For almost a century, Cape Town’s leading firm of undertakers was Human & Pitt, a partnership established in the 1870s between a local Dutch entrepreneur and a newly-arrived English settler who had worked for a mortician in London. They prospered – and though eventually adsorbed by a country-wide group – their apposite names provided a source of jokes or momentary amusement for generations of school-children; while a local academic and poet saw their apt naming as a ‘fine example of funeral humour’…
In truth, there’s nothing funny about funerals, and few Westerners enjoy them – other than, perhaps, coffin-makers and morticians. I certainly don’t, though as a journalist I have reported on several, of prominent people, in various countries and of various faiths. Even when accompanied by singing and flowers and a local belief that death should be celebrated as a blessing, they’ve felt unduly morbid, and unnecessarily costly to the corpse’s family… or nation.
Without a funeral, how does one dispense with a cadaver?
So I will not be having one. And, contemplated for years, that’s finally official – duly signed and sorted, in a trilingual encounter which had all the makings of an episode in a third-rate sitcom.
This was never a spur of the moment decision. Though it was finalised only this week because, at 85, and lungs battered by 60-a-day habit for more than half those years, I face two separate heart operations, either of which could prove fatal.
But over several years of ‘No Funeral’ thought, I always faced the same eventual question: Without a funeral, and thus no coffin, nor a burial or cremation, how does one dispense with a cadaver… preferably in a useful way?
Probably the logical answer was obvious, but somewhere in my subconscious I was not quite ready to come to terms with the actual end itself, for I found ‘obstacles’ to making a final commitment. My abused liver and other overworked or run-down organs were long past their sell-by-date and would be useless as transplants. Harmful rather than helpfully life-giving. That sort of thing.
Then, five years ago, while thumbing through an illustrated history of Dutch art – and with nary a thought of funerals or cadavers in mind – Rembrandt came to my aid in the intense light and deep shadows of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp painted in 1632. The cadaver at the centre of the work even shared my beard.
I, or rather what was left of me, could be used to help future doctors or surgeons to study anatomy. It was an option which, in the following months, became increasingly appealing; but arranging it seemed an insurmountable barrier. St Bernard’s wasn’t interested in my cast-off remains. Nor were three Spanish medical schools I approached.
As I noted in my will, drawn up at that time: ‘As far as disposing of my physical being: I have attempted (so far without luck) to find a nearby medical school in Spain with an anatomy department that would be glad of my cadaver. Things may have changed by now so it might be worth trying again – anything to avoid a funeral.’
Things have changed. Admitted to urgently to Xanit Hospital with a malfunctioning heart valve in need of swift surgical attention, I was checked by a youthful cardiologist who, when I mentioned my final wish a couple of days becoming confident of her, knew precisely whom to phone.
In less than 24 hours, preceded by one of the hospital’s welfare officers, a charming middle-aged Spanish woman arrived in my room, chirrupy as a sparrow, clutching a shopping bag. It bulged, not with greens or groceries, but reams of documents rife with Spanish legal terminology.
She spoke no English. My Spanish is unashamedly minimal. Hence the welfare officer – Spanish born of Belgian parents, she spoke not only competent English, but Flemish so that a mutual familiarity with Afrikaans would help us over trickier terms, like the unintentionally black-humoured ‘legal undertaking’ or the unfunny ‘obligation to inform’, and a string of other technical/legalistic terms.
I looked up into a surround of concerned faces.
With mirth we managed. I signed numerous papers (witnessed by my wife and the lady with the shopping bag, whose name I never learnt) and was given a number to phone within twelve hours when, finally, my clogs were popped. It came with a verbal caveat that, unfortunately, it remained unanswered from late on Friday to mid-day on Sunday… or was it from Saturday until Monday morning? I can’t recall. Not that I shall be able to do anything about it. I handed that phone number to my wife, and hope, for her sake, that I get my timing right.
We parted with smiles and a handshake, though I wondered at the macabre aspect of her work, I couldn’t fault the Malaga anatomy department’s comfortably homely choice of a Thanatos handmaiden.
The image of Dr Tulp and his anatomy class returned with a distorted bang twelve days into this extended wait for heart surgery when, at 4:30 in the morning, after a minor heart infarction I looked up into a surround of concerned faces. A sharp contrast though, for instead of sombre-suited garb off-set by the white ruffs of the bearded, elderly Dutch students of Nicolaes Tulp, these were all young Spanish women – a doctor and nurses in sky blue or white uniforms, a few wearing multi-coloured cardigans against the night’s chill.
My beard is fuller, greyer than that of Tulp’s cadaver, but as I lay there – uncertain for a while of whether this was actually the end – its struck me that while the religious rites of the dead have probably changed little between the age of Rembrandt van Rijn and our modern Cyberworld, in those four centuries, WOW how our thoughts of the afterworld and the steps to it have changed… and WOW, how the gender gap has narrowed.
It is with a small proud smile on our face and a tear in our eye that we confirm Peter did indeed get his timing right, valiantly giving his body to science.