An industry of sorts has grown up around the memory of David Foster Wallace. There are the books of interviews, of B-side essays, the (rather dull) biography, the (repugnant and cloying) blank-page art book version of his Kenyon College commencement speech, the hundreds of thousands of views of his Youtube interviews, the accompanying comment threads.
Of course, I'm guilty of having consumed a great deal of it. As for so many of my generation, he has become transfigured as Saint David of Illinois, the secular beacon for the mopey and literary, someone we can project our angst and desire for sincerity onto, a figure-- as with all secular saints-- we can use to embody our perceptions of certain elements of ourselves.
However, he is by no means alone. All of us, anyone who makes some kind of impact on the world through having children, through art, etc., has to face the reality that, ultimately, other people will invest our death and a full-scope view of our life as a metaphor, and for all intents and purposes, use our corpses as puppets for their own egos.
A nightmare: from above, I see an open-casket funeral. I cannot see a face on the body, but I'm certain that it's me, embalmed and half-transformed into plastic, my body cavity stuffed with cotton, fluids replaced with formaldehyde and methanol, a doll version of myself. Some people look sad, most look bored. People who brought their kids who'd rather be at home playing Xbox.
Of course, there are also the more modern traditions. The modern funeral is supposed to be about life and the all-pervasive word “dignity,” not about death per se, I'm told, which strikes me as truly gruesome. In logical extension of the Protestant work ethic, my countrymen have turned catharsis into productivity.
The violation of one's own body and memory are, for oneself, completely hypothetical circumstances. By definition, you will never consciously experience either. And yet they produce this deep-seated primal nausea, something ancient and atavistic.
Much is made of the human desire for immortality, and this feeling seems to be a sort of variation on that. The notion of immortality, exclusively through the terms of others, seems like a long-term postmortem slavery. So we try, in life, to align how we will be remembered with the value systems we hold dear, whether that's through religious ritual, organ donation, or leaving one's assets to beloved children or worthy charities or what have you.
But why should I expect anything more from death than I have in life? It's not like I live my life on my terms and mine alone, or that anyone does. If none of us have a monopoly on how we are perceived in our lives-- try as we might-- why can we expect the same in death?
Alternatively, we can take the opposite route, to try to be forgotten-- common courtesy in certain Amazonian societies which forbid even saying the names of the dead, but harder in the contemporary Western world. A less extreme example is found in the funeral practice of Mongolian lamas, who, in a final act of compassion, have their corpses dragged to mountaintops to feed the birds of the steppe.
All of this being said, death is by its very nature an abstraction, something we can come close to, but never touch until the absolute moment. Try as we might, we can never control it-- even suicides rarely go as planned. And the people who have the healthiest relationships to death probably recognize this, whether consciously or not, and accept its abstract nature.
And so my line of analysis leaves me back where I started, with a void. Which, in turn, is all I can ask for. An emptiness that I have to learn to be comfortable with.