Death Be Not Loud


By Leonard Fein

Published July 16, 2004, issue of July 16, 2004.
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Rest easy, help is on the way. It comes to us via a dazzling invention by Robert Barrows, of Burlingame, Calif., as reported the other day by Reuters. While others engage, or fail to engage, in leaps of faith, Barrows is concerned with bridging the gap of death. Accordingly, he proposes a talking tombstone, wherein will be installed a computer with a microchip memory connected to a flat-touch screen on the face of said tombstone. The idea is that as one prepares to meet one’s Maker, one also should prepare to meet one’s camcorder; the last will and testament are now to be joined by a terminal tape.

The possibilities, to say nothing of the digitized image and voice, are endless: Some of the deceased will no doubt, Polonius-like, leave behind a very last word of advice to their dearly beloved. Others will use the opportunity to come clean, confessing to embezzlement, adultery, abuse or sundry other Thou Shalt Nots. Think of it as the yahrzeit confessional. Still others will insist on their terminal piety, or call attention to their extraordinary modesty, or compliment (or castigate) their survivors, business partners, clients, physicians, who-have-you. And some, whether out of fear that it will otherwise remain unsaid or out of simple courtesy — why should others do all the heavy lifting? — will recite the annual yahrzeit kaddish. Or sing, “Oh, what a beautiful mourning….”

But the truth is that Barrows’s invention, like all such gizmos, is only a first-generation iteration. Even the most devoted mourner will tire of the terminal’s terminal message by the third or fourth yahrzeit. Accordingly, it is not difficult to imagine the direction of future iterations.

Why not an annual update? “Shmendrick, I told you last year to sell that stock.” “Honey, I love you more all the time, except how come you didn’t notice that your new husband drinks too much?” “Morgan, congratulations, my dear great granddaughter, on your bat mitzvah. I am sure you will walk in the ways of your ancestors and ancestresses.” “You’re kidding me. Ariel Sharon just won his ninth election — and Yasser Arafat is still holed up in Ramallah?”

That may, in truth, be a bit much, with the resurrectional possibilities it suggests. Still, some form of update may yet be possible. Why not a connection between tombstone and local paper [by the Last Writes department], with relevant updates being sent along to the tombstone? “Come to Mt. Sinai, the only cemetery with free daily (except for Saturday) updates!” Or “All the news that’s fit to bury!”

Come to think of it, there’s no need for the prerecorded message to be addressed to one’s intimates alone. Why keep the vocal local? The private pre-mortem thoughts can be left as a kind of final codicil to one’s life. If earlier generations had had such a capacity, we might today be able to learn whether King Solomon would have gone through with having the baby cut in half had the false claimant not relented, or the things that to the end perplexed even the Rambam. Did Abe Lincoln, on reflection, want — perish the thought — to add some pages of text to the envelope on which he scrawled the Gettysburg Address? Would Alger Hiss, for all our sakes, tell us whether he was a communist?

Plus: There is no reason to suppose that our generation — to say nothing of future historians — will be less interesting to its distant progeny than earlier generations would have been to us. Saddam Hussein can tell our descendants about his weapons of mass destruction, and George W. Bush can tell them about his weapons of mass distraction — or, better yet, share with us the information contained in his suddenly “lost” National Guard records; Bill Clinton (if the computer’s storage capacity is enhanced) can name names, and Dick Cheney can disclose his location.

If all this is too difficult to contemplate, then at least a keyboard (only family and close friends will have the activating password), so that the sadly departed can get answers to his or her prerecorded questions — “Did you ever get married, finally?” or “Is a two-state solution in the Israel/Palestine conflict still viable?” — and the visitor, identified by his or her password, can press “1” for “yes,” “2” for “no” and “3” for “no opinion.”

Talk about the extended family! Here the extension is vertical, not merely horizontal. And if a talking tombstone, why not an oral urn? And if in the cemetery, why not also in the kitchen, the den, the living room — take your pick or even all of the above, each with a different message? Talk about “voice-over.”

No, it’s not immortality, not yet. The tombstone, for all its precocity, cannot be counted in a minyan. So think of it (in the manner of e-mail) as emortality, whereby the deceased never cease.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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