Coming Back to Life, While Giving Death Customs a Thought

I’m definitely better today. The thing about life is that a lot of it has to do with what you’re used to. If you’re used to having someone around, you miss them when they’re gone, but eventually you get used to their lack of presence. In my case I’m no longer expecting Stimpy to come trotting around the corner to find me, and I don’t expect him to be following me around the apartment anymore, so when I don’t see him it’s not as much of a painful shock. I guess that’s part of acceptance. I know now that he’s gone, and I’m getting used to it.

I still have all the images in my had of him, and all the tactile memories that go along with having a pet with soft, beautiful fur and a wet nose. The memories don’t seem distant, and I don’t feel as though I’m forgetting him. They just aren’t constantly stabbing me in the heart now, and I’m no longer feeling like the pain is going to drive me crazy enough that I’ll start performing rituals to try to resurrect him. I know there will still be serious bouts of pain, of course, but it comes in tolerable waves now, rather than a constant barrage.

I managed to get a bit of work done today, and sent an e-mail to a friend I haven’t been talking to as much lately. We usually talk a lot every day and I’ve missed him, but like I said in yesterday’s post, I’m the type to isolate myself when I’m in that much pain. It’s how I handle it, because I know I need to feel it. I don’t want to be distracted by comfort. I don’t want to ignore the pain and pretend that everything is fine. That’s the surest path to self-destruction when it comes to grief.

That’s the weird thing about funeral customs and rituals, whether it’s for humans or animals. The customs we have for letting go of the dead sort of go against healing. Within a couple of days, while we’re still in serious shock over the loss, we’ve already got viewings and social gatherings, where the people who are most profoundly affected are expected to show their faces, grief-ravaged or not. They have to stand there to greet people for hours on end, when all they really want to do is curl up in a ball somewhere and cry their hearts out as loudly and strenuously as possible.

Once the viewing is over, we have the funeral and burial proceedings, whatever those may be – they’re different for everyone, depending on their belief system. This usually takes place two to three days after the person’s death. You’re still in shock at this point, yet you’re expected to sit in a room full of people and listen to someone speaking about your dearly departed, sometimes several people speaking. That’s another thing I don’t quite understand, because there is no way in hell I could give a speech (also known as a eulogy) about someone who has just died, if I cared about them at all, and have it come out sounded the least bit coherent. I’d have tears and snot running down my face, my voice would be all over the place, and I’d likely even be hiccuping. How the hell do people give eulogies?

I know funeral proceedings are meant to give us closure, but I think we’re cheating ourselves of real healing by rushing the process. I mean, when I think about men and women who lose a spouse, I can’t imagine what it must take for them just to decide on the clothing their loved one will be viewed and buried, or cremated, in. The best thing that people can do for their loved ones, I think, is to have those decisions already made before it happens. Of course, it’s not like we know when we’re going to die, exactly, but having your arrangements pre-planned seems like a good thing to do.

Admittedly I’m biased against the funeral industry, and our ‘civilized’ customs as a whole. I’ve read many, many things about death, and the customs that go along with it, and what we do to the remains of our loved ones strikes me as barbaric. What many of the funeral services do strikes me as unforgivably mercenary. Yes, we need our ceremonies. It’s just the way we work as a species. Even neanderthals put flowers in with their dead as part of their burial custom. However, what we do not need is someone trying to sell us a flamboyantly engraved box when we’re planning on having someone cremated.

Guilt usually prompts people to pay far too much money for funeral expenses. We can’t stand the thought of cremating someone in a cheap cardboard box, so we upgrade to the pine. Despite the fact that we’re too grief-stricken to even think about food, we decide we have to make arrangements for a huge buffet for everyone else. We go out and buy an expensive suit, or use an expensive suit the deceased already owned, that the mortician or funeral director will have to cut up the back in order to dress the body in it, even though we know our loved one always wore jeans and a t-shirt.

One of the things I really don’t like about our current customs is our habit of using chemicals to preserve the tissue. Now, bodies will decay anyway, no matter what chemical you put through them. Lenin’s body, which is on display in Moscow, has to be constantly maintained using all kinds of chemicals. There has been a debate going on for some time with respect to whether or not he should be buried, however, particularly since the government stopped funding the preservation work and it is now supported by private donors.

Suffusing a body with chemicals will slow down decay, and keep a body from smelling during the funeral proceedings, but I question the process because of the environmental impact of those chemicals. They do eventually break down into the ground, so I wonder what the overall effect really is. Cemetery grass may be green, but I’m not sure if it’s green like that because of the bodies, or because of the fertilizers used by the groundskeepers.

I haven’t decided what I want for myself, actually. I will most likely be cremated, but that’s just me being practical. You see, I’ve listed on both my health card and my driver’s licence that I’m a full organ donor, and that my remains can be donated for the purpose of medical research. I would have to say there probably won’t be much left of me once they get through with my body. Of course in that case, if my entire body goes to a medical college or something, it will be full of chemicals anyway in order to preserve it for dissection. I need to do more research on the nitty-gritty of the process for all death customs in North America in order to find exactly what happens.

I remember seeing a documentary once on a tribal culture where they carried the body up into the mountains and left it there for the scavengers to feast on. Once the bones were picked clean I believe they buried them, but I could be wrong about that since I don’t fully remember everything they said. As terrible as some people might think that is, I think it’s a great idea. For anyone who believes we’re all a part of each other to some extent, and believes in the whole ideal of our bodies truly returning to the earth, there’s nothing more natural than the idea of feeding wild creatures, whether they’re birds or wildcats.

However, in North America that particular custom is unrealistic. We have too many laws governing the proper disposal of a body, and we have far too many people dying in confined spaces, for it to be feasible. Another option I find attractive is something that was in the movie Avatar, and isn’t far off what we do now. The body was buried in a hole with nothing but flowers and seeds and stuff. No embalming, no fancy box, no lead lining. The body would decompose naturally and nourish the earth. Considering the fact that it was buried with a seed, the custom would mean that a tree that grew from that seed had been nourished by that particular person’s remains. It would make a far better marker to leave behind than a marble slab you have to pay thousands of dollars for, plus taxes on top of that for anything that sits above the ground. (Yes, the government has their hand in there, too, at least in Canada – did you really think they didn’t?)

Death is very personal. There’s no getting around it. So, it’s kind of amazing that we’ve all just followed along with the customs of everyone else without personalizing our ceremonies and final resting places more than we have. There are some who are cremated, and have their ashes scattered in specific places, which is nice. There are some who choose to be cryogenically frozen, hoping a cure is developed one day. There are some who have family plots that they are buried in. For the most part, however, we all do one of two things; we get embalmed and buried, or cremated (sometimes embalmed and then cremated, depending on the situation) with our cremains going into an urn. What is done with the urn is usually the only thing that is varied. You can pay for a niche for displaying the urn at a formal site, you can bring the urn home to be displayed there, or you can scatter the ashes.

I think, if it’s possible for it to be done, what I would like is to be buried on my own property with some maple tree seeds. I love maple trees. I love the colour changes in autumn. For all the years I lived out in Alberta, maple trees were one of the things I missed the most about Ontario. In Edmonton there was very little colour variation in autumn. Poplar turns yellow and then the leaves die and fall off. That’s about it. Maple leaves turn glorious shades of crimson, orange, pink, yellow, and even purple. Assuming the property would be inherited by my daughter, and passed down to her progeny one day, it would be rather nice to have a maple tree there for them to remember me by.

5 thoughts on “Coming Back to Life, While Giving Death Customs a Thought

  • April 17, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    I could write a book on unconventional grieving. The short version is find a company on the internet that will take cadaver donations and doesn't charge the donating family. Any money that my family wastes on funeral expenses they do for themselves because I'm past caring about earthly things.
    Also, if my wife kicks off before me and her extended family starts making plans to descend on me I'm going to put the brakes on that.
    I'll tell them, "She has lived in Florida for X number of years and you never came to visit her even once while she has visited you in Iowa XX times over the years. She doesn't need you now and I don't want you so stay away. I don't need you in the way. Go to mass in Iowa. Light candles and say your habada dabada doochies and get over it. She'll get a proper Catholic funeral because I know that is important to her. However, I don't need her family to tell me how to do it."
    You'd never believe that sensitivity is one of my strong points. Would you?

  • April 17, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    Ah, Marlin, you made me laugh!

    Definitely the wishes of the deceased need to be respected. Beyond that it is the needs of the closest survivors that have to be taken into consideration. It's the living who are grieving, and they need their closure in some way. That's different for everyone. Obviously that's something I'm dealing with right now. I haven't figured out exactly what it means to me, yet, so I'm exploring my options. As I run through all the ideas I know that at some point something is just going to feel right to me, and that's what I'll go with.

    When it comes to married people, it's the spouse left behind who will be the most lost of all, if for no other reason than because they spent the most time with them, and now that person is missing from their lives. Distant (emotionally or physically distant) relatives can just shut the hell up.

  • April 18, 2013 at 12:22 am

    I believe that animals are easier to love than humans, because their motivations are more pure; they lack the darker side of humanity, such as the concept of betrayal … notwithstanding a certain work of fiction by Orwell. And I also agree with Nietzsche's supposition concerning "those things which do not kill you".

  • April 18, 2013 at 12:25 am

    I actually talk about why animals are easier to love in yesterday's post. They never want to divorce you, they never think someone else is better-looking, and they never stop loving you. You can trust them with your heart.

    I've never read Nietzsche, but I do vaguely remember Animal Farm. I was really young when we had that for English.


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