A Long Laughing Look at Death
I thought it more than a little strange when one of my teachers at Notre Dame confessed that she regularly read the obituaries in the local newspaper, often before anything else. It was an indulgence in her “maudlin Irish demeanor,” she said. Well, now I find myself regularly giving way to the same indulgence, eagerly scanning the Scranton Times for interesting or noteworthy accounts of lives recently come to completion.
This past Sunday, however, I came across an obituary that did more than just chronicle the basic facts. It provoked questions about the very nature and function of obituaries , and indeed about the proper way in which to confront death itself. And it did so delightfully. If the picture of the relatively young man didn’t catch one’s attention, then the opening paragraph certainly would:
John L Lathrop, 52, of Fayetteville, NY, died Wednesday, after a long, no holds barred, cage match battle with ALS. His diagnosis in 2009 gave him plenty of time to write this obit, which he did, so blame no one but the deceased. His immediate plan, post demise, was to go to heaven and give Lou Gehrig a great big sloppy kiss on the cheek.
That set the tone for the obituary as a whole, and I found myself laughing out loud throughout, occasionally wondering whether I should feel guilty for doing so. The source of the concern was whether this man was taking death seriously enough. Does this kind of self-written, tongue-in-cheek obituary represent a trivialization of death and a denial of its sorrow and solemnity, especially for those left here to grieve?
One notices in the middle of the obituary that John became an avid blogger after his diagnosis with ALS. The title of his blog is Meatloaf Chronicle, and its principal topics are art, music and a category entitled “death in good humor.” John apparently was an avid painter, although he mentions in his blog that he will be best remembered for leaving behind “paintings that no one ever seemed to want.” As for his musical interests, he clearly had a passion for classic rock and heavy metal, and what it is really remarkable is that he brings both of these interests to bear on the overriding theme of his posts: “death in good humor.”
It is not as if John does not complain about the physical and emotional pain involved with facing death, nor does he shy away from the most direct and discomfiting issues surrounding his own death from ALS. Yet his humor allows him to engage these issues in a way I’m not sure a more sober or poetic imagination would be able to do. The post that most struck me was one entitled “Am I Dying?” in which John, after noting what music he had been listening to, vividly and humorously describes his idea of what his final throes will be like:
Who knows ? When was the last time you died? No faking to get an estranged loved one back. The real deal. Systems looking shitty. Unable to sleep. Hospice refers to it as monkey brain. You just cannot shut it down without pharmacological assistance. In hospice you know it’s real when comes the last bodily insult. The Phenobarb Suppository coupled with the Samoan Wrestler sitting on you[r] face. You will see a light and it’s the flash from his championship belt as his large cocoa buttocks descend toward your face. You will see Jesus to boot as he shakes his head at the lengths some agencies will go to attract his attention. When the Samoan climbs off you’re certainly not of this world & you & Jesus are taking the long walk toward the non-Samoan light. Jesus may bring up some humorous anecdotes that you did when a kid or teen. When you get up the light, Jesus peels away as he’s plenty of souls to guide every day. In big days like a natural disaster Jesus may send one of your relatives to pick you up. I hope that my brother Rob comes to get me. I don’t want to bother the main man.
John’s musings could easily be dismissed as mere “gallows humor,” but what strikes me about them is how quickly he transitions to the more literal, and more wrenching aspects of his terminal illness. Immediately after the paragraph quoted above, he writes,
Over the past 3 days I have been suffering. Sunday night barely any sleep & extremely uncomfortable. Anxiety, mind racing. Bad thoughts. Couldn’t breathe. Bed of nails. They kept giving me drugs to knock me out but then I’d awaken 2 to 3 hours later & I’d think it was the next day. Finally, yesterday they hammered me & I slept 15 hours. Now that’s sleeping. Today, I’m planning on directing myself to sleep by 7 or 8 & then through to approx. 10:00am or thereabouts. Then I hope to get painting putting hair on Christ & crown of thorns. Time’s a wasting with all of these sick days. Good thing I’m not in the Union.
There is a certain courage which shines through the “gallows humor” here, a courage which in fact uses the humor as its vehicle. And it has made me wonder whether humor might be more than just one strategy for dealing with the unthinkable prospect of one’s death, awkward and lacking in grace, but forgivable nonetheless.
Through this man’s obituary and blog I was able to identify and enter into his death in a way that I would have hardly thought possible given that I never knew him and that his life story is not one that stands out by any objective measure.
It also made me wonder to what extent Christians, while recognizing the proximate evil of death, would do well to take a more tongue-in-cheek approach to our own mortality, especially when faced with terminal illness. If Christianity is truly a “comedy,” as Chesterton suggested, then surely death is at the heart of the joke in some sense.