Mount this tattoo in remembrance of me

When I was a small boy I discovered a jar on the mantelpiece at Clint Lishman’s house.

“What’s in there?” I asked. Clint told me to put my finger inside.

I had no real reason to trust Clint Lishman – not after that stunt he pulled with the snail in my shoe – but I was a young daredevil, so I moistened my forefinger and dipped it into what appeared to be a collection of crumbled cement grit mixed up with some bigger pieces.

“What does it taste like?” asked Clint, which tipped me off because if it had been anything worth eating, he definitely wouldn’t have shared it with me. Still, although I was wise to his scheme, I did have a little taste of it, which is how I can report that Clint Lishman’s cremated grandmother tasted a little bit like chewing the lead of a Stabilo Boss HB pencil, with maybe just a pinch of white pepper.

I wouldn’t say I was traumatised by this experience – I even put a small amount of Clint’s grandmother in my pocket to take home to play a prank on my sister, although in the end I forgot about it and she went though the washing machine and came out all clumpy and had to be thrown away, unused – but it did give me a healthy aversion to the practice of over-zealously preserving the relics of departed loved ones.

For one thing, it’s undignified for the dead party – did the Lishmans in their heart of hearts imagine their sainted granny would relish a suburban afterlife as a dust-collecting knickknack with no purpose other than springing nasty practical jokes on the kid from two doors down? I don’t really buy that it keeps the memory of the old dear alive in the family’s heart: the longer something sits useless and inert in your line of vision, the less you see it. The daily sight of granny’s urn would have become a shortcut, bypassing the more onerous task of actually remembering the old dear.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Granny Lishman was on the mantelpiece because she wanted to be there. Maybe her will stipulated, “You can have the curtains and the serviette rings and the carriage-clock, provided I am forever prominently displayed in a suitably sized receptacle with an unsealed lid.”

It would be a weird and selfish imposition on the next generation, but that’s what the quest for immortality is. I was reminded of Old Lady Lishman this week, when I read about a new American organization called NAPSA: the National Association for the Preservation of Skin Art.

NAPSA is the brainchild of one Charles Hamm, a bald, tattooed oldster living in Cleveland, Ohio, who realised one day how much time and money he’d sunk into inking his body with such perishably imperishable wonders as a gorilla face on his chest, and various iterations of lizards designed by his grandson. Why, he wondered, should these delights die with him? Is he some Midwestern ISIS member, destroying works of art that in truth belong to all humanity and the ages? No, decided Charles Hamm, it would be selfish and irresponsible – nay, barbarous! – to take that rattlesnake poking out of a skull’s empty eye-socket with him to the grave. “You wouldn’t burn a Picasso, would you?” he said.

So Mr Hamm invented a process for preserving skin. He is cagey with details, but confides that he has patented “a chemical and enzymatic process” that changes tissue composition and prevents it decaying. If you have signed up with NAPSA, when you die the area of skin bearing your tattoo is removed and posted to the organisation’s headquarters, where it is treated chemically, not to mention enzymatically, and then mounted, framed and presented to the lucky family member to whom it is bequeathed. His wife’s getting the gorilla, and of course the lizards are crawling back to the grandson who designed them, because why should you ever be allowed to forget the horrible drawing of a squamate reptile you made when you were six years old?

Ah, what a legacy to receive. If you think you feel guilty for not making the time to visit Aunty Esther when she came down with pleurisy, imagine the guilt of wrapping a piece of Aunty Esther in a plastic bag and hiding it in a cardboard box in the garage because there’s no way in hell you’re hanging a piece of blue butt-cheek on your wall, even if it someone has drawn a nice picture of Tinkerbell on it.

And there it will lurk, an untreasured family heirloom passing down through the generations, giving ultimate truth to the lines Philip Larkin didn’t quite write:

“to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is our tattoo.”

The Times, 8 October 2015