I once had a friend who hated walking. This I found difficult to understand. Even with a dog, an athletic dog, a dog who favored, when excited, bounding and leaping, my friend’s devotion to the couch remained firm and undisturbed. This became fixed in my mind, a cautionary tale. I feel it’s important, as I age, to note encroaching limitations, discerning which to be submitted to; which challenged. I feel it is important not to hail each arrival of a minor plaint as the firming commitment to one’s decrepitude. So I walk and bike. And garden, and name my aches and pains, aging, that I may understand these to be not temporary and that they will not go away.
I’m thinking of my hips. The joints feel flayed after just an hour’s walking. I used to be able to garden for hours, and haul forty pound bags of this and that, and spread it over the beds, and weed, and prune and plant new treasures. Now after one hour, I stagger. I coach myself: “slow down; pace. Take a break. Drink water.” But I delude myself, believing that if I take my break, sipping water, the condition will pass, and my energy be restored. This is the lie; this, the seduction. My hips, deeply grateful, sink into the hallowed mattress on my precious bed. I lie there, challenged to accept that my full allotment has been used up, and I run the tank toward the red line, announcing, “empty.” I detect an underlying resistance to it all, and to distract myself from these obtrusive recognitions, turned to doing, remembering my will. It had been stashed in the freezer for safekeeping, and it was time to update it. This might deliver a nudge toward an incremental acceptance of my fate. I made an appointment with the lawyer.
At the end of the session, I was handed a form entitled, ““Disposition of Remains,” This, I realized, would be me. But the form did not inspire. It merely asked me to check a box, indicating my preference for cremation or burial, and once checked, to whom my ashes or my intact corpse-self should be released to. The form left me bereft of feeling, and implicit seemed the need to bring both thought and feelings to this final project, but how? How?
I hung onto it for weeks before addressing the question, walking it about from place to place – sofa, where I host my morning ponder; computer desk, where I assiduously Google the comparative merits of being buried or burned, intending to rally thought and feeling. But all I seemed able to do was dance around the edges, not able fully to engage a visceral realization that, at some point, I must undertake the project of my dying. Of course, there is a need to bring practicality to The Terrible Choice of whether to be buried or burned. This, though, gives rise to even more impossible questions – can I envision my final, fragile years? Not what will happen, but that it will, and therefore how might I prepare? And does it matter? It seems like preparing to become a stone, or an explosion into flight. Will the envisioned scenario and end-time choices accrue to preparation? Perhaps it is an exercise intending merely to coax the mind and the ego to peel themselves away from plans and worry, and to cozy up with the unknown.
Buried or burned. It sounds so Edgar Allen Poe-ish; first to be addressed, therefore and naturally, is terror. At seven, or ten, terror is solid a presence as a crow. Every night it would hover in the form of witches, gathering underneath my bed, or darting from behind the curtains. Lights off; the Amen of the Lord’s Prayer, uttered, I begged my mother to look thoroughly under the bed, and promise that there lurked no witches. Poe partook, back then, more of documentary and biography than fiction. That certainty of atavistic horror never leaves completely, even as we have managed to circumvent the terror. What forms will terror take with dying?
I look coolly at the words, burial or cremation, and try to bring myself to mind. It is I who will be burned or buried, my former I. How can my living self relate to my dead . . . what? . . . ? Does dead and self present an unbridgeable gap? A self may be gone – that is, exhibit a vacancy of attention, but there still runs electricity and pulse; the dead are emptied of everythinig that accrued to selfdom. There seems more presence in a stone; its essence remains unaltered.
The few corpses I have encountered of pets, of parents provide little guidance. My parents opted to be burned. I never asked them why. I hoped it to indicate a welcome soupcon of progressive thinking. After all, it had been generally believed the better choice regarding conservation of the land. As it turns out, burials in the U.S. use far less land each year than the construction of Wal-Mart’s – 187,000 square feet per store, excluding the astonishing acerage of their parking lots. Even if all of us were buried, it would take over 10,000 years to use up just 1% of America’s land.
I Googled on. An article in The Guardian cited burial actually to be the better choice, environmentally speaking. With cremation, numbers signify, because of the amount of energy required to burn one body – 1400 – 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, which can take two to two and a half hours. The amount of gas and electricity used per cremation equals “. . . roughly the same domestic energy demands as a single person for an entire month.” Additionally, mercury pollutants from dental fillings, and formaldehyde and other toxic resins from the coffins are released to dirty up our atmosphere.
Outside of an incalculable amount of food cooked, simmered, boiled or burnt on a variety of appliances – hot plates, wood stoves, electric ranges, gas – I do not think often about fire. This seems odd, as I watch myself gathering images and information to mount an argument against being burned. After all, in the beginning, following The Word, came light, which even though God gets more specific in the further down stanzas, suggests the presence of fire, the ultimate fire being, I suppose, the sun. Maybe in a way being burned after death is like being handed up and off to our amazing star. Being part of the sun wouldn’t be such a bad ending.
I remember gentle Pennsylvania summer evenings and the gathering of fireflies, cupped gently in small hands; placed in jars with air holes thoughtfully punched in the lids. They would glow and fade like tiny lanterns.
I remember the power lines in the mountains, where I skied. A long file of towers staggered down the backside of the mountain, strung with sizzling, crackling lines through which electricity coursed. In a blizzard, snow hurled by the wind, it would be impossible to tell up from down; thus, where to point your skis to get off the mountain, and the crackle and hiss of the power lines would orient you, and for a while you might linger, somewhat knowing where you were, and wait for the whiteout to settle.
I remember the furnace room in the childhood house on Sycamore Street in Pennsylvania. An old house, it had a coal room, a big bin of a room, with a small slot cut through the wall high up, where the coal would pour through to form a sooty, shifting hill. Someone had to shovel coal into a bucket to feed the furnace, a great hulking, roaring mass, occupying most of the room adjacent to the coal, allowing space only for a double deep laundry sink and a barrel of Fels Naphtha soap flakes. The furnace was a living thing with appetites that must be satisfied and moods, assuaged. It was a household god, with no saving graces, like kindness or beauty. In exchange for our obedience and placations, we were granted heat, but not quiet, calm heat. Blasting, moody heat that was felt like a grudge.
I like the thought that ignition means getting launched after life, aglow, but I do not want to burn. Once this seemed purifying, but I have grown afraid of fire.
Modern cremation began in the late 1800s. Professor Brunetti invented the cremation chamber, debuted at the 1873 Vienna Exposition. Championed by Queen Victoria’s surgeon, and driven by public concern for hygiene and health and church reform of burial practices, crematories slowly began opening in Europe and abroad. The first modern crematory in America was established in Pennsylvania in 1876 by avid pioneer of cremation, Dr. Francis Lemoyne. Operations ceased in 1901, but you could still go see it, in Washington, PA in the southwest corner of the state. The building remains beautifully preserved. Here is a picture:
There is an interesting and exhaustive article about it, and the good doctor here:
This might hint at why my parents decided to be burned – for the sake of hygiene and the odd paean to Pennsylvania. But I can’t help bringing additional, vexing associations, and images of what the flames will do to my body, as if I will be present to the horror to perform the gruesome verbs: crisping, crackling, roasting, steaming, shriveling, blazing, exploding. Will my brains bubble?
Here is how cremation is described on a science blog:
The body is subjected to a jet-engine like column of flame, aimed at the torso. The heat ignites the container and dries the body, which is composed of 75 percent water. As the soft tissues begin to tighten, burn and vaporize from the heat, the skin becomes waxy, discolors, blisters and splits. The muscle begins to char, flexing and extending limbs as it tightens. The bones, which are the last to go, become calcified as they are exposed to the heat and begin to flake or crumble [“How Cremation Works,” Michelle Kim on the science blog, How Stuff Works].
It was the You Tube video that pointed me away from the blaze and toward the meadows. Factual, removed, it showed workers in gowns and masks and gloves. The facility looked tidy. An enshrouded corpse, wrapped like meat paddy, was tipped into the chamber. At some point in my viewing, I connected the burning body to my life, to me consumed by flame. It might have seemed like a launch, the living helping the dead ignite toward the next great thing. It might have seemed a help, a kindness, even though the film showed the process at a cool remove, and reminded me of 6th grade Health Class and being taught sex and reproduction with the terrible, feigned remove of Mrs. Harry Trend, Health Teacher, as she droned on about eggs and sperm; penis and vagina. How could this be so utterly drained of feeling? She had to be pretending. We all did. Just like at this crematorium, performing this somber task in a posture of Ho Hum, because if with each enshrouded corpse there occurs a sacred touch, a unique caring, how long would each day then be? As long as touch and caring needed, each to each. And yet, as I watched the video of the body burning, I began to cry for the imminence of my life, gone, extinguished. Connection with this lingered for one brief moment before the image of the next procedure broke the spell – bone hunks and shards, raked from the chamber into a slot, before getting pounded and powdered.
I helped put a dog down. Her name was, Juno. She belonged to a friend of mine on the island, a very-all-over-the-place friend with projects that had in common a poor sense of timing, and so for example, the process of adopting her baby girl from India coincided with her decision to build a straw bale house on a slight, dry rise in a wet meadow. So, many details would be dropped in the effort required to juggle these monumental tasks, one of them being action taken on behalf of Juno, who was old, and lame and had become incontinent, a problem in Lynn’s small trailer. The stacked intensities of her plethoric projects sought some kind of release, it would seem, in a more manageable and concrete sorrow, which was the dog. Juno was a mix of husky and Other, which had been settled on as shepherd. Of course that term was code for mixed breed, only some percentage of the mix known. She was, of course, a loyal friend; had accompanied Lynn on her many peregrinations around the Pacific Northwest, together ending up on the island, where Lynn, being possessed of stacked intensities, promptly adopted another dog, Buddy – an enormous, young, badly behaved mix, which she had no time to discipline, and so remained constrained in a large, make-do pen adjacent to the trailer, Juno gloomily and with forbearance looking on.
It was becoming clear that Lynn’s attention needed to be brought to Juno’s decline; that it had gone on too long — months, really – the complaining and worrying about the stiff, collapsing legs; the incontinence (she kept running out of towels, and quarters for the Laundromat), and the time had come to help Juno die.
And so I called the vet. It was arranged that the vet, Kevorkian-like, would bring the kit to a designated spot in the meadow, where we would “help” Juno die, and Lynn, in the way of those who live among their stacked intensities with little ability to contact the feelings between or underneath each, dazed, wandered around the meadow and wove among the studs of her somewhat framed-in house. And the vet came, and it was time to get a blanket and prepare to say, Good-bye. Lynn, still dazed, not entirely in the moment, had a vacant smile and her eyes would not focus. We urged Juno onto the blanket. The vet explained, “. . . a needle to the heart; one or two injections; she will convulse but she won’t suffer; . . . the heart’s response; by then she will be dead.”
I thought, “Okay, here we go. It is horrible and sad, but we have to do it.” I assembled myself to get ready. Lynn still wore her vacant expression. The vet plunged the needle into Juno’s chest. She shuddered, and then gave a great lurch out of herself, the forearms, shoveling forward; the rear legs back, as if leaping out of herself toward the sky. I do not know about heaven, but that is where Juno was aiming.
It was then that I began to think of dogs and maybe all animals as having great hearts, stalwart hearts; hearts that would carry them forever forward in spite of exhaustion and meaningless annoyances, like Buddy.
The body in the end has its say. Will my heart be stalwart? Can it be said that the heart doesn’t know when to quit?
Juno’s heart seemed great. It didn’t quit for a while. We sat cross legged, and held her until her heart stopped, and we launched her on her journey.
Pondering mortality and finitude makes me restless, hungry to grab at life. It is early
spring. The buds on pear, lilac, maple, viburnum, cherry swell so slowly they torture one’s anticipation and delight. The bulbs pulse; push salaciously through the soils, compacted by the winter rains and snow. How tall can the blades of the daffodils reach before exploding into flower? It is difficult to bear these feelings alone, on the worn couch by the fire. The surge of life and appetite make me want to reach out and join with others.
Is it fear of my aging-dying-death that emerges as I attempt to address The Disposition? I like to think of gladdening the earth with my remains; to anticipating a joyful dissolution – skin and bones and all parts of me – leaching into soils; the matted rhizomatous irises and lilies; the entangled roots of established trees, like their crowns, upended. I like to think of dissolving into the vast network of great organic teeming.
Instead I feel lonely, confined to my living room and sofa, the cushion I have sat on for the six years of the sofa’s life, threadbare now, although I’ve made a fire, lit some candles, and the gray morning is still of an early enough hour to feel fresh. I am actively, acutely grateful for the coffee, and the delivery of fire wood scheduled for mid-morning; the music – Bach’s Missa in G minor; the dog, shuffling from rug to bare floor, finally settled down, curled inside her tail. Even though it is pleasant and safe, I am saddened in this question, this process, this future: my aging-dying-death. It is better done in a group, a group of peers, sitting around a parson’s table, doughnuts and mugs of coffee or creamy tea, discussing this together, trying to imagine is it even possible to be ready to say, “Good-bye?” Even my wife doesn’t know how sad I am to die.
Disposition of remains. What remains? Who? Asked to think about where I should put my former self, I think about places, or a place I love, and envy those for whom the answer arrives quickly. For my parents, where was no hesitation. Nisky Hill Cemetery, overlooking the desultory Lehigh River across which loomed the blast furnaces that melted pig iron as it made its way toward steel. My father’s life was steel, and metals and the oaky hillside, topped by his sprawling laboratory. I don’t know how my mother felt about her spot in Nisky Hill. It might have mattered. She arrived first.
I will try to imagine where I want my body lain, my hole dug. If necessary, I will get permission. I will hope for good weather; plan for a death in spring or early fall. I will be wrapped and carried; delivered to my hole. My future self will be as compost. I am a gardener, after all. I think of a slow transition from the last breath I take to the loam I will become. I don’t care much about dignity once I’m out of here, out of my mind and my body, because it is a little funny – my shape, trussed like a mummy. Soon my linen shroud will get dirty, its pristine white will absorb the moisture from the soil, and will look dipped, like a biscotti in cappuccino.
I do know I don’t want to be alone or unvisited in my spot, although is that a projection launched from now, or some wisdom beyond the grave that I know already? I want visitors; I want to be buried with my wife. I feel strongly on these matters. But where? I do not have a Spot, a place that calls me.
Where remains an issue. It can’t be in my garden. There will be new owners at some point, and what a disinclination for a prospective buyer to discover there are bodies buried there. How would one even approach a revision to the landscape?
When I sleep, I think of dying, or when I think of dying, sleep will come to mind. That is the archetypal image. You lie there, going, and who will have the final say? There is all we can not know, like the forceful mechanisms of the body. This is what we prepare for, the unknowable details of the body’s final aria. Will my chemistry, my physicality take over, decorum be damned? Will I flail and moan, knock my head against the backboard, slather and drool? No dignity there. Who coined that hopeful phrase – death with dignity? I have worked in nursing homes. Dignity did not reside there; was beside the point in the larger context of the warehoused elderly, their lives, many of them, anyway, bereft of love and meaning. Dignity could sometimes be found in the tender caring for the needy.
Right now, it comes to me that I am afraid of these surprises of the body in its throes. Where will “I” have gone? What is the mediating presence between the body exiting and what the mind makes of this experience?
This, it would appear, is the task – to prepare for the unknown. To greet it, unoffended, unsurprised.
“Ah,” notes awareness, “I shriek, I groan. Interesting.” The ghoulish, dissolving capriciously like the foam on cold waves, accompanies my death-bed musings.
Nonetheless, I believe in the worth of this exploration of my mortality, in spite of the finitude and limitations that are sadly revealed. In the end, respect and tenderness will be my values. However I project suffering and the body’s struggle as it clings to life, and aims itself toward The Terrible Transition, I will hope that respect and tenderness will, with ushers’ gloves, bear me out.
a) a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character
b) the way in which something is placed or arranged, especially in relation to other things
c) how do these relate?
d) I am beginning to think it is completely unnatural to focus on my death.
Before his burning, I had asked to see – and touch – my father’s body. I requested that he be held on ice for me, so that I could say Good-bye, a ridiculous but genuine requirement, enabling me to grasp that there had occurred The Profound Transition. He had been lain out on a gurney. It was draped; the heavy folds in an Ingres painting came to mind. He looked like a king out of Shakespeare play, his dignity, unmolested; handsome in death; reposed.
There is an attitude struck in the presence of death. I wouldn’t call it holy, be cause I associate that with parted seas and the burning bush, fearsome and refulgent. We whisper in its presence, and wonder, as if the dead did not belong to us, may we touch? This old carapace, chilled, recognizable as my father, here-not-here, we whisper. The slight bulge of his closed, sunken eyes; the organs, settled. I could touch his hair, but not his skin. The profound absence of breath.
WHAT TO WEAR
On the living side of death, it’s become increasingly important to dress for comfort, so I will preserve that as a priority in the grave. A bit of gauze for the bra; a shroud made of softened linen. My mother wore a frayed nightie in her final year, her own mother’s white, wool cardigan always hanging from her boney shoulders. She had been fastidious in youth and middle age – outfits crafted by Corinne the Armenian; closets full of shoes and hats; an entire decade of wigs. If someone like Mother ceased to care . . . no, that’s inaccurate. She ceased being able to determine what, indeed, she looked like, growing dependent on others’ management of her hair; sponging off the efforts of dying from her racked body; putting on or pulling up clean socks.
I imagine, as I lie on the bed upon which I am to die, my bare feet touched by a breeze – I will have planned my dying in spring or early fall; the windows are flung open. Depending on which season, the breeze may be scented with Daphne, Korean viburnum, narcissi. My breasts are loosely bound; that I contain them at all indicates my willingness to greet what will happen next properly attired. I will wear something light colored, a dove-grey cashmere cardigan; loose linen trousers. Always clean underpants, cotton, please. When I move, even if just to take the occasional deeper breath, clothing will not inhibit me as my awareness turns more intensely from the outside in.
Because of now, these moments, these days of this year spent in answering the lawyer’s questions, and updating my papers, I will have gotten, as they say, my affairs in order. There is nothing more to worry about; on the other hand, it is absurd to think I’m in control. Will dying be like birth? Will some ancient memory of my birth be triggered; will this be a comfort – that an astonishing effort already has been made, which might act as a precedent? Or does the quality of one’s birth matter, and because fraught, will that follow me, as I die? Will there be this work to do in my dying?
What words can be imagined except “into the unknown?” with my bra and clean socks, after a final sip of water? Gone; you lie there, washed clean by those you love, loving you in turn. You lie there, dressed in the clothing for the grave, that you have requested —pajamas; a fright wig; pearls; lederhosen. After the grappling with the questions on the various forms, and my final placement; the choosing of this over that – songs to be played at bedside, and the grave – there is all we can not know. Accomplishments and good manners and polish will have vanished. It will no longer matter what to wear.
I wish I had dogma by my side, or tradition, or theology, so that I could, with the aid of some authority, think about my soul. It is far easier to bring images to mind, than concepts that lead to sturdy resolve.
I am thinking about soil, and what I know of it, and, if buried, wonder how my soul might play nicely in the mix. Among much else, soil possesses texture and structure, and these are different from each other. Texture is what the particles are composed of – sand, silt or clay; structure is how they hang – or don’t – together; thus, determining the percentage of particles in the mix. I should document my soil preference. Would my soul prefer a silty loam? Do not bury me in clay. Do not bury me in sand. Still the where remains a question.
A traditional Jewish burial, it is thought, brings comfort to the soul. The gentleness of the transition guides the bewildered soul into the spiritual realm. Cremation, on the other hand, causes the soul tremendous agony; it will cry out as its partner, the body, burns, melts, crackles. The soul, it’s believed, must then endure a long and arduous struggle to adjust to a new and puzzling condition.
Decomposition of a plant or living creature creates nourishment for the soil. The intrinsic elements of the matter are not changed, but are given back to the earth. The Talmud compares burial to planting.
Disposition; a fortuitous arrangement of limbs and hands and feet, enabling the soul to gently separate, and make its way beyond.
GATE GATE PARA GATE PARASAM GATE BODHI SVAHA
This is how I understand it – I am on the shore, trembling and clingy. Across the water, far away is another shore. It recedes and shimmers. I practice going there, but here, clinging to my shore, I need an aid to help me cast off and outward. From old dreads and enthusiasms I fabricate a vessel. I climb in and push off. Gate. I paddle and pant; look back over my shoulder. How far away does it remain?Gate. Gate. Now, I’m in the middle, still panting but no longer clinging to all it was that bound me to the shore. I keep paddling, and have begun to hum something sweet and soulful to myself. Para sum gate.And almost suddenly, the raft dissolves, vanishes, needed no longer. Suddenly, gone. Beyond even beyond that seemingly solid, albeit shimmering distant shore. Bhodi Svaha. The raft, all that we clung to, now no longer needed.