Tag Archive | "Michael Jackson"

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. 

Gone But Not Forgotten

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2009 was one heck of a year.  Tiger Woods got caught with his pants down, we elected our first Black (okay, half Black) President, and the unemployment rate rose to its highest in nearly three decades.  This year, we also lost a number of celebrities, some of whom passed quietly and some of whom passed not so quietly into that good night.  In remembrance, here is but a partial list, along with opinions that are purely my own.


Michael Jackson (born 1958).  As much as I hate to admit this, I remember Michael as the tiny dynamo with the great big voice, belting out hit after hit that had the whole world rockin’ out on a natural high.  In his later years, the things I remember most are his interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which the talk show queen tiptoed on eggs, and his incisive Man in the Mirror, a song that had us all looking hard into our own mirrors. 

Michael Jackson Waving

The aptly named King of Pop was an inventive performer, an undeniable talent, and undoubtedly controversial.  I believe that God broke the mold when He/She made Michael Jackson.


Farrah Fawcett (born 1947). Rising to fame as a bouncy, brainless con on Charlie’s Angel’s, the actress evolved into victim-turned-victor against an abusive husband and a violent rapist in, respectively, The Burning Bed and Extremities. 

Farah Fawcett Poster

I recall an interview with Farrah and her then-husband, Lee Majors (The Six Million Dollar Man).  Lee had taken his bride through every room of their new house, advising, “This is the kitchen; I want you to be a superb cook.  This is the living room; I want you to be a wonderful hostess.  This is the bedroom; I want you to be a consummate lover.”  To this, Farrah had quipped, “Pick one,” thereby cluing us all into the fact that she was nobody’s dimwitted Angel.


Dom DeLuise (born 1943).  A warm and genuinely funny comic who never failed to crack up my entire family every time he graced the small screen.  Dom was also an actor, a film producer, and a dear, demonstrative friend to fellow actor Burt Reynolds. 

Dom Deluise

Years ago, I walked into Fortunoff’s in the Woodbridge Mall and did a double take.  There was Dom DeLuise, cooking up a dish for the store’s patrons in the cookware department, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him.


Socks the Cat (born 1989) and Gidget, the Taco Bell Chihuahua (born 1994).   I admit to mourning Socks more than little Gidget. 

Socks the cat

Gidget Taco Bell Dog

In addition to not being a fan of fast food, I associate Socks with better economic times (the famous kitty was White House mate to former President Bill Clinton).


Les Paul (born 1915).  As a music lover, I am supremely grateful to Les.  Contrary to popular belief, the musician-songwriter did not invent the electric guitar.  Rather, he brought it to the forefront of modern music, thereby giving rock n’ roll its kick-start. 

Les Paul

Les also pioneered the practice of overdubbing in the recording studio, and the first voice he overdubbed was that of his wife.  I had the privilege of hearing a live interview with Les, when music was still good, through the best rock station New York City has ever boasted: WNEW-FM.


Ted Kennedy (born 1932).  It must be difficult to follow in your family’s footsteps when your brother is the President of the United States and your other brother, the U.S. Attorney General.  But I believe that Ted Kennedy tried, particularly later in life. 

Ted Kennedy

Memory is what it is, and I vividly recall news coverage of the tragic incident at Chappaquiddick.  I also remember Ted’s face, deeply pained and steeled in courage, as he prepared to identify the body of his nephew “John-John,” in order to spare John’s sister Caroline that ordeal.


Patrick Swayze (born 1952).  I only caught one of Patrick’s films, Ghost (yes, I never saw Dirty Dancing).  Now that he is gone, I wish I had followed the actor-dancer more closely. 

Patrick Swayze

Recently, I’d read an excerpt from his autobiography and his words smacked of truth.  He seemed like a decent, humble, hard-working man and a loving husband and son: the kind of guy the world could use a lot more of.


Walter Cronkite (born 1916). The iconographic anchorman of the CBS Evening News who came into our living rooms for 19 years earned the oft-quoted title of “the most trusted man in America” via an opinion poll. 

Walter Cronkite

He was also a good friend to comic and actor Robin Williams, who closed a live performance earlier this year with a joke dedicated to Walter’s sense of humor.  And no, I cannot repeat that joke here.


Paul Harvey Aurandt (born 1918).  Best known as Paul Harvey, the ABC radio broadcaster brought us news and commentary as well as his famous monologue, The Rest of the Story. 

Paul Harvey

If you were not among Paul’s 24 million listeners, his latter program kept audiences on the edge of their seats with true tales. Only at the very end of the stories would he reveal names of the renowned heroes, heroines, and villains.


Mary Travers (born 1936).  As one third of Peter, Paul, and Mary, Ms. Travers was a singer-songwriter prominent, in the early ’60’s, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. 

Mary Travers

With her band mates, she crafted and performed timeless hits such as Puff, the Magic Dragon, and covered fellow Villager Bob Dylan’s It’s All Right, Don’t Think Twice and Blowin’ in the Wind.  It was the latter cover that put Dylan on the musical map and served as Sam Cook’s impetus to write the haunting and heartbreaking A Change is Gonna Come.

The Road to Immortality

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Road to Immortality

It seems that nearly everyone not sequestered in a Tibetan monastery is talking about Michael Jackson’s passing; all forms of media have exploded with coverage.  While countless fans, both die-hard and casual, seem ready to just let the King of Pop rest in peace, others wish to forget this inarguably talented and arguably strange American icon entirely.   The rest of the world is engrossed in paying their respects and immortalizing The Gloved One beyond his musical legacy.  Those overcome with “Michael Jackson Fever” are unwilling to relinquish him, even at this stage.  They so loved the music man that some feel there is still much more to learn about his life, including his secrets and idiosyncrasies.


One wonders what Michael would have to say about all of this?  This extensive and perhaps excessive attention may be considered the ultimate achievement for people who long to see the memory of their lives and contributions continue.  As the old adage says “to keep your memory alive, you have to live in peoples’ hearts.”  For that to happen, there must be quite a lot of talking and remembering going on, and Michael’s fans are certainly giving him that.   In going to great lengths to honor him, they registered online in massive numbers for the slimmest of hopes of being chosen to attend his memorial service and gather en mass to pay him homage.


Personally, I think that Michael would be very pleased indeed, as most of us wish to make our mark upon this world and receive recognition for that upon our passing.   We would like to know that our lives have had some worth here on this Earth.  Even those of us who do not live as spectacularly and as publicly as Michael Jackson still strive to find ways to make an indelible impression as we journey through life.


That is why having children is so important for many people; offspring preserve our human lineage.  Male-dominated cultures pray for sons in their procreation, as males are the ones who, literally, carry on the family name.  Many families purchase the precious commodity of land in order to pass it down to their future generations for many years to come.


As we move through life, we do many simple things, as well, in order to be remembered after we are gone from this life.  Numerous people record births, deaths, and marriages in family Bibles that become cherished heirlooms down through the generations of their clans.  Photographs are taken so that our images remain embedded in friends’ and families’ memories (absence makes the heart grow fonder and the memory fuzzier).  Because the closest that most of us will ever get to achieving media coverage are the special events in our lives, we ensure that our marriages and other significant events are published in local newspapers.  Some of us find the potential for immortality in the worthy causes to which we volunteer our time and/or resources.  Others of us attempt to ensure we will be remembered via inscriptions on headstones, monuments, and other memorial markers.


For those blessed with more creative talents, as Michael Jackson most certainly was, it is easier to leave your mark on this world.  Musicians, artists, sports heroes, actors, published authors, and famous architects all leave behind something of significance.  If those contributions are deeply profound as in, for example, the sculptures of Michelangelo, the brave efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, or the music of Mozart, the contributors live on through the centuries, lifting the hearts, opening the minds of others, serving as role models, and in some cases, birthing broad-sweeping and lasting social change.


Of course, for those of us who are forever looking for ways to be remembered and believe in reincarnation, we may still have another chance — or chances!  The theory of our souls being reborn into new bodies tells us that we correct past mistakes and have chances at leaving something of true value behind us.  And so, if you are of like mind and have experienced regrets and failings in this lifetime, there’s always the next…and the next…and the next … 

Michael Jackson and the Cult of Personality

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Michael Jackson

Thursday evening, I learned of the passing of Michael Jackson, dubbed by Elizabeth Taylor as the “King of Pop.”  And, since the passing of anyone in the public consciousness arouses memories of our own pasts and reminds each of us of his/her own mortality, I have to admit a passing interest in the story.  Yet, I do not believe that the media frenzy surrounding the story of Michael’s death is either justified or respectful.


Perhaps, it is simply a fact of modern American culture that the death of an entertainment icon supercedes news of the electoral turmoil in Iran, the growing nuclear threat posed by North Korea, the ongoing armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the continuing decay of the American economy and way of life.  Or perhaps, it is an escape from those harsh realities.  Regardless of its cultural roots, the death of a relatively youthful celebrity attempting to resurrect his career and image is too compelling a tale not to attract continuous coverage in our current ratings-driven, 24-hour per day cable news culture.


Michael Jackson’s life and career has been a study in contrasts.  Abused as a child by his father, Jackson has been a fixture in the public eye for almost four decades.  Gaining notoriety as a member of The Jackson 5 with brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon, Michael transitioned into a solo career in the early 1970’s.  With the 1982 release of “Thriller,” the world’s best selling recording of all time, his career peaked.


Jackson followed “Thriller” with two more modest commercial successes, “Bad” released in 1987 and “Dangerous” in 1991.  In 1988, he purchased land in California and erected “Neverland Ranch,” a 2,700 acre estate with Ferris wheels, a menagerie, and a movie theater.  While ostentatious residences are not unusual for the fabulously wealthy and, by the late 1980’s, Jackson was very wealthy indeed, “Neverland” was just an early indication of the unusual twists yet to come in a life that was surely far less than ordinary.


In the mid-80’s, Jackson was diagnosed with vitiligo, a dermatologic condition causing depigmentation in patches of skin.  That condition, along with lupus caused him to become sensitive to light.  In treating these conditions, his skin tone lightened and, with the application of makeup to even out the tone, gave him an almost ghostly pallor.  Add facial changes engendered by multiple cosmetic surgeries, and Jackson took on the appearance of an alien.


His appearance, however, was but one part of his peculiar persona.  Reclusive and almost childlike, Jackson behaved in public in a manner that can best be characterized as bizarre.  And, he appears not only to have enjoyed but also cultivated this image by disseminating fabricated information including that he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and that he had purchased the bones of Joseph Merrick, the famed “Elephant Man.”


Public image aside, Jackson’s private life appears to have been even stranger.  He invited young children to sleepovers with him at “Neverland” and shared a bed with some of them.  The 1993 charges of child abuse stemming from one incident were dropped for lack of evidence, but Jackson did pay a significant sum of money to the family of the boy involved.  In 2005, he was tried and acquitted of further sexual abuse allegations.  At one point, his older sister La Toya publicly declared him a “pedophile,” but later recanted her statement.


As a result of these allegations, Jackson’s image was tarnished and his fortune was lost.  At the time of his death, he was deeply in debt, although from outward appearances still living a lavish lifestyle.


Like Heath Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith, it appears that prescription drugs were at least a contributing factor in his death.  Also as in the cases of Ledger and Smith, Michael’s death means big ratings for the cable news networks covering the story to the exclusion of other major world events.


Whether one views Michael’s life favorably or with disdain, considers him a great entertainer or a pedophile, one must concede that his life was anything but ordinary.  But, does living an unorthodox life make its end worthy of the rapt attention of a nation and much of the world?  Or, is the reason for such attention symptomatic of the meaninglessness that many feel in their own lives?


It is, in my opinion, an unfortunate sign of our times that many people lead lives of so little significance and meaning that they seek validation through vicarious experiences.  Never have fans of sports teams been more fanatical; never supporters of political causes and candidates more vitriolic.  Of course, vicarious living is a two-sided coin with some cheering success and others failure.  And so, while some will mourn Michael Jackson’s passing, others will glory in his demise, seeing in it some type of cosmic justice.


Still others will consider his story as just that – a source of entertainment and amusement.  Some will analyze the situation ad nauseam, spinning theories like so many strands in a spider’s web.  Some, like the citizens of ancient Rome at the Coliseum or the patrons of “freak shows” common in the U.S. from the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries, will delight in his misfortune.


While curiosity is a normal part of the human experience, obsession is not.  And, for those obsessed with the unfortunate death of Michael Jackson and the cult of personality in the public media, perhaps the time has come to examine the reason for such obsession.  Michael is gone, but each of us remaining has an opportunity to find or expand the meaning and significance of our own lives.  Perhaps, we should seize the opportunity.

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