Burial or Cremation? That question is important, yes, and it's not the only thing that needs to be decided about what will happen with your body after you die. This episode covers some of the practical decisions that need to be made regarding final dispo...
Burial or Cremation? That question is important, yes, and it's not the only thing that needs to be decided about what will happen with your body after you die. This episode covers some of the practical decisions that need to be made regarding final disposition.
Quick: Think of a funeral scene in a movie. I’m going to guess that there was a casket of polished wood. Good chance that the lid was open to show a body resting on satin, dressed in formal clothing. The grieving people wore black. It was probably in a funeral home, church, or cemetery. Maybe there was a priest or some other religious leader. People spoke at a lectern. There was music, photos, flowers. The casket was probably going to be buried, but they might not show that part. Or maybe it was cremated off camera and there was a scene of scattering the ashes.
These are the elements which have come to define our expectations of a funeral. But just because something is expected, that doesn’t mean it’s required. Like weddings, some people want to go traditional while others want to design their own.
What you want done with your body is incredibly personal – but the twist is that, unlike a wedding, whatever you want has to be arranged and carried out by other people, the people who are still alive.
To help those people out, you and I really should figure out what we want done with our bodies after we die. Actually carrying out those wishes will involve a high stakes series of decisions that will need to be made within hours or days of our deaths. We shouldn’t make someone else guess on our behalf, especially not someone that we love, someone who’s already grieving.
Now, I know some people try to play it cool and say, “I don’t care what happens. I’ll be dead.” To those people I say: “You’re not being cool. You’re being mean. Because someone has to make these decisions and all you’re doing is showing me that you’re uncomfortable thinking about this and you’re forcing someone else to do the hard work for you.”
Don’t be mean. Be kind. Figure it out and talk about it with the people you love so they know what you want.
Today I’ll be talking about options for your body after death. This is a complicated topic. Here in the US, there are many different cultures and we love innovation and prize individuality and as a result there are many choices, so many that I’ll be devoting the next two episodes to it. Today’s episode will cover the practical side of the decision, information about burial, cremation, and other disposition options. In the next episode, I’ll share questions that speak more to the meaning and impact of your choices, questions you can use to help guide your decision.
This is the third episode in the Death Binder series.
Hello and welcome to Dying Kindness, the podcast for people who are going to die someday. I’m Cianna Stewart, and I’m going to die someday. You will, too. So let’s all make some key decisions now in order to be kinder to the people we’ll leave behind. If you don’t know what decisions you need to make or are overwhelmed by the process, I have a handy template to get you started. Just sign up at my website, DyingKindness.com, to get your copy of the Death Binder Template. Thanks for being here. Let’s get started!
Handling of human remains.
Disposal of the corpse.
Returning to the earth.
Whatever you call it, you should figure out what you want done with your body after you die.
I need to say up front that I’m going to focus on choices available here in the United States. Not everything I’ll talk about may be available in other countries. Truth be told, not all of these options are available in all 50 states, either. And if you’re outside the U.S., some options may be available to you that aren’t available here. Also, people often call things “traditional” here when what they mean is “how it’s been done in the United States for the last 50-100 years.” Some of what we consider traditional now is actually relatively recent, and I’d argue our perceptions of what’s “normal” have been heavily defined by movies and television. Lastly, some of what people talk about as “new” or “modern” is more like a throwback to how things used to be done here before the mid-1800s, and some of those options are actually how things have always been done in some parts of the world. I’ll get into more of that later.
Ooh - that is a good moment to say hi to my listeners outside the United States! I was so excited to look at my podcast stats and find out that I have listeners in Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, Costa Rica, the UK, Belgium, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark… I think there are more, too. Hello to all of you and thank you for being here! If you’re outside the U.S. and have questions that are particular to your region, or want to let me know how things are done differently where you are from how I describe them here, please send me a note! Even better, go to the Dying Kindness website and click the microphone link to send me a voicemail. Maybe I can include that in a future episode!
Back to today’s topic, body disposition.
I know you’ve heard of both burial and cremation. You might think that stating that you want one or the other is all you need to decide. But those are not the only two options, and even just saying “buried” or “cremated” isn’t enough. There are still decisions to be made after that.
Let’s start with burial in the ground.
For thousands of years, humans have been burying their dead. Sometimes the graves are marked and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes people were buried in shrouds, sometimes in coffins or caskets. Today the practice of embalming before burial is common, but other than Egyptian pharaohs, embalming didn’t really take off until the American Civil War.
It used to be common to be buried on church grounds or on private land, but not so much any more. Some cemeteries cater to certain religions, spiritual practices, or ethnicities, especially if they have particular rules around how the body is handled. Our modern idea of what a cemetery looks like emerged in the early 1800s. In the wake of the industrial revolution and the rise in infectious crowd-related diseases, urban cemeteries started to get established away from city centers and they became more focused on being beautiful and peaceful, parklike. These park cemeteries used to be places for Sunday strolls and family picnics, but most people don’t really do that anymore. Today there are natural burial grounds and conservation cemeteries that aim to preserve the natural landscape, inviting people to once again use their grounds for recreation.
I mention all this to lay out some of the choices that arise, and decisions that need to be made, if you choose to be buried:
I hope this gives you a good idea of the kinds of decisions you need to communicate in your Death Binder. There are still more after this, but these would be a huge start.
Next, let’s talk about cremation.
While using an open-air pyre is still practiced in some countries like India and Nepal, it is banned in the United States everywhere except in a single location in Colorado, making it pretty much impossible here. Cremation by fire here means using a crematory, a specially designed furnace at a crematorium. This method was invented in the late 1800s, but it didn’t catch on in the U.S. until the 1960s. That’s when Jessica Mitford published “An American Way of Death” a best-selling exposé on the funeral industry. Since then, cremation has been on the rise, and as of a few years ago, it’s the top choice for disposition throughout the US. Some people choose cremation because they don’t like to imagine being buried, but most people choose it either because it tends to be less expensive and/or because it’s better for the environment than traditional burial.
Whether you want burial or cremation, some of the decisions you need to make are the same, particularly if you’re expecting to have a funeral with your body present. If so, all the decisions about embalming and type of casket apply, although in this case they’d go into the crematory instead of into the ground. (Yes, the casket also gets burned.)
Once you have been turned into ash, there are so many options that I did an entire episode about them. Go back and listen to Episode 6: Ashes to Ashes. Some of them are things that I think are appropriate for you to ask your loved ones to do with your ashes, such as scattering in a particular place or being shot into space. Others, however, I think should be the personal choice of the people left behind who have to continue to live with it, such as being integrated into a tattoo.
Before I get into some of the more unusual or newer options for body disposition, I want to touch on the environmental impact of traditional burials and cremation because that is largely what’s driving change in the funeral industry.
All that said, if you want to be buried and also want to make more environmentally conscious choices, you do have options.
OK, let’s talk about a few more unusual disposition options.
You may request burial at sea. Most people only think of this in relation to the military (or pirates. or gangsters.), but private companies do exist who are licensed to do this for the public. There are restrictions about how far out from shore it needs to be and involves being buried in a special shroud that’s designed to sink, no casket.
If you have a vision for your ashes, but also want the most environmentally friendly option, you should consider the relatively new alkaline hydrolysis, also known as water cremation. It’s a system that uses a solution of water and alkali to reduce the body to liquid and bones. The bones are then dried and ground so the end result is similar to the ash from cremation by fire. It’s greener than traditional cremation because there are no toxic emissions released into the air, and the resulting liquid is safe enough to go into regular waste water.
The newest option is called Natural Organic Reduction, also known as human composting. The end result is soil that’s rich in nutrients and good for growing plants. This was first legalized in Washington state just last year. It’s still only available in a handful of places, but people in many States are working on getting it legalized. The legislation was almost passed and signed here in California but the momentum was derailed by the Coronavirus. I am personally hopeful that this option is available here by the time I die.
Since alkaline hydrolysis and natural organic reduction are not available everywhere, if you want them, you’ll have to do some research. In the spirit of making things easier for the people we’ll leave behind, I strongly suggest that you do the research yourself, not just dump your request onto your grieving loved ones.
Are you overwhelmed yet? I know this is already a lot of information, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include a little bit about body donations. Body donations are used for medical research, for training doctors, for testing safety features, and so much more. If you want a deep dive into all this, I highly recommend the book “Stiff” by Mary Roach. She has the ability to make intense subjects super-interesting and fun to read about. I further recommend that you read the book on paper so you can enjoy her hilarious and artful footnotes.
Big heads up here, though: If you want to donate your body to science, you really need to set this up in advance. Donations are made through pre-arrangements with a particular organization or school that would then get contacted when you die. A couple of notes: First, the pre-arrangements are conditional. Depending on the circumstances surrounding your death and the condition of your body, your donated corpse may not end up being accepted. If that happens, your people are going to need to know what to do, so be sure to spell out an alternative just in case. Second, some places that accept body donations will eventually return cremated remains once the research is complete, but not all will. Prepare your loved ones for either a much-delayed return of remains or, possibly, none at all.
One final note regarding cost: The average funeral in the US currently ranges from $7000 to $15,000, depending on what State you’re buried in. (Hawai’i is the most). Not only are funerals expensive, they often happen after a financially and emotionally costly dying process. I’ll talk about this more in a future episode on financial planning for death and dying, but for now just keep in mind that if you have grand plans for your funeral and final disposition, be sure to plan ahead financially. Don’t set your loved ones up for unnecessary financial struggle.
So, those are a lot of options. How do you choose between them? In the next episode, I’ll go through some questions you can use to help sort out what you value and the impact of your choices.
I hope you’re getting value out of this podcast. If you are, please tell someone about this show. I would so love that! You could also help the show by going to DyingKindness.com/support to make a donation or become a patron. I’m doing all this on my own and every dollar helps keep me going!
The theme music is by Blue Dot Sessions. Everything else was done by me. I’m Cianna Stewart, and I’m going to die someday, hopefully in a way that makes it possible for my body to give back to this earth.
For today’s death reading, I thought I’d share a footnote by Mary Roach to give you a sense of just how wonderful they are. This one is from the book, “Stiff.”
I apologize in advance to my Dutch and Italian listeners because I’m sure to screw up the pronunciation here.
The main text reads: “The first people known to attempt arterial embalming were a trio of Dutch biologists and anatomists named Swammerdam, Ruysch, and Blanchard, who lived in the late 1600s.”
And here’s the footnote to that sentence, attached to the phrase “arterial embalming”: “But by no means the first attempt to keep bodies from rotting. Outtakes of the early days of corporeal preservation included a seventeenth-century Italian physician named Girolamo Segato, who devised a way of turning bodies into stone, and a London M.D. named Thomas Marshall, who, in 1839, published a paper describing an embalming technique that entailed generously puncturing the surface of the body with scissors and then brushing the body with vinegar, much the way the Adolph’s company would have housewives prick steaks to get the meat tenderizer way down in.”