Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally comes to look and not to buy.
~ Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
I consider the room and wonder if this is how things end: the stack of books, the board games on the rug, the ukulele just there, the tea in my cup that will evaporate but leave a still detectable residue. So many of the objects we handle will outlast us. There’s always some unsuspected Vesuvius ready to end our fussing about. Is it strange to feel affection for the plants that will stretch themselves here and the creatures that will sniff and scratch long after the roof has collapsed and the soil and rain move in? Is it our own transience that makes us see things as transient? Immortal beings, with infinite perspective, may see only a single, immutable substance. If so, then pity the angels.
I seem to have committed a felony. We received in the mail this past weekend a letter with a rippling American flag printed on the back and on the front, in italics, the teaser:
Win a Free Pre-Paid Cremation!
Not only is the phrase charmingly nonsensical and oxymoronic but the appeal to patriotism plus the combined use of italics, underlining, and exclamation point left me breathless. It was more than I could resist, and I opened it. Then I discovered it wasn’t intended for me but for a woman who must have lived at our address some years ago (and perhaps the offer arrived too late for her anyway).
Inside was a form letter discussing, tactfully but enthusiastically, the benefits of cremation: “Simple, Economical, and Dignified… It Just Makes Sense!tm (You’ll note here again the well-timed use of the exclamation point, and the strategic trademarking of a phrase which otherwise was sure to be stolen by competitors.) The recipient was encouraged to pay now for her own future cremation by securing the services of the advertiser “at today’s prices,” and to enter a drawing for the “free, pre-paid” cremation mentioned on the envelope.
I spent some time considering the pitch. Personally, I prefer the idea of full-body burial and decomposition (‘What was Mozart doing in the graveyard?’ – ‘Decomposing!’). But I admit there’s something mildly poetic in the idea of spending the silent years holed up in a columbarium, another dove in the dove-cote. I’ve always loved that word, columbarium.
The deeper appeal in pitches of this sort, I think, is the prospect of your will – in the form of choices and consequences – outliving the decease of your body. Your purchase now, at today’s prices, guarantees your ability to save money from beyond the grave. It’s a disembodied immortality for the consumer. Securing this form of immortality today may also spare you from lesser forms, like the sad immortality of the mail recipient who only gets his next offer for pre-paid cremation after the issue is moot.
If the earth must perish, then astronomy is our only consolation.
~ Joseph Joubert
It sounds like a Hawking-esque call to colonize the galaxy, until you remember that Joubert wrote this in 1784. Astronomy here stands for the knowledge of (supposedly) eternal principles. A twenty-first century nihilist will ask what good any knowledge doomed to extinction can be. And yet we naturally prefer that each comet, each supernova, each exotic body orbiting an alien sun, at least fall under the passing gaze of someone. Possessed by one, the knowledge of a thing belongs to all. It becomes one step more in the project of humanizing the cosmos. Knowledge for its own sake sometimes gets a bad rap (trivia needn’t be trivial), but in a world under death sentence the thirst for knowledge is always at bottom a thirst for immortality.