The following is
Essay #4, Laughing At Death, of Dr. Ring's new book,
Waiting to Die: A Near-Death Researcher's
(Mostly Humorous) Reflections on His Own
symbols for her nobler joys,
sorrows. Who had dared foretell
That only man,
by some sad mockery,
Should learn to
laugh who learns that he must die?
I am thankful
for laughter, except when milk comes out of
-- Woody Allen
Not long ago, a
good friend of mine, about twenty years my
junior, wrote to me saying that he was
already fretting about getting older:
I have been
thinking of you off and on again these days,
pondering whether I should take you as my
role model for how to deal with getting
older. I am 61 now and quite often annoyed
about the symptoms of getting older, while
you often wrote things like: "There is still
a lot I can be grateful for" and other
"Ah, my early
sixties," I thought wistfully, "I was in my
prime then." Well, all right, I was
exaggerating, of course.
more like it, I suppose, but nevertheless
for me, in retrospect, during that period of
my life I was still at the top of my game,
as I wrote to my friend:
Getting older is
hard, and I don't know exactly or even
vaguely what's going on in your life now,
but my sixties were one of my best decades
-- and, hopefully, it can be one for you,
too. I am certainly not anyone's role model
for anything, but in my view, it helps to be
grateful for every small blessing, to be
patient (not my strong suit) in times of
adversity, and to have compassion for
oneself, no matter what the circumstances.
There is really only one problem -- the
refusal to accept what is. We all have this
problem, of course. Living in a body,
especially when one is older, can be a
struggle, a drag, and often painful. That's
life. What has helped me is trying to have a
sense of humor about it and trying, hard as
it is, not to take oneself or one's troubles
older I've become, the more important having
a sense of humor has been to me in dealing,
not only with the indignities of aging, but
just as much with the prospect that death
itself may be just around the corner. In
fact, in my last book (in surely a double
sense), which I puckishly entitled
Confessions of a Humorist Manqué, I finally
decided to give voice to my humorist side
that now seemed to be seeking some form of
expression before it was too late to express
anything at all. And at the same time, I
also drew on my tribal origins in admittedly
a somewhat antic fashion. Here's a slightly
edited version of how it began:
Jews are funny.
I am a Jew.
Ergo: I am
Well, I may be
funny, but I also know that's a slippery
syllogism, or as we used to say behind our
teacher's back, a sillygism. After all, it
doesn't say All Jews are funny. I could be
the rare exception. By the time you finish
this book, assuming you get past this
introduction, you can render your verdict.
But consider my
background. I am old enough to have grown up
listening to Jewish comics on the radio. (Do
you remember radios or at least remember
hearing about them? They were very popular
in my day along with slide rules.) Jack
Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, for
example, and Groucho Marx, of course, or in
the early days of television, Milton Berle
(Uncle Milty!), Sid Caesar, Amos ‘n Andy.
(All right, they weren't all Jewish.) Most
kids grow up wishing they could be football
quarterbacks or well-healed thugs wearing
shades and Armani suits. Me? I grew up
wishing I could be Woody Allen, only better
Anyway, when I
was a kid, I had a reputation for being the
quickest quipper in the West. For a while,
some people even thought I had Tourette's.
But no such luck. Besides, I soon found that
being King of the Yock Hill didn't get you
the girls. They just tended to look at you
pityingly and then went for the nearest
jock. So I was obliged to recess my tongue
and devote it to licking the crumbs off my
high school I retained enough of my humor to
be voted "class wit." (This is true. I still
have my plaque. That is not true.) These
days, of course, as I decline into the early
stages of dementia, people tend to refer to
me as a halfwit (okay, I know that's a lame
joke, but what do you expect from a
lamebrain?) But I think it's in the genes,
anyway, because my son, Dave, recently told
me that in high school, he was voted "class
clown." It runs in the family, I tell you,
it's tribal, it's tradition! (Think Tevye.)
although Jews constitute only about 2.5% of
the American population, they account for
about 70% of comedians.]
seriously for a moment (I promise it won't
last), in my life as a professor and author,
I have spent much of it writing books about
seemingly grim and morbid subjects, such as
what it's like to die (it's not as bad as
you think) or what it's like to be a
Palestinian living in Israel or the West
Bank (it's as bad as you think) -- books
that I hoped would educate and edify my
readers, maybe even enthrall them if they
were to read about what people actually do
report when they come close to death, but
don't get around to it. But I have never
written a book like this one whose main
purpose is to entertain. But if not now,
I mean, in this
dark and dysphoric age in the reign of
Donald I, when the world seems to be going
to hell, anyway, maybe what we need is not
love, more love, but laughter, more
laughter. At least in the gathering shadows
of our time, it is one way to keep our sunny
side, up, up, before we go back to putting
our heads in the sand or spending our time
looking to join the local opioid club.
It also helps in
dealing with aging, and, as I will
illustrate shortly, even more when one is
facing imminent death. But first, this is
what I also sent to my sixty-one-year old
friend who was kvetching about aging:
|Ken's Rules for
Aging (and Living)
Aging is a myth and
death is an
Don't gripe about
the things you can't
do; just be grateful
for those you still
can, such as
Kvetching is okay,
but try not to
whine; it is
Get off your duff;
sitting conduces to
Don't act your age;
there is no merit in
Enjoy life; why do
you think you're
Don't worry about
the woes of the
world; there is
nothing you can do
Be kind to animals
and occasionally to
Smile when you greet
strangers; it might
just buck them up
and bring them out
of the dumps.
Touch people if they
let you, and hug
them if you can.
acts of sexuality.
You're never too old
to make love; you
just may have to
figure out new ways
to do it.
Eat as much dark
possible (but don't
Don't forget to love
yourself and spread
your love to others.
Don't fret about
rules; we are all
But in these
essays, we are mostly concerned not with
aging as such, but with living in the shadow
of approaching death. Here, too, however,
humor in the face of death, even especially
of imminent death, is perhaps the best way,
literally, to have the last laugh.
example, these humorous bon mots from some
famous people who were about to die:
The French poet,
Paul Verlaine, when he heard a friend
whisper, "he is dying," said: "Don't sole
the dead man's shoes yet."
poet, also famous for his prodigious
drinking, Dylan Thomas, said:
eighteen whiskeys. I think that's the
The novelist, W.
"Dying is a very dull,
dreary affair. And my advice to you is to
have nothing whatever to do with it."
impresario, Wilson Mizner, to his doctor:
"Well, doc, I
guess this is the main event!" And then to a
priest: "Why should I talk to you? I've just
been talking to your boss."
these examples from a delightful little book
called Famous Last Words and Tombstone Humor
by Gyles Brandreth.
But my prime
example of how to deal with imminent death
with humor and cheerfulness comes from the
great Scottish philosopher and historian,
David Hume. Hume, during his lifetime, was
well known for his anti-religious views and,
like that list of famous atheists I cited in
an earlier installment of this series, his
atheism led him to be convinced that the
idea of a personal afterlife was pure
poppycock. No religious consolation for this
man as he approached death, only his robust
cheerfulness and unquenchable sense of
There are many
testimonies to this effect at this end point
in his life, including one from his great
good friend, Adam Smith, but here I will
quote somewhat extensively from an account
left to us by his literary executor, William
Strahan who was with him toward the very end
of Hume's life:
however, soon returned with their usual
violence, and from that moment he gave up
all thoughts of recovery, but submitted with
the utmost cheerfulness, and the most
perfect complacency and resignation. Upon
his return to Edinburgh, though he found
himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness
never abated and he continued to divert
himself, as usual, with correcting his own
works for a new edition, with reading books
of amusement, with the conversation of his
friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with
a party at his favorite game of whist. His
cheerfulness was so great, and his
conversation and amusements run so much in
their usual strain, that, notwithstanding
all bad symptoms, many people could not
believe he was dying. ‘I shall tell your
friend, Colonel Edmondstone,' said Doctor
Dundas to him one day, ‘that I left you much
better, and in a fair way of recovery.'
‘Doctor,' said he, ‘as I believe you would
not choose to tell anything but the truth,
you had better tell him that I am dying as
fast as my enemies, if I have any, could
wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my
best friends could desire...'
mentions at length a conversation he had
with Hume in which the latter made a number
of amusing remarks about an imagined
encounter with Charon, the mythical Greek
fellow who is charged to ferry the dead
across the river Styx to Hades. At the end
of these witty remarks, Hume said:
"Have a little
patience, good Charon. I have been
endeavoring to open the eyes of the public.
If I live a few years longer, I may have the
satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some
of the prevailing systems of superstition."
But Charon would then lose all temper and
decency. "You loitering rogue, that will not
happen these many hundred years. Do you
fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a
term? Get into the boat this instant, you
lazy loitering rogue."
What a wonder
and wonderful man was David Hume who
provides such an impressive example of how
to go about dying! Of course, our
circumstances as well as our characters may
prevent us from emulating him when our time
comes, but I can only hope when I am no
longer waiting to die but am about to, I
will be able to be as cheerful and
good-humored as Hume was.
But unlike Hume,
who did not have the advantage of knowing
anything about modern research into
near-death experiences, when I go to my
death, I will go convinced that my end will
not result in my personal extinction but in
my absorption into the world radiant Light
and all-encompassing unconditional love that
so many near-death experiencers have
encountered when they pass temporarily into
the realm beyond this life. And in entering
into that realm, they often report being
greeted by what Raymond Moody called in his
ground-breaking book on NDEs, Life After
Life, "a being of light." It is often this
being who helps the individual to review his
or her life. And, guess what, even here,
humor can be present.
In fact, it was
Moody who first drew our attention to this
surprising facet of NDEs. Here's just one
small snippet to illustrate this point from
one of the persons Moody interviewed for his
Now, I think
that the voice that was talking to me
actually realized that I wasn't ready to
die. You know, it was just kind of testing
me more than anything else. Yet, from the
moment the light spoke to me, I felt really
good – secure and loved. The love which came
from it is just unimaginable, indescribable.
It was a fun person to be with! And it had a
sense of humor, too – definitely!
I think David
Hume would have felt quite at home there,
after getting over his initial surprise,
In my own work,
at least in my lectures an classes, if not
always in my books on NDEs, I have also
tried to strike a humorous tone at times in
order to suggest that death, too, can have
its funny side. One way I've sometimes done
this is by concluding my lectures with a
song I once wrote, "The NDE Blues."
Since I had a
pretty good singing voice for most of my
life (though now I can only croon), I would
warble it on all solemn near-death
occasions, such as at our meetings of our
NDE organization, The International
Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS).
Or at the end of my NDE course at the
university. Sometimes I would impulsively
sing it at conferences at the end of one of
my talks. In Prague, at a big international
transpersonal psychology conference, I sang
it before an audience of 1500 people and got
a standing ovation. Another time, visiting
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross at her farm in
Virginia, I sang it to her; she was amused.
And once when I met the famous American folk
singer, Pete Seeger, I sang it to him; he
looked blank -- didn't understand what the
hell it was about, I guess.
It's sung to the
old Gene Autry theme song, "Back in the
Saddle," and here are the words. Try it.
I'm out of my
body at last
Seein' my future
and my past
I look around
say, "oh wow!"
It's so peaceful
I don't feel no
kind of fear."
and singin' my song
Oh Lord, why's
this tunnel so long?
But what's that
ahead of me?
Is that a golden
light I see?
The face of God
And I'm headin'
straight for you
(In a basso
profundo, as befits God)
My son, you have
much work to do
And your family
and friends need you, too
So I'm sending
One more chance
to get on track
You'll come to
my cosmic elevator
(In a natural
but awed voice)
I'm back in my
happened just then
Was that the
Did I just
imagine all that love?
I reckon I'll
know one day for sure
reckon I'll know one day for sure
(dominant-tonic) on the guitar….]
conclude this foray into how we can use
humor to defuse the fear of death, I'd like
quote a little spoof I wrote up a few years
ago that perhaps I should have entitled "A
Change of Heart," but I just called it
Metamorphosis. It's not really about an NDE
as such, but about another kind of
experience that leads to a similar
transformation in outlook. It concerns a
certain well-known politician who was then
very much in the news, but you will
certainly remember him. Here it is...
One morning, two
days after his heart transplant operation,
Dick Cheney awoke from a pleasant dream
feeling distinctly odd. For one thing, he
Mary, also noticed that there was something
strange about her father.
She calls it to
the attention of her mother.
"Mom, there is
something distinctly odd about dad this
"What do you
mean," Lynne asks, looking puzzled.
"Well, for one
thing, you know how dad always looks dour in
the morning, as if life is a pain and why
does he have to bother being pleasant."
just your father, darling."
"I know that,
mom. But this is different. Dad looked
positively radiant this morning."
"Hmm, that is
distinctly odd," Lynne agrees.
"But that's not
all," Mary continues. "What really was
strange was what he was saying."
"Mary, I'm in a
hurry this morning. You know how angry your
father gets when I don't have his eggs ready
for him. Please get to the point."
"OK, mom, it was
"He likes him
"He likes him.
He thinks he's been wrong about him all this
"Mary, I have no
time for jokes. Now, really, I have to get
to the kitchen."
kidding, mom. If you don't believe me, ask
"Dick, how are
you feeling this morning, dear?"
better." (Beaming) "I'm a new man!"
"You look well,
dear. I even notice that snarl -- er, I
mean, that little mouth tic of yours is
absent today. Ah, Dick, I was wondering –
Mary said you were talking about Obama this
"Yes, I've been
thinking a lot about him lately. You know,
Lynne, I really think I've misjudged the
man. I mean, he's not such a bad fellow.
And, you know something else, Biden was
right. For a black man, he is very clean and
uncommonly articulate. You gotta give him
"Dick, what are
"I dunno, Lynne,
it's just something that I feel. I think
when I'm up and about we should invite him
and Michelle over for dinner. Maybe we can
calling your cardiologist. I think the drugs
that they've given you to prevent rejection
must be making you delusional. I'm worried
about you, honey. You're not yourself."
Lynne, I haven't felt this well and this
clear-headed in years. It's like I've just
woken up from a bad dream – except my dreams
this morning were very pleasant."
thing," Cheney says. "This thing about Mary,
you know, her…."
bring that up, Dick."
Lynne. I'm proud she's gay, and I've also
been thinking she's right about same-sex
marriage. I don't know what I was thinking
before. I must have been bamboozled by all
those rightwing nuts and those Tea Party
"Dick, those are
your people. How could you be talking this
to beam. His mind is elsewhere, a beatific
smile of satisfaction on his face.
"Doctor, I need
to talk with you." Mrs. Cheney is talking on
the phone, which she cannot hold steadily.
Her hand is shaking too much.
"Of course, it's
about Dick. Doctor, he is talking gibberish
this morning. I mean, he is actually talking
like a Democrat!"
"You don't think
it's the drugs? But what else could it be?"
pauses, and then she has an idea.
"Doctor, I know
we are not supposed to know the identity of
Dick's donor, but do you think..."
There is a long
"I know it is
against the rules, but doctor, this is the
Vice-President we are talking about, and he
is a very sick man, and I don't mean just
"All right, I'll
A few minutes
pass. Mrs. Cheney is very agitated.
The doctor comes
back on the phone.
listens with stupefaction.
Then she faints.
Mary, hearing a
noise, rushes in, sees that her mother has
now staggered to her feet and is sitting,
dazed, in a chair, her eyes glassy.
She picks up the
black boy. From Chicago?"
Do you think I
might have a future as a satirist while
waiting to die?
Kenneth Ring's New Book:
Waiting to Die:
A Near-Death Researcher's (Mostly Humorous)
Reflections on His Own Endgame