Chapter 39: Famous Last Words or Pompous Last Words?

Now the choice is yours.

He has ceased to be, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky … —John Cleese, Eulogy for Monty Python colleague Graham Chapman

Not long ago and out of the blue, I got a call from Sandra Martin at The Globe and Mail. The paper had sudden access to a video camera and wanted to experiment with visual obituaries; so could I, would I, come in for an interview about my own death. In the instant, I remember thinking the idea a little ghoulish but fascinating and was perfectly willing to give it a go but, unfortunately, was out of town at the time and simply couldn’t make it. It was the first time, though, that I clued into the fact that the paper probably had a standby obit for Moses Znaimer and that I’d lost the chance to get a sneak peek at it – not to mention a shot at shaping it.

Since then, I’ve thought from time to time about that lost opportunity because, given the natural rhythm of these things, I find myself attending ever more funerals and hearing ever more eulogies. So it occurs to me that this entirely human exercise of trying to sum up a life is something to which we should all pay more attention. Google “how to write a eulogy” and, within a quarter of a second, you get 8.5 million hits. This is fewer than for “how to write a wedding speech” (40 million) but more than “retirement speech” (6.5 million) and “graduation address” (two million). Eulogies, as Jerry Seinfeld has pointed out, are clearly a daunting prospect for a lot of people.

In the past, the only people who could leave an a priori testament as to who they were and what they’d done were the High and Mighty. If you were Egyptian royalty, you could erect a pyramid or, later, if possessed of power, position or money, you could have a sarcophagus built in some durable stone or precious metal and have your likeness carved on the lid together with a slogan or a coat of arms. Over the millennia, the memorial has been democratized into large cemeteries with hundreds, even thousands, of headstones or markers with again the richest and the most powerful able to erect, say, a tall obelisk or a family mausoleum with a couple of lions guarding the entrance.

In the September 1979 issue of Boston magazine (28 years before he died), the American author Norman Mailer wrote an obituary for himself called “Mailer Shelved,” which began “Norman Mailer passed away yesterday after celebrating his 15th divorce and 16th wedding.” It then went on to take shots at, besides Mailer himself and his wives, William Buckley, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Andy Warhol, Gloria Steinem and Jimmy Carter, among others. In other words, Mailer’s motive was self-parody and professional revenge, while the Moguls and the Pharaohs had their eyes on grandeur and divinity.

Well, I’ve come up with a different idea for these more egalitarian, Internet-mediated times – one I’ve touched on in this space before2 – of an interactive memorial that I envision installed in place of a tombstone or vault in a cemetery setting. It would consist of either a stone marker fashioned in the shape of a classic 1960 Philco Predicta TV (but with an active practical screen) or, if indoors, an actual Predicta (a visionary design far ahead of its time, which separated the screen from the console on a swivel). The device would be equipped with a sensor activated by an approaching visitor and sport an easy-to-use contemporary touch screen that would offer a menu of content by and about me and my work and the people and things that were important to me. Up I’d pop, upbeat and welcoming, saying something like “Hi, nice of you to drop by. How much time have you got?” Around the playback, I’d provide a comfortable bench or seat so people could rest their feet and, were it sheltered and permitted, perhaps a coffee or a shot of something more bracing.

I first conceived of “Here Lies Moses Znaimer” as a gag, then as an art installation; but, lately, I’ve come to consider it as a plausible idea. It seemed novel, even audacious then but, as history often has it, I’ve already been overtaken by new technology. The auto-eulogy is now a reality in the form of a number of websites that are accessible not just to the rich or powerful or famous but to anyone online with a smart device. In other words, we’ve finally arrived at a moment in history where Everyone and Anyone can leave behind more of a trace than did King Tut in his day; not in the form of embalmed remains and golden amulets but in family photos, pictures of assorted favourite memorabilia, mottos, songs and other great works, all curated and commented on as creatively as anyone cares to, together with their last words, if any.

Online, there’s even a selection of sensibilities to choose from. For example, has a traditional, chapel-like feel, despite the digital delivery. Its promotional video opens on clouds scudding by, with a narrator telling us, “MyOwnEulogy is here to allow you to take that burden away from your loved ones and leave them a meaningful message in your own words.” The website takes you through a Eulogy Tip Guide, lets you record your own and then uploads it all to the website where it will be safely stored for your family and friends “long after you’re gone” at no cost to you. Mind you, if you are a more private person, you can upgrade to a VIP account, thereby letting you chose who you would like to have see your eulogy and assure that it be shown only after your death. That’s right; the site insists on putting your “free” testament up for the whole world to see while you’re still alive, unless you pay the step-up VIP fee ($19.99 a year, $199.00 forever).

By way of contrast, is a Facebook app that has more Monty Python in it, with a narrator who sounds a lot like John Cleese and an animated video in which cartoon characters get electrocuted and have pianos dropped on them. The app lets you leave a Facebook message to selected people that will only be published after you die, again at no cost. But there may and probably will be ads accompanying your message (this is also true of so, while every man may now be a king and every woman a queen, they’ll also be pitching various consumer products to their future subjects from beyond the grave.

I was surprised to see in the research I did about this brave new world of self-created eulogies that a lot of moral thinkers from orthodox rabbis to Deepak Chopra consider the process to be a beneficial one. Their reasoning is that setting your own life down in concrete terms forces you to be thoughtful about it and to evaluate it, warts and all. As tough as that may be, surely it’s preferable to being processed in a funeral factory where, funeral directors report, something in the neighbourhood of 50 per cent of the comments made at services are made by people who have actually never met the subject. In the majority of these cases, clergy is involved, who may have been briefed about the dearly departed only the night before or the morning of. I’ve attended more than one funeral where a complete stranger ends up spouting clichés about a person they never met, whose name they can barely remember and which they, in fact, too often get wrong, along with the mangled names of those the deceased has loved and by whom they are survived.

So, harkening back to my missed opportunity at the Globe, perhaps the best thing of all is to stumble on your eulogy in advance; the naked truth about how uninvolved people who don’t know you really see you. In April of 1888, the brother of a certain well-known Swedish chemist died while touring France, and a French newspaper, mistakenly thinking it was the chemist himself who had died, published a premature obituary of the more celebrated and still very much alive sibling. The obituary, titled The Merchant of Death is Dead, noted that the man who made his fortune by finding the way to kill more people than ever before in the shortest period of time, died yesterday”. The chemist, on reading this obituary, decided that this was not a legacy he wanted and proceeded to try to create a new one. As a result of this foresight into the way he would be perceived after death, Canada’s cherished writer, Alice Munro, just won the most prestigious literary award on the planet. That chemist, of course, was Alfred Nobel, who left us not just dynamite, but the Prize that bears his name.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.