Learning about Death

I swear, y’all would think that I’d never been outside before, the amount I sit around now blogging about my outside, but the truth is that I really don’t feel like I ever had to think about it before.  About my place in it.  Here, we’re really stepping in after long decades of someone loving this place and planting things all over and taking good care of things.

And the thing is that I’m learning a lot from the plants that they left us.  Every time we kind of figure out what something is, I look it up on the internet and, with the exception of the roses, the general guidelines for what to do with them is “Spread leaves around them and let them do their own thing.”  We have a ton of leaves, so following those directions is pretty easy.

But it has me all the time thinking about how valuable dead stuff is.  All this stuff I used to throw away (or not)–hair from the bathtub, nail clippings, kitchen scraps, etc.  It’s all valuable.  Putting it in the compost pile and letting it break down and then putting it around the yard is an easy and important way to keep the living things healthy.

I was even reading up on what to do when you take a tree out, and many folks recommend that you cut the stump as low as you can, but then leave it, that the rotting roots are good for the soil.  Shoot, even when you burn wood, you can take the ashes out and sprinkle them on your peonies.

I don’t know how to talk exactly about how it makes me feel.  I mean, yeah, we could all break into “Circle of Life,” but that’s not exactly it.

It has to do with feeling like things are useful in all forms.  That you put, say, your hair in the garden to keep the deer away, and the hair breaks down and feeds the plants so there you are now, a part of the dirt that the plants draw from, and then you eat the plant and the land is a part of you.  That there’s the back and forth of feeding and being fed.

Anyway, I’m not quite getting at it, but it makes me doubly suspicious of the way we put folks in concrete boxes once they’re done.

18 thoughts on “Learning about Death

  1. My best friend always said that when she died, she wanted to be cremated and her ashes buried under an azalea bush (and not buried with the plastic bag in a box that the crematorium puts you in if you don’t buy an urn, just her ashes). And when she passed away, that’s exactly what her husband did, on their property.
    I always thought that was a much better way to take care of what’s left of me after I die, and that’s what I intend to have done with my cremains (not necessarily an azalea bush, lilacs would be nice too).

  2. Indeed. There has been some effort toward “green” burials, but not surprisingly there aren’t a lot of places where you can do that just yet. Here’s a piece from NPR on the topic – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17232879

    It’s what I’d like, especially because cremation tends not to be nearly as environmentally friendly as people think it is. Without a green burial option, I’d like to be donated to the body farm at UT so people can at least learn something from my decomposition.

  3. I’ve always been really bothered by coffins, even when I was small. We would visit these huge sprawling cemetaries outside of Memphis and I would be perturbed by the thought of hundreds of boxes planted in the ground, so nothing could come up and nothing could go on top.

    But I also have a hard time being as cool about decomposition as I’d like to be, so I don’t think about my own death plans often.

  4. B,
    What you say about feeding and being fed in return makes me think you’d like Gary Snyder’s poetry, especially his idea that “we’re all part of the meal.” I’ll dig up a few titles for you.

  5. Bridgett, you mean most cemetaries are full of little concrete bunkers with bodies decomposing inside them? That is gross. Why do they do that? Just to pad the bill?

  6. I’m not sure when it became across the board standard for everyone to be buried in a box in a concrete box. It wasn’t even into the middle of the 20th century, but it is now. So, the easy answer is, no, most cemeteries aren’t full of little concrete bunkers unless they’re fairly new.

    As for the “why.” The official reason is that dead bodies are full of toxic chemicals that shouldn’t leech into the ground. Of course, unembalmed people aren’t, so clearly that’s not the whole truth.

    Here are the reasons I suspect it’s done, in no particular order.

    1. It prevents grave robbing. It’s one thing to dig down and find a coffin and open it in the middle of the night and steal jewelry or bodies, quite another thing to move a concrete lid without notice.

    2. Bodies, as they decompose, are unsettlingly noisy. When the old song asks if you’ve ever heard that coffin sound, that’s the sound of your remains knocking and banging and rattling as they expand and contract from the decomposition process. Embalming and encasing tends to make the decomposition process a whole lot less scary for bystanders.

    3. Dead bodies “float” in overly wet ground. Meaning, even if you stick them 6 feet down, if the ground is saturated, the remains will rise, and, in a best-case scenario, make like little raised bread loaf looking spots under the grass. This is useful if you’re, say, looking for potential burying spots for Robert Johnson, because you can rule out the graves with no bodies in them. But, if the casket has already rotted (and it often does before the bones), that means you could go to the grave of your ancestor and find, say, his arm bone. Unpleasant, to say the least.

    Which brings me to 3a. If you’re in a concrete box, no one is going to scavenge your remains. I suspect that this is actually one of the original reasons for putting graveyards in churchyards. There would always be people coming and going who could keep animals out of the graves. Otherwise…

  7. Like Rachel, I’ve long been interested in a “green burial.” Usually I word it thusly “I’d prefer you just dig a hole in the ground, deep enough so no animal will dig me up, strip me down and toss me in, then cover it up.”

    Right now I don’t think it’s legal do so around here, but maybe by the time I’m needing it done with will be. I genuinely don’t understand why we try to take such good “care” of dead bodies. And cremation uses such a vast amount of fuel and energy that it doesn’t really appeal to me either. I want as few resources devoted to my dead body as possible. As far as I’m concerned, my body is a pretty nice place to dwell for the moment, but once I leave it, I’m not planning on coming back to it.

  8. Historically speaking, the move to line vaults was started in the US in early 19th c cities to prevent bodies from rotting into the water supply and spreading disease. Graveyard land was usually donated to the city because it was unsuitable for farming — so it it was on a hill, all the liquid runoff from decomposing bodies slagged downward creating an ungodly stink as it worked its way into the river from which everyone drank and if it was on a low-lying piece of ground, well, it was all the closer to the water table and created a stewy stinky little swamp. Rural places followed suit by the Progressive Era, as part of the drive to modernize all of the United States.

    As an aside, what this means for US cities is that the city graveyard (which was the only greenspace in the closely built pre-car city) transformed from a miasma to a place where the poor could picnic, play ball, and screw. The early urban parks movement was an attempt to get them out of the graveyard because they weren’t being suitably dolorous and contemplating their own mortality in orgies of public piety like the preachers of the mid-19th century thought they should.

    And yeah, what Aunt B. said about the upward movement of rotting bodies. Concrete anchors them and keeps animals and people from digging them up.

  9. Ooo. I forgot about the disease aspect of it. But, yeah, there seems to have been a lot of fear that the diseases people died from could spread from the graveyards. I forget why exactly, but I know that was one of the impetuses for moving “the” graveyard to be buried in here in Nashville from the City Cemetery to Mt. Olivet.

    Coincidentally enough, the City Cemetery would now love it if people came and hung out in the park. I’ve walked the dog there many times and it is lovely, even if the neighborhood is sketchy.

  10. I have signed up with Anatomy Gifts Registry to donate my body to research. If I were less practical and more romantic, I would prefer a “sky burial” such as Zoroastrians and Tibetan Buddhists practice.

  11. As our friendly neighborhood historian indicated, disease is the biggest reason for the concrete vaults – cholera & dysentery, most particularly. But coffins that seal up nice and tight would work as well as a concrete vault, I think. Of course, then there’s the use of all that steel or aluminum or whatever they’re made of that we keep putting back in the ground.

  12. I know that some folks–some Jews, the Amish, maybe insistent crazed feminists?–are, as a matter of course, not embalmed and are put in pine caskets. No one “buried” in New Orleans is embalmed if they’re going in one of the above-ground cemeteries. Those concrete boxes work as slow incinerators and you, after a year or two, become ashes and are just swept to the back to make room for your next relative.

    I would love if we had a family vault like that. But we don’t. So, I hope to go in the ground in a pine box, un-embalmed, because I want to creak and moan and swell and knock and make all kinds of noises that will freak all the kids in the cemetery right the hell out.

    And then I want to become dirt and then plants and then animals and dirt again.

  13. You can really freak out a funeral director when s/he is trying to upsell your abruptly bereaved family a vault a pharaoh would covet and you ask, “Why should we be worried about preserving Daddy and keeping him dry and such? He’s got all the use of that body he’s going to.”


    And yes, The Sibling has specific (legal) instructions to override The Queen Mum if I predecease the Queen Mum and donate all usable organs (there’ll be plenty of skin for burn victims, folks) and put me in a pine box eight feet down. A cheap pine box, preferably from leftover (untreated) lumber. They can come plant more flowers on my grave every year and feed them to the cattle in the field that adjoins the cemetery.

  14. You need to research the specific TN state laws about burial and funeral requirements and then cross reference a lot of the sponsoring lawmakers to the Funeral Industry. I think you might be really surprised as to the real reasons a lot of these laws are in place ($$$).

    Also double check the local budget costs for burying John Does and funding “Potters Field” gravesites. Each Metro area/county must fund these from their operating budgets and tax dollars.

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