The gentleman’s not for burning

Contemplating penis immolation and the other insults of death

Photo Illustration by Don Button

Alexander Pope, old-timey English poet, offered some sage advice about three centuries ago: “Know then thyself; presume not God to scan,” he wrote, because “The proper study of mankind is man.”

Nice notion, but more easily said than done. Keeping tabs on ourselves is fairly difficult, what with the human capacity for self-deception and all.

For instance, more than a dozen years ago, when death was farther from my door than it is these days, I was visiting my daughter in Paris. In one of those occasional moments where talk between father and daughter turns serious, I reassured her that I had dealt with the issue of my mortality and that I did not fear death. I thought that by telling her this I might shine a flashlight in the darkness for the nights when she was fearing her own mortality. I also thought it was true.

But on the flight home from Paris, the plane began to jostle around in the air, buffeted by turbulence, and then I realized with undeniable certainty that what I’d said to my kid about being free of the fear of death was, alas, bullshit.

Since those days, I’ve constructed much of my life around the simple Serenity Prayer I discovered when I quit drinking, even though I’m pretty vague in my views about a higher power. Nonetheless, I find that little prayer to be most useful, though far less simple than it appears on the surface. “God grant me,” it says, “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

That’s the catch right there, in that last clause. Lots of people use the prayer as an excuse to avoid doing things that are troublesome or inconvenient because they convince themselves they can’t change things they could, if they really tried, change. Other people have a difficult time accepting the fact that there are some things that truly cannot be changed, no matter how hard we might try or how much we might desire those changes. In any event, it’s a bitch trying to find the wisdom to know the difference.

So, the Serenity Prayer, though useful, is no easy fix for life’s conundrums and challenges.

But it has helped me accept the fact that I’m going to die. Like many other aging people, I do an almost daily calculus of the likely time I have left to enjoy the pleasures of the physical world. A decade, maybe two, maybe three. Or I could be finished off next week or next month by some already-marshaling concretion of cells busily conspiring somewhere in my body to bring me down. All I know is that, sooner or later, I gotta go, and however I tote it up, I know my time ain’t long, no matter how long I’ve got, at least not when figured against the time I’ve already had, which seems in the counting to have gone awfully fast, while these days and weeks I have left now rush by even faster than I remember all that earlier time passing.

Still, I accept the idea that I cannot change the immutable fact of my date with death as part of the deal I signed on for by simply drawing my first breath.

I thought I was cool with that, sanguine about it all, just as cosmic as could be in accepting the ebb and flow of human existence. Death is as natural as life itself, I tell myself, and then I usually go to the kitchen to get myself a bowl of ice cream.

But this morning I was filling out the form to join the Neptune Society. For those who don’t know, the Neptune Society isn’t a group of seafood lovers or a consortium of snorkelers. The name is a euphemism for a club that will have anyone as a member, as long as (a) they’re able to cough up its membership fee, and (b) they’ve decided they’re willing to undergo cremation once they’ve expired.

I’ve never been much of a joiner, but this morning when I signed on with these Neptune Society people, I realized anew my old reluctance about seeking membership in groups. The Neptune Society seems an inauspicious beginning to redefining myself as a joiner. I was once a member of Clampers, a drinking society, for about a week, and then I was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, a non-drinking society, and now I’m a member of the Neptune Society, and that constitutes my entire membership experience in a nutshell. Or in a mantelpiece urn, to employ a more apt analogy.

My wife had been nagging me to fill out the form for a couple of days, and I realized that I’d been putting it off. When I at last succumbed to her entreaties, I found that I was a little cranky as I began to answer the questions, entering my name, my birth date, my Social Security number and the rest of it. Like most people, I hate filling out forms, but I could not recall a form I’d ever filled out that carried quite this degree of emotional weight. This was, after all, the form that signaled the absolute end of filling out forms, and suddenly filling out forms didn’t seem like such a bad way to fill the time, considering the alternative of having run out of time to do anything whatsoever. The information on this form would be used by someone in the future who was going to be writing my obituary. The info about my date of birth was on that form to provide a prefix to a sentence that would be completed by the yet-to-be revealed suffix of my terminus date.

And the check I wrote and stapled to the form was going to pay for a very hot fire into which would be fed one of my favorite people—me. Though I’d had my share of disputes with my body, though I’d had a number of complaints about my corporeal self, I had spent a lot of time and money supporting that body—feeding it, clothing it, exercising it, grooming it, taking it to movies, trying to get it laid—and now the act of writing out a check to pay for burning it was making me peckish with my darling wife.

I looked at the hand that held the pen I was using to fill out the form, and I thought, “OK, it’s not quite the young-looking hand it once was, but it’s still quite serviceable, and I hate to think of it getting all burned up.”

And then I thought of other body parts I’d always been rather fond of—eyes, nose, knees and penis. When my inventory arrived at that particular organ, I really had a hard time reconciling the idea that I was actually paying for this particular service. There was something that seemed distinctly self-defeating in such an act.

Anyway, the penis-immolation component of the procedure was almost a deal-breaker. When you tell a man to cover himself, the part he covers is always his penis, and in covering “himself” thusly, he locates the precise center of the self right there in the genitalia, as does the language.

So, agreeing to the burning up of my penis was a big step toward saying goodbye to my very self, which is, after all, the big deal about death in the first place.

But I did it. I completed the form and mailed off the check, and so I know the fire awaits me, as it does all of us who choose cremation as a way of dealing with what we leave behind.

In the meantime, however, I’m going to spend a bit of effort to get my wife to forget how cranky I was while I was filling out that form. When people say “use it or lose it,” they’ve only got the idea half-right. The fact is we use it and lose it, so it’s best to use it whenever the opportunity arises.