Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee ... And Scatter The Ashes Of My Pitching Arm On The Mound At Fenway
Modern Funerals And Alternatives In America
By Scott Puckett (Reprinted from Clamor Magazine)
At the end of 1993 and the beginning of 1994, I was about as sick as any human could be without sprinting off the mortal coil and freefalling into ... well, whatever. I was facing major surgery, and nurses who had apparently honed their bedside manner through years of used car sales and conservative talk radio told me that they didn't expect to see me alive again. My mom, who died only a couple of years later (1), told them that I couldn't die because I hadn't filled out the proper paperwork, wouldn't fit in a Hefty bag and was too big to flush down the toilet. (Then again, she always expected to die overseas and left instructions with me to dispose of her body in the traditional method used wherever she might have been.)
However, that didn't stop me from prevailing upon a few friends to make sure that I didn't have to be buried in a casket or cremated. The plan was simple - steal the body (2), drive into the local mountains, dig a hole, toss my carcass in with a six-pack and let nature do the rest. The only thing I asked for was to be facing west. It typically takes 10-12 years for an average human body to decompose without caskets, embalming and the like - I figured that the coyotes would accelerate that process a little bit.
This isn't too far from what happened to Gram Parsons' remains - which is where I got the original idea. The romance of the stolen body, the absence of remains, the mystery surrounding the whole thing - it wasn't until a few years ago that I bothered to do some research and find that there wasn't a mystery because Parsons' body wasn't hidden in Joshua Tree, never to be found; his road manager just took it out to the gusty desert and torched it, lending new meaning to "Hickory Wind."
These days, I'm more comfortable with cremation. It's cheap. It's fast. It doesn't burden my friends as much. And they can have my urn (if my friends haven't watched "The Big Lebowski" lately) at the wake ... until someone knocks it over during a stage-dive and the janitors mistake it for a spilled ashtray.
What all this is driving at is simple - like many others, I want something different done with whatever is left of me when I die. I'd like it to be socially beneficial; I don't want to waste land, money or other resources. The good bits of me will be gone. I could care less about what happens to whatever is left behind as long as it doesn't cost much and leaves as small a footprint on the planet as possible.
While other cultures have typically offered more options (funeral pyres, sky burials, mummification, flaming boats, dismembering bodies and scattering the pieces for carrion feeders, etc.), Western cultures have been remarkably boring, providing widespread social acceptance for little else besides a traditional burial. It's worth noting that the first cremation in modern America only occurred about 125 years ago (3) and that some conservative faiths still object to the practice, although most religious objections have fallen by the wayside (4). According to the Cremation Association, an organization of funeral directors, suppliers and other people interested in cremation, the number of deaths in the United States in 2001 totaled 2,416,425 with only 27% (650,697) of those bodies being disposed of by cremation (5). Since then, the only noticeable progress has been made in referring to ashes as cremains, a euphemism which the Columbia Guide to Standard American English summarily dismisses (6).
For the past several years, I've been loosely following changes in the death industry - shifts in the approach to what some funeral home directors call death care - and the paradigms, they are a-shiftin', largely due to the aging boomer population and hippies who are beginning to shuffle off this mortal coil from causes other than too many Dead shows. They were used to choices in life and expect the same range of options in death. And funeral directors are only too happy to accommodate them. For a modest fee, of course.
In addition, death care is a booming [more than $10 billion annually as of 1998 (7)] and consolidating industry. As is the case in almost every industry, conglomerates - sometimes referred to as Big Death - are taking market share from smaller, independent care-takers (8). It's the funerary equivalent of a multinational coffee chain opening multiple stores near the local corner coffeeshop to put them out of business. And who are the conglomerates? Service Corporation International (SCI) Inc. in Houston (which has been accused of desecrating graves to make room for new business) (9); Loewen Group Inc. in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada; Stewart Enterprise Inc. in New Orleans; Equity Corporation International Inc. in Houston; and Carriage Services Inc. in Houston, (10) representing 20 to 25% of the industry's revenue (11). They are now large and aggressive enough that the FTC has begun to step in to force these companies to divest acquisitions in some areas (12) and local, independent funeral home operators have begun to use newspapers ads listing remote / corporate owners to fight back (13).
But in an age of more choices than we can imagine, why must we limit our options to burial or cremation at the hands of some faceless corporation? Thanks to activists, innovators and entrepreneurs, we can customize those two options to our liking - or select something entirely different, including DIY funerals which don't even require a funeral director. These options range from the absurd and ridiculous to ways of dealing with death (and celebrating life) which ensure that our loved ones will never exist in a graveyard (14).
Let's start with retail caskets. While a wide variety of caskets exist, Art Caskets (15) are something unto themselves. To describe them simply, Art Caskets are laminated using a patented process to put a photomural on a coffin, much as city buses are now used to advertise movies and products (and I suspect it's only a matter of time until an aspiring young marketer begins subsidizing funeral costs if the family allows a casket to hawk beer or cigarettes throughout the viewing and services). At one point, designs imitating packages with "Return To Sender" stamped on them were available. Now the designs seem to be more limited, focusing largely on military service, religious themes ... and NASCAR or golfing fans (indeed, it truly is the last hole).
The remaining practical options in the United States are variations on cremation. Scattering the ashes at sea is almost standard by now but several companies offer twists. As part of former Soviet states' efforts to privatize space (including selling trips into space), Celestis offers the opportunity to send the ashes of the deceased into low Earth orbit (16). Sure, the quantities are very small (one gram for $995, seven grams for $5,300) and it will still leave you with several pounds of ashes to dispose of, but for the next year, it would be possible to point at something twinkling in the night sky and wonder if it might be the deceased (17).
LifeGems (18) are another option for final disposition of ashes. To simplify the process, LifeGem will extract carbon from the deceased's ashes and process that carbon into a diamond in a few months for prices ranging from $2,499 to $13,999 (19). As yet, no data on the long-term value of these manufactured diamonds is available, but you can't put a price on a keepsake or an heirloom of this sort ... only on manufacturing one and determining profit margins.
Creative Cremains (20) (see above note about the usage of cremains) offers alternatives to the traditional urn. They can convert existing items to hold ashes or create entirely new ones. As they note, the only limits are your imagination and your wallet.
Eternal Reefs (21) offer a new and ecologically beneficial twist - mixing ashes with reef balls to create habitats for sea life. Reef balls were developed several years ago as a response to worsening reef conditions. Since liquid concrete is used, it's a relatively simple matter to add ashes to the mixture. Creating an eternal reef does cost some money (beginning at $995 to have one's ashes added to a community reef, a structure which includes remains from several people and is as large as two basketball courts) but also, unlike almost every other method of remains disposal, yields long-term benefits for the environment.
But the most compelling revolution of all in contemporary death care isn't a revolution in the slightest - rather, it seems like a return to traditionalism. It is, simply put, friends and family caring and grieving for their dead without the interference of governments, corporations or profiteers (22). Operating under the banner of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (23), a growing movement of people across the United States is beginning to take the responsibility of caring for the dead away from businesses and return it to people. The FCA's site provides information on everything from state regulations and legislation to consumer alerts, reference materials, mailing lists and the like.
The primary reason why this is so extraordinary is that it completely bypasses Big Death - people can make caskets for their dead [from scratch or kits (24)], bury them on their own land and leave corporations entirely out of the picture. People can build their own crematoriums and dispose of the ashes as they see fit. And for the most part, despite funeral directors' protestations to the contrary, there is very little that can legally be done to stop this - which is a rarity in an age of regulation which seems designed to protect dwindling profit margins. Thus, activists can bury their own dead in ecologically sound ways which ensure that decomposition is rapid and that the impact to the surrounding environment is minimal.
In short, the elaborate plans that I had made for the theft and subsequent disposal of my body were, in all likelihood, perfectly legal and unnecessary. I had simply been operating under the assumption that, since our government seems so opposed to letting us do what we want with our bodies in life, we would be unable to dispose of our remains as we wished in death. It's refreshing to find that, at least for the moment, the opposite is true.
- Although this didn't really logically fit into the article, part of the reason I seek out alternative funerals is the debacle that my mom's service became. The minister showed up drunk, lost the Thoreau quote I wanted read, kept losing his place in what he was reading and almost knocked over the podium which held her ashes. If it hadn't been for three family friends who held me back - a former Marine, a San Diego police officer and a buddy of mine who was 6'7" and 290 lbs. at the time - the minister would not have left before receiving a sound beating. When his employer called a week later to inquire why they hadn't received payment for the service, I explained why in graphic, colorful detail. They didn't call back. Sadly, this sort of experience is not uncommon.
- Little did I know that they didn't have to steal it ... but wouldn't planning the theft of a corpse from a hospital or boosting a hearse have been far more fun than civilly signing papers and transporting a body?
- For the record, this article will not deal with cryonics or any related preservation technology. This is, much like spring cleaning, about getting rid of useless crap that we simply don't need anymore. It also doesn't involve donating your body for medical research or becoming an organ donor. Most of the disposition methods in this article are not eliminated by donating organs - except (possibly) an open casket funeral.
- Sorry. It won't be. A one-gram capsule of ashes will not be visible, even as a twinkle. It's pretty to think so but, honestly, it won't even show up as a shooting star. Neither will the seven-gram option.