Here are some things to remember about me, just in case…
“You understand… it is too far. I cannot carry this body with me. It is too heavy.”
I said nothing.
“But it will be like an old abandoned shell. There is nothing sad about old shells…”
I said nothing.
He was a little discouraged. But he made one more effort:
“You know, it will be very nice. I, too, shall look at the stars. All the stars will be wells with a rusty pulley. All the stars will pour out fresh water for me to drink…”
I’ve been considering a lot of things that people think are morbid, or might make loved ones worry if I said them out loud. Especially at this time, when we just mourned the death of a cousin. Aside from the confusing feelings of grief and loss and how surreal it is to walk around a room of someone’s stuff, covered in pictures of that guy you remember from when he was a little kid, and knowing he’s just not gonna show up to Christmas anymore… I also took an interest in the ritual itself. I guess it’s how I process complicated emotions – I push most of them to the analytical part of my brain, and I start having thoughts like “I bet I’d rock the hell out of being a funeral director.” Maybe inappropriate. But there’s really no appropriate way to handle a 25 year old disappearing in an instant. He died (there are so many words for that) in a sudden car accident. Needless to say this got me thinking about who I’d leave behind if something like that happened to me. The above quote from The Little Prince comes to mind. It’s difficult to wrap your brain around your own mortality. It actually might be harder to wrap your brain around the fragility of the lives of the people you love. So, the following might not be for you, Mom.
I considered signing my name to the anatomical gift registry. Donating the empty shell to medical science seemed like a no-brainer (oh, pun fully intended) as I will not be returning to it unless the ancient Egyptians were right about that part. I’m a teacher, so this is pretty obvious – I would like to provide students with an invaluable resource to help them learn about how to save lives. It is a pretty awesome legacy. It also cuts down on cremation costs. I downloaded and printed the forms provided on the Medical College of Wisconsin’s website. Here are the facts I found out: The school will give the empty shell in the form of a pile of dust (a nice way of referring to my future cremated remains) to whoever is “next of kin”, and some times that takes up to three years. That’s fine with me, but maybe not fine with everyone else. I dunno. Also, if I die in some very weird way, there are rules about which bodies the Medical College can accept.
I was on the fence about filling out all this paperwork (especially because it needs, like, two witnesses and a next of kin to sign it, which is not the most appropriate thing to ask of you sister when she’s visiting for a funeral.) Then I remembered! I’m also a registered organ donor – so there’s a chance that the Blood Center of Wisconsin gets first dibs. I hoped that I could do both: donate organs and donate my body to medical science. Nope, it’s an either-or thing. Since I’m already on the organ donor registry, I just left it at that. I might change my mind later, but after I looked up the statistics of survival of recipients from post-mortem donors (which are way higher than I expected!) a friend put it this way: would you rather have your body be part of a classroom, OR, give someone the chance for another year with their favorite teacher? I’m going with the latter. Saving a life is pretty cool, and that kidney wait list is LONG.
Facts about organ donation I thought were neat:
-Doctors actually make extra sure you’re dead before they start transplanting your organs, more than people who aren’t organ donors. It LOOKS like they’re keeping you “alive” because blood and oxygen need to flow through the organs until the transplant happens, (hence, apparently, a bunch of tabloids and conspiracy theories that I did not even start to research,) but you’re not – your brain hasn’t had oxygen for quite a while before they (that’s at least two doctors) pronounce you dead. People must be really afraid of doctors who secretly didn’t take their Hippocratic oath or something. Does TV have a lot of serial killers posing as heart surgeons? Cuz I’m pretty sure those are two very different interests.
-Transplanted organs some times don’t actually last that long in the living person, but medical science is making leaps and bounds every day, and hopefully I’ll die way in the future when we can do even crazier stuff, like connect veins together with other veins, or use skin to graft burn victims back together. (They can totally already do this stuff, at least from your own living body to the rest of your living body. Science is cool!)
– In May of 2005, they updated the language in legislature about organ donation. Instead of “harvesting organs” it’s now “recovering organs,” and instead of “cadaver” it’s now “deceased donor.” Sounds a lot less like a novel about alien invasion, now. And, like mentioned above, “life support” was changed to “mechanical support” or “ventilated support” because pumping blood and oxygen through organs sure don’t mean you’re “alive” if you ask the dead person’s brain. Smart move, AOPO. No wonder so many people are freaked out about this stuff.
So, if I don’t donate my body to science, there’s the whole what-do-we-do-with-this-body-now question. This suddenly gets far away from science and deep into mourning rituals and traditions. As much as I would friggin’ love a funeral pyre (viking funerals are actually inaccurate and illegal, did you know?) or for my skull to be preserved and used for future productions of Hamlet… let’s get a little realistic about what’d probably actually happen in the event of my untimely and tragic demise.
Cremation is good.The crematory is supposed to provide you with a box of unfinished wood. I like that idea. I also really like the idea that someone I know makes this vessel, maybe Tim Linn, since he’s an excellent carpenter. But anyone can make it and decorate it. I’d like it to be special. And then burned. Or, if it’s not special, about as biodegradable as cardboard or better, and then buried. Or just keep everything in that awkward envelope they send you and throw away the envelope after you scatter what’s PROBABLY me (but who can really tell, come on) to the four winds.
A casket isn’t required, a cemetery isn’t required. I do like symbols and ceremonies, and ultimately these details aren’t actually up to me (and who knows who can afford what by the time I go.) I just don’t like traditional, and I especially don’t like the capitalistic business built off of taking money from people in mourning. Oh, and embalming fluid is SUPER CREEPY. Wisconsin state law dictates that you can basically scatter ashes anywhere as long as you’re not a jerk about it. A landmark to visit, with or without a marker, where the dust was scattered, might be really helpful for your process. I like that, too. Plant a tree, or put a stone there. I would suggest checking in with city and county regulations on this, but I like the idea that nobody will ask permission. Take video. It’ll be funny later. :)
As far as a funeral or ceremony, don’t let any funeral home dictate to you how things should go. In fact don’t even use a funeral home for the funeral. They’ll just take your money to make you sit around feeling sad, and there won’t be a body to view, so don’t even go there. I don’t want people sitting around smelling lilies (which are awful) and being quiet while very sad music plays. Worst. Party. Ever. Please celebrate my life with colors and dancing and loud, fun music (live band! Bo Johnson’s cover band Random Maxx, or Prof Pinkerton and the Magnificents. Or both. Or more.) Make it look like a Dia de los Muertos party. Have it outside. Eat really good food. Bring sunflowers. And pumpkins. Or whatever is bright and happy and natural. Seriously, memorial services where people sit down in silence and listen to stories about the beautiful soul of the deceased and how we all have to be better people now that they’re gone – they’re sad, and they’re long, and they’re uncomfortable. I want everyone invited, (everyone), and I want everyone to dance, (everyone), and I don’t want anyone wearing black formals. Light a bonfire. A really, really huge one. Built it together – all of you. Fires are destructive and cleansing and restorative, and I want the whole party to be a community event. If my ashes are available, put them in the fire and make it a funeral pyre. If they’re not, pretend the fire’s ashes are me, and scatter them in a river, or paint your face with them, or take some home for your garden. Whatever. Roast marshmallows. Eat s’mores. Laugh as much as you cry. Please.
Mourning rituals are weird already, so just get weird with it. If you’re gonna spend money, spend it on the entertainment and the food, not the preservation of some shell that I’m just not gonna use again. Meet the person (or, hopefully, multiple people) who were recipients of the transplants. Invite them to the funeral. Show them a really good time. And drive home safe.