“Fitness Fanatic Feeds His Exercise Addiction” was the headline of an article in The Wall Street Journal about me in 2007. I’m the author of the satiric novels Erotomania: A Romance (which has just been optioned for the movies), Seven Days in Rio and most recently Tombstone: Not a Western. My previous two books were about sex. Tombstone, as the title may indicate, is about death. It’s a book about funereal matters and a thinly veiled attempt to come to grips with the inevitable: the afterlife, or, if there turns out not to be one, oblivion and non-existence. I’ll cross that bridge or river (the Styx) when I get there. But in between there will be a lot of earthly matters to attend to. Now I’m making my arrangements.
I have to decide if I’m going to be interred or cremated. For burial you need a place and a vehicle. Some people refer to the repository for bodies that are going into the ground as coffins, but an old-fashioned six-sided coffin is an anachronism. The correct term for the rectangular box employed by most morticians today is a casket, and purchasing one can be a family affair. A little like buying a car, only without a trade-in.
Then there is the question of real estate. Once you have your means of transport you need a place to put it and therein lurks the question of the grave or plot. From a business point of view, cemeteries are corpse garages: the profit derives from the fact that small spaces can command spectacular fees. They’re also like health clubs: you have your top-of-the-line with perennial care, and your work-a-day affairs catering to those who just want to get in and out as fast as they can. Then there are alternative spaces — burial grounds between communes and squats, which are exempt from commodification. Free the body, so the soul can escape to its happy hunting grounds. Can you be buried in your own backyard? It depends on your local zoning board. One thing is certain: it’s a lot cheaper to be cremated than buried. In the days before they eliminated incinerators in Manhattan high-rises, you might have instructed that your remains be simply disposed of with the garbage. Some people actually just toss the remains anywhere.
It can be instructive to look at these matters with some philosophical distance. Despite Evelyn Waugh’s comic novel The Loved One, and HBO’s Six Feet Under, the entertainment value of death and burial is inversely proportional to their distance from reality. If there were an afterlife and you could hover over or otherwise attend your own memorial service, you might not find the humor. Although Martin Heidegger said that awareness of death is a requisite for an authentic existence, most people don’t like to be confronted by it. If you attend a funeral and look carefully around you, you’ll notice that most attendees are less grief-stricken than squirming like caged rats. After they pay their condolences, they beeline out of Frank E. Campbell’s, The Riverside or wherever the service is being held, happy for a brutal cross-training session or a yoga class or that secret afternoon tryst.
Making arrangements is the final adult thing you’ll ever do. As horrifying as it may seem to deal with non-being, take comfort in the fact that it’s not happening to you — yet. These days, there is a proliferation of seminars on the afterlife, so who knows? In the future there may even be all-inclusive resorts for those interested in such issues. Baby boomers who once travelled to Club Med may find themselves buying one-week packages at Club Dead. And there’s the usual anticipatory pleasure that accompanies preparing for such adventures — the food, the seating, the list of speakers. All of these remain in your control as long as you’re alive. Who’s to say that a eulogy cannot be made into a legal document in which you ensure that your praises are sung? If you’ve been a successful person in life and you don’t feel like being left off in the cemetery and forgotten forever, you can build a mausoleum in your honor in a warm climate like Florida or the Caribbean that comes equipped with all the latest gadgets, including smart TV’s, a microwave and even fitness equipment to make sure your descendants will be motivated to pay their respects.
In Tombstone: Not a Western, my protagonists actually come out the other side, as it were. The very issues that meant so much to them all along, like how and where they’ll be buried or cremated, become increasingly secondary as they begin a new life, which turns out to be death. Spoiler alert! Let’s just say they get a new perspective on things (which is far less material) as they prepare to meet their maker.