by Gary North
"About Schmidt" 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?
A MATTER OF IMPUTATION
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. 20:14-15).
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.
Orthodox 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:
O 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.
DEACONS AS NEGOTIATORS
Churches 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."
Morticians 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.
Beginning 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.
January 24, 2003
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