The first time I realised death could be beautiful, and that indeed one could desire a beautiful death, I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know, that’s really not what you’d call highbrow or anything, but it taught be a lot. In this instance, it taught me that there are two ways to die, or to be dead: ugly, or beautiful.
“Die young, stay pretty” was the phrase used. A high school boy, dying of a brain tumour, wanting to be a vampire rather than face oblivion. Ultimately, of course, it didn’t work out, because the point of the episode was acceptance of death, acceptance of this mortal coil. But those words stuck with me.
The first tattoo I designed for myself, I wanted those words. But I was sixteen and nobody was willing to tattoo a sixteen year old. Which is just as well now, as I’d just have more to laser off. I still want those words, but not in the way I’d envisaged. They’re important words. And they have a time limit to them.
There’s a song called Too Old to Die Young Now. I wonder about the cut-off point. Is twenty five too old to die young? At what age is dying an acceptable risk? I mean, someone famous dies at sixty five and people shake their heads and say “he was so young” but really? In the grand scheme of things?
Humanity shies away from preserving its dead. The shift from the Victorian era of parlour rooms where the dead would be laid out to ‘living rooms’, from when memento moris made of the hair of the deceased were, if not common place then not unheard of, and post mortem family portraits were taken featuring dead children, propped up and made to look alive. Modern values differ from this – we have Bodyworks, of course, but this makes people squirm, as though the human body is something to fear. As if death is too bitter a pill to swallow. Everyone lives as if they will live forever. Nobody believes that they too will die.
Our dead are buried six feet under wormy soil, in elaborate wooden coffins that cost more than a second hand car. Or they’re burnt, again, in elaborate wooden crates, and released as ash or left to sit on a mantelpiece until the one who decided to keep them is too a pile of ash and dust. I wonder what happens then. Whether there are urns in storage, or whether family members who don’t even really know the person scatter the ashes out of some sense of duty?
The dead have been preserved. Sometimes as a sacred duty, as with Ancient Egyptian mummies. They spent their afterlives in gilded tombs until they were plundered and now they no longer rest as much as are goggled at by tourists in museums far away from their homeland.
To me, what is interesting is taxidermy. People think it abhorrent, because they imagine you hunting down the animal, skinning it, the blood, the guts. That the majority of the taxidermy I own is older than me, and will continue to be older than me forever, gives me pause for thought. These animals lived in an entirely different world to me. They have cheated death and remained as they were in life, though perhaps slightly less mobile and more moth eaten. They educate, they entertain, they terrify. They have a life beyond the cruel eking out that nature offered them.
Sometimes, taxidermy is used to claim trophies by man. I did this, I killed this creature. That to me, seems to say more of the man than the creature itself. Man does everything he and she can to survive death, in actions, in words, in art. I am no stranger to this. As an artist much wiser than me once said, and I am about to paraphrase terribly “you only die when the last person has spoken your name”. Some people find legacy through children. Others, through what they create.
Obviously, my route will not involve children. But I don’t want to be forgotten. Through the expanse of history, there are more people we will never know than there are people we remember. At what cost some of these people are remembered must be taken into account. Author John Green said that if you leave your mark on the world, make sure it is not a scar. So we must create things that are beautiful. We must seek to better the world through our actions, and hope in our selfish way that these actions are deemed worthy by history and those who write it. We get such a short gulp of breath on this planet. And yet we contain the same atoms as existed at the beginning of the universe. We are eternal. And we will never realise that, because once we die, it’s game over. But it’s not, not really. We’ll never be us again, and we’ll rot in the ground or be scattered in the wind. But if what we do matters, if our names are still warm on peoples’ tongues, then it has not been for naught.
And that’s what I believe an exquisite corpse is. Not the act of dying, but the living that led up to it. You will be dead far longer than you will be alive. But what you create, that can live on.
At least I hope so.
Posted by : Poe