November is the cruelest month. People I loved have died in November, and with Halloween and Dia de los Muertos just past, it seems fitting to think about the macabre and our bodies dying. What happens to them when we die? What will we do with them when it’s over?
The death process itself may start with restlessness, agitation, appetite loss, abnormal breathing and incontinence. Then, there are longer pauses between breaths, a rapid drop in blood pressure, discolored urine, lung congestion and a bluish tint to the skin of the hands and feet. There may be hallucinations and temporary bursts of energy and lucidity. The brain is the first organ to break down, and other organs follow suit. Bacteria plays a major role in this decomposition process. Finally, breathing stops.
We all have a strong attachment to our bodies, which brings lots of fear about death. “What will happen?” “Will I be in pain?” But our bodies change throughout our lives; is this just not another change, though a bit more final? Whether the spirit lives on as another being or entity is up for discussion. Certainly, the memory of us continues, and any impacts we’ve made on our families, communities and the earth.
Just as we need to “get our affairs in order,” making a plan that feels right to dispose of our bodies can help allay fears of death. So can planning our funeral or memorial service.
Would you prefer cremation or burial, to go up in flames or down into the moisture? How about the body on a mountaintop with vultures, what is called a sky burial?
Our bodies are full of toxins. When we’re buried, they leach into the water tables. Cremations emit significant levels of environmental pollutants, including mercury.
Green burials are becoming more accepted and legal in some places. This is the interment of the body of a dead person into the soil in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition but allows the body to recycle naturally. It is an alternative to other contemporary Western burial methods. The body is not embalmed, the coffin is biodegradable and the grave is shallow to allow microbial activity to take place. There are currently 34 states registering specific sites that allow this, including in Crestone, Colorado.
Another environmentally correct ending is the new body-composting with mushrooms. Our deceased bodies are covered with mushroom spores that grow and digest our bodies. (I mentioned this was gruesome!) The corpse is transformed into vital nutrients that enrich the earth and foster new life.
In England, you can now weave your own coffin. The caskets, which can double as a bookshelf until needed, are made of willow and are suitable for cremation and burial.
Many U.S. medical schools are seeing a surge in the number of people leaving their bodies to science and to organ donation, because of generosity, rising funeral costs and interest in expanding scientific research.
Then, there is this new idea of using our corpses to reflect our individuality. Profanities on the gravestone? Cremation jewelry, so we can wear our loved one on our fingers as a purple crystal? Hunter S. Thompson had his ashes dyed silver, blue and red and shot out of a cannon. Timothy Leary had his ashes shot into space where they orbited until 2002.
So here are some choices to fit every personality. Looking at death and the practical details of it can help us realize our own mortality and impermanence. It can also help us live these last years more fully, and let go of the attachments we have.
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.