Odd Student Question #285

Five death rituals to give you a new view on funerals | New Scientist
Caskets on a Cliff in China

Today a student who arrived to the United States from a Pacific Island stopped to ask me this: “Professor, I’m working on the essay and just have a question. In America, how do families decide what to do with a deceased love one? I mean, how do you decide what to do with the corpse?”

My first thought, of course, was, “What the hell was the assignment I gave them???” But I do remember contemplating this before for a writing project of my own.

“Well,” I told him, “for starters part of it depends upon one’s faith, part on one’s finances, and part on circumstance, like disease for instance. But, practically speaking, how we are buried is nearly always tied to how we live.”

I remembered my research:

Arlington Cemetery and most other military cemeteries command a respect for those interned there. They remain privileged for men and women who sacrificed so much, often everything, for their country. On foreign soil stand some cemeteries for soldiers who could not come home from war. Where we are buried or where our ashes are spread is indeed linked directly to how we lived our lives.

According to the most recent information from the National Funeral Directors Association, our country is nearly perfectly split between burial and cremation. Just a few years ago burials stayed steady at about seventy-two percent, but the projection claims cremations will bury burials more than two to one in just a few years. Cost is the primary factor. While a funeral with a burial averages about $7500, a cremation can cost less than $2000. The low end gets even lower in mountain states and the high end skyrockets in coastal areas. “Location! Location! Location!” is the call for real estate whether above or below the surface.

I’m not sure where I want to go when I go. Maybe that’s why I write so much; so that the body becomes redundant. If we live well, death might just be irrelevant, though that sounds like the rationalization of a tired mind.

I could be buried in Madagascar. There, every once in a while, the people dig up their ancestors’ bones and dance around with them to music at a party, and then re-bury them when they’re done. Who wouldn’t want to crash that party? Some ancient Chinese dynasties believed coffins should be closer to heaven to get there faster so they hung them from cliffs. One practice I’m not so keen about is strangulation. It seems in old-time Fiji, the loved ones of the deceased, including sons, would be killed as well so death wasn’t such a lonely event. This is still practiced in some areas, but luckily not in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I don’t often think about my own eternal, motionless resting place and where I wish to spend the future of all futures. In fact, hardly at all except when students, whose assignment turned out to be, “What subject do you love to talk about at dinner with your family?” ask, and I know quickly I don’t want to dine with these people. As for our mortal coil, It seems eternity doesn’t start until life stops, and I at least get the choice right now of where I get to hang out later; it is like making reservations. Do I want to go back to Brooklyn? I see no reason. A cemetery in Virginia somewhere seems convenient. I am very attached to the small town where I went to college in western New York and there is a beautiful cemetery there, but that’s not convenient at all. The options are incredible. One can, with the right connections, be blasted into space, splattered on the moon, or buried at sea. Become a great statesman or writer and be buried at Westminster Cathedral. Run for and win the presidency and be buried at your own library in your own State in the room next to the replica of the Oval Office. Become a seminarian, then a priest, a bishop, cardinal and eventually the Pope, and be buried in St. Peter’s where sainthood is not out of the question.

I could be cremated and have my ashes spread in a place of much significance. Maybe my relatives can shake my soot out the window of a Cessna above the Great South Bay. Better still, a colleague can buy some rolling papers and divvy me up among my students and let everyone smoke me. Small smoke rings can rise like empty words until the wind carries me away. If my family would foot the bill, I’d like one of those stone mausoleums with stained glass windows and candles for people to light, but it seems not just slightly pretentious. This would stand in direct contrast to my former office mate who told me he wanted to be cremated and his ashes flushed down a toilet at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.

I like the idea of spreading my ashes aimlessly about some deep waterway or, better still, along a footpath in Spain where my own Camino can continue and continue and continue. And then, like Whitman, “If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.”

Maybe I’ll simply go away. Relatives can scan maps years later and speculate, point at Spain or Mexico and say, “Yes, there. He is probably there. Perhaps,” and their imaginations can skip to distant, romantic places. And like Virgil’s personified “Death,” I can twitch their ears and whisper, “Live…live now…I’m coming.”

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