One of the great things about facing mortality square on is that once you do, bones and skulls and whatnot no longer seem morbid. If you have a morbid mind, you see death everywhere you look, and it freaks you out. If you don't, you still see death everywhere (because it is everywhere) but it's interesting.
Teenagers, being generally distant from their expiration date, typically love images of death. I was so into The Tibetan Book of the Dead when I was in my teens. It was a good thing, since I've wound up spending time with dying people, and I hope that the fact that I didn't mind was a comfort to them. Like art, death can get messy, but there it is - something we all must "go through".
When I was working on The Stone Man, I arrived on the train in Rome early one morning, found something to eat and sat down on a park bench with two Irish girls and struck up a conversation. One was planning to become a writer. I asked her if she read Yeats and she said she loathed him. So then, because I was working with elemental images, I asked the two girls if they could choose the manner of their death by the 4 elements of earth, water, air, or fire, which would they choose? Before they could answer, a kindof rough looking young guy who was laying on the grass nearby, trying to decide, I think, whether to rob us or not, broke into the conversation abruptly and said, loudly, "You've got it all wrong - there's just three ways to go man; beg, steal, or die." Not to be put off track by thuggishness when I'm researching, I corrected him and repeated, "No, I said IF you COULD CHOOSE to die either by earth, water, air, or fire, which ONE of THOSE would you choose. Eh?" He spit and walked off - apparently we weren't worth killing.
I've always thought water, because I love it - but lately I'll admit the myth of Empedocles has a certain charm. Perhaps the boom of a sailboat might swing round handily and knock me, unconscious, into the Prussian blue depths of the Mediterranean, just after I swallowed a gulp of champagne and a bite of good bread, or a fuzzy peach... (oh, last meals - what a planning challenge.) only to be eaten in turn by interesting types of local fish, returning to haunt a bouillabase. Is that the saffron?, someone would ask, and I, or my ectoplasm rather, would smirk.
In Paris, I spent a day haunting the Pere Lachaise Cemetary. It is walled, with a guard booth. The guards have, or did have, when I was there, a 2 franc mimeographed map, illustrated, apparently also by the guards, showing where, exactly, amongst the 95,000 cramed together tilting sepulchers, obelisks, vaults, tombs, stones, statues, arrayed on a bewildering tangled maze of paths under perfectly overhanging overgrown trees, the famous people are buried. This is the only kind of paparazzi worth doing, and the vulgarity of flash bulbs impresses no one here - a flash of light, ha. - I brought my sketchbook and a piece of charcoal to make tombstone rubbings.
The first amazing stone was Chopin's. To envision it, you should conjure in your mind the sound of his piano. He is composing "The Funeral March" - one of the few really good ones. Doom doom do doom, doom do doom, do doom. do doom. Laying on his grave is a small fresh bouquet of violets, the scented kind. George Sand, wearing pants and smoking a cigar, took time from her writing to arrange for one of these to be placed on her lover's grave every day, for perpetuity. Now that's a gesture.
You know you're getting near Jim Morrison's grave 30 yards before you find it. His fans have covered every grave in the area with countless layers of messages to him. "Long live the Lizard King" "I'll love you for eternity Jim." etc etc. As you draw nearer the messages become smaller and more crowded. His tomb, even the sculpture of his head, which either a fan or music lover knocked the nose off of, is covered with words. I was annoyed that the letters on his tombstone were so large that it took an entire page just to do "J" and "M" - which was plenty for him. He's only buried there because he happened to die in a bathtub nearby.
Edith Piaf! Now she could sing. I idealize her, not just for her voice, but because she and her sister made a pact, when they were orphans singing for centimes in the rough streets of the city, that they would not go to sleep until together they spent every coin, and even after The Little Sparrow became famous, and was paid thousands of francs to sing, she and her sister spent every bit before they fell asleep. Starting each new day with nothing. Maybe it's just a story, but someone who has a story like that told about them deserves to have their tombstone rubbed. "Ma vie en rose" indeed!
For Proust, one tastes a spectral madeleine which will "invade the senses with exquisite pleasure". I'd recommend picking up a bag of them to munch inbetween rubbings - at Lerch, 4 Rue Cardinal-Lemoine.
Gertrude Stein is in Large Letters on the front of that tombstone; Alice B. Toklas is in small letters on the back.
Oscar Wilde has a magnificent statue, by Jacob Epstein, of a faintly assyrian-looking winged man-headed sphinx-bull. Someone, not a fan, but perhaps a misguided wit, has knocked the couilles off. The epitaph is touching, understandable, but prematurely final:
"And alien tears will fill for him pity's long broken urn, for his mourners will be outcast men, and outcasts always mourn."
Someone gave me a little pair of surgical scissors and for about a week I had the ability to cut paper with them like nobody's business. I made a set of small black papercuts and wrote poems to go with them. I was inspired by the great Mexican engraver, Posada, and by the cut paper skeletons made to hang as garlands for the Day of the Dead. After a week the ability vanished. To finish the book, I cut up the illustrated mimeographed map, and the tombstone rubbings, and sealed them with Cebah's iron between sheets of waxed paper, the way that crafty people used to try to preserve autumn leaves or 4 leaf clovers. Ah vanitas! Then papercuts, poems, maps to the dead, and rubbings all were assembled into a book, really the best one I've ever made, held between two panes of scratched up (distressed, as it's called in the antique business) pieces of plexiglass, and bound at the sides with two bone clappers, in case you want to do a song and dance routine with it.
Unfortunately, desperate circumstances drove me to take the book apart and sell the individual papercuts.
In the Dutton family cemetary, underneath an ancient cedar tree, whose roots know a good source when they find them, there's a row of modest stones that say Daniel Dutton (great grand) Daniel Dutton (grand) Daniel Dutton (uncle) then some grassy space. I made a rubbing of one of those too. With it I included a tiny contact photo that my friend William made.
It was the first photo he made of me, the first of many artistic collaborations, and documentation that other artists only wish they had. We didn't know each other very well then, but I knew he did good work and I needed a photographer fast. And he'd said that he would like to take a picture of me, so....
I called him and told him that I had an idea for a photo. Oh good. That I'd gone to our family cemetary and discovered the most amazing thing, an incipient fairy ring of dark grass, showing were the mushrooms were getting ready to burst through, and on grass polka-dotted all over with yellow dandelions, my state flower. Great. So could he get a step ladder and meet me there? Sure! And there's just one thing - oh? - I want to do it naked. There was a protracted silence on the line. But the perfect photo-epitaph got made. You never know when that sail boat boom is going to swing round.
PS. William later made a fabulous webpage of Letters from Death