Tag Archive | "Bela Lugosi"

The Last Stop on Your Earthly Ride

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Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m the compassionate, slightly ghoulish son who inherited his father’s business in the hit series Six Feet Under.  Let’s pretend also, that the cosmos, or perhaps your doctor, has tipped you off to the fact that you aren’t long for this world.  Gently, but with a salesman’s deft touch, I — the young undertaker — inquire, “So, what kind of send-off do you prefer?”  Startled, you blink and stammer, “S-send off?  I’m here to discuss plans for my funeral!”  I then give you my best mortician’s smile, nod in total agreement, and haul out a thick, 4/color catalog full of options.

If this scenario makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone.  Most of us cringe at the thought of facing our own demise, including how our remains will spend the rest of eternity.

My personal preference is to be cremated.  It’s quick, the going rate is more than 10 times cheaper than interment, and I like the idea of going out in a blaze of glory.  Another woman I know also prefers cremation.  She is an organ donor and hopes that there won’t be much left of her body when she leaves this Earth, so that people desperate for organs will be given a new lease on life.  She figures that since there will be so little to bury, she would like, as she’s told her family repeatedly, “to be crisped like an order of French fries.” She claims that she will come back to haunt them if her wishes are not honored!

Yet, others of my acquaintance find the thought of cremation appalling.  They rail that cremation leaves our loved ones with nothing: no headstone upon which to place flowers, no gravesite at which to mourn.   This is not an unusual perspective, given the fact that funerals are not for the dead, who can see and feel nothing, or so says the Bible (“The dead…are conscious of nothing, at all” states Ecclesiastes 9:5).  While this is a strange perspective, given the fact that the Christian faith is built upon the concept of eternal life, wakes and funerals are really designed to comfort the living.  They provide a formal, designated period of mourning before the deceased is laid to rest in the ground or placed into that great log flume going up, as Norman Greenbaum sang, “To the spirit in the sky.”

Traditional funerals, however, are extremely costly.  The current average cost for a modest wake — including embalming, the casket, the plot, and the actual burial process — is $10-$12,000.  This is a terrible financial burden for the family to bear, unless the deceased proactively purchased and paid the premiums upon an insurance policy specifically meant to foot the bill for his or her burial.  Cremation, on the other hand, goes for approximately $700-$800, including the cost of an average urn.

Burials also carry hidden costs, including the impact upon our environment.  The cheapest, and therefore the majority, of caskets have historically been made of wood, which means that a lot of trees go to their Maker along with the human dead.  In addition, the removal of trees from the land increases the threat of flooding during storms, as trees’ roots help to absorb rainwater.  The metal caskets in vogue today, while they destroy no trees, last much longer than their natural counterparts and create their own disposal and recycling problems in the future (since most funeral plots are really only rented for a period of time – usually 99 years).

Cremation, on the other hand, may hike up the air pollution level.  But considering how the research findings and warnings of former Vice President Gore and his college professor have been ignored and even discredited, nobody’s really going to give a rat’s hind end about a tad more pollution, particularly if cremation is its source.  What’s the alternative?  Taxidermy?  I think there are laws against that, or at least, I hope they are!  Cryogenic freeze?  Not all of us are rich as Michael Jackson was, to afford such an option (nor as idealistic, to believe that someone in the future will actually care enough to defrost us).

To mitigate the effects upon the environment, some so-called tree huggers are opting for cardboard caskets.  But this still requires the removal of trees from our landscape … unless one is willing to trust recycled paperboard, which as every American consumer knows, is flimsy.  I’d hate to be toted to the graveyard in a cardboard box on a rainy day.  From an environmental perspective, cremation is more desirable.  All one has to do is leave instructions for one’s ashes to be placed within, say, an empty two-liter bottle of Pepsi® or Tide®.  Recycled, indeed!!!

Another disadvantage of a traditional burial is … how shall I put this delicately, since I’m no tender funeral director in real life?  I guess there’s no delicate way to put it.   Another disadvantage to a traditional burial is that you never do know with whom you may wind up spending eternity.   As the population continues to boom and greedy real estate moguls continue to gobble up the land, space for occupied caskets has become a premium.

London, England has already adapted its famous double-decker bus design for its overcrowded cemeteries.  The British are now burying their dead two deep, one atop the other, as a space-saving strategy.  Here in New Jersey, the fourth smallest and most densely populated State in the Union, we’ve begun to do the same.  And New York, which is no slouch in the population department, is following suite.  I don’t know about you, but if there has to be a strange man atop me, I want him young, good looking, and alive!!!

Traditional funerals also tax the families emotionally, as decisions must be made as to what to place inside the coffin before it is lowered forever into its grave.   The practice of placing items into a sarcophagus initiated in ancient Egypt, with a people who understood fully that human beings spend a lot more time dead than alive.   Into those caskets of old were placed, among other things, baskets of food for sustenance in the afterlife.  Nowadays, I’ve seen a full gamut of merchandise from teddy bears to cigarettes to football jerseys tucked in beside the deceased, making me wonder sometimes if these were wakes or the aisles of Wal-Mart.  The trouble with this practice, however, is that loved ones left do not get to keep and savor those cherished mementos that so remind them of those who have passed on.

In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the dead were compelled to traverse the River Styx in order to reach the underworld.  In those cultures, coins were placed over the eyes of the dead as a sort of toll: a bribe to the Stygian boatman to ferry his cargo safely across the river.

In this economy, nobody’s willing to part with their hard-earned cash, even for their dead.  But down through the ages, people have inserted some interesting things into coffins.  Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, said fare-de-well with his favorite pipe and tobacco, Wild Bill Hickock took his Sharpe® rifle, and for whatever reason, Rudolph Valentino had a slave bracelet with him.  Elvis Presley was buried with a diamond ring and Andy Warhol’s casket held a bottle of Estee Lauder® perfume.  Rosary beads given to her by Mother Teresa accompanied Princess Diana to her eternal rest.  A California socialite, Sandra Illene West, took along her 1965 Ferrari.  I’m not sure if car itself served as the casket, but this lady obviously went out in style.

Humphrey Bogart had a small gold whistle from his wife, Lauren Bacall, whom he’d met on the set of the 1944 film, To Have and to Have Not.   The whistle was a reference to Lauren’s famous sultry line to Bogie, “If you need anything, just whistle.”

The Italian actor, Bela Lugosi, who never escaped the stereotype of Dracula, was buried with the cape of the character that had made him famous.  I wonder how many people Bela freaked out when he did that!  Frank Sinatra, in keeping with his Rat Pack persona, was buried with a flask of Jack Daniels®.   Although the friend I’d mentioned earlier, the lady who wishes to be cremated, never cared much for Sinatra or his music, she agrees with him about the booze.

One woman I know, proudly of Italian heritage, desires, upon her passing, nothing less than a full-blown Irish wake.  Long ago, she left her best friend a list of the musical selections she would like played at both the wake and the Mass she’s sure her survivors will insist upon.  The song played in church will be U2’s elegant and moving One Tree Hill: an epitaph that Bono wrote for a young friend of the band tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.  But the church ceremony, there will be a rousing party with punk rock, hard rock, the blues, “trad” Irish music, and some reggae and salsa tossed just to keep things interesting.

This woman wants her friends and surviving family members to toast her life, not mourn it — with wine, beer, and cocktails.  She wants them to trade stories about her, funny and poignant stories; she does not wish to see them weeping as she looks down upon them enjoying their lasagna!  Most of all, she wants them to realize the brevity of life as well as the fact that one must seek joy on this Earth if one is be truly alive and not, well, the walking dead.

I sincerely hope that family members who bury their loved ones underground or in mausoleums take comfort in the knowledge that there is a physical place they can visit to remember and honor their dead.  As for me, I feel that there is nothing to honor below the ground; the minute that we close our eyes in this life, we open them again in the presence of God (and hopefully not that guy with the horns and pitchfork).  The only things we leave behind “down here” are not things at all.  They are the lives that we have touched, the inventions or sacrifices that have benefitted others, and the charities and other good causes that we have supported; in other words, the love we have given freely from our hearts to those who share our bloodlines and to those who do not.  While our souls continue in the afterlife, these are the things that truly commemorate our spirits and serve as inspiration for others after we have drawn our last breaths. 

How About a Little Bite? (The Lure of the Vampire)

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Engendering terror and pathos, earthiness and mysticism, the mythical vampire has long held the fascination of readers, TV viewers, and film buffs of all ages.  Our society so embraces the vampire that we continue to promote his evolution and the lore that surrounds him.   Inarguably, Bela Lugosi’s riveting portrayal in the 1931 film Dracula sparked the public’s  now-rabid interest in the Count of Darkness.  This production was the first film to give the unholy one a voice.  While the earlier German film Nosferatu may have been more horrifying, it was a silent movie.  Any one who has read Bram Stoker’s Dracula understands that the Count demands a voice as well as a grudging respect.


Painted by Stoker, a most compelling storyteller, Dracula (when he wasn’t nibbling necks) was a rather charismatic character.  He had to be, in order to attract the ladies such as the hapless Mina Harker and his servant-in-blood, Renfield, the latter of which serves as a rather interesting literary device providing insight into the Count’s perspective.  As played by Bela Lugosi, Dracula was the dark, mysterious, debonair figure infiltrating himself into and ultimately preying upon Victorian Britain’s high society.


In the late 1970’s, the handsome, classically trained actor Frank Langella assumed the role on the big screen, claiming actress Kate Nelligan as the bride he eventually lost.  Married to Langella’s fine portrayal, the production illustrated the more romantic and sympathetic side of the vampire as drawn by Stoker.  Imagine a man who despises himself, a man cursed to remain immortal.  Doomed to a life of isolation, he is forever denied true love unless he transforms a human woman into an undead serial killer like himself.


And this, I believe, is the crux of our enduring allure with vampires.  In Dracula we see aspects of ourselves that are ugly and base, aspects that we cannot admire.  And yet, as Dracula continues to seek his true love and drink his daily sustenance, leaving bodies in his wake, we see our own struggle for survival, the wreckage that we leave behind, and the damage we do to others — and the wounds that they inflict upon ourselves — all in the name of love.  This endless push-pull exercise is, in essence, the human condition.  And until our species learns to change its stripes, the enticement of the vampire will remain lasting and universal. 


But if the vampire is indeed a myth, here’s a frightening thought: most legends have their basis in reality.  Judas Iscariot initiated the legend.  Having sold his friend Jesus Christ up the river for a few silver coins, he was cursed to wander the earth for all time, taking no respite in the arms of true clinical death.  As the legend of the vampire evolved, taking liberties with Stoker’s original being, the fundamental manifestations remained essentially the same.  Vampires must avoid sunlight, for the sun (a symbol of God and the gods) destroys them.  Thus cursed, they usually while away the daylight hours in the comfort of their coffins; in Stoker’s tale, that coffin had to lay upon soil dug from Dracula’s homeland of Transylvania.  Most vampires have unnaturally white complexions that only turn rosy upon draining a victim’s blood; most have longer than fashionable fingernails.  And all, when on the hunt, possess eyes as red and glowing as Satan’s barbeque: orbs that draw victims in as if hypnotized.


If the vampire did have its foundation in truth, could this truth be linked back to burial customs of old, in days when clinical knowledge was flimsy compared to today’s medical science?  Tales of comatose people being buried alive and later waking up in horror were, unfortunately, all too true.  The lucky few clawed their way back up through the earth to emerge wild-eyed and bloodied in the process.  Bodies that were not embalmed, as they are today, were subject to the release of gases as they decomposed, causing the cadavers to actually shift about in their caskets and emit sounds that must have scared the stuffing out of mourners and cemetery workers.   Unscrupulous gravediggers may have added to the legend.  In their thirst for knowledge, doctors and medical students never seemed to have enough bodies to dissect.  They capitalized upon the greed of those who had ready access to dead bodies and who would gladly dig up corpses for a fee. 


Although vampires have been compared to leeches, which suck the blood of other creatures in order to survive, a vampire’s needs are both physical and psychological — according to the world created by Bram Stoker.  Overpowered by Dracula, Renfield was nonetheless horrified and reluctant to do the Count’s bidding of procuring victims upon which Dracula could feed.  Renfield embodied the feelings most of us have toward vampires; the act that keeps them alive is grotesque and repugnant to us.  Like a salesman in pursuit of a much-coveted account, Stoker’s vampire was thus beholden to market his lifestyle to the recalcitrant Renfield.


Enrapt with Dracula’s poetic explanations of how the blood of others would fortify his servant, making him stronger and more energetic (read: more virile), Renfield, thus baited, began his descent into darkness by catching and eating flies. For this, he was institutionalized, but even the loony bin did not deter him in his quest.  He graduated to dining on spiders, and eventually, drank the blood of higher life forms best left unsaid here.  After each progressive kill, Renfield was convinced — via his master and his own need for power — that he was indeed a better man!


Modern vampires often lack the patience and cunning of the original Count.  Their methods include locating willing donors (there’s a sucker born ever minute ☺) and robbing blood banks of their wares.   While we’re on the subject of choices, the undead do not necessarily have to kill their victims; witness the unfortunate Renfield, until he’d betrayed Dracula.  If a vampire exerts a little self-control, the victim will live, albeit rather miserably.  But if the vampire drinks too deeply from the well, he creates others of his kind, others confronting the same problems.  How easy is it, after all, to maintain the lifestyle of a vampire?


One must address financial issues, primarily the need to generate an income.  One cannot live on blood alone, as demonstrated in Stoker’s novel.  Carfax Abbey, which became Dracula’s lair, was in serious need of a major renovation, including a complete retrofit of its electrical system, but the Count lacked the funds.  Even sunscreen with an SPF of 80 is useless against that great big ball of fire in the sky.  And aging is another problem in reverse of what mere mortals experience.  How does one explain a face and body that never ages?  If one cites Oscar Wilde’s infamous painting in the attic (The Portrait of Dorian Gray), then the vampire will have clued John Q. Public into the fact that he is in league with the Devil.


On the plus side, vampires are seemingly invincible.  They have iron wills, bodies that can withstand speeding bullets, and an endless source of nourishment/empowerment.   They can change their human appearance into that a wolf, which is handy when hunting large prey, or that of a bat for an easy getaway.  Although this last quick-change act can sour quickly if one is momentarily trapped in a tenement, as was the vampire played by George Hamilton in the comedy film, Love at First Bite.


And let us not forget the question of sex.  Vampires rarely have trouble getting dates.  They are usually quite good looking, sophisticated, educated, dressed to the nines, and of course, ooze that oh so appealing dangerous edge.  Good girls have always been drawn to bad boys, and some things never change.


Advantages and disadvantages aside, one thing is evident: vampires are here to stay. The attraction that began with Stoker’s novel and heightened as a resultant of 1931 film and its spin-offs carried well into the 1960’s and ’70’s with Dark Shadows, a brooding soap opera that exploded into a cult following, sit-coms such as The Addams Family and The Munsters, and a comic book series called Vampirella.   Horror meister Stephen King penned the popular Salem’s Lot, which became a movie.  Author Anne Rice also followed in Stoker’s footsteps.  Her best-selling Interview with the Vampire spawned subsequent novels and a film starring Tom Cruise as the bloodsucker Lestat.


Stephanie Meyer’s literary creations (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn) have been translated into films; New Moon is due to premier shortly.  On the small screen, HBO currently enjoys a runaway hit with True Blood.  Based upon the writings of Charlaine Harris, the program features a mind-reading waitress who gets caught up with vampires, including Eric Northman. Played to perfection by the blond, 6’4″ hunk Alexander Skarsgard, the actor was voted several times over the sexiest man in Sweden. 


If you’d don’t agree that these legendary creatures are sexy, if the thought of them makes your flesh creep, follow this simple advice.  A braid of garlic hung on doorways and draped at windows will keep the undead from disturbing your domicile.  If you really want to play it safe, hang the garlic around your neck (should you do so, we take no responsibility for the state of your love life).  Some believe that sprinkling large amounts of mustard seeds on your roof will deter a vampire, as he is constrained to count every last one before passing.  Move by a stream or a river and you’re doubly safe, as vampires cannot cross running water.  A silver cross or crucifix will also keep them at bay and they detest mirrors because, well, mirrors are dead give always.  A vampire, you see, casts no reflection.


Should worse come to worse, have that sharpened stake at the ready, aim straight for the creature’s heart, and whack it as hard as you’d wished you’d walloped the blood sucking  bankers who made off recently with $710 billion in taxpayer funds.  To truly sink the nails into a vampire’s coffin, cut off his head and bury it far from the rest of his body.  Or just take him down to Mexico and lure him onto the beach; the sun will do all the dirty work for you!


If you’ve only given vampires a passing fancy and this article has peaked your interest, you now have enough novels, films, and TV shows to entertain what may turn out to be a bit of an obsession.  I recommend that you enjoy all media as it was designed to be: in the dark.  Just be sure to keep those garlic cloves handy! 

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