In Defense of Forest Lawn


In his poem "Tract" William Carlos Williams
recommends a style for funerals
much like the style he practiced
as a poet: a "rough plain hearse"
resembling a farm wagon, its driver
demoted to walk alongside holding the reins,
and the mourners riding after
with conspicuous inconvenience, open
"to the weather as to grief."

In horse-and-buggy days, perhaps,
such a scenario might have worked,
but nowadays much-weathered wood denotes
deluxe accommodations. A triumph
for Williams' esthetics, but the problem
remains: how to bury people simply
and tastefully, without on the other hand
holding up traffic unduly or on the other
treating the corpse like industrial waste.

Personally I think that Forest Lawn
has got just about the right combination
of hokum and expedience, gravitas and pizazz.
People are inclined to laugh at Forest Lawn,
having been instructed by Evelyn Waugh
that only the Sovereign Pontiff can own
the Pieta, that Europe has the copyright
on class, and that Americans had better stick
to . . . . What would he suggest: farm wagons?

But if Romans did well to copy Greek originals,
if museums needn't be embarrassed by their casts–
if, that is, form and not seignoralty
is our ideal, then why shouldn't Forest Lawn
heap as much of the enmarbled past
on the platters of our grief as, say,
Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's? Why shouldn't
the dead, God damn it, be allowed on Parthian
shot at greatness? Aren't wakes for feasting?

Suppose we did it in the minimalist way
Williams suggests, bankrupting florists
and stonecutters. Do you think the heirs
in their enhanced prosperity would endow
posterity with anything so grand or lush
as a properly got-up cemetery? Think again.
How, I wonder, did Waugh himself get planted?
Opulently, I'm sure. So, gentlemen, if you'll step
over here, I'd like to show you our brochure.


Tom Disch, Yes, Let's: New & Selected Poems, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.