Bardo in Kansas by Patricia Elliott
Patricia Elliott, a friend of William S. Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, posted many heartfelt accounts of his last days and the days that followed his death to the BEAT-L, an internet mailing list where she is often a lively part of the conversation. (If you’d like to know how to join this list, visit this page).
I was tempted to include all of Patricia’s posts here, but decided instead that this description of a Tibetan/Egyptian-inspired death ceremony had special power and was best left to stand alone. Burroughs was a writer who thrived on contradiction, and so I particularly liked the idea of a Buddhist death ceremony for a man whose strong skepticism and libertarianism did not make him a natural Buddhist in life. (Example: In a letter to Jack Kerouac, who was deeply involved with Eastern philosophy for
most of his later life, Burroughs once wrote: “A man who uses Buddhism or any other instrument to remove love from his being in order to avoid, has committed, in my mind, a sacrilege comparable to castration.”)
The energy and humor of clashing ideas has always been at the heart of Burroughs’ art. In that spirit, here’s a scene from the
final act of his life story.
— Levi Asher
All week long I didn’t want to go. I felt swept with anxiety and decided about 7 times I wouldn’t go. James [Grauerholz], who never calls me, called me around 1 PM and said he was just checking in to make sure I knew to come. Bob, John Myers, Lena and I drove out to Wayne Propst’s farm for the bardo around six. Wayne was a close and dear friend to William and an old and dear friend to me. Wayne is a mad scientist, ingenious with all things mechanical. I made a pasta salad and John Myers took a six pack.
Wayne and his family live on lush riverfront land, lots of outbuildings, scene of hundreds of experiments and gatherings. William really never missed Wayne’s parties. Lena heard at school from a friend, who was also going to the bardo, that Wayne might blow something up. The excitement builds when Wayne is involved. Wayne has an old farm house, many outbuildings, trees, giant warm barn. His property runs along the Kansas River (we call it the Kaw River). Beautiful kaw valley bottoms.
The bardo is staged to be in front of the barn, in a small pasture. The big barn doors open to the pasture, flooding light from one space into another. In the middle of the pasture there was a massive dome-shaped heavy wire cage with a wire doorway. Inside were lumber, fireworks, pictures, and pages and pages of things that people brought and were bringing. I guess there were a hundred and fifty people. I knew a hundred of them, wide varieties of different folks, overwhelming for me. Actually exchanged cards with some kid that does a Burrough’s site. Perfect weather, light breeze, around 60 degrees.
Around dusk, standing in front of the barn, Wayne spoke (on a nice speaker system), then introduced James Grauerholz. Now it is getting dark. James reads a farewell to William’s soul letter from David Ohle, first by lighter — of course at one point you heard a little sound from James, when it got hot, and then someone brought up a kerosene lantern from the barn, and James then read a note from Giorno. Then James said a few things and explained some of the Egyptian and Tibetan Buddhistic relationships in the ceremony, tying in the significance of William’s writings in his book “The Western Lands”.
Wayne goes to the dome and lights the fire. It was glorious, it grew, it swirled, popped, pulsed, danced. The cage was a dome about 12 feet high and 20 feet across. Things like pictures, posters, objects d’art, and many many papers were laid on the lumber, but things and paper also hung suspended from the cage. Once the fire flowered came Williams voice, reading from “Western Lands”. It was perfect, I swear the fire danced with his voice. The Cheshire cat had his smile but William’s voice was the most evocative voice. I got up and went nearer the fire, strode around the fire, circled it three times. Most people sat in chairs and on benches in a large semi circle, music, flames, love. I stood up with James and Bill Hatke, the sparks flew wild. In the crowd was William’s dentist, Charley Kincaid, (he had been one of the pallbearers at the Liberty Hall service), and he is the wildest, funniest man, with a wonderful good soul. That guy can distract you from a root canal with his wit. Fred Aldridge sat in one chair, He shot with William weekly for ten years or more. Fred is a tall skinny redhead. I’ve known him for 30 years. I introduced William to Fred. William was like a father to Fred’s soul. Fred is a talented musician and artist, driven always to some elegant perfection. There were the New York suits standing in the barn. They seemed to be having a remarkably good time, the most relaxed I had ever seen the suits. In the crowd are such a variety of people that I am stunned but recognize that these were all people that William had built a relationship with over the 16 years he had made Lawrence his home. William loved persons rather than people, and he loved fun. It was a fun and a sober sight to see the embers chasing to the sky and think that’s William’s soul flying to the western lands.
I feel when William first died, his spirit was there in the room with his body. It was comforting. Then I felt his spirit whirling around the world, I almost know he went to Tangiers for a moment. I feel he is gone. We have lots to do now.
Two additional notes: Sue Brossau (David Ohles’ wife) mentioned that the fire cage was one that Wayne and William had made for a bardo they’d held for Allen Ginsberg.
For a little illumination, here is, approximately, James Grauerholz’s remarks at William’s Bardo Burn, 9/20/97
Why are we here?
Each and every one of us has a different answer to that question, and we can meditate on those reasons while we take part in this event tonight.
It has something to do with our hosts, Wayne and Carol, and I know we all thank them for making this gathering possible.
It has something to do with Lawrence, our community – not the “metropolis” of Lawrence, frankly – but the community that we found when we came here, however many years ago we came here … the community that we built here, over the years that we have been here … the community that we share, now, while we are still here.
And it has something to do with William Burroughs. William lived here for sixteen years, longer than he lived in any other place in his life.
Every time William went out in the town, he always ran into friends; he had friends here, everywhere he went.
And every time he travelled far away, he always came home to Lawrence.
Lawrence was William’s home, his final home. He lived here, he lived well here, and he died here.
And we all miss him very much.
Now, I don’t know how many of us are Buddhists, and I’m pretty sure there are no more than one or two ancient Egyptians here tonight, but I’d like to say a few words about their belief systems concerning life, and death, and life after death.
The ancient Egyptians postulated seven souls – as William’s voice will be explaining for us, in a moment … three of those souls split, at the moment of the death, the other four remain with the subject, to take their chances with him in the Land of the Dead. But first he or she must cross the Duad, the River of Shit, all the filth and hatred and despair of all human history — then, on the other side, lay down the body, the Sekhu, the Remains, and journey through the Land of the Dead, encountering souls from your own life who have gone before – through a thousand challenges and trials, you try to make your way to the Western Lands …
The Buddhist belief (I can’t do this justice right now, but this is basically it) is that your soul, more or less, is reborn again and again, into new lives. Ideally, you would not be reborn, but escape the wheel and of death and rebirth, into nirvana; but the highest enlightened ones consciously vow to be reborn as many times as it takes for all sentient beings to become enlightened, they sacrifice their opening to nirvana – that is the boddhisattva vow.
The idea is that after physical death, the soul wanders through a spirit region known as the Bardo, re-living past experiences, facing images left over from other lives, other karma – and then, usually after about seven weeks, is re-born – attracted to a male and female coupling, and born again, to suffer again.
We are gathered here tonight to perform a ceremony that is ancient and universal – the burning of objects and images associated with the departed, to symbolize the dissolution of the physical body and its intermixture with all other elements – for example, Native Americans, it was pointed out to me tonight, burn the dead person’s belongings immediately after death …
Now if I haven’t waited too late and I can still read this, I’m going to read you some short remarks sent here by David Ohle, and by John Giorno:
First, from David Ohle:
“Sendoff Message to the Soul of Bill
Well now, Bill. They say you’ve done your Bardo time, and now your SOUL is fixing to head off somewhere.
But look here, baby. We’re gonna miss that creaky old soft machine you’ve been walking around in these eight score and three. We got used to it, you know. Those wise and witty things it said. And wrote. And it must have pumped fifteen tons of lead into the world.
I don’t know about souls, my dear. But if you have one (and I know you believed you did), then let’s give it the giddyup ‘n’ go. Shoo! Everybody say it, “Shoo! Giddyup! Git on, Bill’s soul!”
And take care crossin’ that River of Shit.
Sorry I ain’t there today, my dear, but I figure when you’re talking soul travel, what the fuck is a few thousand miles? I’m looking toward Kansas right now. I see something.”
And this from John Giorno, and I’ll try to approximate his delivery:
to fill the world,
you have accomplished
and great bliss,
and the vast empty
of Primordially pure
All right. Why are we here?
I mean, in the larger sense … William had a very definite answer to that question:
We are Here to Go.
Okay, let’s burn it.