And now, in some states, people are opting to be composted rather than be embalmed or cremated.
Okay, let’s get it over with right now: Ewwwww.
Thus far, Colorado and Washington state have approved body composting, and Oregon is soon to follow. The idea is to allow the body to return to dust — or dirt — under controlled conditions, resulting in a few bags of sanitized soil that can be used for planting or distribution under qualified circumstances. (Imagine a flowering dogwood, or a perennial garden thanks to “Nana.”)
I’ll spare you some of the squishiest details, but you needn’t worry about your prosthetics, or artificial hips, knees, or other non-biodegradable augmentations. They’ll be filtered out of your soil after three months of, um, well, marinating. The vessel in which this all takes place resembles a rough-hewed barrel-casket, except instead of being draped in satins and velvet, it’s packed with wood chips and straw. The thing also has wheels so it can be rolled around for the oxygenation and agitation needed to compost, sort of like your backyard composter.
Throw in a few table scraps and worms, and you’re in business. Okay, no, they don’t really do that — but barring religious objections, what would be wrong with becoming, say, a magnolia instead of a mummy?
I admit to thinking about this from time to time. I’ve even suggested to my husband that we carve out a little parcel of land so we can be buried quickly and skip the indignity of embalming. Perhaps, having grown up around my uncle’s funeral business in Columbia, S.C., I know too much.
Dead is dead, you say, but one of my dead friends showed up in a dream of mine one night to my immense delight. “You’re not dead!” I exclaimed. But there he was, nonetheless, and this is what he said: “As it turns out, it’s not that easy to leave. I needed to take care of some things.”
Well, so do I. My vague sense is that I’ll need my body if I’m to haunt people as I intend. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust is fine in the long run, but short-term, I’ve got a few postmortem errands to run.
There are good arguments for cremation, obviously. But I figure if I want to burn, I’ll just go to hell. I know this much about cremation: I feel much closer to our family dogs and cats who are buried next to the fishpond than I do staring at my dear, sweet Ollie’s box of ashes on the mantle. A blind toy poodle, he died on Christmas Eve, alas, and the ground was too cold for services.
All such concerns are mostly matters of faith, philosophy and tradition. What most of us know from experience is that when it comes to a dead body, there’s no one there. The body is merely a vessel for our being-ness. I confirmed this more than 25 years ago when my father died. During a private moment with his embalmed body, I knocked on his chest — his “temple,” as he often referred to our bodies. “Take care of your temple,” he’d say, usually while mixing a cocktail and smoking a cigarette. “Anyone home?” I asked because I knew he would have laughed at that. He might as well have been made of wood.
Though I’m open to becoming a sack of dirt (watch out), that intimate moment with my father helped me let go of his physical self. I still carry his spirit with me everywhere I go. Now and then, I think I see him somewhere — sitting on the porch working a crossword puzzle, or striking a match on a tree to light a cigarette. He was a cool dude, that one. Ask anyone.
One other personal anecdote, if I may: My mother, who died at 31, was buried in her family’s plot in Barnwell, S.C., where I visited each summer growing up. Because I was only three at her death, I have no memory of her. Her grave provided a connection. Just knowing that she was physically there was profoundly reassuring.
But that’s all I knew. It’s also entirely possible that I would have loved climbing my mother tree, hanging upside-down from her lowest branch, hugging her trunk, telling her my secrets. My father, who relaxed after work by watering his trees, absolutely should have become a live oak. I’m not real excited about the composting process, but I rather like the idea of becoming part of a forested ecosystem, sustaining infinite cycles of diverse life for as long as the Earth shall live.
Talk about heaven.