This month I find myself with a challenge steeper, so far, than the rest. Triggered by what seemed a straightforward enough task – to update my will, revising and deleting some details – I found myself entering disturbing territory. I was asked by my lawyer to choose between being buried or burned after my death, and I decided to grapple seriously with the choice and its final meaning. My investigation was initiated by a form. It was called, “Disposition of Remains.” Uncomfortable feelings and grim thoughts ensued.
I found myself constantly misplacing the grim form. Something will always balk in the face of this kind of business; it’s easier to plan and shop for dinner, or sweep the driveway, or finally plant the espaliered Asian pear (this must be done! As I speak, it is soaking, bare-root, in a tub of water, and has been for two days). However, it was I who opted, in meeting with my lawyer, to clean house, and prepare to enter this phase of my aging, and so to flinch in the face of this question – to be buried or burned – was not congruent with these goals. But this exploration wanted to invite more complexity than a romp through a brighter subject, and so I decided to take two months to develop it, and not my usual one.
I tried to bring into focus an image that would help me relate to the fact of my dead body. All week, I looked at images of corpses, having Googled: corpse enshrouded in linen. Interestingly, there is an entire industry devoted to funereal fashion. Below lies a live model of a lovely corpse, or the faux corpse of a lovely, live model, gift wrapped and oddly bridal. The eye is drawn to the voile mittens. What use might they be in the grave or crematorium? What exactly is the purpose of the bow? Is her head resting on a fur muff, albeit oversized? What message does this send? She appears to be reclining in a bassinette or on a bob sled. I feel betrayed as I imagine myself in her position. I would be no more ready for rot and my sepulchral future in this ensemble than I would for marriage after the highlight of the senior prom.
All Dressed Up, but Where to Go?
I began to be afraid more than bravely curious, afraid of the immanent and imminent horrors in store for this fragile body, that I mostly love. The mild physical affronts at sixty-six impact my days, and loom – presentiments of old age. Along come two books on the journey, two companions: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, and Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die. Reading and writing and thinking about death-my-death, however armchair my current travel, has exaggerated, for the moment, my sadness, enfeebling me rather than navigating me toward resolve and tidiness.
When asked, do I prefer to be buried or burned, I am stopped in my tracks, or opt to be so, anyway, and I take a breath, and touch the sob underneath that breath, and release it, and touch the joy that is underneath that, and so on and on.
I’m going to take more time and live inside this question – to be buried or burned, and its significance, and aim the next essay toward March.