I thought I’d introduce this subject with a photo of a fabulous horse-drawn hearse that I saw in Granada, Nicaragua. The coffin rides like Sleeping Beauty inside the glass compartment, and you’ll notice that the horses are draped with crocheted blankets. "Why?" I asked. "Because this is a very serious time,” I was told.)
My husband claims that I’ve been preparing for death ever since my twenties--over 40 years ago. I guess that’s what you get when you marry a hypochondriac with a gloomy Scandinavian background. (Remember in "Annie Hall" when Diane Keaton and Woody Allen were breaking up and sorting out their books? She said something like: “All the books with ‘Death’ in the title are yours.” You should see my library.)
So about death. Like everything else, dying has apparently been transformed by the creation of the internet. I think we’re all familiar with on-line memorial pages where mourners can post their condolences and memories of the dear departed.
In today’s New York Times (Jan. 25) there’s a front-page story reporting that funeral homes are now offering bereaved families the opportunity to invite friends and relatives who can’t make it to the actual funeral to watch the services live on the computer and then re-view the tape over and over again. Some of the companies offering this service to undertakers are FuneralOne, and Event by Wire. Even the famous Frank E. Campbell funeral chapel in Manhattan is introducing a webcasting program.
Some funeral directors offer the on-line funeral service for free, according to The Times, and others charge $100 to $300. A family can make the funeral broadcast open to the public or issue invitations along with a password. (I wonder, does Evite do funerals?) This service has allowed the military colleagues of a Marine killed in Afghanistan, for instance, to view his hometown funeral including the arrival at the airport, the graveside ceremony and the 21-gun salute. The father of the young Marine said he watches the funeral over and over again on the computer. “I don’t know why, but I guess it’s healing.”
Two weeks ago, the cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine of Jan 9, 2011 --“Ghosts in the Machine”-- was all about what happens to the words and images of yourself that you’ve posted on the internet—after you die. Will you be remembered by your last foolhardy Tweet? By those embarrassing photos on Facebook? Entrepreneurs, according to The Times, are popping up who will manage your digital afterlife for a fee—acting as a virtual executor who will categorize, file, organize or just do away with your on-line self.
Andy Fish, the artist and instructor who taught me about blogging and Photoshop and computer illustration, says that he plans another kind of digital immortality—in which he can communicate with his fans from beyond the grave. Andy often writes a week’s worth of posts for his blog, www.AndyFishWrap.blogspot.com , and then schedules the dates on which they will be posted on Blogspot. Using that facility, he plans to post an annual message on his birthday well into the next century, even if he’s already gone to his reward.
Death, of course is one of life’s major passages. So why not make some plans for it ahead of time?
For a woman’s group I belong to, with a different topic for discussion every month, we once wrote and read aloud our obituaries. It was a worthwhile exercise. Leaving a draft of one’s obituary probably would be helpful to survivors as part of your internet estate unless, like my husband, you already have an up-to-date bio on your computer for public appearances and press coverage.
(One of Nick’s colleagues at The New York Times back in the day was the head obituary writer. He was always amazed that he could get in to see anyone—no matter how important—by mentioning his job. Every big shot cares about what his Times obituary will say about him.)
Speaking of life passages, daughter Eleni Gage just launched her blog “The Liminal Stage”, on New Year’s Eve, which she calls “The most liminal night of the year". The subtitle is: “Navigating a modern world with the help of time-tested traditions.”
"Liminal" comes from the Latin word for “threshold” and Eleni has packed several liminal moments of her own into the last year: getting engaged, then married and moving from Manhattan to Miami.
Here you see her at her wedding in Corfu, Greece, about to toss a decorated wedding bread to the single ladies behind her (a Corfiote twist on throwing the bouquet.)
Eleni majored in Folk Lore and Mythology at college and, like me, she really loves learning about traditions, rituals, superstitions, divination – in all cultures. She writes on her blog:
“It’s precisely because people get anxious around liminal stages, and the questions they raise, that cultures develop rituals designed to bring comfort, protection, and luck…My family is Greek so we throw pomegranates on our doorstep to invite abundance, and sit down to a meal in which a lucky quarter (wrapped in tinfoil for hygiene) is hidden inside a meat pie. …Whoever finds the quarter is guaranteed a good year, an extra little burst of confidence with which to face the unknown future. That’s the point of rituals, and of this blog–to invite luck, to celebrate a given moment, and to use traditions to do what they always have–to give yourself the tiniest sense that you can control what happens to you, even if that’s just an illusion.”