Updated: Nov 5, 2020
My favourite scene in The Big Lebowski — maybe in any movie, come to think of it — is the bit where bowling buddies Walter and the Dude stand on a bluff to scatter Donny’s mortal remains from a Folger’s coffee can into “the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, which he loved so well.”
As Walter dumps the ashes — after an inapposite digression about American soldiers killed in Vietnam (Donny was a bowler, not a fighter) — a sea breeze scatters the smut and soot backward onto the mourners, bestrewing the Dude’s beard and spattering his sunglasses.
It’s horrifically hilarious but not particularly original.
In Murphy, Samuel Beckett’s avant-garde first novel, the self-immolated and eponymous hero leaves careful instructions in his will to have his ashes “placed in a paper bag and brought to the Abbey Theatre, Lr. Abbey Street, Dublin, and without pause into what the great and good Lord Chesterfield calls the necessary house, where their happiest hours have been spent, on the right as one goes down into the pit, and I desire that the chain be there pulled upon them, if possible during the performance of a piece, the whole to be executed without ceremony or show of grief.”
When the remains wind up in the possession of Cooper, a pub-bound servant of Murphy’s mentor, Neary, Murphy’s flush into the afterlife winds up ass over room-temperature glass: “Some hours earlier Cooper took the packet of ash from his pocket, where earlier in the evening he had put it for greater security, and threw it angrily at a man who had given him great offence. It bounced, burst, off the wall on to the floor, where at once it became the object of much dribbling, passing, trapping, shooting, punching, heading and even some recognition from the gentleman’s code. By closing time the body, mind and soul of Murphy were distributed over the floor of the saloon; and before another dayspring greyened the earth had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit.”
Short of being snorted by Keith Richards during a blow binge, that’s the way I want to go.
There are a lot of dreary things about death, but body disposal is surely the creepiest. All the options — burial, cremation, mummification, exposure to carrion birds in Towers of Silence, alkaline hydrolysis, preservation in a peat bog or via deep freezing in a cryogenic chamber, etc. etc. — come with an ick factor that artists, writers, religious institutions, philosophers and the funeral industry have been expatiating upon and exploiting for millennia.
Especially the funeral industry.
Even when it was obvious my mother was not going to recover from her leukemia, my parents never acknowledged the inevitable outcome. The day after her death, I accompanied my father to a funeral home, where along with two cemetery plots he was pressure-sold both the most expensive casket in their showroom — the models all sported comical, vaguely Edwardian names like the Wabash Victoriaville or Barnwood Batesville — and a concrete burial vault to enclose the precious mahogany.
I remember the pallor of my dad’s face when the salesman stressed how a lined, sealed, warranted security vault could prevent the earth from bursting through the wood and pressing down upon my mother’s face, already hideously distorted by disease, death and garish mortuary cosmetics.
The gist of the sales presentation: If you love her, this is the least you can do. If you don’t, we have an efficiently biodegradable pine box at the cheapo end of the room. Oh, and perhaps we can interest you in a memorial tree or some jewelry from the Remembrance Boutique?
My father passed on the matching eternity rings but went for the tree and a plaque. Look for them in the cemetery’s Garden of Gethsemane if you’re ever in the neighbourhood.
Dad had a very different scenario in mind for his own humble obsequies. Correctly anticipating that the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma he contracted a few years later would be fatal, he purchased the cheapest possible cremation container for consignment to the 900 C flames and a no-frills urn for the leftover bits.
After his cremation, we opened the urn to stick in his wedding ring and some family memorabilia before burying it next to my mother’s vault.
The cremains, as they’re known in hip sepulchral circles, were a pasty white and weighed about five pounds. Bone fragments rather than ashes, if you want to get technical. Mostly calcium phosphates, mixed with a bit of potassium and sodium. Not a lot to show for seventy-some years on a pale blue dot in the vastness of infinity. Out, out, brief candle.
“They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more,” Beckett’s Pozzo laments in Waiting for Godot.
As I was screwing the lid back on, taking care not to spill a single bone chip or toenail flake, the Murphy scene came back to me with a shudder. When The Big Lebowski came out the following year, I laughed till I cried.