Let’s talk about death. No? You’d rather not think about it? Another time, perhaps? This is often the response I get when raising this subject. It seems our modern relationship with mortality is far from comfortable.
On my shelf in my office at the funeral home sits Making An Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre – How we Dignify the Dead. When I first saw this book I was truly hot for the concept since many people outside of the death industry are not aware that not every country on this grand planet takes the body to church in a casket, then goes to a cemetery wearing all black, and then had the funeral goers over to the house to eat some sort of a noodley casserole.
Writer and journalist Sarah Murray never gave much thought of what might ultimately happen to her remains, but her curiosity of death disposition choices and why we choose these choices began when her father was facing his end of life. He’d always dismissed the idea that what was left after a person took their last breath had any significance (“organic matter”, he called it). Yet in the end, he left precise instructions for the scattering of his remains. He wanted to be cremated after his death, his ashes put in a cardboard box and distributed to the winds in the graveyard of the church of St. Mary Magdalene in West Dorset, England.
This got Sarah asking questions about the way we mark the passing of our fellows and how we approach our own mortality. So she packed up her little bag and went on a journey to search out different ways of dealing with grief and how these ways are expressed.
What she found was over the centuries and across cultures, humans have disposed of our dead with extraordinary flair and diversity. Not only do we bury our loved ones in the ground. We also burn them in fire, stow them in caves and leave them hanging in trees. In naval circles, we consign them to the ocean. In some places, we leave corpses as carrion, inviting birds to pick the bones dry. In others, we toss the remains of our fellows into sacred rivers to the sound of bells and the swirl of incense.
Her accounts of these journeys are engaging, poignant, and funny. And she has quite a fluid writing style. Along the way, she encountered a royal cremation in Bali, Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, a Czech chandelier made from human bones, a weeping ceremony in Iran called the Tear Jar, and a Philippine village where the casketed dead are left hanging on caves.
In Iran, she visited the towers of silence. What happens is they take the bodies up and they leave them out for the birds. It’s interesting, because it has to do with their belief in the sacredness of the earth. So it goes back to this contamination issue. The earth’s sacred, so you can’t contaminate it with dead bodies. And the sky and the atmosphere are sacred as well, so you can’t burn and send all these fumes into the atmosphere. The idea is that you return the body to nature through living creatures.
In Hong Kong, the Tin Chao Hong Worshipping Material Store is full of miniature cardboard things you just might need in your afterlife: money, food hairdryers. She claims she bought nothing.
Yet other options do exist. At the Southbank Centre, a display of personalized caskets from Nottingham’s Crazy Coffins and Pa Joe’s workshop in Ghana shows how you can leave this world in something far more creative than a wooden box. She travelled to Ghana to commission her own model – it’s in the shape of the Empire State Building.
I am a green burial person so I am a fan of the idea of simple wood box or a shroud or a favorite blanket placed into the grave, but I do stop and ooh and aah over really unique and cool caskets I come across.
I just saw a Star Trek Casket, and apparently it was the Star Fleet Delta model. Yellow and black, so I am guessing someone could also get the Federation of planets in blue and the Klingon on red.
I have a friend named Brandon who wants the “KISS® Kasket” for his final ride, a decorative box which is completely covered with a specially laminated photomural that features the KISS® logo and the images of the band members. It also doubles as a beer or soda cooler until the time of need.
I just don’t know what I would pick… maybe a Super Big Gulp cup, if 7-11 will let me.