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The passing of Anna Nicole Smith last week was a reminder that death has a humorous side. Smith reportedly styled herself another Marilyn Monroe, to whose death hers bears a definite resemblance. This recalls Karl Marx’s quip about Napoleon III – “History repeats itself, but the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce.”
“Always look on the bright side of death!” sang the crucified chorus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Jokes of this ilk are in deplorable taste, but we laugh at them regardless, and with good reason. We can laugh at the death of individuals (and not just silly or disagreeable ones like the late Ms. Smith) because we know that individual death is not the end.
Not only the religious believe in immortality. The most atheistic communist hopes that his memory will live in the heart of a grateful proletariat. Even if we do not believe that our soul will have a place in heaven or that we shall be resurrected in the flesh, we nonetheless believe that something of ourselves will remain, in the form of progeny, memories, consequences of actions, and that this something will persist as long as people who are like us continue to inhabit the Earth. Humanity perseveres in the consolation that some immortal part of us transcends our death.
Sadly, our hope for immortality in the form of remembrance is a fragile and often a vain one. Immortality of this sort depends upon the survival of people who are like us, that is, upon the continuity of our culture. If you truly believe in a supernatural afterlife, to be sure, nothing really can disappoint you. But there is no consolation in being the last Mohican.
This sort of observation applies to all peoples and all times. What makes our epoch unique is the disquieting fact that the most extant cultures are sliding headlong toward early extinction. Unutterable despair attends the prospect of their demise, for the doomed well know that soon none of their tongue and kindred will be left to remember them. Nine out of 10 of the world’s 6,700 languages are not expected to survive the century. Give it another century or two and some of the cultures that once bestrode the planet will disappear as well, given the now generally bemoaned decline of the populations of most industrial nations.
It is easy to have fun at the expense of the individual’s demise. Examples abound of amusing deaths in literature, for example Polonius in Hamlet, Fagin in David Copperfield, von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, and the entire cast of La Celestina, Fernando de Roja’s 1499 tragicomedy. Emma Bovary’s death by poisoning always seemed to me at very least grotesque, if not hilarious.
There are few examples in literature of a light-hearted response to the extinction of a whole people, however. Only one in fact comes to mind, namely Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, that is, to cure as bacon the starving children of Ireland. As an Irishman, Swift attacked the conscience of his English audience. The Nazis no doubt enjoyed the idea of exterminating the Jews. Despite the circulation of a few execrable ashtray jokes, there can be nothing funny in the murder of a people that very much wants to live, and has done nothing to deserve the heinous attempt to exterminate it.
Only one truly funny national-extinction joke currently circulates; it concerns the man from a certain country who reproaches actor William Shatner of Star Trek as follows: “On your show, you had Russians, Chinese, Africans, and many others – why did you never have a character of my nationality?” Shatner replies, “You must understand that Star Trek is set in the future.” I will leave it to the reader to decide which nation best fits the joke.
Today’s wave of national extinction is of an entirely different character, for the peoples who soon will take their leave from the Earth do so because they no longer wish to live, and not because some other people wishes to wipe them out. I have written about this frequently and will not reiterate my conclusions here.  Suffice it to say that our consciousness reels at the willful self-extinction of an entire culture. The prospect of such an event is unheimlich, in Sigmund Freud’s use of the term; this usually is translated as “uncanny,” although a better rendition might be “creepy to the point of being quite horrid.” It is one thing for us to feel that someone has stepped on our grave, and quite another to sense that the graves of our ancestors have been eradicated as well.
As an antidote to this Unheimlichkeit, might it not be beneficial to consider whether a bit of Swiftian humor might take the edge off national extinction? If “bright side of death” jokes are in bad taste where individuals are concerned, we should have to admit that national-extinction humor oversteps the bounds of acceptable taste. That, however, should not stand between us and a good laugh. Toward that end, here’s a bit of doggerel about disappearing nations. Notes are provided for readers who might find some of the cultural references obscure.
Ten little Japanese went out to dine.
One ordered puffer fish, and then there were nine. 
Nine little Germans marched out with Fritz the Great;
One followed orders, and then there were eight. 
Eight little Englishmen were eating cream of Devon;
One clogged his arteries, and then there were seven. 
Seven little Russian girls went out to turn some tricks;
One went to Vancouver, and then there were six. 
Six little Irishmen were singing, “Saints alive!”
One sang, “St George!” and then there were five. 
Five little Frenchmen looked out from Sacre-Coeur;
One leaned out too far, and then there were four. 
Four little Persians awaited the Mahdi;
One got impatient, and then there were three.
Three little Dutchman were red, white and blue: 
The blue one got euthanized, and then there were two. 
Two little Spaniards were sitting in the sun;
They began a Civil War, and then there was one. 
One last Italian whom the doctors couldn’t clone:
He died eventually, and then there were none.
If this is offensive, I hasten to explain that this is purely intentional, but note in my defense that I am an equal-opportunity offender. I refer without favoritism to Japanese morbidity, German servility, English cooking, Russian concupiscence, Irish rancor, French grandiosity, Persian messianism, Dutch indifference, and Spanish contentiousness. If I have left out other prospectively extinct cultures, it is because the literary form permits only the enumeration of 10 instances.  Remember that it’s not the end of the world – it’s just the end of you. And have a nice day.
1. Why nations die, Asia Times Online, August 16, 2005.
2. “Fugu (as the Japanese call puffer fish) is in high demand in Japan and is also the only delicacy officially forbidden to the nation’s emperor. According to Ryo Sakai, the sushi-bar manager at Blowfish, 20,000 tons of puffer are consumed in Japan every year, with 100 to 200 deaths attributed to puffer-fish poisoning annually.” (Press magazine, April 18, 2006)
3. “Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben? (Dogs, do you want to live forever?)” Frederick the Great of Prussia told his retreating troops at the Battle of Kolin on June 18. 1757.
4. “It is commonly said, even by the English themselves, that English cooking is the worst in the world.” (George Orwell)
5. “Criminal groups make an estimated $7 billion annually by trafficking in women from Russian and other former Soviet Republics” (Gillian Caldwell, Global Survival Network, Reuters, November 6, 1997). See Russia, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Regarding Vancouver as an example of the dangers of this profession, see The case of the serial killer, Time magazine.
6. St George is the patron saint of England and therefore anathema to the Irish.
7. The Basilica of Sacre-Coeur overlooking Paris, built just after France’s disastrous 1870 war with Prussia, is a symbol of France’s wounded national pride and mystical sense of grandeur.
8. Colors of the Dutch flag.
9. The Netherlands is the only country in the world that openly practices euthanasia. See Euthanasia in Holland.
10. A total of 365,000 Spaniards died in the Civil War of 1936-39, not counting 100,000 executed afterward by the victors.
11. The original “Ten Little Indians” refers to native Americans, not to South Asians. It is of course objectionable in the extreme. Several versions are extant. This is the earliest of which I know:
Ten little Injuns standin’ in a line,
One toddled home and then there were nine;
Nine little Injuns swingin’ on a gate,
One tumbled off and then there were eight.
One little, two little, three little, four little, five little Injun boys,
Six little, seven little, eight little, nine little, ten little Injun boys.
Eight little Injuns gayest under heav’n,
One went to sleep and then there were seven;
Seven little Injuns cuttin’ up their tricks,
One broke his neck and then there were six.
Six little Injuns all alive,
One kicked the bucket and then there were five;
Five little Injuns on a cellar door,
One tumbled in and then there were four.
Four little Injuns up on a spree,
One got fuddled and then there were three;
Three little Injuns out on a canoe,
One tumbled overboard and then there were two.
Two little Injuns foolin’ with a gun,
One shot t’other and then there was one;
One little Injun livin’ all alone,
He got married and then there were none.