To be or not to be

March 02, 1994|By Jim Burger

I HAVE a human skull. I mean I have a human skull other than the one that sits on my shoulders.

This one sits on a shelf in my living room. I came to own it the way one comes to own such things . . . legally, that is. My grave-robbing days are far behind me. Now, none of my biological systems (nervous, digestive, etc.) could handle such an act.

I haven't named the skull, nor do I spend much time wondering whose it was during its better days. But it does remind me of my own mortality and makes me wonder if I'm ready to die. Not ready in the sense of god or no god, heaven or hell. But rather, what will the first people through my front door think about me once I'm not around to explain things?

Things like a skull, or those Polaroid pictures in my upstairs desk or the red underpants. They were a gift from an old girlfriend. I keep them on the back of the shelf, and if the white ones run out, I'm grateful to have them. Yes, I do wear them -- carefully. But friends and family one day will sort my belongings, and the thought of my mother remembering me in red underpants makes me uneasy.

The importance of being remembered has historical roots. Hamlet remembered Yorick as "a fellow of infinite jest." That's how I remember my grandfather Morris. That and a taste for blood when it came to pinochle.

Longevity is an issue as well. My grandmother and her little sister are 94 and 93, respectively. They've outlived just about everyone who could say a bad word about them. I, on the other hand, have no such advantage. If I were to check out tomorrow, there are plenty of people around who will remember me only as the kid who threw the jack-o-lantern through the county commissioner's plate-glass window.

The thought of being remembered for doing something wrong particularly disturbs me. When I was a little boy, a mailman in a neighboring town was adored by everyone. He was always getting some award from one civic group or another for donating his time. The post office applauded him for the dispatch with which he completed his rounds. But when he died, they found bundles of undelivered mail in his garage. To the U.S. Postal Service it was the equivalent of wearing red underwear.

Lately, my father has become aware of his time left on Earth. He has named me the executor of his estate, eschewing my comical siblings and opting for the sound judgment of his youngest son. As we discuss his disposition, we skim over what I think are the important parts -- the life insurance policies, the matter of where he hid the Nazi gold and so forth. His biggest concern is who will hire the band. He wants the pep band from the local high school to play at his funeral. His casual attitude toward dying was inherited from his mother, who always said she was saving death until last. She did.

During a recent trip to France, I visited the grave of the Doors' lead singer, Jim Morrison, on what would have been his 50th birthday. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, paid homage under the watchful eye of Paris police (plain clothes and uniformed divisions). The caretaker told me that Morrison's grave has visitors daily, a fact to which the graffiti on the surrounding stones attests. What do you think these long-dead Frenchmen think about having their stones defaced in memory of Jim Morrison? In death, as in life, location is everything.

One young man who told me he was 14 was particularly poignant. After placing a pack of cigarettes on the grave, he told me grimly that Morrison had been "my best friend." I hope he checked his angst at the cemetery gate on the way out; his best friend died years before he was born.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I stopped by the grave of Oscar Wilde. Any man whose dying words were "Either that wallpaper goes or I do" deserves all the visitors he can get. Paris police were nowhere evident.

I don't mean to be obsessive. I know that death eventually comes to all of us. But I'd like to think that if that day is sooner rather than later, at least I've gotten my goodbyes out of the way. I hope that day will also be one on which I remember to make my bed.

Mom, if you're reading this, don't be fooled by that suit in my closet . . . that's just for show. Bury me in blue jeans, tennis shoes and a sweater. A cotton one. The wool kind makes me itch. If there's a jacket-and-tie requirement where they take me, I'll consult with the management upon arrival. Give my cameras away and my negatives to Frank; he'll know what to do with them. Finally, put up a stone in my memory. Carve my name in English and Hebrew, like Grandpa's. Below that, inscribe: HE STILL WON'T TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY.

There, I feel better. Relieved. Probably the same relief my father feels knowing that the band will be seen to. It's late. Tomorrow I'll throw away the skull and the red underpants. So the neighbors won't be disturbed, I'll be quiet. I'll take the skull from the shelf and hold it at arm's length. I'll intone, "Alas, poor Yorick . . . a fellow of infinite jest."

Well, maybe just the underpants for starters.

Jim Burger is a photographer for The Baltimore Sun.

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