September 2, 2004

Save It

Mausoleum, n. The final and funniest folly of the rich.

Ambrose Bierce, 1911

What is done to a body after someone dies is usually a function of the culture involved. A few of the many customs were placing the body on a platform for the birds to eat (some plains tribes of American Indians), burial in a plain box (Orthodox Jews), the body is embalmed and placed in a pyramid (ancient Egyptian royalty), the body is embalmed and placed on exhibit (USSR, Nicolai Lenin), and cremation on a wooden funeral pyre (India). The practice of suttee, where the man's wife throws herself on the flaming funeral pyre is no longer practiced. There are many other customs. In the US customs vary widely. Cremation is common, with the remains (a small container of ashes) being disposed of in various ways depending on the sentiments of the close relatives. Placing the embalmed body in a mausoleum, which is visited by close relatives, is very expensive and is used by those who can afford it. A very common practice is to place the embalmed body in an elaborate coffin, often metal or metal lined. I have heard that they can now be purchased at the Chicago Costco. The casket is placed in a hole in the ground which is lined with concrete, and covered with earth. A headstone is placed above it.

Nature recycles everything. When an animal, insect or tree dies in a forest it is broken down and its elements recycled into new life. Even the hardest and most durable rocks eventually erode and their elements are re-used or become sand.

People, believing that they are superior beings, would like to believe that they will endure forever, which is, of course, hogwash. Writers like me would like to believe that some of their writings will endure, if not forever, for a long time after the writer is gone. More hogwash.

Are some words worth preserving? Probably, but not many. Most of what Shakespeare wrote would have been better lost. To some people, what I have just written is sacrilege. A small percentage of his words are well worth preserving. I would bet that if you could have asked Shakespeare, that he would agree with me. The same thing is true of the work of the great composers.

In contrast to what is done with dead bodies, practices that remember or celebrate the dead person are sensible and help the survivors to deal with the pain of losing a loved-one.

Undertakers, funeral directors and morticians are people who make a good living creating an illusion of the permanence of a body. In our country, some of the machinations are laughable. What? Laugh about death? Why not? Life is laughable and death, as it is dealt with today, is more laughable. Jessica Mitford wrote a book, The American Way of Death, which detailed those practices. It was a best seller and one consequence of it was to raised the cremation rate from about 3% to about 21%.

For me, the only sensible thing to do is to accept the way of nature and, perhaps. assist nature to recycle things as efficiently as possible. I prefer that I be cremated after I am dead. That is a fancy word for being burned, which is a fancy word for being reduced to carbon dioxide, water and our other elements. When carbon dioxide and water are released into the atmosphere they are reused and the ashes that are left will fit in a small bag. As a final silly sentimental gesture, my ashes might be scattered in my garden as were my mother's. My writing will last a little longer, but that too will turn to dust. And it is a good thing because otherwise, we would all drown in a sea of words. What a terrible way to die!

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