memento mori

My playlist is a Memento Mori

Peter Tork, the unusual one from The Monkees, has died. Unusual in that he seemed the least like an actor and the most like a proper musician. He was actually an accomplished folk artist before auditioning for the part, and played bass guitar and keyboards. I just about remember The Monkees; it was youthful, subversive and wacky.

“Hope I die before I get old”, sang The Who‘s Roger Daltrey, around the same time. The words are Pete Townsend’s. Both are still with us. Yet they, and those like them, weren’t meant to die or grow old. It’s all about youth and youthfulness, permanently fresh and stretching out into infinite.

I don’t have The Monkees on my 750 song playlist in the car. I’d happily include The Who but I haven’t got around to it. It has become increasingly obvious that a lot of the artists on my playlist are no longer here. This is partly my fault because my tastes go far back to a time before I was born. Yet so many have fallen off the perch in recent years, not by misadventure but through boring old age.

“He’s dead, oh, she’s dead, is she gone now?, I imagine he’s no longer with us, I wonder if she’s still around…”

Does it matter, listening to dead musicians? The music still sounds good. And I think any reminder of mortality is an awareness of life. Rock on! While you’ve still got breath – live!

image: The Monkees (Peter Tork, far left)


Notes from a funeral

#1 The Crumb Girl

I went to a funeral. It was a modest gathering and we all went to an in-law’s house after the service. We all stood around a table spread with sandwiches and cakes while our hosts organised drinks, and suddenly I was aware of a pretty, young woman, probably in her mid-twenties, who looked the spit of a typical Robert Crumb girl.

Her face was made up with pale foundation, crimson lipstick, and black eyeliner; her hair was jet black also, and dead straight, parted in the centre and fell just below her shoulders. She wore a shortish, black print dress upon which were small, colourful shapes, possibly depicting flowers. The shortness of her dress accentuated her broadish physique though she wasn’t in the least obese, yet she had wide hips and these gave way to a fairly stout pair of pins, clad in opaque black leggings, and which ended in the chunkiest pair of booties I’ve seen in a long while; grey suede, ankle high and with a square-form, three inch heel.

She was a picture and, for a small moment, I was Crumb.

#2 The Funeral

The significant mourners spoke about how religious the service of commemoration had been, and how this hadn’t been expected, or intended, and not exactly in keeping with the beliefs of their loved one. This was the most recent of four funerals I’ve witnessed in as many years. The one previous, the husband of my wife’s friend, was an incredibly christian service, so much so that throughout it, I had an intense feeling of alienation. I knew the man a little and at no time had I the impression he was a devout believer, or any sort of believer, so it also came as a bit of a surprise. There was a good number of people in attendance and I couldn’t help thinking I couldn’t be alone in my discomfort. Still, it isn’t my place to criticise the choices of others and if it wasn’t for my wife, I wouldn’t have been there at all.

The most comfortable of these recent four funerals was the first, that of an uncle. In my youth, I knew him well and we shared a sense of humour and tastes in music. To describe him as non-religious wouldn’t do him justice; he was secular to his core, a small businessman in a variety of businesses, his god-shaped hole a handy repository for entirely worldly endeavours and intents. He was a character in that he had certain traits which might make him a good subject for a situation comedy. All this made for an informal and amusing send off, a proper celebration of a life, without all the trimmings.

It struck me with a small amount of horror that, should I die, what kind of service would be arranged? At first I thought about the two songs which I now know are required to bookend the arrival and departing of the mourners. I realise I haven’t a clue what I’d want for myself though I wouldn’t want them second-guessed by anyone else. I’m sure some folk do organise their own funerals, choosing the songs, the readings, probably even contributing to their own eulogy, no doubt, but how is this done? And how soon? I am a practical guy concerned with solutions. I’m hoping there’s a market opportunity already exploited for this sort of thing. I will google it.

#3 The Dead

Yesterday, I watched one of those odd, short online videos produced by the BBC under the title “Ideas”. As it dealt with improving our relationship with death, it seemed appropriate, and intriguing.

An author, whose name I wasn’t familiar with, began by telling us how an Irish wake wasn’t much like those depicted in dramas where people sat around a coffin for endless days, drinking pints of Guinness. He then went on to describe what really happens which, to me, sounded not a lot different to the fictitious version except for the Guinness. The thing which struck me though was the idea that in Irish funeral culture, people get used to seeing dead bodies. They begin in infancy and by the time they’re in maturity, they’ve likely seen 20 or more people laid out in coffins.

Extraordinary, I thought, as I’m well into maturity and I didn’t think I’d ever seen a single one. This is simply a cultural thing, I think, as my lifestyle shouldn’t bring me into contact with the dead: I have never worked in hospitals, for the emergency services, the police or the armed forces. In our everyday life here, such things are expedited efficiently and only a chance occurrence would bring me face to face with death.

Then I remembered such an occurrence. I didn’t see the moment of death but I heard it. I was leaving a multi-storey car park, driving my first car which would have made me about twenty. As I approached the barrier, I heard an almighty crash and naturally thought someone had pranged their car. At the barrier, I realised I hadn’t the right change for the machine so I got out of the car to ask an attendant. To my surprise, about three attendants rushed towards me, but they ignored me and passed. Turning, I saw the body of someone lying on the ramp I had just come down. A suicide.

In time, an attendant did come to help me leave, just to have me out of the way. He told me he’d seen a number of suicides there. I was curious, and still am really, to know what care, if any, a jumper takes before the fall, whether they look below or whether it’s a random moment. I guessed the latter, never look down, though what would I know? It must have been literally no more than a couple of seconds between us meeting at the same point; the closest I’ve ever been to death.

The Crumb Girl

BBC Ideas: Thoughts on dying