After we die

Funerals are in the air today, what with the memorial in Tucson for the victims of that shooting. I recently attended a funeral. The person who died was a very lovely man. He lived to be 78. He was still too young to die as his mind and body were relatively agile until the last 8 months of his life. But truth be told he had survived some serious medical problems and was fortunate to have lived an extra five years. And we were fortunate too. He will be missed.

Jack decided to be cremated. His ashes were present at his memorial. While I sat in his very moving memorial service I was returned again to an old question that I've yet to resolve. I've discussed it with a few of you out there before. It's basically this: Is there an ideal way to dispose of your remains when you die?

In the religious tradition I was raised in, cremations were considered inappropriate. One was to be buried. Somehow it made the resurrection more efficient. Or something like that. So, my father upon his death at age 61 was buried. He is buried in Albuquerque. And his gravesite has been a source of great importance to me. Especially during the early years of bereavement. My grief was given a location. The grave was close to my house and the University. It was a place I could visit on certain occasions as I traveled between the two. I had some very important weepy talks at the foot of his grave. Once even at 3am on a summer night after a long shift on a surgical rotation I sat sobbing and told him of my hardships and bemoaned the greatest injustice of all–his early death. His grave provided a sacred place to suffer and be near him and miss him.

Every visit to Albuquerque (about once a year) still involves a visit to his grave. The visits have now become much less emotional. They are often an organized event when all the family gathers and carpools to the cemetary. The visits have even become a little perfunctory of late. But it is still a place to sit and feel my grief focus. And it is a place to take our young son. There is a grave stone. And his aunts are crying. And his grandmother is clearing the grass and placing flowers. And for a minute he stops and sits and takes it all in before running off to catch more insects. The power of a grave site to wordlessly communicate profound emotions to the survivors can even endure into another generation.

Yet, I find the idea of cremation so compelling. To have my body consumed by fire and turned to ash seems so much more welcoming than decades of slow cold decay. Maybe it's just winter. Or a weariness with this aging wrinkling machine. But I say, burn the damned thing and have it over already! Cremation seems the most appealing option.

But then what to do with the ashes? I can't stand the idea of someone keeping them around. They should be released of course. But where? Some nice place out in nature I guess. The ash-scattering site doesn't seem that important to me. But then I think of my son. Or siblings. Or Mom. If my ashes were scattered somewhere not too far away, could loved-ones feel my presence there? Could they visit that place in nature and feel closer to me? Grieve me? I suppose, yes. But not in the way I want them to. The way I got to do it. (Now, if that isn't micromanaging?)

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But really. Wasn't it so helpful to me and all of Dad's loved-ones to have a gravesite? Wouldn't it be something beneficial to my survivors? I kind of think it would.

So my thinking of late is this, if I'm old when I die, and my survivor's grief will likely be of the usual sort, well then, I'll get cremated. A gravesite won't matter at all. Do you know how many times I've visited my grandparents gravesite since their funerals? Not one time. (I'm not proud of that fact by the way.) But if I'm young, my feeling is that a gravesite is helpful. At least, that's the lesson I draw from my own experience. And that's all I have here.

And of course, I like the idea of a green death–no embalming and just a simple pine box. I'm still a traditionalist about a box. Nate's burial on Six Feet Under wrapped in white sheets and placed in a hole out in the woods was pretty unforgettable. I had never witnessed a 21st century burial like that. And it was awesome. But I still want a box. That's just me.

Oh, and one more thing, that stupid memorial. It's inescapable. There has to be a service with a few songs and some touching things said. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing like a beautiful memorial at the end of one's life. But I just don't have a strong enough attachment to any song in that kind of way to insist that it's played in that final ceremony. What's wrong? Help me. Any good song suggestions? And for that matter, any other thoughts about what to do with ourselves after we die?

I welcome your thoughts, I'm not done thinking about this whole thing. And I didn't even get into the whole complication of–if it's a gravesite–then where? Buried where you're currently living? Where you grew up? Close to your most rooted family members? Oh, the many complications. And the funny thing is, I might just not get any say in it at all. I haven't written any of my preferences in an official Will. Oh, the absurdity. Ok, 2011, I finally write that Will. But, in the interim, I send my atheists prayer, solemnly and impiously: may we all live long interesting healthy love-filled lives! Amen.

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25 responses to “After we die”

  1. lane says:

    “I’m not done thinking about this whole thing. ”

    thank god for that, the earth still spins and so forth . . . um, i’m being crypitc, You’ve never been done thinking about this. and it’s interesting.

    “It’s a Long Way to the Top if u wanna Rock and Roll” is BW’s song. And of course his plans are totally overblown, . . . and HE calls ME “performative” . . . !

    You make a good point about the gravesite and cremation. I’m cremation all the way. to be thrown off the Brooklyn Bridge! Unless of course people are left that need a site, (this is a terrible insight BTW)

    So, Green-Wood Cemetary! so then . . .

    do they have a “pre-death savings plan” fundable on a bi-quarterly pre-tax, post 401K post-pre-pay-as-you-go-employer matching program!

  2. My grandfather was cremated and his ashes scattered in a stream in the Sierras — a family friend carved a grave marker for him which was left at the side of the stream. This always seemed to me like a very good end for his remains; when he was alive he spent a lot of time hiking and camping in the Sierras. In general I’m in favor of cremation over enbalming for what seems like the obvious reasons, and I like the idea of ones ashes being left somewhere that one enjoyed spending time. Maybe I can get somebody to sneak my remains into the stacks at NYPL…

  3. As pointed out this morning at Making Light, cremation has another huge advantage for one’s survivors: no chance of enzombification.

  4. AWB says:

    Since I was little, I fantasized about the pine-box burial with no embalming, but as I get older, cremation seems like a better idea. If people want to put a little sign on a spot in the ground, they sure can. I do feel it’s important for people to have a place to go if they wish to.

    Farrell, do you know this poem? It is my favorite poem about death, and Whitman seems to be going through a lot of the same thought process. I find it very comforting.

  5. Farrell Fawcett says:

    AWB, no I didn’t know the poem. It’s moving. And yes, same thought process for sure. Only he seems to be much more Zen about the whole thing. Uncorrupted by modern therapeutic concerns. Thanks for the link. And also, while Im at it, thanks for the awesome post about Philly last week. I loved it–and having you there.

    And to TMK: Yes, cremation with a marker. I like it.

    And to Lane: Yes, you are correct about Waterman’s ACDC song choice–but to clarify, I believe it’s meant to be sung by a gospel choir. Is that less or more performative? And hey, Green-wood is a nice choice. Great views!

  6. My parents go back to that marker every year or so — I was wrong, it is not at the side of the stream, it is in bed of the stream itself, which is a tributary to the Clark’s Fork of the Stanislaus River — close by to Camp Peaceful Pines, where the Modesto Peace-Life Center (my grandparents were founding members!) has it’s annual retreat. I asked my dad and he says the marker “is occasionally moved by the spring flow, but we’ve generally been able to find it when we’ve been there.” The marker is a round stone about the size of a pineapple with grandpa Henry’s name and dates of birth and death inscribed.

  7. I posted a second comment about my grandpa Henry’s grave, but it is not showing up. Perhaps the software does not like it for containing links?

  8. PB says:

    I know it is not cool to say this anymore on TGW but I truly loved this essay.
    When I was a teenager I detailed how I wanted my funeral. This was prompted by many things – reading “Death Be Not Proud” and “Eric” etc. The fact that I was generally a morbid kid. The fact that I was sure my parents would appreciate me more if I was dead – typical emo 16 yr old stuff. But in looking over my demands as a grown-up – it is clear that there was more to it. By describing what I wanted read or sung or in what order or who should attend or what I wanted to be wearing and on and on – I was grappling with who I was and how I wanted to be remembered. I was clearly anxious that in life or death I wanted to be known. This is always the dilemma in making these kinds of choices – how much is about celebrating the person – how much is about what those who are left need and want to cope or remember. As a child it was all about me and what I wanted. But as I age and mortality is not just a literary idea – I wonder more about what my family will decide. I love how you delineate this by age. And yet MB visits his grandparent’s grave regularly – for him it define connection and family.

    I also want a box to but no embalming. I am sort of intriqued by rotting. I like being fertilizer.
    And in all these years – my song choices have changed very little.
    Thanks FF

  9. Dave says:

    Great post. (PB, I think it became cool again to say that due to a thread a few weeks ago.)

    Cremation seems nice and clean to me, and more poetic than burial. But if burial, then yes, a pine box, or better, wrapped in plain white cotton.

    It’s almost worth moving to New Orleans for the rest of my life just to have a proper jazz funeral.

    By the way, Farrell, you should really write a will. Seriously. Trixie too. And the rest of yinz if you own property and/or have children.

  10. When I was a teenager I detailed how I wanted my funeral

    Have you by any chance watched Harold and Maude? You might like it a lot. Sort of a bizarro-world The Graduate.

  11. PB says:

    damn – I try to keep up and catch up but I am hopelessly always out of date.

    But just for the record, and in honor of this post, out of date but not expired.

    (groan)

  12. And by the way: One burial option I see spoken of far too infrequently, is a sort of Norse burial at sea, where my dead body is seated on a throne and sent out to sea in an empty, burning ship.

  13. PB says:

    OMG – read and watched Harold and Maude like a million times. Just showed it to my 17 yr – who was so dubious – TOTALLY holds up. Still as uncomfortable as it ever was.

  14. PB says:

    Plus the scene where the mom is “helping” him fill out his match making application is even more relevant in the world of match.com. Hilarious.

  15. LP says:

    Farrell, your question of where to have a memorial marker is very resonant. Birthplace? Place you lived a really long time? Place you live now? Hard to know. Makes it easier to imagine being cremated and sprinkled somewhere beautiful, rather than rooted in the ground.

    Stella and I once had a bizarre experience where a dinner host used some of the ashes of her late partner, an artist, to steady a flower in a vase. She was, I think, attempting to show us that she’d moved on from her grief, and she insisted her partner would have gotten a kick out having some of her ashes used in that way. Which might be true, but still.

    My grandparents are buried within view of a softball field, which always gave me a weird kind of comfort considering how many games they watched in their lifetimes.

  16. jeremy says:

    Such a wonderful post.

    I think it’s interesting that we conceptualize life and death in terms of physical space–making it difficult to imagine our loved ones (our ourselves) no longer occupying space after they/we die. Cemeteries, heaven, hell, a lovely hillside, burial at sea–they all seem to feed the same need to see death through the same lens through which we view life, through our physical bodies, through actual places, etc.

    Anyway, sorry, I started getting carried away… I loved this, Farrell. Thanks for writing it. But let’s revisit all of this in, oh, 50 years. OK?

  17. E&R&O's Papa says:

    I agree with Farrell that someday there will be a point when I will have the luxury of making arrangements primarily to suit myself rather than my survivors (although with little kids I’m unlikely to reach that point).

    These inquiries also illuminate which of us are creatures of place, and which place it is — for years I said I want my ashes scattered at Wreck Beach in Vancouver, which was my favorite place. Now I’d pick the beach in front of my house, which actually looks a lot like Wreck (but without nude hippies).,

  18. E&R&O's Papa says:

    I like Farrell’s insight that someday I’ll reach the point when I’ll have the luxury of making arrangements primarily to suit myself rather than my survivors (although with such little kids I’m unlikely to reach that point).

    These inquiries also illuminate which of us are creatures of place, and which place it is. I am, to the point that for years I said I want my ashes scattered at Wreck Beach in Vancouver, which was my favorite place. Now I’d pick the beach in front of my house, which actually looks a lot like Wreck (but without nude hippies). It also illuminates instead which of us are materialist fetishists when it comes to our own bodies, which I guess I’m not.

    And I still don’t have a will. Cobblers’ kids go barefoot, and lawyers leave messy intestate estates….

  19. E&R&O's Papa says:

    Sorry, 2 1/2 year old O hit send prematurely.

  20. Ivy says:

    My father was cremated, it was the only thing we knew he wanted, as he died suddenly at 43. But his ashes are buried at a local cemetery (oddly, with the ashes of our dog, who died a few years later; we like that they are together). my mother and I visit each year on the anniversary of his death even 20 years later.
    My partner died, also leaving no instructions, but I knew and his sister reiterated that he and his family found cremation creepy, so he was buried with his mother. I don’t visit him because he died in Australia, and I returned to New Zealand shortly after his death, but it is good to know where he is.
    But having experienced both things, I feel more comfortable with cremation, primarily because it takes away that decay element. With my partner, he died of cancer, and that was quite enough deterioration, to be honest. That horror is still with me, and I find the body in box in ground quite spooky.
    Having said that though, there are some interesting innovations in death and mayhem about. Ashes are made into gemstones. Weird but enduring, I guess. and there are eco-coffins made to have minimum impart on the earth in their construction and decay, BUT that you can buy in advance and use as a jaunty bookshelf/wine rack in the interim. both of these things leave my eyebrows around the back of my head, but part of me at least likes the idea of new ideas making the whole thing easier for people, if those things help.

  21. lane says:

    i like the idea of casting my ashes, into , , , like . . . a little statue of liberty? or a ship? or . . . a pencil holder maybe. a little grey cup, or goblet. a sacrament cup! loved ones could drink beer from it on my birthday!

    as they pass it around the circle they quietly whisper, “the blood of lane . . .”

    and they’d eat oreos, for the eucerist!

  22. Mr. Smearcase says:

    I haven’t believed I’d be doing anything much after death in as long as I can remember, but it’s hard to let go of the idea you’ll somehow care about what happens to you after you’re gone, or that somehow your current caring about it extends past your expiration. (Not to make us sound like milk.)

    There’s something satisfying about the idea of cremation if you do happen to believe there is a substantial component of pain and awfulness to life. Nothing says “I’m well and truly done with this” like incineration.

  23. Best if used before…

  24. LP says:

    Via BoingBoing, one option for your mortal remains.

  25. This song has been in my head all weekend; I blame Farrell.