Not far from my neighborhood stands a handsome, two-story, brick house on an expansive corner lot bordered with dozens of trees. I’ve passed it on many evenings, admiring the warm glow of a lamp in the front window and wondering whether the interior is complemented by genuine wood floors, rectangular archways, built-in bookcases, or any other such quaint details. It looks like that kind of place. Should the house ever go on the market, it would be hard to resist, especially because the price would likely be very reasonable. After all, it is the sole residence on the grounds of a cemetery.
Many people would consider the location to be a deal-breaker, but not me. Just the opposite, in fact. You mean, I get to have a house like this, and I get to live in a cemetery?! For anyone who appreciates the splendor of solitude, it’s the ideal place to get away from it all. Sure, you would have to put up with the occasional mourner, and teenagers might breach the gates on a dare every now and then, but for the most part, it would be the ultimate peaceful neighborhood.
I imagine a large part of the population would be put off by being in such close proximity to, well, dead people. Our culture has never been comfortable with death. But the way I see it, cemeteries are not so much for the deceased as they are for those left behind, a comforting physical connection to lost loved ones and distant ancestry. Really, when you put aside tradition and rationally think over the matter, of what use is it to a dead person to be preserved and interred? No use at all, of course. Only the living benefit from the countless acres set aside as the designated repositories for human remains.
Ironically, as comfortable as I am with the idea of living in a cemetery, I have no interest in reserving a spot for the corpse that eventually I shall become. Nor do I care to have whatever’s left of me ringing cash registers for the funerary industry. Oh, I have nothing against those who make their living embalming bodies, arranging them artfully in padded caskets, or gingerly lowering the whole affair into a subterranean vault, because there are legions of people who truly want those services. I’m just not one of them. I’d rather exit as cheaply and naturally as possible, not that it really matters, as I’ll never know one way or the other.
I was rather soured on the whole idea of embalming years ago after reading Kenneth Iserson’s Dust to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies. Whereas “They did a good job on him – he looks so natural” has become the stereotypical assessment of a mortician’s work, Iserson highlights the invasiveness and artificiality of the process, noting that an embalmed corpse has undergone extensive alteration in order to appear as it did just before it became a corpse. Much is removed and stuffed, drained and refilled, and even the eyelids are secured with metal clips, all so that we may personally regard the departed one last time.
It is merely sensible to see the tradition as quite unnatural, which is precisely what the general population thought of embalming in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. The high number of Civil War fatalities helped to spread embalming as a practical means of preserving a body for its funeral, but it was Abraham Lincoln who really swayed the populace. When his embalmed remains went on tour from Washington D.C. en route to burial in Springfield, Illinois, it had all of the influence of a celebrity endorsement. If it was good enough for the President of the United States, then it was good enough for anybody. We’ve been embalming like crazy ever since.
Cremation sounded like a more palatable alternative to me, especially as it lets one totally bypass the rather gruesome process of decomposition (all the more lengthy if you’ve been embalmed!) and go straight to the end: a pile of ashes. Tired of waiting around for decades waiting to decompose? Then try Cremation: the Instant Way to Decay! But I’m ultimately not to thrilled about that, either. First of all, it’s not cheap. I’m not sure why – you put the body in the oven, go have lunch, and bing! you’re done – but you’ll have to save your pennies for this option, too. Also, cremation has its own factor of grotesqueness: the ashes as keepsake. What would you do with that? Of course, you could bury the ashes, but there we are again, forking over even more money to the funerary industry. Best to just spread them around somewhere, I guess, but that’s a bit disturbing as well.
That leaves one other option, presumably the least popular choice, which is to donate one’s body for the advancement of medical science. This has greater appeal to me for several reasons. Foremost among them is the fact that my otherwise useless dead body would actually be doing some good as a cadaver. You know, why throw something away when it might be of some use to somebody? Plus, I could really show school spirit by donating myself to my alma mater. Lastly, they pay to cremate what’s left and get rid of the cremains.
I suppose I ought to specify exactly what I’d like to have done upon my demise, but it’s not that important to me. I suspect it might mean more to whomever I leave behind, family and friends who might find greater comfort following tradition. Therefore, I hereby give my loved ones permission to dispose of me as they wish, whenever that day may come (and may that day not come for some time!). Really, I think you ought to save your money and use it for something more enjoyable, like a series of fantastically good meals out, but I’ll leave it up to you. Meanwhile, now that I have that taken care of, I’ll apply my energies elsewhere. Like keeping my eye on that nice, two-story, brick house not far from here…