The Merry Burial Blog
Glenn Alan Cheney
Be Dead Right
There are two things you want to get right. One is that all-important thing called Life. The other is that long-term project called Death.
If you’re like most people, you’ve already screwed up that first thing. Not completely, but substantively in your own personal way—that way that makes you you. And of course you’ve done some of it right, too. You did what you could. And you will continue to do so because deep down inside, you’re a pretty decent person. You want to do what’s right.
And then you die. Maybe you can get that right, even though you (the you you) have never done it before.
The best you can do with death is pull off a transcendental switcheroo. You can turn death into life, and in so doing, do life itself—all life—a big favor.
Life depends on death. No big news there. It’s been going on for a long time, that perpetual renewal, that passing on of the carbon baton, that continual conversion of ash and dust to flesh and bone. This is well within your capacity. You can do this right.
Or you can do it wrong. You can plan to have yourself gutted and pumped full of formaldehyde to preserve your appearance of rosy-cheeked vitality. You can have yourself locked into a varnished, air-tight, worm-proof box, and you can have that box isolated from earth, water, and worms in a vault of concrete or steel. You can put off the inevitable for centuries, removed from Mother Earth, all alone in the dark, lying in the clutch of your own preservatives, deader than dead, your carbon-based molecules stuck in a limbo beyond the reach of life.
It’s understandable why some people choose to do that or have it chosen for them. Their loved ones want to remember them as they looked in life. It’s denial, of course, and perfectly understandable. After all, what is life if not a long process of denying the inevitable?
But that’s doing Death wrong. It’s locking away life’s nutrients from life’s cycles. It’s hardwood trees felled to make a nice box, dead trees hauled hundreds or thousands of miles in a diesel truck. It’s topsoil stripped away so sand and lime could be dug up for a concrete vault, leaving a hole in the ground that will remain lifeless for about as long as an embalmed body. It’s fossil fuel burned to turn the sand and lime into cement that’s then hauled hundreds or thousands of miles in yet another a diesel truck. It’s yet another truck hauling in fertilizer for your grave’s grassy toupee. It’s the marble or granite for a headstone dug up a long way away and hauled to a grave. And then come the lawnmowers, grim grass reapers burning yet more fuel.
That’s quite a stain to leave behind, quite an insult to the planet that gave the deceased so much for so many years of life.
Cremation? Not much better. It’s 28 gallons of fuel combusted. It’s corporeal nutrients up in smoke. It’s gritty cremains, alkaline sand, not good for much no matter where they’re scattered.
That’s not what you want to do. You want to do Dead right. You want what’s called a “green burial” to expedite your return to Life. You want to minimize your carbon footprint as you retreat into—and become—the Earth. Not trying to kid anybody by looking alive, you want your body left alone, unpolluted by carcinogenic chemicals, just wrapped in no more than a cotton shroud or a casket of local wood. You don’t want a vault just to keep the land above you level. You want the soil that you’ve displaced mounded in a bosomy tumulus. You want it to settle slowly, as it surely will. You don’t want to lie under a manicured lawn; you want a beautiful blanket of autumn’s leaves and, soon enough, spring’s flowers and eventually a tree. You want to be kind to Mother Nature, who has nurtured your since your start. You want to rest in peace. You want to go gently into that good night.
If You Could Be a Tree
If you could be a tree, what tree would you like to be? What characteristics would you like to become?
Would you like to be an oak—black, white, red, scarlet, pin, live, scrub, swamp, overcup, chestnut, chinkapin, which?—tall and strong, symbol of endurance, the stuff of the hull of the Mayflower, the species where the Charter of Connecticut once hid?
Or are you more the maple type, lush in summer, glorious in fall, flush with sweet sap, the tree kids most prefer to climb?
Perhaps you’d like to be reborn into magnificence, a beech with overarching foliage as big as a house, a stout trunk of silver where lovers carve their hearts.
You could be a linden, ever-so aromatic, beloved by bees, seeds favored by chipmunks, known by friends as basswood, quick to grow, going up a hundred feet to blossom in the sun.
Why not for once be slender and beautiful, a stem or pair of stems of birch—white with bark that burns hot, black that tastes a minty sweet, paper all covered with curls—your leaves serrate, petiolate, stipulate, and feather-veined? In winter you would be beautiful in snow.
Or would you sum your life as a weeping willow, your hair hung low around your grave, the space around you cavernous and cool? With every breeze you’d sway a slow and lovely dance.
Or are you evergreen—cedar, hemlock, spruce or pine? Or ash or elm, chestnut, cherry, hawthorn, hickory, sassafras, mulberry or gum? So many trees to choose from, but you only get one. It's kind of like life, when you think about it.
Close your eyes. Imagine you’re dead. You’ve been privileged to receive a green burial. A tree has been planted above you, and it’s already taken you up and grown large enough to be of interest to squirrel, birds, and people in need of shade. Your spirit hovers nearby, waiting to see your family and friends come around to visit, remember, and celebrate.
But you know how some of your friends are. And some of your extended family, too. They’re all visiting with the best of intentions and the fondest of memories, but some of them could probably use a list of rules—the dos and don’ts of graveside behavior.
So which of these (subject to sexton approval) would go on the Please Do side of your list, which on the Please Don’t?
• Carve your name in my bark.
• Scatter native wildflower seeds all around me.
• Pick one wildflower and take it home.
• Yank up any bittersweet, loosestrife or poison ivy that arises.
• Burn a tire right here over my dead body.
• Pour a libation of decent wine into the ground.
• Leave a tidy pile of litter for somebody else to pick up.
• Take home a nut, fruit, or leaf that fell from me.
• Make love, right here.
• Leave a pile of peanuts for the squirrels.
• Lean against me and take a selfie.
• Take a group picture with everybody in it.
• Spend the night.
• Remain totally sober.
• Talk to me.
• Climb me.
• Eat my toadstools.
• Ask the sexton if you can hang a bird house on me.
• Detonate thunderous fireworks.
• Take pictures of me in summer, fall, winter, spring.
• Slow-dance on my grave.
• Bury something small, biodegradable and symbolic under an inch of soil.
• Leave a bouquet of plastic flowers in a styrofoam pot.
• Do that special thing you do: paint, knit, sing, write, sculpt, tinker, whatever…
• Park right here next to me and change your oil.
• Do something illegal that doesn’t hurt anybody.
• Write me a letter.
• Read a poem with my eyes.
• Listen to a bird and imagine that’s me reminding you of something.
• Spread out a blanket and have a picnic with your friends.
• Get to know my neighbors.
• Spray pesticides all over the place.
• Smell my soil.
• Forgive yourself.
• Forgive me.
• Try to explain this to a small child.
Stuff to Know about Cremation
First of all, it isn’t spelled creamation any more than the process takes place at a creamery. It takes place in a cremator, which is an industrial furnace at a crematory, which is the operational center of a crematorium. But it’s where you end up if you get creamed by a car, asteroid, or ice cream truck, so the confusion is understandable.
Creamers are fake cream. A cremulator is a machine that pulverizes incinerated remains. Some cremulators are like blenders, others like grinders. Either way, it takes a good twenty minutes, and the results are the same: four to six pounds of remains, perhaps a little more for individuals who spent too much time chowing down at a creamery. These scant pounds represent just 3.5 percent of the human body. The other 96.5 percent is blowing in the wind.
It’s considered politically incorrect to call the remains “cremains,” which is seen as slangily disrespectful of the person they used to be. “The cremated remains of the late So-and-So” is preferred. “Ashes” in the same phrase would be also acceptable even if technically inappropriate. Anything resembling ash has been incinerated into smoke. What remains has the color and consistency of sand from a beach where nobody wants to go.
A word of caution: certain implants must be removed prior to cremation. It is the funeral director’s job to see that this happens. A pacemaker can explode so powerfully that it could damage the cremator, even injure people standing nearby. Other little bombs in the body include spinal cord stimulators, bone nails, and implanted drug reservoirs. Breast implants are not a problem. Titanium hips, tooth fillings, and other metals must be separated after cremation lest they damage the cremulator.
Cremation offers a few advantages over burial. It’s less expensive than embalming, vaults, caskets, a burial plot, and the interment process. Cremated remains are a lot easier to transport than whole bodies. And generally speaking, survivors can cast the ashes close to home or in an appropriate place.
Cremation is not as environmentally benign as some believe. Bodies are cremated individually, each requiring the burning of some 28 gallons of fuels during the 90- to 120-minute process. The combustion releases some 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere of an overheating planet. Embalmed bodies release chemical residues, and even the unembalmed release whatever toxins, such as heavy metals, the body accumulated during a lifetime in a polluted environment. Some but not all of these toxins are captured by abatement equipment. If a casket is incinerated along with the body, it, too, may release vaporized chemicals. The trees that died for the casket’s wood will not be generating oxygen, and their combusted carbon contributes to global warming. In the case of mahogany and certain other fine woods, the trees may have been taken from a rainforest and shipped thousands of miles.
Natural burial is the most benign means of posthumous disposal. No fossil fuels are burned except in transporting the body to the grave site. (Some cemeteries offer a horse-drawn carriage for this trip.) The body is hastened into the ecosystem. Heavy metals and other corporeal contaminants remain in the ground, in many cases rendered harmless by decomposition and plant uptake. The body, its clothes, and the casket or shroud, all of biodegradable material, soon become a plant or animal. Who knows, maybe they will become grass, and then a cow might eat it and turn it into cream. And there you go: creamation. Maybe it should be a word after all.
The Sad Green Burial of the Pilgrims in 1620-21
The Pilgrims of Plymouth had to resort to a particularly sad burial practice during their first winter in the New World. Due to complications getting underway back in England, they didn’t arrive at Plymouth until the middle of November, 1620. It was too late to find a place to live and build houses to get them through the winter. A hundred and two passengers had to spend the next several months in their tight, cold, damp quarters on the gun deck of the Mayflower. Sharing the space with a small sail boat, a few cannons, some farm animals, and bundles of carry-on luggage, they barely had enough room to all lie down at the same time.
In December they started to take sick. They thought it was scurvy, but it was more likely influenza or pneumonia. It afflicted everyone. They were so weak they could hardly get up. When individuals died, they spent days right where they were, right next to people suffering the same symptoms the newly deceased had suffered. William Bradford and Myles Standish were among the few who were able to do anything about the dead.
Removing the deceased was a challenge. They had to be hauled up onto the main deck, then lowered into a boat that could be rowed to shore. It’s also possible the bodies were passed out through small portholes on the gun deck that would have been used for cannon fire in the event of attack.
The landing craft was too big to actually to reach the sandy shore. Those assigned burial duty had to wade the last few yards through the frigid winter water of Cape Cod Bay, dragging the bodies after them.
Since it was winter, the ground beyond the beach was frozen solid. The only alternative was a sandy hill just above the beach, where the sand could be easily dug. So there they opened the graves, and not very deep. “Six feet under” wasn’t a requirement then any more than it is today. And of course it would have been impossible to build coffins. It’s unlikely the bodies were even wrapped in a shroud.
There were Indians in the area, and in one skirmish shortly after the Mayflower arrived, the Americans and immigrants exchanged gunfire and a barrage of arrows. The Pilgrims had reason to worry, and by January they had reason to hide the fact that they were dying off at a rapid rate. So once a dearly departed had been laid to rest, the burial crew smoothed off the sand to make it look like plain, unconsecrated beach. Nothing marked the spot, not even a cross. By spring, nobody knew exactly who was where. Not that it mattered. Their bodies were to be at one with nature, their souls departed to wherever it was that Pilgrim souls went.
Heuristic Quiz on Your Afterlife
Which ice cream best represents death?
a. plain vanilla
b. rocky road
d. double pickle
e. java mint chip cookie dough with whipped cream, chocolate sauce, crushed nuts, and a cherry on top
f. dirt (-flavored)
Which of these reincarnated entities would you prefer to become?
a. a puppy
b. a kitten
c. a redwood tree
d. a sperm whale
e. a presidential tapeworm
f. a baby in the Black Hole of Calcutta
Which kind of person is most likely to be reincarnated as a gypsy moth?
a. slimeball toadies
b. yellow-bellied backstabbers
c. slicked-back evangelicals
d. pot-bellied congressional sellouts
f. timber rustlers and their ilk
e. stinkers of ill repute
What do you figure’s at the end of the Great White Tunnel?
a. 72 virgins
b. your mother
c. St. Peter
d. The Prince of Darkness in a bridal gown
e. an immigration official
f. a gleaming, dazzling, whistling sphincter
g. a maternity ward
Which makes most sense about the reincarnation deal?
a. You get what you deserve but never know why.
b. You are assigned a random life form somewhere between amoeba and zebra.
c. You become the tree that taps into your posthumous nutrients.
d. You end up back where you were before you were born—Nowheresville.
e. Next time you will read the instructions.
f. Your life will be the opposite of what it is this time around.
Where can you find answers about the afterlife?
a. The Bible
b. The Talmud
c. The Oracle at Delphi
d. The Merry Burial blog
e. Written on the subway walls
f. The twilight tootle of a wood thrush
Which would be your preferred afterlife?
a. Eternity in a paradise of unrelenting bliss.
b. Haunt the earth, able to see but not touch.
c. Take your chances at a random human rebirth.
d. The oblivion of nonexistence.
e. Become a leprechaun with the power to influence lives.
f. Take all your possessions to an ethereal gated community of the rich and famous.
Would you rather return as…
a. a man or a woman?
b. a Mexican or a Palestinian?
c. a swamp oak or a coconut palm?
d. a police dog or a widow’s cat?
e. the child of a Democrat or a Republican?
f. Charlemagne, Jesus, Hefner, Trump, or Liberace?
Which are advantages of green burial?
a. You return to nature what nature is due.
b. Your survivors will have a shady spot to remember you in.
c. It beats burning 28 gallons of fossil fuel and contributing to the misery of upcoming generations.
d. You will be remembered for your wisdom, not your greed.
e. You will at last have done something right.
f. Your death will exemplify your life.
Which will have the biggest impact on your afterlife destiny?
a. your virtues
b. your sins
c. your suffering
d. dumb luck
e. the way you were buried
f. your deathbed confessions
Speaking of deathbed confessions, you’d best list a few before it’s too late.