One of the images of extreme decadence in the 1987 movie White Mischief is a cocktail party held at a cemetery. The characters chat and drink over the grave of a suicide, a woman whose last request is that her friends gather for a memorial cocktail party. This was supposed to be a macabre image of a decline in English morals. But what would an example of American decadence look like?
Hunter Thompson’s pyrotechnic funeral service last weekend, which would tax the imaginative powers of most Hollywood directors, provides one, though the American elite wouldn’t call this decadence but “death with dignity.” Hunter Thompson’s death with dignity consisted of shooting himself, then asking his widow to shoot him out of a cannon. This momentous event — which serves if nothing else as a measure of the mainstreaming of radical decadence — attracted such establishment worthies as former Senator George McGovern and Senator John Kerry.
Thompson didn’t ask his friends to gather for a cocktail party at a cemetery but at his Colorado estate. There, according to press reports, amidst a scene of “blow-up sex dolls” and a “frontier bordello” prop pavilion, the VIPs enjoyed “trays of champagne” before witnessing the Zambelli fireworks company, which had very carefully encased Thompson’s ashes in mortar shells, blast his remains from a 15-story tower as part of a fireworks show.
“I’m not quite sure where he’s going,” said McGovern, pondering the meaning of it all, according to the New York Times. “But I salute you and wish you a happy journey in that land of mystery.” For his part, actor Johnny Depp, who footed much of the bill for the fireworks, said that blasting Thompson out of the mammoth cannon was a chance for him to “give a little something back.”
Whatever John Kerry said at the event was not recorded in any of the press reports I saw. But that doesn’t mean his tribute to Thompson will be lost to history, because Kerry’s hagiographer, Douglas Brinkley, was on hand at the extravaganza too, and he will be serving as Thompson’s “literary executor.”
Future anthropologists, should they tire of writing about funeral pyres in India, will have something to work with here. Thompson’s funeral, and other funerals like it which don’t get as much as coverage, indicates that 21st-century America is progressing beyond even the parody Evelyn Waugh detected in its relationship to death in the last century.
New ideologies and spiritualities, the anthropologists might note, produced new funeral rites: the narcissism and abuse of the body that find an outlet in the systems and religions of the “New Age” manifest themselves both in the manner of death — suicide is “death with dignity” — and its memorial in increasingly ludicrous forms of creative cremation services. Gone is that musty Judeo-Christian insistence on dignified burials in the ground with proper respect for the body. Now Americans can go online and find out about “making funeral pyres eco-friendly.” Or they can hire a pilot to scatter their ashes over areas in which their favorite endangered species roam.
It is good that the Zambelli fireworks company choreographed Thompson’s funeral, because, according to a Los Angeles Times story from a few years back, ash dissemination can be a tricky business, especially for amateurs. “Sometimes people are so emotionally overwhelmed they can’t scatter the ashes themselves,” it reported. “When they do manage it, to their distress breezes blow ash back at them.”
In some respects, the new funeral rites aren’t so new, betraying a pathetic search for immortality contained in the pagan rites of old (though to be fair to the Greeks, they didn’t pursue immortality through sheer silliness and spectacle). And there has to be a correlation between elite American culture’s disdain for the Judeo-Christian prohibitions against mutilation and suicide and that elite culture’s pagan enthusiasm for nontraditional funerals in which the body becomes a plaything and empty totem.
Hunter Thompson’s funeral befits a culture in which destroying the body with everything from drugs to plastic surgery to suicide becomes its own religion. This narcissism repackaged as “spirituality” ends, as T.S. Eliot said, not with a bang but with a whimper — a hollowness no funeral of cannon blasts can fill.