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Life Death, wakes, & stone-cold hands

Oct. 15, 2018
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The first time I touched a dead body I was ten years old. I feel much younger when I think back on it: a little, teary-eyed child. I wore a turquoise sequin dress, which doesn’t seem appropriate thinking about it now. But I remember my dad hugging me and telling me that my grandmother would’ve been glad I wasn’t wearing black. She hated black, and we buried her in pink.

For being ten years old I don’t remember much of the funeral. I can only revisit it in bits and pieces. I remember the boxes of tissues everywhere, writing a letter to my grandmother on an index card and tucking it in her coffin, sitting on my dad’s lap and not fully knowing if I was sad or just aware that I was supposed to be. I remember getting front row seats, the kind of seats where everyone talks to you and strangers hug you with unnerving tightness. I remember feeling relief when I escaped to the bathroom and its quiet. 

My second clearest memory is of my grandfather kneeling over the coffin crying loudly, shamelessly. But my most defining memory of my grandmother’s funeral is touching her. I suppose at ten, this being my first brush with death, there would be no reason for me to think of a dead body as much different than a living one—to me, it was just a body without the person inside. I reached out to take her hand, like I had done on so many occasions before. But this time she felt more like a stone than a person: cold, hard, and smooth. In my memory her hands were always warm, soft, creased at the tips of the fingers. Weathered and thin-skinned. Impossibly soft. Hair-smoothing, back-rubbing, temperature-checking hands. I think that’s when I realized something was really, really wrong, when I started to comprehend what was happening. The first time I touched death was the first time death touched me.

Since then, I have struggled to understand the purpose of an open-casket funeral. It felt wrong and almost perverted to me that we would manipulate a dead body—change a dead person’s clothes, do their makeup—and then set them up like a prop for people to look at. I thought about the crease of makeup along my grandmother’s forehead one shade too dark. It seemed unnatural. When I thought about my own death, cremation always seemed like the obvious answer. That made more sense to me, burning. It almost felt as if there was something poetic about it. There’s a verse from the Bible, though I’m not sure why I know it, that says “All came from the dust and all return to the dust” (Ecclesiastes 3:20). That idea felt more natural to me, soothing even. That one day we can all return to that from which we came. 

But cremation also has some consequences that are hard for me to grapple with. The environmental toll, for one, is hefty. According to modern research, it requires approximately 28 gallons of fuel to burn a single body, which amounts to around 540 pounds of carbon dioxide. There’s also evidence that burning bodies with certain types of dental implants releases mercury into the environment. Traditional embalming and burial don’t have a great impact on the environment either. In fact, traditional burial is probably the worst environmental option when it comes to the disposal of dead bodies. The amount of treated wood, metal, and other unnatural substances that go into the ground during a traditional burial impair a normal ecosystem. Additionally, the fluids used to embalm bodies are full of toxins that leak into the soil and disrupt natural environments. Then there’s the issue of space—there are more dead bodies on the planet than there are living ones, and the number of dead people will only ever continue to grow. Realistically, if the majority of people are choosing traditional burials, we’re going to run out of space. Even though I obviously won’t be around after my death, it still seems wrong for me to leave the world in such a harmful way. 

When it comes to cremation, there are other issues at hand: not all of your ashes will be collected, and there might be other substances like concrete and other people’s ashes in your collected ashes. There’s also a portion of you that will get trapped in the cracks of the machine or will spill a little bit onto the floor and will never be collected. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, author and former crematorium operator Caitlin Doughty explains that “when you’re pulled out of the machine post-cremation, some of the machine comes with you—and some of your bones stay behind. ‘Commingling,’ it’s called.” This kind of random mixture isn’t something that seems particularly alluring to me. I don’t want part of me to be left behind forever in a fiery hot, concrete death chamber. A jarring and accidental scattering of my ashes doesn’t seem like something I want for my body after I leave it. 

There’s the option of a green burial, which seems like the best route for me personally. In a green burial, the body is buried directly in the ground, usually with only a sheet or sometimes a simple pine box as a barrier between body and dirt. No chemicals are injected into the body to preserve it, and there is no metal box to slow decomposition. Through green burial the body decomposes naturally, which means quickly. As Doughty describes it, “[the body] zips merrily through decomposition, shooting its atoms back into the universe to create new life.” As unsightly as decomposition is, it is a also a necessary part of the ecosystem; decomposing life nourishes the soil, the earth. Doughty herself, a veritable death expert, wants a green burial. She says of her decision, “I understood that I had been given my atoms, the ones that made up my heart and toenails and kidneys and brain, on a kind of universal loan program. The time would come when I would have to give the atoms back.” I feel similarly, at least for now. But I also understand the loss of control that comes with this kind of burial, a loss of control that isn’t calming for many people. The idea of your body being unprotected from the elements, being eaten away by fungi and insects—it’s a jarring thing to imagine happening to your body. On the positive side, green burials have the lightest environmental impact when it comes to disposing of dead bodies. I believe, in finality, that all I am is an organic machine, and one day that machine will shut down and my organic machine parts should go back to the earth. From dirt I came, and to dirt I will return. Maybe. 

But at the same time, there’s a story I think about a lot, one about my grandmother and grandfather. The more I think about it, the more traditional open-casket funerals make sense to me; the more I understand the urge to keep the dead around the living for a little while longer. I can’t remember who told me the story, but it might have been my grandfather himself. My grandmother was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer that was too complicated for me to understand at the time. I don’t remember the time span between her diagnosis and her death or how long she was in the hospital for, but I do know that on the night she passed away, she called my grandfather over in front of her bed. He asked her why. “Well,” she said, “I just want to look at you for a while.” I think she knew. She had to have known. Sometimes we need a moment with those we love before we’re ready to say goodbye.

At the end of the day (or at the end of your life, I suppose) what you choose to do with your body is personal. With the exception of some morally ambiguous and scientifically questionable options like cryogenic freezing, every common post-death option has its benefits and drawbacks. Doughty says in a video posted on her YouTube channel Ask a Mortician that the best way to come to terms with your own mortality is to think about what you want to happen to your body after you die. It certainly is an important thing to think about, but in reality, you’re not going to care what happens to your dead body because you won’t be around to see it happen. So thinking about it is probably good—and letting people know what you think is also important—but what's better is not worrying too much about it and just living while you can.