What should be done with my corpse?

I’m remembering an old B.C. comic strip:

B.C.: What was I before I was what I was, and what will I be when I’m not?

Peter: You were what you were before you are what you are, and you will be what you ain’t.

That makes sense, sort of. It doesn’t explain anything, but it’s comforting somehow. As a friend of mine who has already met his maker put it: it doesn’t make much sense to worry about what happens after death if you are completely unconcerned about what you were (or weren’t) before you were conceived. It’s all completely logical, but most of us don’t want to die; the idea of death terrifies most of us.

I may be the odd exception in that the older I get the less I think and care about death. It can’t be avoided. It’s going to happen. And the way the world has been going lately, when the time comes it may be that I will be glad. In any event, when its pressing problems aren’t on my mind, I realize that I am blessed being retired and in reasonably good health. This is the time to enjoy life if I can. Like most of you, most of my life was pretty harried and stressful. I found pockets of enjoyment but a lot of it was just hard and a grind.

Of course I’ve done all my homework. There’s a will, there’s a power of attorney and a medical directive should I not be able to make my own decisions. There are estates set up to keep whoever gets our money from having the state take most of it. But there is one decision about death I haven’t quite decided on: what do I want done with my corpse?

It’s trendy to be cremated. In the United States, it’s now preferred to being put in a coffin and buried in a cemetery, perhaps because it’s much cheaper. Both my parents went this way. Their cremains can be found at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland. My Dad was born in Washington, D.C., which is probably fifteen miles away, so it’s sort of logical that his cremains are there. My Mom was born in Michigan but there was no room in the family cemetery, so hers are next to Dad’s.

My wife has been clear: she wants her body to be cremated. She doesn’t want her cremains to be in a cemetery. Of all the places she’s lived, when likes where she is living now (western Massachusetts) best. She would be happy if her cremains were scattered in a local forest somewhere. So if she predeceases me, if I am faithful to her wishes, my corpse or what’s left of it won’t reside next to hers.

My mother-in-law was also cremated, but her ashes were divided into thirds. She had two kids. One third went to her new husband who didn’t really love her that much and died six months after she did. One third went to her son. One third of her is on our mantlepiece next to a picture of her. There are other cremains there too, including two cats.

Since I’ll be dead and my daughter will likely be alive, perhaps mine could rest above her fireplace, should she have one. There they will likely get as much attention as we give my mother-in-law’s cremains: we wholly ignore them. In truth, my wife didn’t like her mother much if at all, and had all sorts of resentment on how she was raised. In some ways, I think she was relieved by her death: no more nagging from her about her weight. If only she had trimmed down, took up smoking and died from it, as her mom did, maybe she would have risen in her esteem.

Logically I understand that once dead I won’t get resurrected. Emotionally though like many I don’t particularly like the idea that there won’t be some pile of composing DNA that someone could say was me if they examined the DNA. Once cremated, your DNA is gone. So if some ancestor needed to get a sample of my DNA, they would be out of luck.

I could have a DNA test done before I die. Hopefully the results could be put in an electronic repository somewhere. Given how we are overpopulating the planet, I think it’s unlikely such a repository would still be available in a hundred years. Also, since my daughter is not planning to have any children, she’s likely be the only one who’d ever want to look at the record. She loves me very much but frankly I don’t see much likelihood that she will want to do this; she doesn’t care about genetics or genealogy in general.

My siblings are too scattered around the country to organize something like a private cemetery. One of my sisters suggested it, but no one expressed interest in taking her up on it. She hopes to buy some land in upstate New York and use some of it as a cemetery. If she builds one, should I want my corpse to be retained somewhere, it’s as good a place as any to have it planted.

Unlike my wife, I have no place that I feel I’m “from”. The closest probably is Endwell, New York where I spent my formative years. But I can think of only a handful of people I knew from the time I lived there that still reside there, and only one I can call a friend. No one I know would bother to visit my remains there. Also, Endwell has only one cemetery I know of, Riverhurst Cemetery. It may be full by the time I pass on.

Both my parents were cremated either the day they died, or they day afterward. To me, that seems too soon. I’m betting that although technically dead some part of me will still be alive. Perhaps it takes hours or days for the brain to run out of oxygen and some thought remains. Perhaps the nerves still work and some part of my brain will feel the cremation. I suggested to my daughter that if she has me cremated to have my body sit in a morgue for a week first. I want to be dead-dead, not just dead.

My daughter is puzzling through her own preferences. The most ecological way to go is to have your body interred naturally: placed in a sheet perhaps and buried in a forest. Cremation is quick, but it’s polluting. Her other choice is to donate it for medical research. Let some premed student get some use out of it.

I’m still up in the air on it. If they still have cruise ships after I’m gone, perhaps she can dump my cremains into the sea from the promenade deck, then sip a Mai-Tai in my memory from a lounge chair on the pool deck. It may be that being at sea was where I really felt most at home. It’s an awesome place to visit. Its vastness is a lot like the universe in general, which we will always be part of.

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