Don't Burn Me

By Reggie Hart


            Undertakers, friends of mine who operate a little embalming parlor next to an auction house, will be pleased that I have ceased to believe in cremation; the final fire; the fast burn; the dehydrated human trick; the freeze-dried instant way to the ultimate, inevitable end....

            Consumer studies have shown that in conventional business, for every customer you lose -- you lose or alienate ten more. The embalmers I know and love will be pleased because the same is also true for customers you gain; people tend to talk a fair bit and words get around: always. We do listen to our friends. Our tendency is to follow the norm when we are unsure… the lemming syndrome… just as little old ladies nod yes and yes when a door-to-door salesman has a good closing pitch.

            For years I ran around preaching, talking faster than a nervous auctioneer, pushing, prodding, extolling the evils of mummification; the useless practice of embalming.

            "A waste of pennies," I said and secretly laughed at funerals (while lining up with the other mourners), eyeing the cheesy make-up and cotton-stuffed cheeks; amassing hatred toward the manufacture of invisible thread for the dead; scoffing at zinc and copper-lined coffins, fluid replacement, bowel removal, brains sucked out through the head of a straw.

            Maybe it's the ultimate sign of an unfulfilled life --  my desire to be embalmed... preserved... sealed in a tomb of my own devising... a need to keep the ending open... perpetual hibernation... no closure... the prospect of life revisited: Tutankhamen's 20th Century World Tour.    

            As he crosses over into another millennia, an entourage of prominent specialists and famous technicians, the who's who of ancient body preservation therapists, travel the globe attending to Tut. This must make his original embalmer… and, funeral directors everywhere-- very proud! (What profession doesn't profit from return business now and then?)

            But cremation puts a halt to all this larger than life largesse... no more pickled fetus, no debates about comrade Lenin's body... is it really displayed in Red Square? And what about animal movie stars, Rin Tin Tin or Roy Roger's horse? Taxidermy so lifelike you could almost...

            Cremation is final.

            That's it.


            Dust you were and to dust you will return.


            And the obvious advantages and moth-to-flame attraction of a fast fire...     a spectacularly smelly, noxious cloud mushrooming above an immodest funeral pyre... to my twisted, selfish way of thinking, always seemed to lay in this maxim: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust... it's gonna happen... so... why delay the inevitable?

            For some, (certainly not folks like me, but some...) a mass grave-site filled with quick-lime makes about as much sense as growing row upon row of individual plots. At some point --  they love to point out -- we will run out of Flanders’s Fields --  and be overrun with celluloid poppies --   if every one of the 6 billion sentient --   & near-sentient --   planet dwellers among us demand their own hole in the ground (replete with decorator rights to the marked area above... ad infinitum). But this doesn't seem to be happening. We lose track of who's buried where within a century or less so there are vacancies pending in any graveyard you name. The Japanese have invented the high-rise mausoleum; thirty stories of ancestor's bones stacked toward the clouds. Certainly these innovations silence the westerners lament over wasted space...

                Burial at sea, perhaps as an unidentified stranger, wrapped in some foreign countries flag, weighed down with a load of clay-brick, rolled down a rough plank and cast adrift to the unmerciful onslaught of titanic depths; being consumed by the denizen's nastiest scavengers; being excreted into yellow, pus-wet-dust...

            ...thinking about it makes me feel icky; heartless.

            The cowardly-lion-side of me says "no thanks... I'll look further down the road."

            Cremation used to look good to me.

            It seemed like the answer: the great equalizer, come at last to extinguish the difference among the irreligious masses. Once the body is disintegrated, no worms may feed upon it -- and -- it is impossible to distinguish between sex or sexual preference, color or shade of eyes or hair --   tall and thin? --   or short & stout? Jew or Gentile? Master or pet?

            Humans and firewood and medals and medallions -- cardboard coffins, a handful of soil, fancy urns and the dust-bag from the church vacuum --   all look about the same after the heat of the Apocalypse has been applied for three full hours in a blast furnace: this is why I abruptly changed my resolution to be cremated.

            It was New Year's Day. The fire had died sometime during the night. A nasty wind had slid down the chimney, blowing ashes around the living room -- a dark swirl gyrating; pulsing; living and breathing its way toward my new white sofa.

            I was annoyed.

            I grabbed an old Safeway bag, the fireplace brush and the little scoop marked ASHES.

            The soot was soon cooling beside the green trash cans in the alley.            Tomorrow the truck would come. The ashes would be trucked to a special place. A place with no inventory and no year-end. No janitorial staff or volunteer clean-up crew. No boy-pharaohs or sleepy princesses, no King's taxes, no hierarchy, no class system, no snobbery, no racial prejudice --   for who can distinguish the difference between the underbelly of the landfills in Egypt and the slimy silt at the bottom of the Pacific? Dust is dust... and this is why I have doubts.

            It all seems so final.

            No chance for a last hurrah; a resurrection; an unexpected appearance in a traveling museum cooked-up by one of my remote descendants. Another chance for relatives to gawk and leer; another chance for gossip and lies, innuendo and half-truth; another chance to be loved or hated; revered or envied....

            If ancient Egyptians had performed memorial rituals like the Vikings and cremated King Tut, who would have ever heard of him?

            Would he be a prop... part of a door-to door vacuum cleaner sales pitch?    An eager young man dumping a bag of dust all over the room: " testimony to the ability of machine-X to suck up the unsightly remnants of shed skin and hair follicles... no, hey, relax Mr. Tate... this machine will take this stuff right up."

            Thankfully, King Tut is not part of a home demonstration; not dust kicked off a salesman's shoes at the edge of town. Why? Because he was saved. He was embalmed, and now he's touring the world. Embalming brings a new facet to the art of existence; it allows you to become part of a fairy tale world; a world full of glass coffins with plastic occupants... peaceful... "they're just sleeping”; waiting to be awoke by a magic cure or a scientific kiss. Silly perhaps... but to me it sounds a bit better than becoming a handful of formless dust. Where there is form, there is hope, and embalming preserves form, it brings a whole new facet to existence. Granted, the embalmed have no notion of what their fate is. King Tut doesn't know or care that he has been touring the world... or does he?


            To the man with the makeup.

                 I'm calling an embalmer when I go.





The Hammer is Grammar

By Reggie Hart

If you gave someone a hammer, a handful of nails and three pieces of wood, what would they build? Most would not build anything, due to a lack of instructions. Some may fashion any number of small structures: a rough triangular shape, a nearly straight line, a miniature altar or a rickety cross-bridge. Those more imaginative may do something innovative such as using the hammer to split the wood into smaller pieces or hack and shape the wood with the pointy nails.


But, using these sketchy materials, could a novice build a complex structure? Could he build a wall? A room? A cathedral? Of course, larger structures need more tools, more wood and more nails. Yet, even a natural born genius, could not immediately construct a flawless Cathedral or a basic housing complex, regardless of an abundance of materials.


It is doubtful that any apprentice carpenters ever built a structurally sound wall on their first attempt. Nor did they build a beautiful table, a comfortable chair or any other work rivaling an expert craftsman. Given time, and experience, some builders may stumble into some good designs and learn how to properly use the nails and the wood. But even driving a nail is not always easy. And how do we know which kind of nail suits which kind of wood? Some wood is hard, some nails are soft. Different nails and different woods produce different results. In the end, many years of experience are not enough to help the carpenter complete a beautiful house. Expertly wielding a hammer does not make one an architect capable of designing Westminster Abbey or Notre-Dame. To build a pleasant room, a functional house -or an elegant church- we need to understand models, plans and blueprints. We need to know how to examine an existing structure and dismantle it; using our imaginations to shape the pieces into new forms.


If we gave an English language novice three words (subject, verb, object), some punctuation marks and some grammar rules, could they construct a sentence? Imagine the wood is words, the nails are punctuation and the hammer is grammar. Just as we cannot expect a beginning carpenter to construct any noteworthy structure, we cannot expect a novice English speaker to instantly compose immortal lines like Shakespeare or become a brilliant public orator like Martin Luther King.


Just as a carpenter needs to apprentice under an experienced craftsman, English students need competent teachers and plenty of practice. Above all, they need good models to examine and emulate. One can never build good sentences if teachers fail to provide good examples. The Cathedrals of language: great speeches; informative essays; irreplaceable tales, fables, novels and short stories were all constructed after years of practice with careful examination and analysis of previous works. Studying the work of amateurish hacks -- and staring at sentences carved out of context -- leads to confusion and sloppy workmanship.


English teachers must help students become master builders. They must carefully provide proper instruction about the grammar hammer, the various punctuation nails and the different qualities, shapes and grains of words. Language students need to examine and then emulate existing models. They must be taught the map of a sentence, the blueprint of a paragraph, the skeletal structure of an essay and the dimensional diagrams of fiction.


Given the right tools, enough materials, ample experience and a solidly defined plan -- anyone can construct a simple dwelling.


Occasionally, some brave soul will create a Cathedral.


* Originally published in the Korean Times. 

 You’ve Got Spam

By Reggie Hart


With the holiday season looming, spammers are in seventh heaven; pushing gift merchandise more than any other product category. This “spamalanche” keeps me informed about important events or gift-giving opportunities. I cannot forget Christmas, Thanksgiving, or International Foghorn Day because the flotsam and jetsam flooding my inbox changes with the season.


The spam avalanche makes me feel like a VIP. Almost daily, I am flattered to win some murky lottery; be awarded an expensive, yet “free” prize; or be suddenly selected for a “fraudulent” degree. Whenever I feel horrendous or feel the need to quell an outburst, I quickly rummage through my junk mail for a quick-fix of medicinal, “feel-good” spam.


Spam keeps me well-versed and up to date about current events. Last year, my inbox was inundated with invitations to inspect the Paris Hilton porno tapes. At the time, I pictured an overpriced hotel in Paris; but thanks to the gaudy geyser of spam, I learned that Paris Hilton is a pseudo celebrity; now the steamy star of an American reality series. How grateful I am for the crafty spam senders who introduced me to this illustrious woman. It saved me some embarrassment when, out of the blue, the name Paris Hilton came up at the water-cooler; I was able to display my profound knowledge that she is an infamous icon and not some over-priced bed and breakfast in France.


The latest gadgets are relentlessly advertised through my inbox. It saves me investigative time as I am swamped with an up-to-the-minute mudslide of useless gizmos, pointless doodads, meaningless thingamajigs, and worthless whatnots.


Spam is an underhanded pandemic: you cannot stop it, but you can apply a prophylactic suitably dubbed a “filter.” Nevertheless, spam filters need to be constantly nursed because the sneaky spammers keep modifying their dastardly methods to bypass the blocked words. So I am now aware of innumerable spelling variations for Viagra, such as “v1agra,”  “viOgra,” or my personal favorite: “V-eye-agra.” If I tweak my spam filters up to maximum, I miss out on phony offers for “male enhancement” “pre-approved mortgages,” or “instant debt consolidation.” Being spam-free means overlooking the opportunity to be selected for “get-rich-quick” schemes or to help some fictitious Nigerian government worker who cannot smuggle his bogus gold out of the scourge ridden country.


Of course, I never actually open my spam. It necessarily joins the debris stowed away in my recycle bin. And I understand the dangers of phishing, hacking and spyware. But still, I am on cloud nine whenever I receive a letter from heaven-knows-who advertising heaven-knows-what. More spam please!


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