The Last Stop on Your Earthly Ride

Posted on 11 October 2010

Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m the compassionate, slightly ghoulish son who inherited his father’s business in the hit series Six Feet Under.  Let’s pretend also, that the cosmos, or perhaps your doctor, has tipped you off to the fact that you aren’t long for this world.  Gently, but with a salesman’s deft touch, I — the young undertaker — inquire, “So, what kind of send-off do you prefer?”  Startled, you blink and stammer, “S-send off?  I’m here to discuss plans for my funeral!”  I then give you my best mortician’s smile, nod in total agreement, and haul out a thick, 4/color catalog full of options.

If this scenario makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone.  Most of us cringe at the thought of facing our own demise, including how our remains will spend the rest of eternity.

My personal preference is to be cremated.  It’s quick, the going rate is more than 10 times cheaper than interment, and I like the idea of going out in a blaze of glory.  Another woman I know also prefers cremation.  She is an organ donor and hopes that there won’t be much left of her body when she leaves this Earth, so that people desperate for organs will be given a new lease on life.  She figures that since there will be so little to bury, she would like, as she’s told her family repeatedly, “to be crisped like an order of French fries.” She claims that she will come back to haunt them if her wishes are not honored!

Yet, others of my acquaintance find the thought of cremation appalling.  They rail that cremation leaves our loved ones with nothing: no headstone upon which to place flowers, no gravesite at which to mourn.   This is not an unusual perspective, given the fact that funerals are not for the dead, who can see and feel nothing, or so says the Bible (“The dead…are conscious of nothing, at all” states Ecclesiastes 9:5).  While this is a strange perspective, given the fact that the Christian faith is built upon the concept of eternal life, wakes and funerals are really designed to comfort the living.  They provide a formal, designated period of mourning before the deceased is laid to rest in the ground or placed into that great log flume going up, as Norman Greenbaum sang, “To the spirit in the sky.”

Traditional funerals, however, are extremely costly.  The current average cost for a modest wake — including embalming, the casket, the plot, and the actual burial process — is $10-$12,000.  This is a terrible financial burden for the family to bear, unless the deceased proactively purchased and paid the premiums upon an insurance policy specifically meant to foot the bill for his or her burial.  Cremation, on the other hand, goes for approximately $700-$800, including the cost of an average urn.

Burials also carry hidden costs, including the impact upon our environment.  The cheapest, and therefore the majority, of caskets have historically been made of wood, which means that a lot of trees go to their Maker along with the human dead.  In addition, the removal of trees from the land increases the threat of flooding during storms, as trees’ roots help to absorb rainwater.  The metal caskets in vogue today, while they destroy no trees, last much longer than their natural counterparts and create their own disposal and recycling problems in the future (since most funeral plots are really only rented for a period of time – usually 99 years).

Cremation, on the other hand, may hike up the air pollution level.  But considering how the research findings and warnings of former Vice President Gore and his college professor have been ignored and even discredited, nobody’s really going to give a rat’s hind end about a tad more pollution, particularly if cremation is its source.  What’s the alternative?  Taxidermy?  I think there are laws against that, or at least, I hope they are!  Cryogenic freeze?  Not all of us are rich as Michael Jackson was, to afford such an option (nor as idealistic, to believe that someone in the future will actually care enough to defrost us).

To mitigate the effects upon the environment, some so-called tree huggers are opting for cardboard caskets.  But this still requires the removal of trees from our landscape … unless one is willing to trust recycled paperboard, which as every American consumer knows, is flimsy.  I’d hate to be toted to the graveyard in a cardboard box on a rainy day.  From an environmental perspective, cremation is more desirable.  All one has to do is leave instructions for one’s ashes to be placed within, say, an empty two-liter bottle of Pepsi® or Tide®.  Recycled, indeed!!!

Another disadvantage of a traditional burial is … how shall I put this delicately, since I’m no tender funeral director in real life?  I guess there’s no delicate way to put it.   Another disadvantage to a traditional burial is that you never do know with whom you may wind up spending eternity.   As the population continues to boom and greedy real estate moguls continue to gobble up the land, space for occupied caskets has become a premium.

London, England has already adapted its famous double-decker bus design for its overcrowded cemeteries.  The British are now burying their dead two deep, one atop the other, as a space-saving strategy.  Here in New Jersey, the fourth smallest and most densely populated State in the Union, we’ve begun to do the same.  And New York, which is no slouch in the population department, is following suite.  I don’t know about you, but if there has to be a strange man atop me, I want him young, good looking, and alive!!!

Traditional funerals also tax the families emotionally, as decisions must be made as to what to place inside the coffin before it is lowered forever into its grave.   The practice of placing items into a sarcophagus initiated in ancient Egypt, with a people who understood fully that human beings spend a lot more time dead than alive.   Into those caskets of old were placed, among other things, baskets of food for sustenance in the afterlife.  Nowadays, I’ve seen a full gamut of merchandise from teddy bears to cigarettes to football jerseys tucked in beside the deceased, making me wonder sometimes if these were wakes or the aisles of Wal-Mart.  The trouble with this practice, however, is that loved ones left do not get to keep and savor those cherished mementos that so remind them of those who have passed on.

In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the dead were compelled to traverse the River Styx in order to reach the underworld.  In those cultures, coins were placed over the eyes of the dead as a sort of toll: a bribe to the Stygian boatman to ferry his cargo safely across the river.

In this economy, nobody’s willing to part with their hard-earned cash, even for their dead.  But down through the ages, people have inserted some interesting things into coffins.  Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, said fare-de-well with his favorite pipe and tobacco, Wild Bill Hickock took his Sharpe® rifle, and for whatever reason, Rudolph Valentino had a slave bracelet with him.  Elvis Presley was buried with a diamond ring and Andy Warhol’s casket held a bottle of Estee Lauder® perfume.  Rosary beads given to her by Mother Teresa accompanied Princess Diana to her eternal rest.  A California socialite, Sandra Illene West, took along her 1965 Ferrari.  I’m not sure if car itself served as the casket, but this lady obviously went out in style.

Humphrey Bogart had a small gold whistle from his wife, Lauren Bacall, whom he’d met on the set of the 1944 film, To Have and to Have Not.   The whistle was a reference to Lauren’s famous sultry line to Bogie, “If you need anything, just whistle.”

The Italian actor, Bela Lugosi, who never escaped the stereotype of Dracula, was buried with the cape of the character that had made him famous.  I wonder how many people Bela freaked out when he did that!  Frank Sinatra, in keeping with his Rat Pack persona, was buried with a flask of Jack Daniels®.   Although the friend I’d mentioned earlier, the lady who wishes to be cremated, never cared much for Sinatra or his music, she agrees with him about the booze.

One woman I know, proudly of Italian heritage, desires, upon her passing, nothing less than a full-blown Irish wake.  Long ago, she left her best friend a list of the musical selections she would like played at both the wake and the Mass she’s sure her survivors will insist upon.  The song played in church will be U2’s elegant and moving One Tree Hill: an epitaph that Bono wrote for a young friend of the band tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.  But the church ceremony, there will be a rousing party with punk rock, hard rock, the blues, “trad” Irish music, and some reggae and salsa tossed just to keep things interesting.

This woman wants her friends and surviving family members to toast her life, not mourn it — with wine, beer, and cocktails.  She wants them to trade stories about her, funny and poignant stories; she does not wish to see them weeping as she looks down upon them enjoying their lasagna!  Most of all, she wants them to realize the brevity of life as well as the fact that one must seek joy on this Earth if one is be truly alive and not, well, the walking dead.

I sincerely hope that family members who bury their loved ones underground or in mausoleums take comfort in the knowledge that there is a physical place they can visit to remember and honor their dead.  As for me, I feel that there is nothing to honor below the ground; the minute that we close our eyes in this life, we open them again in the presence of God (and hopefully not that guy with the horns and pitchfork).  The only things we leave behind “down here” are not things at all.  They are the lives that we have touched, the inventions or sacrifices that have benefitted others, and the charities and other good causes that we have supported; in other words, the love we have given freely from our hearts to those who share our bloodlines and to those who do not.  While our souls continue in the afterlife, these are the things that truly commemorate our spirits and serve as inspiration for others after we have drawn our last breaths. 

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3 Responses to “The Last Stop on Your Earthly Ride”

  1. Aja Khan says:

    This is an uncomfortable subject and a lot to think about. The financial concerns are exactly that, so thanks for putting some things into perspective for me. I’m going to email your url to some family members who are the decision stage right now.

  2. Marigold S. says:

    Definitely a creepy topic but one we have to think about eventually. I think I like cremation too. Clean, quick, and cheap. Sounds like some of my dates lately!

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