About Schmidt, About You

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" is a memorable movie about an unmemorable man.
Jack Nicholson, who has spent his entire career playing aggressive,
hostile weirdos, triumphs once again, this time as a character
as plain as a bowl of warm oatmeal without brown sugar. Schmidt
is an aging man — Nicholson’s age — but a normal person, unlike
Nicholson, whose flickering shadows will still be entertaining
millions of people long after he is dead.

Schmidt makes
an observation about his own mortality. "When I die, only
a few people will remember me. When they’re all dead, nothing
I have ever done will leave a trace."

Schmidt is
this generation’s Willy Loman. Not a salesman, Schmidt is an actuarian
for an insurance company. Or, rather, he was. The movie begins
with his retirement.

He has lived
only for his work, and now his work is done.

His work,
as he finally recognizes, has left no trace.

The movie
centers around three defining issues: his work (gone), his wife
(dead), and his daughter’s forthcoming marriage (clouded). Much
of the movie was shot in Omaha, Nebraska, in winter. Everything
is flat and gray. Everything points to one thing: meaningless.

Schmidt has
spent his life tallying up the numbers governing life and death.
He says that if you tell him your age, your gender, and where
you live, he can tell you how many years you have to live. The
numbers are running out on Schmidt, but he cannot figure out how
to live. His rule has been, "By the numbers," but this
rule no longer provides meaning for his life. Too late, he learns
that it never did.

Modern man,
like primitive man, seeks meaning. Men understand that meaning
is always imputed, i.e., authoritatively assigned by someone else.
The Greeks saw meaning as imputed by the polis. Renaissance humanists
saw it imputed by politics or artistic appreciation. Modern scientific
man sees it imputed only by an impersonal universe that is headed
for heat death: absolute zero. Nothing will survive absolute zero,
not even time itself, which is represented by directional, irreversible
change. I have written about the implications of this worldview
in Chapter 2 of Is
The World Running Down?
(1988), which you can download
for free.

Schmidt seeks
meaning, and the question the movie raises is this: Will he ever
find it? His past is a dead end. His work was a dead end. The
mortality of the few people who know him — he has no friends —
is a dead end. His daughter’s marriage seems to be leading to
a dead end.

Where will
he find the throughway?


Life has
meaning. Every event fits precisely into God’s completed decree.
"And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but
woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed!" (Luke 22:22).
God applies His standards to everything. He evaluates everything.
He will wrap up history at the final judgment (Matt. 25; Rev.

Schmidt worries
about his life’s lack of meaning. This self-evaluation was incorrect.
Schmidt’s life has had meaning. His problem is what his life has
meant. An evaluation had been applied by God: "Guilty."
Day by day, this evaluation was becoming clearer to Schmidt. It
had taken major discontinuities in his life for him even to begin
to perceive this.

I hope Nicholson
actually sees this movie. I hope he figures out soon that it will
probably serve as his epitaph: "About Nicholson." Digital
shadows on TV screens will let some of his work survive as re-runs
long after he dies, but he will be no less departed. But, unlike
the Greeks’ theory of the human shadow, Nicholson’s multiple shadows
will possess neither sensibility nor memory. He has spent his
career as Hollywood’s award-winning bad boy. Now he is an old
man playing an old man to near-perfection. The full-color shadows
of his work will not deliver him from Schmidt’s looming fate.
At least Schmidt has a growing awareness of his past. Nicholson
doesn’t seem to. But, then again, he is a great actor.


In the movie,
there is a scene in which Schmidt goes to the funeral parlor to
arrange his wife’s funeral. Finally, he is facing the mortician,
who totals up the bill. So much for the casket, so much for the
ground, so much for the car to drive him to the grave. A numbers-cruncher
to the core of his being, Schmidt asks: "What if I drive
in my own car?"

Later in
the movie, his long-alienated daughter lashes out at him. "You
bought the cheapest casket you could buy. Why didn’t you pay more
to honor mom at least once?" He protests that he didn’t buy
the cheapest casket. The mortician had shown him one, but he had
turned it down. "A pine box?" she shouts. "I don’t
recall," he responds, but we know it was.

His daughter
had bought completely into what the muckraking author Jessica
Mitford four decades ago designated as the American
way of death
. In the spirit of humanist imputation, the daughter
imagined that the price of a casket measures the worth of the
deceased. The funeral industry derives most of its income from
this misperception — that, plus government regulation, which has
created a monopoly.

The funeral
industry has moved into the gap produced by men’s waning faith
in God and in the church as God’s representative agency relating
to life and death. The physician has replaced the minister in
preserving life, and the funeral director has replaced him in
death. Corpses today move from the hospital to the funeral "home"
in one step, and from the funeral "home" — a place of
negotiation, not a place of passing — to the grave.

Rule #1:
Never negotiate with a physician from the operating table. I had
to do this when I was sedated, lying in an emergency ward, in
2001: gall-bladder removal. I could not easily call in other practitioners
to get a better bid. I paid a heavy price to a specialist, who
conducted five such operations on that day. No one will have to
hold a fund-raiser for his widow!

Rule #2:
Never negotiate with a funeral director when your loved one’s
body is in the next room.

"A pine
box?" she shouts at him. This accusation would not have carried
any weight with me.

A pine box
is just right.

In 1995,
my friend Greg Bahnsen died. I flew to California to attend the
funeral. I saw his casket. It was magnificent. I had never seen
anything this nice. I was later told that he had arranged his
own funeral. He had ordered the cheapest box available. It was
called an Orthodox Pine Casket, or OPC. I knew he was laughing
from heaven. He was an ordained OPC minister: Orthodox Presbyterian
Church. But the casket’s orthodoxy was Jewish. His survivors had
bought a Jewish casket.

Jews take death seriously. They don’t take the American way of
death seriously. They don’t see a person’s worth as measured by
the money his survivors spend on a casket. None of this "eternal
resting place" blather, no "hermetically sealed steel
caskets" that cost thousands of dollars. A pine casket rots
away fast — almost as fast as the corpse. For Orthodox Jews, it’s
"ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and don’t run up the survivors’
bill unnecessarily."

I would be
happy to have my present place of residence buried in an Orthodox
Pine Casket. But I prefer something more Trinitarian. I would
rather be carried out in one of these:


The top model
is lovely. It sure beats any $3,500+ "permanent resting place"
made out of steel. The oak model is cheaper. But I will be equally
unconcerned about model #4, which is $900 cheaper.

As I see
it, it’s better to buy the cheapest model and send the money you
save to a missionary.

This assumes
that I want to my body buried. I don’t. Recently, I heard about
a new invention that allows blood to be pumped through a cadaver.
It was invented by a Syrian physician. This device makes it possible
for student surgeons to learn how to operate on dead people, which
is a better deal for people who are lying on operating tables,
not having negotiated a lower rate because amateurs will be doing
their homework on them. As far as I can see, my remains will be
more productive in medical school than in a hole in the ground
that my heirs have had to pay for.

But what
about the streams of people who will want to visit my grave? If
I’m that famous after I’m gone, let my heirs sell tickets. I want
to be like Elvis, generating a stream of income long after I’m
gone: "The gift that keeps on giving." I want to become
my own best investment. That’s the sentimental value I’m looking
for. Not expenditures. Income.

Maybe the
tourists will visit a replica of my library, but with a fake desk:
nice and neat. They can read a cheap metal plaque on the wall
rather than an expensive concrete gravestone. The message will
be the same in either case:

deadline, where is thy sting?

My point
is simple: my net value to society today is not a function of
what my heirs will spend on my funeral. What God imputes as my
life’s value-added contribution is not increased by my heirs’
value-subtracted memorial.


should intervene to place the church in between survivors and
the funeral industry. The survivors are not in a good position
to negotiate. They aren’t like Schmidt. They won’t ask for a discount
if they will drive to the grave’s site.

A deacon
will not be moved by guilt-manipulation, however subtle. He will
uphold the survivors’ best interests, which is their net worth
after the funeral.

A deacon
can negotiate a pine casket without fear of post-gravesite guilt.
He will not later think, "I didn’t care enough." He
cared enough to drive a hard bargain with a mortician.

An assigned
deacon should start the funeral-negotiating process as soon as
it’s clear that some church member is dying. If there is no warning,
a church member should call a deacon before calling the funeral
"home." The body should be taken to the morgue, not
to a funeral "home."

have known for centuries that when it comes to cadavers, possession
is nine-tenths of the transaction. As an agent of the diaconate,
a deacon can drive a hard bargain if the body is in a third party’s
morgue. He can get on the phone and start calling morticians.
He negotiates from a position of strength. "We’ve got a body
here. What are we offered? Low bid wins."

The fact
that church leaders have let the funeral industry replace the
church in the American way of death testifies loud and clear to
the low view of the church that is held by senior representatives
of today’s churches. A church that is serious about regaining
influence in its members’ lives should have a policy of "call
us immediately after you call the ambulance." Every member
should know what phone number to call and why.

The funeral
industry is a business. It is today overlaid with a shroud of
priestliness. This is what gets the industry protected by law
from competition. This government protection reduces price competition.
Deacons can re-introduce what is available in an unregulated free
market: price competition. They have to remind the industry: "We
provide the priestly services here. You deliver a little real
estate. Let’s make a deal."

For centuries,
churches held funeral services in the church, and then buried
the body in the church’s plot. That was a much better system,
and much less expensive.

at age two, members could see what lies ahead. Even someone like
Schmidt would notice. But today, churches have no graves, and
non-sectarian funeral "homes" have income.

It’s part
of a process: the embalming of the church.

24, 2003

North is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.
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