The Importance of Casket Readiness
by John Spencer Walters
I just received a lovely letter from the Neptune Society informing me that persons of my vintage are choosing in large numbers to have their rotting bodies cremated. The missive fails to indicate specifically, but I assume that the good people of Neptune are soliciting post-mortem incinerations only. Perhaps the letter is purposely vague to include those willing to accelerate the inevitable. I consider excessive and presumptuous the urgency with which Neptune spurs on the Postmaster, “time sensitive information enclosed.” I’ve often thought of doing the job myself but I lack the courage necessary to inflict pain upon my palpably rotting body. The contents of my mailbox reveal daily that Neptune is not the only commercial buzzard circling relentlessly above.
One thing I can remember without prompting is that I’ve entered the penultimate stage of existence, a leading indicator of which is that even though I’ve begun to drool I’m still able to drive myself to the liquor store, where well-meaning attendants ask (much too insistently) if I require help toting that half gallon of Johnny Walker to the car.
As long as the sun shines brightly on my liver spotted head, I will not allow the funeral industry to hasten my death. Though I’m certain as one can be of my near term survival, I comport myself as if death were imminent, dressing always in such a way as to be casket ready or oven worthy, as the case may be. I wear a sport coat, even to get groceries. If the trip to the market rises to the level of an outing (includes a stop at the pharmacy or dry cleaners), I accompany the coat with a tie. I’m considering wearing a tie to bed, in the event that death is merciful and takes me in my sleep.
Why, you may wonder, should anybody dress formally after having toiled forty years in a uniform he has longed to shed, perhaps even shred? In retirement you’re as inclined to compromise your comfort as you are to set an alarm clock. Why should you forsake cargo shorts in favor of gray flannel slacks? You’ve earned a stint of unmitigated leisure. You require a reason more persuasive than merely appearing spiffy upon arrival at Cheerful Charlie’s Funeral Home.
Simply put, nothing needs to be turned on its head quite so compellingly as a few beliefs cherished among retirees, to wit: upon retirement the typical American male consummates THE DREAM, unloading every reminder of time spent in button down confinement, trading the wing tips for well-worn flip-flops, lounging in his favorite sweats, the ones that pair splendidly with the baseball jersey, so much so that they evoke the specter of formal attire, unbecoming of his new found freedom and clearly violating the unwritten dress code to which the American male retiree unflinchingly (and unabashedly) adheres. While tossing the jersey to the closet floor he notes the unwelcomed presence of a charcoal brown suit, which somehow evaded the U-haul on his epic post-retirement party trip to the consignment shop. He settles on the wife beater T as his “go to” shirting, largely for its liberating effect on that which he has no doubt is a fetching shock of hair growing on his upper back. He reserves the baseball jersey for October, and for weddings and funerals at which he considers his attendance inescapable.
I strongly advise against this practice, this line of thinking. For those males aged 62 years and older, your need has never been greater than to dress like those sartorially resplendent adults of the 1940s and 50s. I ask my aged male brethren to carefully and objectively study their physical appearance. Even without rose-colored glasses, a rush of delusional thoughts fills your brain, which you embrace as perfectly plausible. You imagine your age defying face appearing as a Google pop-up, the caption to which encouraging viewers “to read further and discover this 63 year old grandpa’s secret to looking 30.”
Clear your mind of all such chimera. Allow reality to take control of what remains of your cerebellum. Note that the lines on your face, which for years you dismissed as mattress indentations, are now pronounced and sufficiently deep to transport water. Your eyes are drawn to one such rivulet carved into your forehead. You follow its path and realize that it’s shaped much like the I 695 Beltway around Baltimore. You need help and imagine it arriving in the form of a Lamborghini, followed by a head-to-toe- skin transplant, which you imagine as powerful palliatives, if only you could afford these. Don’t despair. You can obtain a measure of grace and dignity without breaking the bank.
Nothing is as affordable as dressing well to compensate for the unsightliness of old age—all the while keeping you looking sharp for your inevitable date with the funeral pyre. Do this, if not for yourself, then for your community, which already is blighted from excessive exposure to gnarled, ancient flesh. It matters not how fit you think you may be. Elderly flesh requires more not less clothing. The over-the-calf socks are a good idea when combined with a nice pair of slacks, but never with a pair of Bermuda shorts. You can rehabilitate your community’s aesthetic by unburdening it and yourself of the Bermuda shorts, all bottom wear, really, that fails to cover your ankles. Please retain, and tenderly care for, the navy blue blazer.
Ask yourself whether swimwear is really necessary in life’s final chapter? The answer clearly is no. Find a recreational activity that calls for a superabundance of outfitting, perhaps fencing or snowmobiling. Why should I care either about the beautification or greater edification of my community, you ask? Your community, as with all things that don’t meet with your approval (which includes just about everything) can go to hell!
I’m aware that old age offers no gift greater than the freedom to disregard what others think. This gift often impels us to enter into situations for no purpose other than to tell somebody, preferably a snot-nosed kid, to fuck off. I get it. It’s one of my great indulgences. It’s the one thing that makes tolerable the infirmities of old age. Indeed, I’m a charter member of the HEHE Club (Hate Everything, Hate Everybody), an elite organization established specifically by, but not limited exclusively to, old timers. It demands only that its members demonstrate the unremitting surliness of a grizzly bear.
That said, I hope to awaken your highly developed social consciousness for which you were famous but which succumbed effortlessly to the comforts of middle class living. Whether by the grace of God or by force of superior talent, our generation developed a rich culture worth sustaining. The young have rendered it barren. As you examine our cultural landscape, hideous in nearly all of its aspects, are you not aroused by the desire to edify it, even if only in some small way. Consider the music, but for your sake don’t dwell on it. Our young people have done for music what ISIS has done for Islam, taken it back to the sixth century, otherwise known as The Age of Alvin and the Fucking Chipmunks. Consider the state of literacy—but again don’t dwell on it. Our grandkids can neither read nor write—neither can their teachers. Ours may have been the last generation to produce persons of intellectual depth, musicians who actually played musical instruments, who wrote songs demanding an audience whose IQ’s exceeded 60.
You may think that it’s only fitting that civilization die with us. Music and literacy are in a state of moribundity, and even though we no longer can do the kind of heavy lifting necessary to give life to these, we can put an arthritic shoulder to the wheel in an effort to salvage at least one vestige of civilization. We can show younger generations how to dress like adults.
In closing remember, too, that death is rarely merciful. Too often death is preceded by an extended institutional stay, where you will languish, too enfeebled to dress yourself. This task is left to nursing home staff, perhaps in your case a fun loving bunch known for hilarity, who relieve their drudgery by “dressing up” the residents. Imagine the staff collapsing in merriment as they admire their handiwork: you lay in bed staring blankly at the ceiling, wearing a sundress, your heavily rouged face accented by blonde hair extensions. There’s no telling what indignities you may suffer in your addle brained oblivion. In the charge of strangers, you have no idea how foolish you can look, which is one more reason to dress yourself smartly, and make the most of it, while you are able!
John Spencer Walters has published several award-winning academic journal articles, in addition to a monograph, U.S. Government Publication: Ideological Development and Institutional Politics, from the Founding to 1970, which is as dense as its title suggests.