With any luck it’s a cool fall day. A breeze tumbles freshly fallen leaves, hush across the hillside. Overgrown grass goes to seed under a light mist hanging over the land like smoke in a wine glass. If tears fall, they fall toward smiles and wan laughter. Though I have died, remember the good times, the joy, the unremitting humor of life.
With any luck it’s a cool fall day, but if it’s not, that changes nothing. If it’s winter, and snowdrifts heap under billowing knife-edged blusters, wrap up in a few layers. The mulled cider and the coffee will be hot, but it’s still best to be fully prepared for the weather.
If it’s summer, I hope at least two people are brave enough to dance naked, toes in the grass. If not, so be it: I’ll be there in spirit, cavorting clothesless, and now there’s nothing anyone can do to stop me. For those of you who knew me, you know I loved to push boundaries. For those of you who didn’t, welcome!…what the hell are you doing here?
With any luck though, it’s a cool fall day. There’s often an air of regret surrounding birthday deaths—but I find them immensely poetic. A full circle of life. A return. A revolution on the ever-spinning wheel. With any luck today is the fourth of October.
Listen! The conversations, the buzz of connection, the gathering of consciousness, the spirit of the group. What a dynamic, an ebb and flow of energy, a tangible pattern of sound and feeling. People gathered, people telling stories; recreating my life like a slideshow, from many angles.
Remember in high-school track when he got hit by a shot put?
Remember when he kissed a shark?
Remember when he was arrested?
When he saved my life?
Remember when he made me cry?
Made me laugh?
Made me scream?
Remember all the times I was alone with him?
When I loved him?
It doesn’t even matter if they’re stories about me. What matters is only the event that brought so many people together to share experiences, to meld and mingle, to share and cherish. There’s no dogma allowed in this ritual—that’s the only ironclad rule. This is a happy day, a day of love and unity, a day of remembrance without regret. This is a celebration, sadness without misery, longing without jealousy.
With any luck it’s a cool fall day, a day for reflecting on the fullness of life, the absurdity and the mystery that we all share, regardless of achievement or material gain. Think about it! We all rot toward the same basic stuff. We’re all just patterns of molecules gathered together for some reason. Once that is known and understood, it tends to change things.
This story is in medias res, and no matter the ending, there is always more. A period lies. An ellipsis tells a closer truth. So take a sip of your chosen potation. Raise your glass to ever-afters. Make a toast to whatever comes to mind. Because though that is my body up there, I’m not finished with this world. Not yet. So make the most of it.
My body lies up there on a platform of wood—at least ten varieties. Built by cooperation, built with love and good cheer. Built with craftsmanship, but also accessibility. Built in as many different styles as will fit, dovetails alongside box nails. It’s just going to burn anyway.
It’s tall enough to rise above…whatever, but not so elevated that I’m not visible up there in repose. If my successes have been sufficient, a gold coin sits on each eye, ironic tribute to the boatman. Otherwise let my gaze stare in wonder and always look for Why.
Below the bier, a pungent pile of brush—sage, scotch pine, birchbark—soaked in a plethora of flammables, each substance with its own meaning. Kerosene for history, white gas for camping, gasoline for road trips, olive oil for mealtime. It’s on a hill, overlooking a spread of wood or field or water. Permits have been drafted and signed. The land is protected.
Surrounding the pyre, a number of campfires for warmth and comfort. And to ignite the torches. Watch! The gathering points of quavering flickering light; watch as friends, family, and strangers gather around and trade casual greetings that may or may not turn into budding friendships. Watch as this whole thing comes together in the form of ceremony, one created thousands of years ago, one created by humans to set us apart from the other animals, one that transcends traditions and dogmas and cultures. Treatment of the dead. What a philosophical concept. But that doesn’t matter—just watch. Over, under, around, and through: my presence is here, there, everywhere, in you. Open up to it. Let it absorb you, and let it flow from you. However I have impacted your life—bring it here and share it round. Strengthen my collective spirit, bond all the bits and pieces stored in the memories of everyone gathered here until I am recreated, until it’s like I’m standing among you, joining in.
Vats of cider, casks of wine, barrels of whiskey, jars of water—anything you might want is there for the taking. This is a stone-soup affair. Loaves and fishes. A potluck. The miracle of sharing is that there was always enough to go around. It’s just a matter of defeating ownership. And the food…!
Oh, the food. If you didn’t bring a dish, find someone who did and thank him or her. Anyone who leaves hungry is a fool. Anyone who leaves thirsty—a churl. Anyone who leaves upset missed the point.
All my favorite foods; deviled eggs, smoked ham, beef wellington, ribs, burgers, salads, fruit, cakes, quesadillas, soft cookies, brisket, pancakes, latkes, cheeses, oysters, sardines, soup, roasted vegetables, steak, duck, lamb—you name it, I loved it, so throw in some salt and add to the feast.
This is a day of celebration. With any luck it’s a cool fall day. But that doesn’t matter. My favorite day was always today. Plenty to do, plenty to see, and always always always plenty to learn. If you learned nothing today, you weren’t paying attention. Don’t do that.
As the sun sets, shadows stretch over this hill, and the breeze dwindles. Now’s the time. Feel it. It just seems right.
A hush settles, and someone unappointed grabs the first torch. Maybe you, maybe someone else. The low murmurs diminish, and everyone watches as the ball of firelight arcs toward the heap of tinder. There’s a moment of silence as the next crackling torch is lifted from a campfire and brought toward the pyre.
Then one by one, torches are thrust into the brush pile, with maybe a few words spoken, a knickknack or trinket tossed in, a silent personal prayer or mantra or consideration. The whole affair unfurls in a blaze as people step back from the heat. Sparks flee skyward, and my body is illuminated and engulfed by the inferno.
After a while the conversations resume amid the smell of pine and juniper and oak and cherry and walnut and maple and apple and mahogany all working to overpower the harsh aroma of a dear loved one cooking—but all I can smell is a rare steak slowly being overdone. I’ve always wanted to try human. Just for the experience.
The festivities commence in earnest, and I join in, lifting my arms in muscle-spasm splendor, enjoying the heat and conducting a symphony of stars and sparks. Raise your voices to drown out the disconcerting sputter of flesh! Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you probably have to go to work.
I cannot begin to guess what goes on between everyone as the small hours roll past and the pyre dwindles to coals, embers, cinders, and ash. It will be tragic to miss out on so many stories and connections—but they’re all saved in the collective network of our shared human experiences. Lovers past and present—share stories! Trade anecdotes. Hell, even criticize. Don’t stand on ceremony: live it up.
Someone self-appointed will stay on hand after the fire has faded to a safe dawn-colored mass, adding cold water to make a rich mud. A willow sapling, root ball wrapped in burlap, waits at the edge of the hill, shivering slightly in the morning air.
Someone self-appointed will transplant the sapling into the warm ash, planting the next saga, letting life carry on. This consciousness is shared; man, bird, tree, dinosaur, rock, and sky—all the same stuff. Experience stretches through history. Experience is evolution.
Someone self-appointed has the most important job in all this. Cherish it. But do not allow self-righteousness to seep in. Because though important to my own carry-on ideal, your task doesn’t really matter in the long run either. Everything has a life span. People, families, species, languages—even life itself.
That said, you better plant that weeping willow, and come water it until it’s self-sustaining and entrenched. Otherwise I’ll have a hard time adjusting, and I’ll be sure to haunt you forever in the form of your nagging conscience. So make sure I’m good and independent. Just as I was. Just as I am. Just as I shall be.