A couple years ago, I taught a freshman seminar class called “Matters of Life and Death”. In the course, we looked at philosophy, anthropology, medical ethics, literature, and film to try to get some insight to how our awareness that our lives are finite influences how we live those lives and how we understand what kind of meaning they have.
And, about once a week, one of my freshmen would ask, “Why are we spending so much time in this class talking about death?” (Supply your own rant about inability of eighteen year olds to draw good inferences from course titles.)
Even though death is an attractive topic when frosh are choosing their classes, there is something about the teenager’s mind that seems resistant to thinking about death very hard or very long. Perhaps that very resistance just another instance of the all-too-human inability to really grasp the notion that some day we will not be alive, that the world will go on without us. The bodies we’re using to drive our minds around this place will give out, one way or another, and those who survive us will have to do something about them.
How the aging population of the U.S. is dealing with the problem of getting rid of the bodies (both their own and those of their loved ones) is the subject of Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s book Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death.
Cullen’s focus is squarely on the disposal methods to which Baby Boomers are turning, but she also looks at the meanings people attach to these, as well as the sorts of ceremony or ritual that come along with the death of a loved one. Throughout her accounts of various funerals, burials, and alternative ways of marking the exit from the world of the living, it’s never entirely clear how much of what the survivors do is meant to be for the deceased, and how much is meant to be for those who have to keep living. I don’t think this ambiguity is a problem with the book; indeed, I admire Cullen’s choice not to impose clarity where people are, in fact, working from a tangle of intentions, motives and needs.
None of this should be taken as a sign that this is a ponderous sociological or psychological treatise. Rather, it is a book whose author shares her surprise at some of the non-standard ways for dealing with human remains. Want to be mummified? Get in touch with Corky Ra to prepay (and get your $60K ready). If you feel a connection to the sea, you can get your ashes scattered over it (helping a pilot make ends meet in a post-9/11 world), or, you can have your ashes mixed with cement and cast into a “reef ball”, then placed in the sea as part of a reef-building program. Want to help protect open space? Arrange to be buried in a “green cemetary” frequented by hikers and protected from developers. (Also, if you want to be good fertilizer for the native plants, opt for whole-body burial — hold the embalming — rather than cremation.) A bit of an exhibitionist? Perhaps you’d like to sign up for post-mortem plastination so you can tour with a “Body Worlds” exhibit.
Or maybe you’d like your ashes to be pressed into diamonds. This would free your survivors from worries about “blood diamonds”, although it might lead to odd exchanges:
“Your grandmother’s engagement ring? How perfect!”
“Uh, actually, it’s my grandmother engagement ring. She’s the diamond.”
It will probably not surprise you that I found the technical details of some of these options fascinating. Turning the ashes from a body into a diamond is a cool technical challenge. I wish there had been more detailed explanations in places — especially about the “modern” mummification techniques (since my first school science fair project as a child was using “ancient” techniques to mummify Cornish game hens) — but at least some of these are bound to be proprietary. Almost as interesting were the ways these alternative techniques required negotiating regulations at various levels.
And, money comes into it, too. Funerals aren’t free, and neither, it turns out, are biodegradable boxes and shrouds. Cullen’s forays into the belly of the funeral industry beast — at an annual funeral industry trade show and in visits to mortuary schools — make it clear that one family’s grief is another’s bread and butter. My sense was that the funeral directors (and mortuary students) portrayed in the book made our split consciousness — on the one hand, pondering the meaning of a human life and the significance of a human death, but on the other preoccupied with day-to-day consumerist concerns — most visible.
We, the living, can’t really believe that this life we know is going to end. It’s an idea we try to hold in our heads … and then we want our coffee and donuts. Perhaps the array of options Cullen explores, in their very weirdness, may slow the reader down to ask, “How do Iwant to go out?” Maybe the next question will be why the choice matters, and to whom it will make a difference.
Of course, anticipatory examination of death is a slippery slope to leading an examined life. The philosophers are standing by for your call.