Death and life

Day 23. River Phoenix was 23 when he had a speedball. I remember it well. The first celebrity death I cared about. I was a teenager. At the time I had experienced very little death first hand but in the next ten years I was to lose both my parents. Death was such a dark, untouched subject that losing my father felt almost stigmatic, losing my mother shameful. I missed meetings for her funeral without explaining the circumstance to my agent, and lost care and focus in my work. I felt I should have done something to prevent it. I didn’t really have a frame to make sense of it. My mother chose alcohol as the means to end her pain, whatever that was. I followed into the same means to numb mine. I had a period where I was obliterating myself, and when I emerged from it, some of my friends were still there, but I had lost momentum and had to remember how to function. The last few years have been clawing myself back to something close to where I was when it all went south. Then Jamie my half brother died, and I reacted to that with this excursion to LA. To seek life rather than to obliterate. To move forwards somehow. 

When Cara suggested today that we go to the Museum of Death and then to a graveyard, I said “sure, why not.” We need to talk about death more in the west, that’s for sure. It’s one of the only things that we all have in common no matter our politics, no matter our religion, no matter how wealthy we are, how powerful. It’s the great leveller. We’re all going to die, kids, and short of orchestrating it, we can’t choose how or when. This is something to be grasped with both hands. It’s the driving force for much of human endeavour. But it’s a reality that we’re protected from, certainly in England. People die all over the place all the time in London and the speed at which it is covered up or fenced off has the twofold effect of making it feel both dirty, and rare. It’s not dirty and it’s not rare. It’s normal and it happens all the time. If someone we love dies we haven’t done something wrong. Unless we killed them.


That said the museum is a slog. I’m feeling drained and heavy by the time we are halfway. Horrible letters and worse photographs, videos of genocides and army killings and police shootings and accidents. Frequent visual reminders of how quickly it can all stop for people. A reconstruction of a Heaven’s Gate bunk room, a room devoted to the Mansons, another to cannibalism. This feels a museum to brutality as much as to death. By the time I leave I am very happy to be out of there. The energy is dark. We leave and go to the Hollywood Forever cemetery just down the road. A different side of death, dealing with how we want to be remembered.

It’s a beautiful resting place, and one which often speaks of the celebration of many many lives. The plethora of drawers in the many huge mausoleums continues the day’s reminder that death is happening all the time all over the place. Some were very young, some were very old. Children are next to adults, religions are often mixed in with each other, there is a large Jewish section, a Buddhist part, many christians. I see few if any Muslim graves. Some people I have never heard of have vast mausoleums. Other people I have heard of have small modest graves. I think about the messages they are leaving, spoken or unspoken. “I was really rich” is one message that lots of people leave. “Love your life” is another. Love your family. Love your friends… I think about what I might put. I wonder how many of these people set their own message, and how many were surprised in the end by the inevitable and had it done by loved ones.


We walk home much of the way down Hollywood Boulevard, past the stars and to the hand and footprints. I spend a bit of time matching feet and hands to people I admire. I find Robin Williams, and my shoes fit perfectly into his imprint. Another one that took himself off early. Suicide. After touching so many lives with his happysadness. What a desperate shame.


This day has been long and thoughtful, touching the shortness of life, the pointlessness of vanity and the difference between perception and reality. Tomorrow it’s back to work. Carpe diem.

Author: albarclay

This blog is a work of creative writing. Do not mistake it for truth. All opinions are mine and not that of my numerous employers.

2 thoughts on “Death and life”

  1. If I’m honest, I think losing both parents young was the most defining thing in my life. It’s so fundamentally intertwined with who I am, that I feel someone is a stranger until they know that about me. And much as I hate the idea of that being so self-defining, I’m fairly confident it always will be.
    In my late teens I read Dave Eggers ‘Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’; the only book about death that made me feel less alone. Particularly the scene about the slapstick reality of trying to scatter ashes…


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