Grave Doubts

March 10, 2010

How should an atheist go to his grave? Since I don’t believe in any afterlife, it really doesn’t matter to me one way or another, but I would like to make some sort of statement that would make an impression on those left behind.

Seeing as I don’t believe in any sort of immortal soul, I figured survival of the body (though dead) was my best chance of making a lasting posthumous statement. To further this end, I wrote thus to the South African Museum:-

from Mark Widdicombe Sent at 09:42 (GMT+02:00). ✆
date 8 March 2010 09:42
subject Specimen donation

Dear Dr Stynder,

Since I have entered my 6th decade on this planet, I have been thinking more and more about questions of mortality. One question that has been excercising me is what to do about the final disposition of my mortal remains. I am not a religious person, so there is no requirement to follow any specific ritual as regards burial; I am entirely free to have done with my remains whatever I wish.

After long thought I have decided that I would like to donate my corpse to the South African Museum. I reached this decision for two reasons: firstly, many informed persons have passed comment to the effect that I am a particularly fine specimen of humanity (I attach a photograph to prove that they were not exaggerating), and that it would be a shame were my inspiring physique to disappear upon my death; and secondly, because of my age, there is little value to be had from harvesting my organs for medical purposes.

So what better solution than to have my body stuffed and placed on display in your museum where it may inspire the constant stream of slack-jawed, tik-addled juvenile delinquents who pass daily through your doors? It would probably be best if I were placed in a macho yet tasteful pose (with a spear, perhaps?) somewhere near the main entrance where I would be most visible and thus most inspirational. But I leave such details to you.

I do need to know, however, whether you would like my body delivered fresh or packed in dry ice, and should it come to the museum or be delivered direct to your taxidermists. Please let me know as soon as possible so that I may instruct my executors accordingly and incorporate your instructions in my will.

Kind regards,
Mark Widdicombe

I honestly didn’t expect wholehearted agreement to my proposal, but I was still pleasantly surprised by the sensitive response I received:-

from Hamish Robertson
sender time Sent at 18:02 (GMT+02:00). Current time there: 20:37. ✆
to markwiddicombe
cc Lalou Meltzer ,
Deano Stynder
date 8 March 2010 18:02
subject RE: Specimen donation

Dear Mark

My colleague passed your e-mail on to me and I tried passing it on to someone else to answer but it got deflected back to me, so I guess the buck has stopped with me. It is unlikely that I am going to get this right because if I take you completely seriously my answer will sound a big joke if you were joking and if I take your letter as a joke and you were actually deadly serious, you would, quite rightly, be offended by my flippant answer.

Let’s put it this way. It is beyond dispute that you have a very impressive body and I have no doubt that it would be an immensely popular attraction if we were to mount it for display in the museum (holding the strategically placed piece of firewood would be more interesting than the spear and perhaps you could be holding a piece of boerewors in the other hand). HOWEVER,

1. I am pretty sure it is illegal for us to accept human bodies – we are not registered for this sort of thing.

2. You still strike me as being still young and strong and you could still be alive and well 40 years or so hence, by which time our circumstances could have changed substantially – we can’t take on a commitment of this importance so far in advance.

3. While the idea of getting stuffed after you have died might appeal to you, you need to be much more hairy for this type of mounting procedure to look good. Humans are generally portrayed in museums through casting of individuals from moulds that are taken while alive although this in itself is controversial and rarely done these days.

So, while I am grateful to you for considering the generous donation of your body to the museum, we cannot possibly accept and I am afraid you will probably need to consider some of the more conventional options for the disposal of your body that are not nearly so interesting.


Hamish G. Robertson
Director Natural History Collections
Iziko Museums of Cape Town
25 Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town
P O Box 61, Cape Town, 8000 South Africa
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 4813849
Facsimile: +27 (0) 21 4813993
Mobile: 083 4629561

So, with hopes dashed, I could only bravely hide my disappointment:-

sender time Sent at 13:08 (GMT+02:00). Current time there: 20:58. ✆
to Hamish Robertson
cc Lalou Meltzer ,
Deano Stynder
date 9 March 2010 13:08
subject Re: Specimen donation

hide details 9 Mar (1 day ago)

Dear Hamish,

Thank you for your response. I do understand your concerns regarding the legality of accepting bodies; I thought you might have special dispensation because of your research on bodies, albeit ones not recently deceased.

We shall have to fall back on plan B, which entails dropping the corpse from an aeroplane or helicopter into a region of the Kruger Park bountifully furnished with scavengers like hyenas and vultures. In this way I can make a posthumous contribution to the natural economy.

Kind regards,

Mark Widdicombe

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Friday Shorts

August 7, 2009
Miss Scarborough

Miss Scarborough

Thanks Richard Gebhardt for this, it made my day.


I’m writing this at 0300. My reason for being up at this preposterous hour is that I’m too excited to sleep. This afternoon I’m going home to spend the long weekend with my beloved Scallywag and the Doofball who will probably bite me for abandoning him so cruelly.


Yesterday was the anniversary of the dropping of the first atom bomb on Japan. I’ve been having a lively debate with my sandal wearing, organic muesli eating, herbal cigarette smoking, free-range egg throwing friends who think that it was just horrid of the nasty Americans to do such a thing to the peace-loving, chrysanthemum-growing Japanese. My argument is that the Americans didn’t do it—the Japanese did it to themselves. When the first bomb fell on Pearl Harbour, Japan’s annihilation as a military power was assured.

The merest glance at a high school history textbook will leave a reader of the slightest discernment with one very important lesson: don’t wage war against white men. This is a lesson learned the hard way over the millennia by assorted native tribes of Africa, Asia and the Americas. You see, we don’t have a tradition of ritualistic warfare in which a battle is fought, the defeated cedes to the victor some token, and everyone goes happily home. Our wars must continue until the defeated is unable to wage further war. The Japanese failed to understand this. They thought that their destruction of much of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour, together with victory over the remainder of the US carrier fleet at Midway would the force the Americans to the negotiating table and allow the Japanese free reign in the Western Pacific. Things didn’t quite work out that way at Midway, where it was the Japanese who lost the Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu. But what if it had been the Yorktown, Hornet and Enterprise that had gone to the bottom instead?

It wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference. America had the resources to replace them with not three but thirty new carriers. So when the allied forces had systematically cleansed the Western Pacific of Japanese forces, why didn’t they reach a negotiated peace with Japan instead of preparing to invade their home islands? We’ve said it already: it isn’t in the European tradition to treat until one side is utterly defeated—Japan had to be destroyed as a military power. Invading the Japanese home islands could only be achieved at a horrific cost in allied lives; even Japanese schoolgirls (girl-child learners for SA readers) were trained to defend their emperor with wooden spears. Fortunately for the allies, a way to avoid invasion was at hand.

The Manhattan Project was not set up with Japan in mind. It was conceived as a counter to the very real threat of Nazi Germany developing nuclear weapons. With scientists like Heisenberg and von Braun, the Nazis had the expertise to develop and deliver an atom bomb. But by August 1945 Germany was already defeated, Berlin a smouldering pile of rubble. The choice faced by the allies was a simple one: invade Japan at the cost of hundreds of thousands allied lives, or force the Japanese into unconditional surrender by dropping atom bombs on their cities. They made the decision to use the bomb. It is my contention that not only was that the correct choice, it was the only possible choice in the circumstances.

But I’m running out of battery; here endeth the history lesson.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.