“The Contents of Lincoln’s Pockets” by Rainer Maria

141. Song No. 2,094: “The Contents of Lincoln’s Pockets,” Rainer Maria
A Better Version of Me, 2001

According to this song, at the time of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, his pockets contained:

— Two pairs of spectacles
— A lens polisher
— A pocket knife
— A watch fob
— A linen handkerchief
— A brown leather wallet containing $5 in Confederate money
— Nine newspaper clippings (though other sources say eight)
— Walt Whitman’s pen

This isn’t just an ur-listicle: It’s evidence of yet another way we rob the dead of the dignity of keeping their final secrets to themselves. It’s not a personal betrayal of their confidence but a necessary, utterly depersonalized function of how our society handles and responds to death, sanitizing the process in general and turning possessions touched by a human being’s final moments into revered relics if the deceased is famous enough.

If you’ve never rifled through the otherwise-verboten territory of a former coworker’s sock drawer to select the pair he’d be buried in, I envy you for not getting smacked with the realization that death comes to the comparatively less famous as an uncomfortable invasion because the deceased’s immediate family—including your own dear friend who was denied the widow title befitting her piled-on grief of transferring payments for what should have been her bridal flowers to pay for funeral sprays instead—was out selecting his casket when they were just finalizing wedding plans literally the day before. I mean, uh, hypothetically speaking, of course.

But how can you deal with that kind of information?

Less personally, this is also a song about how the things we own own a piece of us, like the pen we use to pin down the thoughts and observations that are always threatening to escape us if we don’t move fast enough or the glasses we see the world through. Or it’s a song about not knowing how to brace for the impact of that little kernel of news that absolutely blows your world apart and reduces you to a crumpled heap just as effectively as a shot to the head. Or it’s expressing frustration that some of us are silenced by our fears and anxieties while the same world that taught us to doubt ourselves also produced other mere mortals somehow capable of untold, infinite greatness that transcends their inevitable deaths.

Like almost everything we buy and enjoy and personalize, most things don’t have just one function and their particular importance is determined by their owner. This song, whatever roles it plays, is another one of them, whether it’s an extended metaphor, a rumination on the postmortem significance everyday objects acquire in the wake of tragedy, a societal complaint, a personal indictment or simply a novelty built on the foundation of list-making as a lyrical art.