William S. Burroughs Memorial Service – Eulogy

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Remarks on Behalf of the Community

by Tim Miller

We gather here today as a community of men and women who admired and loved William S. Burroughs and were transformed by his extraordinary life. We are here to mourn William’s death, but that is a secondary matter. William’s family members, meaning the dozens or even hundreds of individuals who lived and worked closely with him for many years, call upon all here today and all who know William’s life and words to sustain his visionary message and carry it to the unenlightened world. August, 1997, stands as a departure point for William Burroughs and for all of us whose lives have been redirected by his. As always in human affairs, the father dies but the family continues.

With the passing of William and of Allen Ginsberg we have no one of their stature left. They changed our landscape forever. The world would not be what it is today had Naked Lunch not been written, or had the censors succeeded in suppressing it. We will always have cultures of rebellion, let us hope, but no other promises to be as vigorous and ingenious as the one they led. Thus the departure of these two revolutionaries of the human spirit leaves us who survive with the challenge of taking their work and their criticism forward. That bearing of the torch, rather than just mourning, needs to be our purpose here today.

All of that is not to gainsay the hole that is left in our lives and hearts. We do grieve deeply at the loss of William and struggle to make ourselves whole again. About a month ago I was privileged to have dinner with William and a few of his close friends, and after we had finished eating the rest of the company disappeared to the kitchen to do the cleanup. I faced an unspoken choice: I could go in and help with the dishes, or I could stay and talk with William — not a hard decision, to say the least. Our conversation was long, and William, who was saddened because his beloved cat Fletch had died that day, kept turning it to death and last rites. This man who so profoundly dissented from many of our cultural inheritances said that he actually rather liked the idea that friends would come together to bring things to a proper close.

He said that funerals were good for the living, although the deceased would already be addressing other tasks. In his view death was the point at which our real troubles would begin. The afterlife he did not expect to be immediately pleasant; one would have to struggle to get, finally, to the western lands.

Was he appreciated? Did he influence anyone? Only whole generations of cultural provocateurs who saw in him a seminal and inspiring courage. In Europe, even more than in the United States, the obituary press coverage has been voluminous. Tribute pages were quickly set up on the internet by admirers, and in the first two days they attracted hundreds of comments from around the world.

The world’s last great author has died; all the citizens of the Interzone have fled. William, you taught me how to truly see. — Shannon Gramas, Bayside, New York

Thank you, above all, for telling the truth. –Robert Firth, Singapore

I taught Naked Lunch to a group of blue haired ladies and plaid jacket golf course men at Suffolk Community College. They loved it, laughing out loud and shaking their heads and maybe going to confession afterwards. The golf links and beauty parlors of Long Island are forever changed because of Burroughs. — Tim Tomlinson, New York

We all live in too much fear. I think that it is time that we take a look around. How much freedom are we willing to relinquish before we learn the art of self-rule? — Marsha Faize, Buchanan, Virginia

We who live in Lawrence owe a special debt of gratitude to William for living among us for sixteen years. He was a splendid member of our community, one who for all his international renown went to the movies and the hardware store and checked out Massachusetts Street and had dinner parties several times a week. He gave public readings and did book signings but never adopted the role of high and mighty celebrity. We Lawrencians like to think we live in a cultured town, and no one in our collective history has contributed more to literature and the arts here than William has.

But he was hardly the exclusive property of Lawrence, Kansas.

William Burroughs inspired free people everywhere. He was a spiritual father to generations of emancipated human beings who refused to accept the mind-numbing canons of late American culture. He stood for freedom for everyone — not, for example, just for the polite homosexuals who could mix easily in elite academic company, but for the drag queens and the hard-core leather-and-chains crowd as well. He challenged our mores and our conditioning to the core.

Today we fight an uphill cultural battle. The forces of mediocrity, of multinational corporate domination, of intellectual and ideological rigidity, of consciousness shaped and controlled by greedy and narrow commercial interests, overwhelm us. We build endless prisons while we ignore what is really criminal in our midst. The battle is not an abstraction: witness the impending dissolution of the National Endowment for the Arts, among other omens. William wrote and spoke passionately about our society’s downward spiral. He maintained that we were tragically sliding into a time of lost spirit, a world of endless Johnson County suburbs and mediocrity and agents peering into our lives.

As he wrote in Nova Express, “This is a burning planet — Any minute now the whole fucking shit house goes up.” His call was for us to free ourselves from the relentless legions of decay. He never told us what to do, or to emulate him, but he encouraged us to do everything and always to keep from being run down by what his great pal Ginsberg called the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality.

Hail and farewell, William! Without you we will never be the same, but in our humble ways we will strive to be free and to make others free. We will carry your vision forward. Nothing is true and everything is permitted.

A faculty member at the University of Kansas, Timothy Miller was one of Burroughs’ many friends in Lawrence, Kansas. He delivered this eulogy at the memorial service held for Burroughs in Lawrence on 6 August 1997.

Published on 5 December 2006. Many thanks to Tim Miller.

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