Reflections on life, death and beyond

Recently, I purchased my first piece of real estate. I know I was pretty buzzed about it myself. Home ownership, once the right of passage enjoyed by nearly every Kiwi is increasingly well beyond even the most devoted penny thrifts amongst us. So clearly, I felt I had bragging rights after my complete cash payment and full ownership of the section at the tender age of 35.

It’s not much upon first inspection wedged between two other future neighbours (hopefully the respectful kind) but it’s cosy, peaceful and abounded by leafy trees which let in just enough sunlight while providing an adequate level of shade. It’s all ready for me to take up residency, the only thing that’ missing is my intent to move in. For there will be a time when I do accept my inevitable occupation of my plot but my inclination to move in straight away is still far from my inclining.

The obtaining of my grave, my final resting place, certainly raised a few eyebrows and dropped some youthful and not so young jaws I must confess. Flabbergasted and gobsmacked fellows looked at me as if I had gone completely potty. “2k on a hole!” one stammered “But you haven’t even croaked yet”. Thanks for the reality check I thought smiling acknowledgingly at the individuals wise observations as if they had just bestowed upon me some remarkable kind of revelation. Yes, I was still alive and kicking so congratulations for your astute perceptions of determining the animate from the inanimate.

Clearly and perhaps a lot of people were genuinely concerned about my actions. From those who feared that I had a life threatening disease and only had days to live to others who actually believed I was contemplating taking my own life. Don’t worry, I’m not intending to jump of that bridge so don’t look all spooked friends. However, this is not certainly something that people proudly pin up on their Facebook page under the status “Got a grave, just need the box”.

So why did I splurge out on a death pit when there is so many other things I could have derived so many pleasures from 2000 NZ smackers. True I could have had a nice little holiday, spruced up the garden with some vibrant flowering, built a man deck to barbie and entertain upon for years of pride, put a new engine in my clapped out Honda Civic or got some better Xmas gifts than the cheapies I divided out towards my nearest and dearest.

So what were my reasons? Perhaps, firstly because I could. The money was sitting there and it was going to go on something. What was something that I “could” spend it on that wasn’t going to go anywhere? Well why not a grave? After I’m gone, departed from my fresh that cadaver ain’t going anywhere. At the same time it has to go somewhere.

On my driver’s licence I have willingly obliged to offer my organs as a donor if my own life cannot be salvaged in the event of a tragedy such as a car collision. This stunned and surprised many of my Catholic friends.

To this day my Catholic and very religious mother tries to swing me against this philosophy every year. Yes, I will do almost anything for the woman who gave life to me but as far as this matter is concerned this is a closed book case. Mum, I love you but I stand resolutely behind my conviction.

And even if I could be saved what kind of a life would there be worth living for if I was to be living unconscious hooked up to a machine in a vegetative state? Being fed by a tube liquid foods being sponge washed by some poor orderly not having control of my faculties. The sad existence of potentially never being able to run again, to kiss my future wife, to smell the fragrant odour of jasmine floating in on spring breeze, the taste of buttered brioche with marmalade jam sliding down my palate and the glorious notes of Coltrane easing down my aural tracts. Why would I be so selfish to demand the medical authorities waste what 10 years? 20 years? 50 years of medical research time and resources to keep me “technically” alive when they could do so much more to save so much people.

In many ways, I see the situation through the trolley but philosophical dilemma. If you had the choice to pull the lever and save three people at the cost of killing one. What would you choose? Do you have free will or should you take yourself out from the equation and blame it on fate? Nevertheless have you still voluntarily made a choice? Are you still a killer? Can you lay your head down at the end of the day and sleep easy with your final choice or are you still inevitably a murder?

I suppose I can feel a little surer of my decision as I can comfortably accept allowing several people to be saved if I’m going to be a goner anyway.

On the other hand, there is the existential matter. Many fears abound our lives and overriding all of them is the realisation that in spite of education, money, titles and Earthly powers we are not physically eternal. As such some of us tirelessly while living try to leave something of a life’s work behind to let the next lot know hey I was once here you know. From monuments to art pieces to manuscripts to our teachings we all have our ways of trying to keep the ideological flame flickering long after the flame has been extinguished.

In my case, stone perhaps to seem to be the most fail safe way to ensure the maximum number of people know who you are after you are 6 foot under and kicking up Daisies.

Others believe futuristically about a downloadable form of identity. I may be old fashioned but this just a sounds bogusly creepy to me though I can neither confirm nor deny it’s efficacy and ethical merits. While scientists say that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck how genuine will the AI duck be from the real life duck?

A copy may have a life and indeed an identity but doesn’t that distinguish it from being the you reincarnate in electronic form? And who then controls our freedoms when we are online? Kim Dot Com, Assange, the CIA? No, confronted by the evidence the dark dingy tomb still seems the safer option.

Perhaps because of my Catholic faith there is an internal opiate which insists that there is life post life. I certainly hope so for there are many people who I’d love to see in heaven (where I’ve got my heart set on entering). From Joan of Arc to Martin Luther King and of course my loving grandparents and my dear father who had an influential role in shaping the man whom I’ve become.

Perhaps the greatest sage I ever encountered in my entire life my Dad had a monumental monopoly when it came to sculpting my attitudes towards life from its alpha to its often painful and heart stinging omega. Few words of wisdom have stuck so poignantly and powerfully as Dad’s accepting embrace towards Death’s sweeping entrance. As far as my wise and worldly father was concerned a master piece was a travail of life but not necessarily a true reflection of the face behind the artistic piece. In his own testimony, a successful life was not about how many people “remembered” your name after you had ceased physically living but about a true life that lived on by way of the number of lives you had touched with your own. Undeniably, my father will be a figure remembered for far longer than what will be my fleeting existence on this planet. But, as one friend pointed out at least you will have a tombstone.

It’s true that a lot of history is paid towards headstones and Paul Gittins on his enlightened Epitaph books and tv documentary series have highlighted the invaluable lessons which a thoughtful opinion on slate can tell us. That said, the picture created will only ever be minute and minor. The reader may think they know the body under the prophetic words inscribed on marble but if they think they know the nitty bitty intimate detail of what made Thomas Edward King the man under the top soil they would be kidding themselves. For knowing anybody takes a considerably significant amount of intimate time.

At university, JFK greatly fascinated me and I took every opportunity to read up on him. For all my endeavours, I’d pass with flying colours on a JFK quiz. But ask me, did I knew more about him than Jackie, his secretary, his limo guy or a close bodyguard and I’d have to confess no. For knowledge of subjects can come forward freely or even unfavourably against the agents will but a certain identity is retained and only accessed by a especially selective few. And if it later isn’t published or publicly pronounced then this too goes to the grave.

However what people feel towards me post my expiration date will not matter as they generally will have only sporadic interest when they look at my stone. I am a person with no cult, celebrity or political significance so while I’m living I’m quite glad when I think that my grave will largely remained unmolested by groupies, Nazis, extremists or occultists.

Unless we become like Mexico and start embracing the Day of the Dead which might be a novel concept to start dealing with a concept we Kiwis feel quite uncomfortable dealing with. After all, even the dead can accept that the world is for the living and when our time has come we should graciously make way for the next generation.

Indeed, the pharmaceutical revolution promising to send us all into the centenarian camp which scientifically spectacular is still scientifically scurrilous. It is obscene in my perspective as it continues to flare the furor we have towards accepting an act which is inevitable. Will the promise of 20 more years on the body clock mean we actually live any more to the fuller? Will it make us better more virtuous humans? What about the planet? How much more of the Earth will have to be pillaged in order to sustain our carbon footprint for another whatever many more years? Will it even be worth taking the pills or magic tonic if we are bedridden for those extra 20 years of life? Or the social factor: what about all those young individuals having to sustain ever larger longer living elderly while they are being taxed literally to death? Is this fair or righteous?

The world past me may be disinterested in my interest but that doesn’t mean that I am uninterested in the state in which I depart the world before my time to bid the world adieu arrives. In the lowland nations of Europe land is at a premium which will one day be the case in our own country. As our populations blossom both through child bearing and immigration populations are going to naturally grow. But so will mortalities.

The idea of grave recycling utterly repulses us Kiwis. “Trust the Dutchies to conjure that one up” would be a typical response. “How cheap, sinister, vile, inconsiderate, tasteless, abhorrent and disrespectful” might be some of the other descriptive interpretations presented forth. However, in a clash for my love towards the traditional I think the underpinnings behind the notion are both morally and environmentally sound.

Land is always going to be an invaluable asset and deaths are certainly never going to cease. So why have ever burgeoning Cities of the Dead when land is needed for the living? One could always build skyscrapers for the dead one may argue but any expansion either from left to right or up and down seems preposterous to me.

That said, the living still do need a place where they can physically still feel that they are being with their departed loved ones. I understand this completely. Perhaps the obvious hurdle to surmount is the underlying issue of how long a loved one needs a fixed tangible site to visit the deceased whilst they overcome that individuals passing.

It was probably 2 years after my Dad had departed that I realised that visiting his grave was more or less a social ritual than a force which brought us closer together. In fact, I felt closer to Dad when I was at the sites he used to love whilst he was alive. Like at the golf course, his favourite fish and chip shop, on the front deck we built together or at the beach. By this period, I knew Dad had physically gone for good and I accepted it. So if he was exhumed it would not cause me that much offense especially given my understanding of he himself felt towards the issue of making a big fuss about death. “Don’t bring me flowers when I’ve croaked (passed away)” he would scoff. “In fact don’t even give ’em to me while I’m alive. They look better in the ground than on my work bench”.

Funny enough one geographer, a good keen mate of Dads said that Pops would be spinning in his casket if he saw the carbon footprint that so many of the beautiful bouquets that encircled his resting body had actually travelled. Unlike the softy beneath the romantic crustacean Cancerian shell, Dad was a real pragmatic fellow. Iconography, symbolism and exotically exuberant acts of embellishing didn’t stir him the same way they would have struck a sentimentalist such as myself.

My orderly systematic and straight and narrow thinking Virgo sister also shared my father’s no nonsense no fancy bits rational approach to seeing the world in a monochromatic or black and white lens.

However, those with rose tinted lenses such as myself need not be mocked for our kaleidoscopic view towards the matter. The reason I say this is because regardless of what end of the emotional spectrum one is no event makes one think more about their humanity and their duty towards being “better” human beings than the finality which is death. After all is makes every single one of us (even the spiritually sceptical) question the meanings behind our nature and our duties while we exist.

The human record is full of contradictions. We are capable all at once of selfless love and murderous depravity; of sublime rational insight and utter incompetence; of soul-baring honesty and habitual duplicity; of principled rebellion and obsequious deference to authority; of generosity and jealousy.

What, then, is our true nature? Are we rational creatures or are we enslaved by our passions? Are we moral creatures or are we fundamentally selfish? Can we improve the human situation either individually or collectively? Does it all depend on our evolutionary history? These are all profound questions and ones I feel unqualified to answer. To pigeon slot whole swathes of humanity into generic sweeping categories would be a serious insult towards the individuality which each of us distinctive at the singular level.

So, why should we be so concerned about how we depart the world if we know that once we die we shouldn’t really be that concerned by what we really leave behind? In my opinion it’s because we DO largely generally care that we do want to leave the planet without the feelings of guilt, shame, frustration, anger or remorse hanging over our heads like a dark storm cloud eating voraciously away at our consciousness as we prepare to breathe our last gasp of air. For while I cling to the hope that there is a heaven similar to the one instilled into my brain after years of bible school the only heaven and hell I can ever be concretely sure of is whether I have made my terrestrial existence saintly or hellish for the people who shared their lives around my own.

Therefore, why we should care about the environment is because caring and departing it having been eco considerate reflects our respect towards the loved ones and future generations who we leave behind. While our lives are precious and to be lived to the fullest we have to realise that we are an incredibly tiny part of the Earth’s existence and to plunder the Earth of her resources in order to satisfy our brief existence is an Environmental Sin. And yet, since the Industrial Revolution, this greed and selfishness has continued to place the individual life above all other eco-social obligations.

I for one, do not want to leave this planet leaving it a barren wasteland on account of my largely insignificant existence no matter how cruelly harsh this sounds. Humanity faces threatening environmental problems, not least climate change. Can science, technology and free markets provide the solutions – or should we ourselves reconsider our values and priorities? I certainly vouch for the latter as waiting for tech to catch up while we continue to misbehave.

Is nature inherently valuable?  Should species be protected for future generations? Do we have moral duties to non-human animals, including endangered species? Absolutely, especially if we want to feel free from angst whilst the final moments in our chapter conclude.

Why is it that even in death I cling to Earthly desire of possession and of the desire to still claim ownership of a patch of turf which is inconsequential to the finality that is my passing? So that my spiritless body can claim title to the authority of a plot so that future wanderers can see that I was just another average man who sauntered the Earth? Is my life worth such pomp filled reverence?

Times are inevitably destined to change. Maori graves that were once tapu (sacred) have been discovered as fresh land has been cleared for both industrial and residential development. Even in the UK an English King was found under a site designated for a supermarket. Clearly deaths which were once significant in the human memory quickly fade into obscurity as old generations are superseded by younger fresh faces.

Clearly, the New Zealand attitude to Asia and Asians is very different now than what it was at the time NZ was settled or when we were at war with Japan. Indeed many older Kiwis fearful of German reunification (like some French and Englishfolk) were horrified by the youthful support for it. It wasn’t because we’d forgotten what atrocities Germany had committed in WW2, it was because we realised that this was a different kind of Germany. Or like that typical British wit directed at that old nemesis the French in that classic series Yes, Minister where it is suggested that the true reason why the French have the bomb is only because the Poms do also. However, a war between France and the UK is as likely as one between Canada and the USA or between us and Australia. Spirited rivalry yes, a pretext for war, probably not.

What future generations feel towards how we feel presently towards current affairs will be a very different kind of sentiment. I wonder for instance in 2200AD, what some cemetery trekker will think when they come across a cross, a Crescent star or a grave marked by the Star of David? And will the nations as we know them still exist? What type of a country will we be? Will we still see venerating the Glorious Dead as part of our make up? Clearly rituals of remembrance will depend upon a state case by case basis and how that state evolves over time.

In NZ, we are caught in the rip of probably wishing to fundamentally be a pacifist nation but because our inadequate armed forces we are still obliged to be puppeteered by the two countries who are most likely guaranteed to save our bacon: Australia and the USA. Yet, in an age where the West collectively have been brought together to deal with the terrorist threat the issue of “what are we prepared to die for?” in order to profess our faith to consumption has never been so pressingly forced upon us.

Perhaps if the worth of any grave should go unquestioned it is those who either died under or fighting against a tyrant. For the graves on the Western front along with those disturbing holocaust sites can potentially serve to remind us just how dangerously we as a species can be when we lose all sense of morally rational comprehension.

However, it saddens me when these sites become lasting ammunition for the perpetuation of aggressive nationalistic acts deemed as actions of national security. African nations moving post colonially and post tribalism along with Israel’s reluctant desire to deal with a Palestine state are examples that clearly spring to mind. Nations where “othering” has forced them to become as bad if not worse than the force which previously shackled them. As a guidance councillor once told me, “when the bullied becomes the bully”. I suppose as long as humans roam the Earth death and sites of remembrance will always carry some emotional charge. However, for the ordinary amongst us, such offerings are clearly irrelevant.

Nevertheless, if I could afford you one piece of advice it would be to choose a religion or at the very least open up to the idea of the spiritual. What is unique about most religions I find is that they are more than dealing with just the perils of life. On the contrary they are largely concerned with preparing us to accept and face death by living morally virtuous lives. This, at the end of it all is all you can ask of yourselves come the end of the road “have I been a good boy/girl”?

Life, I suppose is like an exam. If you have prepared for it properly then you may not know what grade you’re going to land but you can be pretty sure you didn’t fail it either. How could of you when you played by the rules and understood all that was asked of you. Living by decent morals is vital towards leaving this world at peace with yourself.

You will leave it a better place than you found it if you moderate your consumption, consider the human rights of those exploited for our capitalistic indulgences and choose to be generous with your time and resources. Give kindly loved goods to the Salvation Army, money towards a charity, donate your body to a medical college, create scholarships for a future student finding a cure for cancer, show compassion towards the poor and give a lot of love to all the beautiful animals that bring song, energy and excitement to our lives.

We may start our lives like that magnificent main protagonist in that touching film master piece – Mr Holland’s Opus – wishing to leave behind an “opus” that will be our eternal legacy. We may leave having never penned that great novel, waking up richer than Taylor Swift or become a tennis pro with the enviable lifestyle that comes with pro touring but we will be immortalised by those whom we touch.

At the end of the transaction I asked the plot custodian if it was a bit strange me buying a grave given my age and based on my health still being extremely sound. He nodded but not disparagingly. “Uncommon but not insensible”, he replied choosing his words carefully. He then asked me why I bought it. I replied with equal care but truthfully that I had done so out of peace of mind so that my loved ones didn’t have to go through the stress of arranging it. To which he reassuringly responded “Then you made the right choice”. I still wasn’t sure if I was convinced with his extended approval. Nevertheless, when I die I will have a locatable place where those who love me can elect to visit me if they so wish.

However, when my last dearly departed friend or partner has left the Earth they can do with me what they will. For even in death my body should not be a physical obstacle to those who live on merely because a dead entity holds the deeds to a plot of land that could have so many more uses other than a patch of grass which has to be mowed every second day.

As my uncle always told me, too many people worry themselves to an early death about owning a home when they should be worried to death about where they’re actually going to live when they kick the bucket. It sounds incredibly corny, as most philosophies from our family normally are but it holds some water.

So long as you’re living you can pretty much take account and action for what you and your “body” require, from shelter to food and so on. But unless you’ve been proactive, how can you delegate your volitions when your physical actions are clearly absent. However, one Chinese friend’s recent acquisition of a 20,000 NZ dollar plot with a spectacular view over the ocean left me thinking incredibly rationally for once as a view with 6foot of soil on top didn’t seem very panoramic from my pauperish perspective. That said, his will WILL be recognised come Judgement Day.

If my family had not been such a dogmatic bunch I would have loved to have tinkered with the idea of turning myself into a grief ball to nurture the waning coral reefs of our planet or convert my corpse into a bio friendly seed pod for reinvigorating the depleted rainforests of South East Asia (I always dreamed of going to Borneo). Or even gifting myself a Viking sea burning burial where my flesh may nourish the declining fish species around the North Atlantic. Or as a final humorous side thought I have been informed, by those musically inclined, that you can end your days turned into the vinyl record of your preference. It would certainly amuse me if my remains could be turned into something that gets peoples hips swinging and swaying at a retro club rave. It would certainly bring a whole new meaning to life after death, that’s for sure.

 

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