Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Deathstyles of the Stiff and Infamous"

Death’s been done to death in fiction, right from the start. From Homer’s Iliad, to Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, onto TV’s Six Foot Under, we can’t get enough of the stuff. Agatha Christie left us a trainload of corpses to eternally reanimate, and just how the hell anyone can possibly be still alive in the English county of Midsomer is a mystery worthy of Holmes. There’s a whole abattoir of crime fiction out there, and surely by now they must have run out of acronyms for all those cop/ambo/paramedic/forensic-dissection shows. We’re gagging on corpses and obviously love it, just so long as it’s all cosily enough removed so as not to present any real threat: don’t worry love, they’re only actors being clubbed, shot, sliced and diced. But surely there’s a market for something a little closer to the bone. We have an infestation of Lifestyle Programs, how about a Deathstyle Program - My Mausoleum Rules or Better Tombs and Funerals?

I got the notion recently while watching Better Homes and Gardens (I was at the loosest of ends). It struck me that the show, with all its chirpy gloss and easy-can-do-on-ya-mate camaraderie, was just one great big denial of death. Of course you could argue that getting out of bed in the morning is a denial of death, but something about this show, with its instant gratification fixation, its zippily edited footage of the buffed tradie dude showing you that, yes, even you can easily whip up a pagoda, wishing well and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in your own backyard in an afternoon, rankled me. TV “teaches” us how to perform these and a whole slew of other wondrous feats - make pavlovas, buy houses - but the one thing we’re never taught is how to die. No, death is the elephant in the tomb. If you can’t say anything nice about Death, don’t say anything at all.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not looking forward to my trip over the Styx. It’s just that I think we could all benefit from a little more preparation to help ease the passage. When Dylan sang “I will not go down under the ground” it was about his refusal to ever enter a fallout shelter in the event of nuclear war. He could equally have been singing about our refusal to ever contemplate entering the grave.

My newsagent buddy Trevor told me of a man he knew who on his deathbed found the energy to start screaming “I DON’T WANT TO GO! I DON’T WANT TO GO!” Quite. I imagine compared to my own end his will seem a model of stoic dignity. As things stand, I’ll be praying, weeping and screeching with the best of them, thinking “If only I’d taken Pascal’s Wager!” which basically says it’s better to believe in god than not. If you’re right and there is a god, great, and if you’re wrong, so what?

Death needs to be made a more integral part of everyday life. The public cremations of Bali and India, and Parsees placing their dead on towers to be eaten by vultures are clean, green, in-your-face salutary lessons in death. We could adopt similar practices in Australia and have public cremations on footy fields before games, or leave corpses in shopping trolleys atop traffic lights for crows to eat.

Terrified or not, if I’m suffering unduly when my time comes I’ll definitely go the happy exit pill. Enlightened thinking on euthanasia has been around for longer than you might think. In his book of 1515 Utopia, Thomas More has a priest address a terminally ill citizen thus:

“Let’s face it, you’ll never be able to live a normal life. You’re just a nuisance to other people and a burden to yourself – in fact you’re really leading a sort of posthumous existence. So why go on feeding germs? Since your life’s a misery to you, why hesitate to die? You’re imprisoned in a torture-chamber – why don’t you break out and escape to a better world? Or say the word, and we’ll arrange for your release. It’s only common sense to cut your losses. It’s also an act of piety to take the advice of a priest, because he speaks for God.”

More goes on:

If the patient finds these arguments convincing, he either starves himself to death, or is given a soporific and put painlessly out of his misery. But this is strictly voluntary, and, if he prefers to say alive, everyone will go on treating him as kindly as ever.

Thomas More himself was euthanased, after a fashion. His boss, Henry the Eighth, cut off his head.

But to business: Our deathstyle show Better Tombs and Funerals would operate along similar lines to its famous lifestyle-orientated cousin. The buffed young tradie and his cheerful crew would rock up to the house of someone suffering a terminal illness. Let’s call her Miss Mortis. First a doctor gives a frank appraisal/prognosis of her condition, goes through her and her family’s medical history, her dietary habits and vices, explains to the viewers exactly how the tumour is ravaging her system, which organs it’s attacking and why, the kind of pain she’s in, how long she’s got, how common the condition is and how many people out there can expect to suffer the same fate. Next a priest/rabbi/imam or atheist councillor would sit down and discuss her afterlife outlook – was she a believer? Does she want to start believing/dis-believing now? This is what she can expect to meet beyond the grave; would she like a religious service; what form should it take … etc.?

Next the crew talk Miss Mortis through her coffin and plot options. They’ll craft and fit out a lovely casket and then find a home for it, anything from a humble-yet-dignified little patch in Rookwood Cemetery, to a marble mausoleum overlooking the ocean. Whatever your needs, taste and purse, they’ll build it and bring it in on budget. Meanwhile Miss Mortis chats with industry pros: funeral directors, grave diggers, crematorium technicians, morticians and embalmers. She works through pictorial catalogues of the kind of dress, makeup, hairstyle and expression she’d like to be left with, and talks about the venue, invite lists and kind of music she wants: “many of our clients opt for Nick Cave, though perhaps you’d prefer Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive?”

Once Miss Mortis croaks, a follow up program would show the actual moment of death, embalming process and funeral. As a last touch, we’d have “Crema” or “Coffin-Cam”, in which a camera captures her immolation and the pulverisation of her bones in a crematorium, or is placed in the casket with her so viewers can check in on the net every few months to see her state of decomposition.

Better Tombs and Funerals – It’s Mortality TV to take the sting out of death and put a spring in your step while you’re still around!


  1. I can just see those shopping trolleys atop the traffic lights with vultures circling {or is that traffic cops] ... people slowing down in their cars to gawk ... testing the limits of their own mortality on the road ... cue that bloke from channel ten in the "I've been to 'Nam chopper!" commentating on the carnage!
    This concept is a winner ... perhaps once Channel nine are finished pulling out has beens and nobodies for This is your Life they could run with This is your Death in full dolby surround and 3D panavision!

  2. 'Better Tombs and Funerals'...aha ha ha:))