Vonnegut: I hope it’s fun being dead
I find that I don’t actually know what ‘R.I.P.’ means. It’s splashed everywhere today before or after Kurt Vonnegut’s name — along with enough lazily glib trottings-out of ‘So it goes’ to dull the senses. But what do people actually mean when they say ‘Rest in Peace’, other than that it’s the appropriate part of the clunky Lego construction set that constitutes an idiolect for most people?
Vonnegut is dead. He’s not ‘resting’. He’s dead. He’s not ‘in peace’. He has ceased to exist. We really don’t seem to be able to stop ourselves clinging linguistically — even if not cognitively, though the two usually go together — to some wishfully cosy image of death. The dead are ‘sleeping’, or ‘resting’; they’ve ‘passed’, or ‘crossed over’, with the implicit or explicit suggestion that there’s something cool on the other side, so we shouldn’t feel too bad. We cling to some notion that they in some way feel better for having died.
This is all well and good — comfort objects have their uses after all, and who might need comfort more than the bereaved — but it stands out in extremely sharp contrast when the subject is someone who was as acidly dismissive of cheap sentimentality, and who clearly did not believe that death was anything other than the end. To mark someone’s death with language that they themselves would have regarded as nonsensical strikes me as at best a bit silly, and at worst unthinkingly disrespectful — in the same sense (if not degree) as conducting a religious funeral for someone openly atheistic. Cling to your own comfort as much as you like, but consider with eyes wide open how the subject would react.
The suicide last month of comedian Richard Jeni was the occasion of a bizarre juxtaposition amongst the tributes. Elayne Boosler’s piece at the Huffington Post, Remembering Comedian Richard Jeni, interpolates a number of Jeni’s lines, the first of which is:
On religious wars, “You’re basically killing each other to see who’s got the better imaginary friend.”
Now, that’s not especially funny, but it would seem to unambiguously set out Jeni’s feelings concerning theism. A post later the same day at the Huffington Post by Martin Lewis, Richard Jeni – RIP [of course], refers and links to Boosler’s ‘beautiful eulogy’, then concludes with the line:
Rest In Peace Richard… Make God laugh.
Pause a moment to take in the layers of inappropriateness there. Lewis could be saying a number of things: that he himself hopes that something Jeni found ridiculous is in fact true; that he doesn’t think that Jeni actually believed what he openly professed; that Jeni would thank him for words which contradict his own beliefs; or, perhaps most likely, that — despite explicitly linking to Boosler’s piece — espousal of theism in the face of death is such a strong default position that Jeni’s own words went in one of Lewis’s ears and out the other, and a safe triteness kicked in. It’s hard to argue that Lewis isn’t wishing Jeni well, but the method is a slap in the face.
The situation here is that religiosity in the context of death is pretty much never seen as inappropriate, even when its subject was overtly non-religious. The subtext is something like: ‘I want to wish you well, but in order to do that it’s necessary for me to assume out loud that you were mistaken.’
A few years ago, in the final months of a friend’s battle against cancer, I found myself wanting to shore up her own theism — not that it really needed much shoring up. I wasn’t in the position of being able to say that I hoped I was wrong — nor would she have believed me if I had said that. What I could (and did) say, however, was that it didn’t matter what I believed, and of course that’s exactly true. The important matter, at that time, seemed to be to respect her feelings. It was, pretty much literally, the least I could do. To soften (but not disregard) my own views like that was my business, and in my control. In contrast, hopes that Vonnegut ‘rest in peace’, and that Jeni ‘make God laugh’, seem at best to presumptuously soften their views, and, at worst, to deny them altogether. The apparent feeling that this is least inappropriate immediately after their deaths seems to me entirely backward. An atheist’s eulogy for a theist would not be considered remotely well-meaning which ended:
Rest in peace. Oh, that god you’ve believed in all these years? I hope you were wrong.