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Unlike dumb animals, who leave their dead lying around willy-nilly, we humans, philosophic and spiritual beings that we are, seem to have a need to invest meaning in our mortal remains.
You might be an educator who arranges to have your corpse plasticized (see right). In that way, you can continue teaching after death when your plasticized corpse tours with Body Worlds (an exhibition of plasticized bodies). Your mortal remains, twisted into all sorts of fantastic poses, will help teach the world what the insides of a human body look like in action. Muy macabre.
If you’ve loved Mother Nature throughout your life, the hippest way to invest meaning in your mortal remains is to arrange for a green burial. In a green burial, the cemetery usually has no gravestones, rows, or urns. Your loved ones may come to the graveyard service to listen to a eulogy — and end up helping to dig the burial pit. Your mortal remains, wearing only a shroud (and unembalmed), will therefore return to the earth much more quickly than it would in a traditional burial. A natural stone, or sometimes even GPS coordinates, identifies the location of the grave. Muy romantic.
If you’re a traditionalist, in love with rites and rituals, the common American funeral is probably just your thing. The funeral typically takes place in the same church that you and your spouse attended during your lifetime. Here your embalmed remains, sometimes lying in an open casket, are positioned a few steps down from the altar. You’re looking good because a mortician had previously combed your hair, put a bloom in your cheeks, plucked your eyebrows, and decked you out in your Sunday best.
After the eulogy, your body is transported in a hearse to a cemetery and buried in an expensive casket (typically between $2,000 and $10,000). The casket is often enclosed in a sealed concrete box (another $1,000), a requirement in some cemeteries to prevent the casket from collapsing and to prevent water seeping into the casket. Muy expensive.
If you are the hopeful sort and you’re desperate for more life than you’re given, you might have your body frozen cryonically (usually at —320.,8 degrees F.) and stored in a refrigerated, insulated capsule. Then if things go well, you might be “resurrected” (very doubtful, by the way) on some future day when science is more advanced. There are about 250 people in the US who are now frozen cryonically as they await their resurrection. Muy brrrrr.
I have a fondness for organization and neatness, so I plan to be cremated. I like the idea of my body being burned down to a small neat and clean pile of ashes. Muy caliente!
My daughter is a funeral director and a licensed cremator, so over the years she’s told me a lot about cremation. Let me tell you what I’ve learned.
During cremation, funeral homes require that the body be enclosed in an easily combustible wood, wicker, fiberboard, or cardboard casket. Both your body and your flimsy casket are thus cremated in a firebrick-lined oven at over 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit for about two hours, a process that burns away all soft tissue. All that’s left, then, is your fragile skeletal structure and a tiny bit of casket material. These are pulverized in a machine designed specifically for the purpose. What you’re left with are “ashes” (actually bone meal and tiny bone fragments), weighing about seven pounds or so, about the size of a child’s bowling ball. Any metal pieces (bone screws, etc.) are removed at this point before the ashes are returned to your loved ones, usually in a shoebox-sized container.
You can buy a handsome urn to put your ashes in, or you can put them in your own handmade container. Or you can scatter them into a favorite lake or stream. Marie and I have scattered a friend’s father’s ashes in the Kitakami River in Japan. I have a friend, a glass artist, who fused the ashes of her father into glass.
There are a variety of companies that will make beads out of your pressed ashes. There is even a company that claims that it can make a diamond out of the small carbon that remains in your ashes, though this is disputed by a number of experts.
A few years back, I made two miniature caskets (eight-inch long) out of ebony-inlaid cocobolo (my favorite wood) for my mom’s and my dad’s ashes. Into each casket, I have also placed a photograph and one or two small items that had significance to them. Those two tiny caskets sit on the mantel over our fireplace. I’m reminded of my mom and dad every time I do my weekly dusting. I like that.
I’ve already made a tiny casket for a portion of my ashes. I’ve asked Marie, who is five years younger than I am and is therefore likely to outlive me, to place my little casket next to my mom and dad on the fireplace mantel. So there we’ll be — mom, dad, and son — until Marie joins us someday. Then four little caskets. Muy neat.
Postscript: Marie and I own part of a family cemetery plot, purchased long ago by Marie’s parents (who are buried there). I think Marie wants a portion of our ashes to be buried in our individual plots so that our children will have a fixed spot to go to, a quiet and woodsy place, to contemplate the mysteries of life — and the awesomeness of their parental units.