Six years ago, at the First Committee Meeting of the International Necronautical Society, an organisation set up to explore 'the cultural parameters of death' - why not? - the INS's Chief Obituary Reviewer (my sister Melissa) announced that she would be conducting a study of surfers, whom she 'suspected were onto something'. Six months later, I and other INS committee members cross-examined her about her findings in an art gallery that had been adapted to look and function like a sinister Hearings Camera: microphones, stenographers, press area - that sort of thing. Surfers were making sporadic appearances in obituary pages around that time, and my sister had seen connections between their funerary rituals, which involve decorated boards, and Melville's Queequeg's copying of the tattoos adorning his body onto his own coffin - the coffin that ends up serving as a floating board for the shipwrecked Ishmael. The best surfers frequently check out in style, wiping out and drowning as they attempt to surf the unsurfable wave. A particularly legendary surfer, diagnosed with cancer, paddled his board towards the horizon with no intention of returning; then, after a lifeguard hauled him back, deliberately crashed his camper van into a tree. Most impressive of all, though, are the statistically small but psychologically significant minority who get eaten by sharks.
LRB 1 November 2007 | PDF Download