Post-mortem Arrangements

Today is the tenth anniversary (in the secular calendar) of Joseph Witriol’s death. JW – Post-mortem Arrangements  was 16 handwritten pages for pre-mortem reading (perhaps post –  note the faint question mark)  by his wife and children.

Joseph Witriol - post mortem arrangements

An exercise in post-mortemism

Typically, it contains the nitty-gritty, with his trademark attention to detail, as well as more general comments and reflections. This is what he wrote although I have left some details out, mainly parts dealing with the financial position.


Darling, [i.e to Edith Witriol]

These are idyllic circumstances in which to contemplate death: I am writing these lines in the garden, in the shade of the table parasol. Even though the garden is under-cultivated (as I frequently say to myself: I must be one of the few people in Mayfield Avenue who know that Voltaire said “Il faut cultiver son jardin” and my garden must be one of the least cultivated of all the Mayfield Avenue gardens. Voltaire was speaking figuratively (in Candide – well worth reading in English). He meant we must do whatever job we’re capable of doing as well as we can) – even though the garden is not much, and even if the garden chairs are Woollies – still, it’s very pleasant.

Let me try to get down to brass tacks, pausing only to say how grateful I am to you for having given me the best 24+ years of my life.

A.  Immediate financial arrangements Cancel all Bank Standing Orders….

B.  Funeral Standard United Synagogue. Announce death in classified (NOT “Social and Personal”) columns of Jewish Chronicle. The children should NOT attend if they would prejudice their careers by doing so. Should my demise occur just before they are taking their Finals, they should NOT absent themselves from their exams (or important interviews or whatever); the best tribute they can pay me is to perform maxima cum laude, i.e. to get Firsts.

*C. Shiva. Same remarks re non-attendance apply. The mood should be serene. If my luck holds, I shall die quickly and painlessly, so there is no need for sadness. If I am unlucky, and my death is ling — er-ing, then על אחת כמה וכמ and/or קל וחומר – a fortiori my release will be even less a cause for sadness.

* I’d like Philip, Max and Susannah to observe yoohrsteit for Uncle Sam [his older brother]. He died on 25 Shevat. (Susannah could light yoohrsteit candle.)

D. Tombstone “Joseph Witriol, (וסף בנ ‘שראל וואלף) brother of Samuel Witriol, died aged  —  (It’s  וואלף on the tombstone of my father עייה, but the Israeli spelling, which I prefer, is וולף – talk about A Grammarian’s Funeral ! (by Robert Browning, must read). If Max can think of a suitable פסוק – O.K; but otherwise the bare, standard minimum will do. (But I’d like the “Brother of Samuel Witriol” to be in). I had thought of having לֹא-אָמוּת כִּי-אֶחְיֶה “I shall not die, but live” (Psalms) inscribed, but hypocritical though I may have been in life, at the grave hypocrisy must have no place.*

* Just where it’s most prevalent, actually – de mortuis nil nisi bunkum

E. Charitable Donations With very few exceptions, I have left no appeal unanswered, but you will not be able to do the same…

F. Income Tax This will NOT be a problem…

G. Income and Expenditure…a minimum expenditure of £30 a week [i.e. just for utilities, rates and insurance]…and a maximum net income of £45 a week.  £15 a week to feed and clothe yourself, pay shool bill…TV licence! (£46 p.a.), newspapers, etc. etc.

H. Supplementary Benefit You might have to claim supp ben, for which you would be eligible – I think – if your capital were less than £2500 (Don’t try to reduce your capital by  giving the kids £1000 each or anything like that – they know all the dodges…)

I. The Financial Solution There are all kinds of permutations and combinations. Lodger(s)? – could be troublesome…swap for another house or flat…

J. Re-marriage Of course do so if an opportunity presents itself…

K. My Literary Estate (Save the mark!) As a retirement occupation for them/him/her, (one of) the children could publish my Yiddish book…re-typing would cost, say £500…300 copies could be run off, by Gestetner or offset litho, making the total cost including binding, say £3000. I still believe you could sell 200 copies at £30 each…If someone has the time, and if and when they have the cash, I’d like this to be done. But obviously the children must first establish themselves securely in their careers. (Get out a book on publishing, whoever undertakes the job.)

There’s also a bound, professionally typed transcript of Poor Cicero by Max Brod, in my translation. Someone might be able to flog that, as also my translation of Max Brod’s Janacek[Brod’s biography of Heinrich Heine was first published in English in 1956 in a  translation by Joseph Witriol]. Whoever wants it/them can have my “cuttings” album, my “journals” and my autobiography if I get round to writing it. As eldest, Philip has first choice.

L. Books. I’ve no doubt Max will want all my Judaica.* The hope is that all three children will be able to use some of the books. Tatty books discard. It might be worth hanging on to books for which no-one has any apparent use. To give just one example: my Middle (= medieval) High German grammar and my MHG dictionary. Although it’s unlikely any of the children will be interested in MHG, it’s not impossible that one of their children will be and  – this is the point – while my present German dictionary will be out of date in 20-30 years time, my Middle High German books will be just as valuable in 100 years time, since New High German will have changed, but Middle High German won’t.

There are four volumes, in Yiddish, of Geshikhte der Yidishe Shprakh…I must have paid something like £30 for them in 1974. The first two volumes have now been translated into English, so the volumes in Yiddish will be less valuable. But vols iii and iv, notes and references, will be needed by anyone who is doing serious work on Yiddish…

You may wish to keep Lorna Doone, the only school prize I’ve ever won (and which I’ve never read). [also see here] And try to keep Bland, Brown and Tawney’s Economic Documents of the Middle Ages…and a book on Counterpoint –  which Sam עייה got when thinking of getting a Mus Bac degree – though with a full-time job and the shop [ a fancy goods and confectionery shop in Newington Butts opened in 1924 by their widowed mother] to cope with, it was doomed from the start.

* 29/10/1982. Not so sure about this now! There’s no point in hanging on to books if no one is ever going to look at them.** Anyway, Max can use his discretion in disposing of them.

** But even the cheap set of Dickens – given away free with the old Daily Herald or News Chronicle – is worth hanging on to. Commentaries on Dickens will change, but the text won’t, and you never know when someone might want to read Pickwick or whatever.

M. Moral Testament. I suppose I ought to leave some kind of moral testament for my children, but I can’t think of anything other than that they should try to earn an honest living, should not separate themselves from the Jewish community, while integrating fully into the larger, British, international community – I’m sure they see what I mean – and they should try to shed lustre on the name of Witriol. It was a name given in contempt (like the “Contemptible little Army” as Kaiser Bill described the British Expeditionary Force – but people were proud to call themselves “Old Contemptibles”), but it would be nice if one or all of the children could give it the distinction I failed to achieve for it.

         Farewell, good luck.


2 thoughts on “Post-mortem Arrangements

  1. Pingback: Part 65: 3rd September 1960, 10.15 p.m. | Joseph Witriol's writings

  2. very moving words fail me.
    As far as the posuk I was given the honour of choosing, I didn’t have to look too far for something appropriate. Natural starting point was book of proverbs and 4 verses in was a pure gift :
    “Yishmah Chochom veYOSEF Lekach(The wise man hears and INCREASES wisdom)”
    Venovon Tachoolos Yikneh(and the man of understanding will aquire strategies)
    Pretty appropriate for a man who was thirsty to learn(he took up Russian in his late 70’s for instance) but more than his academia he epitomised also the definition of a wise man in Ethics of the Fathers: “he he learns from everyone”). I always remember dad being genuinely interested in the other point of view and having great respect for everyone’s comments.
    If only I could have a conversation now with him…

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