Shuffling off this mortal coil

Marcy O’Brien

Earlier this week I attended the funeral of an old friend. We silver citizens find ourselves at funerals more often than at weddings and christenings these days. It goes with the territory. One old geezer that I see mostly at funerals said to me, “We have to stop meeting like this.” I’m hoping to see his Royal Geezership at many more ceremonies before either of us kicks the bucket.

At this age, the bucket could be any day. Or buying the farm. Or heading for the happy hunting ground. Like that guy for the New York lottery has said for years, “Hey, ya never know.”

My mom always wanted to go “down like a tree” when the time came. She didn’t get her wish, but thankfully she didn’t linger terribly long at the end either. At 98, she had paid her dues.

When someone says to me now that it’s nice to see you, I smile, “It’s nice to be seen.” Better than being viewed. Or,“Any day this side of the grass is a good day.”

This week’s deceased lady was one of the many kind people I met when I moved here 40 years ago. Most of the wonderful women who welcomed me were about a half generation older than me – mature, settled, but fun-loving women with families who were active in the community. They showed me the ropes.

Moving here was the first time I realized that I could have friends of many different ages. One of those older sisters advised me to continue to make younger friendships throughout my life. “That way you’ll still have friends when all your pals have bit the dust.” And she took her own advice. I was one of her younger buddies, among many others.

Now there are only a few left of that older gang. And I am now 20 years older than they were when we met. Sadly, they are biting the dust regularly.

Many of my friends kiddingly chat about not just biting the dust but of the many expressions we use to avoid the actual words of death, dead or dying. I got interested in the many euphemisms that describe the last act of life. Holy worm food! There sure are a lot of them.

All the way back to the 1300’s the deceased who “met their maker” were as “dead as a doornail.” Shakespeare brought us “6 feet under” in the 1600’s, anytime we went “toes up” or “belly up.” I don’t know the difference between the two of those, but the distance is usually about 3 feet.

The Bard is also responsible for today’s title. “Shuttle off this mortal coil” is said in despair by Hamlet in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, the burdens of his life being too much to bear.

Gangsters were particularly colorful on the subject of giving up the ghost. Threats included being sent to “swim with cement boots” or “feed the fishes.” Some “cashed in their chips.” Others were “shipped to the glue factory” or found “wearing a pine overcoat” back in the days when coffins were mostly wooden. “The big sleep” probably wasn’t with a satin pillow.

Cowboy lore was filled with similarly vivid descriptions for meeting their maker: They “headed for the last roundup,” “rode a pale horse” or merely “headed west.” In the end they “pushed up daisies” or “took a dirt nap.” I grew up thinking that the gangsters and cowboys who filled my Saturday movies lived close to “curtains” everyday, death always around the corner.

Growing up near the ocean, I knew that Davy Jones Locker was the bottom of the sea, and that I didn’t want to go there. That phrase and the Grim Reaper both scared me to death as a kid. Well, obviously not really scared to death, although that’s what we always did say.

My big, tough Great Uncle Azor always made us laugh about dying. The 6’4” strapping Scotsman from New Brunswick had work and habits that left him close to death on a daily basis. But he’d roar, “Della, if I have to eat another one of your rotten meatloaves like this, I’m going to bend over and kiss me arse goodbye. Then ye’ll be sorry.” As a little kid I tried to picture his doing that with the only result being giggles.

True, death brings sorrow to all of us, but we’ve learned to talk about it in a non-sorrowful way, I think to lighten our burden.

And yes, we do have to make the best of the reality… the next step. I hope I have a few more steps before I “take my last bow.” We old theater types prefer that to “counting worms.”

Marcy O’Brien writes from her home in Glade Township. She can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com.