Sunday, April 25, 2004

Happy in Death

"You should always await a man's last day: before his death and last funeral rites, no one should be called happy," Montaigne quotes Ovid and thus begins his essay "That We Should Not Be Deemed Happy Till After Our Death." I believe this is a Stoic philosophy which Montaigne in his essay endorses. Apparently you can live a fortuitous life, have wealth and family and all anyone could ever want but you cannot be called happy until you die. It's not you who gets to decide if you have led a happy life, but those who are left behind. Because things could be going great and then a week before you die your business could burn to the ground and your house too and you may end up with nothing and the tragic last week of your life will negate all the goodness of the 80 years prior to it. Conversely, your entire life may suck but if a month before you die you win the lottery your life was, in the end, a happy one. On top of all that, you must die well. When you die you must die with dignity and grace. You are not allowed to complain about pain or bemoan your fate. You are not allowed to cry and whine and do the woe-is-me act. Acceptance and stoicism, a stiff upper lip and kind words for those are still alive. "When judging another's life I always look to see how its end was borne: and one of my main concerns for my own is that it be borne well--that is, in a quiet and muted manner," says Montaigne at the end of his essay. Here's an idea to perk up a funeral. Give all who attend black markers and a blank card. Ask them on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, to judge the life of the deceased. When the casket is being lowered into the ground, the service officiator will ask everyone to hold up their scorecard. Imagine the write up for the newspaper, "John Doe, who thought so highly of himself in life, received a dismal average score of 4.5 from those who attended the funeral." I don't know about you, but I think I'll be the one to decide whether or not my life is happy, thank you very much. While our society still places a heavy emphasis on appearances, I think we've come a long way from Montaigne's philosophy in this instance. I suppose after I'm dead I won't care how other people judge my life, but back then when family reputation was everything, it mattered. Thank goodness we can separate ourselves from our families these days. My family is no better or worse than the next one, but I wouldn't want to go through my life being equated with them. It's a matter of individuality and self-identity. Who gets to determine your life, you or your family and the people judging you? Enough of that. It's been a while since I've mentioned what is going on with the weekly Montaigne essay. In case you've join this hopping party of one late, I am working my way through Michel De Montainge's essays in no particular order. The book I am using is the Penguin Classics Edition, The Complete Essays translated by M.A. Screech. I try to read and review one essay each week. I think I have managed it every week so far but one. Not too shabby. Next week's essay will be "On the Custom of Wearing Clothing."