I was a graduate student many years ago when I first discovered Thomas Lynch’s collection of essays on mortality and, as he calls it, the dismal trade. An undertaker by profession, his writing profoundly changed the way in which I viewed funerals, the mourning process and, ultimately, the way in which I viewed both the living and the dead.
After finishing his book, I began asking myself questions. The Big Questions that most of us don’t have answers for, and pretend aren’t there. What have I done with my life? Have I made the world a better place? If I were to die today, what would I leave behind?
Since that time, I return to Lynch’s book to give myself some perspective. Every year or so I’ll pick it back up and re-read the thing, cover to cover. Partly because I love his writing and partly because I need the reminder that we are finite beings, our lives all too brief and fleeting.
In November of 2009, I began re-reading The Undertaking while riding the Chicago El to and from work. Fittingly, the arc of my travels took me above and below ground, several times a day. As I disappeared into the tunnels of the Blue Line and emerged on the streets of the South Loop, I once again began asking myself Big Questions.
Am I a good person? Have I been living a meaningful life? Am I spending the time I’ve been given wisely and well? In trying to answer those questions, I began thinking of the advice people have given me… and of the advice I might give others.
During the day, for my job, I’m on the Internet a great deal. When I’m relaxing at home, I also spend a good deal of time online. I enjoy the whizz and bang of working with computers, and delight in watching the memes and URLs that spark across my monitor.
Many years ago, there was a site called The Dead Letter Office, which I admired. I believe its purpose was similar to this site’s purpose: a place for the living to look back on their lives, and to share stories. Though that site no longer exists today, I’d like to think that Dead Advice has at its heart the same spirit, the same goals. Other sources of inspiration include the Craigslist “Advice to Young Men from an Old Man” and 1000 Rules for My Unborn Son.
I have a particular fascination with the theme of Repetition and Variation. Rather than allowing a free form approach, I wanted to apply the lightest of parameters for each participant. I wanted letters submitted to Dead Advice to contain some slight structure, an element that would get repeated throughout each submission.
When I settled on the opening first sentence, it felt like planting a marker by which all others would travel. We would each start out the same way, but move in different directions and end in very different places.
Again, this seems fitting.
The format of Dead Advice is meant to be liberating. The opening line is designed to elevate the speaker, and to provide a podium where you can step up and give your answers to those Big and Difficult and Important Questions. I believe very much that each life is remarkable… and that we all have remarkable stories to tell.
The old adage of You can’t take it with you refers to money and material possessions, but the saying also holds true when speaking about advice. I hope during your visit you read a little, and are inspired a little. And if you’re comfortable enough, I hope you’ll be moved enough to share a little.
Felix Jung lives in Chicago with his wife Liz, and two rabbits named Baxter and Quincy. He works at Emmis Interactive with a bunch of people that he loves. He enjoys technology, poetry and scotch (though not necessarily in that order).
He runs avoision.com, a personal blog he’s been updating every day since June, 2002.