters who die but, maybe especially, the ones who are alive. They're systematically getting the life beaten out of them. Hope, ambition, optimism, love, loyalty, fond memory — all beaten to death. So it's definitely not a favourite, but it seems to me to be all about death. Sad and depressing.
And Allison, don't worry about this bunch over here killing you. You know if they ever did, it would take most of the FBI and several police departments to solve the crime. It would be a very entertaining aftermath. That should make you happy.
Planned my funeral with the funeral home when I was in my thirties. Death is inevitable and I don't care what is done but I didn't want to leave that BS to a grieving family. (Assuming they would not be celebrating!) The funeral company suggested paying in advance too, but that's not bloody likely. Need the money to live, in death, they can take it out of the estate. Besides, I've donated my organs and my body so I don't even know what'll be left! I've also requested that the ashes be deposited in the lake where my in-laws once had a cottage and to that end, have chosen a container for the ashes that breaks down in water. I plan to slide into heaven looking like a wreck and shouting, 'whee, what a ride!'
I may change ..but I always kinda liked this….http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3WTuZxi0gM&feature=autoplay&list=PL272E12F4704D70FB&index=20&playnext=2 kit
that wasn't right..sorry…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-itXFytfWo
Any time you give the Grim Reaper Dude a Melvin, you've got yourself quite a movie.
I thought SIX FEET UNDER was brilliant.
A good party with a give-away would be nice.
Ugh! Yesterday got away from me. Baby Shower, helping my daughter with a school project, editing (and rewriting the ending) of my short story that Alex wanted to kill me over . . . I didn't have time to come back here!
Thanks gang for your comments! Gayle, I loved HAROLD AND MAUDE. Might have to dig up my old VHS tape . . . Debbie, I think I want an Irish wake. First, a funeral Mass. No graveside service (yuck, I hate going to them, why would I want to subject my family to that?) Then a big party. I wouldn't mind the Dropkick Murphies playing at the wake. I'd probably be able to hear them wherever I end up. Having them sing Amazing Grace would be the highlight. I still haven't decided between burial or cremation. I'm leaning to cremation just because I really don't want to be embalmed.