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June 17, 2024

Oort Cloud Oddities: James Lick's Monument

By Alexandra Queen

So Dia de los Muertos is coming up. My family is starting to talk about how to remember lost relatives and friends for the season. What symbols will we use to represent them? What treats will we have in their memory? I find myself pondering the question, "How do you want to be remembered when you die?"

I am reminded of the story of James Lick, first told to me by my astronomy professor at MJC, William Luebke and described in detail by Helen Wright in the book, "James Lick's Monument". James Lick was one of the grand eccentrics of California History, a pioneer weirdo, if you will. This is a man who built several mansions, finally settling on one in a location that was best suited for his botany hobbies. There he dwelt, residing in a front room with no furniture save a single grand piano. Not for playing, for sleeping on. Apparently, Lick had no use for the rest of the house and preferred to keep the floor clear for drying seeds and flowers, which he had spread across the entire room. There's no historical evidence to suggest his main hobby was experimenting with smoking the plant matter once it was dry, but one sometimes wonders.

Looking like a slightly unstable Abraham Lincoln, James Lick had arrived in San Francisco, already a rich man, about two weeks before the Gold Rush. While everyone in the Bay Area sold their property and went off to scratch around in the Sierra Nevada, James Lick quietly bought up most of San Francisco. If you think housing prices around here have sky-rocketed lately, you can catch a sense of how disgustingly rich James Lick suddenly became.

Time passes, and even oddballs grow old. James Lick began to think about the same question that's hanging in my mind. How did he want to be remembered when he died? That fertile (and possibly well fumigated) mind came up with a number of startling ideas, including towering statues of his parents, in the style of the Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. The idea he came up with that I liked best, however, was to build a giant pyramid of marble, larger than Cheops' pyramid in Egypt, right there at the entrance to San Francisco Bay.

What a glistening gem that would have been for thousands upon thousands of years to come! After the last election, we could have used it as a true symbol of our state's headlong determination to do things our way, no matter how strange or expensive. The inmates at Alcatraz on work detail could have felt an eerie chill looking upon it, and a link through ages past to the slaves laboring on the pyramids by the banks of the Nile. The government could have purchased it to use as a military base instead of the Presidio. Rice-a-Roni boxes could have sported little pyramids instead of cable cars. But no, in the end James Lick was persuaded to dump his money into what was at the time the world's largest observatory, so that his monument could be innumerable contributions to science and our understanding of the universe. What's up with that?!

I can see how he was persuaded from one to the other. In Cairo, city of pyramids and antiquities, they've set the precedents for how to be remembered after you're dead since the dawn of civilization. Even after pyramids became passe, wealthy Egyptians would found hospitals and colleges to house their tombs so that they could contribute to knowledge and science from beyond the grave. Why take a few sticks of gold furniture into the afterlife when you could bring an entire institution?

Which brings me back to how I want to be remembered when I die. Doing something productive with one's final resting place sounds like a good idea. Family is important to me. Food is a favorite past time. I'd like my tomb to be a busy place, where everyone is welcome, with lots of laughter.

Food, folks, fun ... Hmm. When I go, just build a McDonald's over my grave.

This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin, and in the Piker Press 11/22/2003.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-10-27
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