Green Bodies

Many years ago a local woman came to a planning commission meeting with information on green burials. This was where you could bury someone and allow them to decompose naturally. At the time, this was a radical idea that never gained traction. But I loved the thought that I could fertilize trees.

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Some people were grossed out by the idea, even though it was nothing new. This is how we did things before burial became a business.

Some were worried about contaminants, others about their religious beliefs.

Those same arguments circled when cremation was a ‘new’ practice. Of course cremation wasn’t truly new because cultures had also been doing that for hundreds of years. Think of those flaming Viking ships sent out to sea. What made cremation ‘new’ was that it was a new way to conduct the business of burials. A slightly cheaper way, but still a money-maker.

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Washington State just legalized human composting as a burial option. I am so, so thrilled by that. Isn’t it about time?

I love the idea that soil can be returned to my family and they can plant a rose. Or that they can choose to donate the soil for forest restoration. But as much as I love the idea, it’s way too costly still.

It bothers me that it is still a death-business. It’s being billed as more affordable. Really? Look at the numbers. A traditional burial can cost up to $9,000. Cremation can cost almost as much depending on what you want, although it can be as low as $1,000 (think cardboard box and spreading ashes), which is still difficult for many to pay. Composting sounds like it will run around $5,000.

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Explain to me why death is a business. Please. I get that everything these days is regulated. But why must death be so expensive that people have to budget and save or take out loans? Someone dies, the body is taken away from you, and you have to pay to get it back. And pay a lot. You have no choice. It’s almost like kidnapping and holding someone for ransom. My thought is if they want my body so badly they can keep it. The idea of my family having to bankrupt themselves just to get me back in some form is awful.

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Because composting is considered new, the usual fears are circling again. Will it be safe for pathogens and disease? Will it be safe for heavy metals? What if a person has been radiated? And of course, there’s always religion and those who believe a physical body is needed for resurrection.

I get some of those reasons are why regulation is needed. Regulations will ensure a process that is consistent. But I still don’t agree with the cost.

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Why hasn’t someone taken up the banner of socializing death as well as healthcare?

Though I suppose if we have to pay to be born we should also pay at the other end.

Maybe by the time I die composting will have been around long enough that costs come down. And then my husband can plant a new rose.

And wherever I am, there will be a day when I hear his voice yelling at the dog, ‘quit digging!’

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A Stranger

I posted about this a couple years ago but a friend recently asked me to retell the story. So you old-timers might recognize this one.

Ten years ago I was going through radiation treatments for lymphoma. Every morning I drove an hour and a half to the cancer center, took off all my clothes, put on this robe, and sat in a room with others in their robes.

There was no socializing. There was little, if any, talking. Everything going on in that room was internalized. We were all head down, thoughts inward. Preparing for what we knew was coming, and how awful we were going to feel in a couple hours, and how sick we were going to be the rest of the day.

We were simply breathing. Grateful to be breathing, but able to do nothing more than take the next step right in front of us.

There was an older woman in that group. Short, steel-gray hair. She was always there before me, and when I walked in, she would lift her chin in greeting. We could manage an acknowledgement, but that was it.

Three or four years later I was in a grocery store, in the produce section, and happened to look up. And there she was. We met each other’s eyes and immediately burst into tears.

She was alive.

We hugged. We asked each other how the prognosis was going, how the healing was going. That’s when I found out she’d been in there for breast cancer.

And then we moved on to finish our shopping.

We never asked for each other’s name, or phone number, or email.

It was so random, to run into her there, of all places. That we happened to be, not just in the same town and the same store, but the same section at that exact same moment in time.

Years passed.

Two years ago I was…you guessed it…back at that same store. And there she was.

Once again, as soon as we met eyes, we were crying. We hugged. We asked those questions. Are you still free? She was. I wasn’t. I’d just finished another round of radiation and was still pretty sick. But I was able to tell her it was a precaution only and all was good. We cried some more.

We never asked for each other’s name, or phone number, or email.

She’s a complete stranger. I know nothing about who she is as a person, or what her family is like, or any of the myriad of stories we associate with those we know.

Yet I count her as a close friend.

And some day I’ll run into her again.

What’s Left?

I read a fascinating book by Peter Ward called Life As We Do Not Know It regarding NASA’s search for alien life. While 99.9% of the book was way over my head, one thing he said stuck with me. How can we expect to find alien life when we haven’t found all life on this planet? Basically, we redefine ‘life’ because as science changes and new discoveries are made, that definition of what life is also has to change.

If we must redefine our definition of what ‘life’ is, so, too, must we redefine how life changes and is altered by the death of the physical body.

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Please be kind and respectful in your comments here, because I’m going to move into a topic that people not only feel strongly about, but also one that many feel must be pushed on others who feel differently. Please tell us how you feel, but don’t tell us we have to feel the same way.

I tried different religions but never found one that fit. I personally feel religion was simply early man’s first attempt at a moral code. I don’t believe in some great hereafter, and I don’t believe people go to heaven or hell, or some other variation of that theme, after death.

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Yet, when you lose a loved one, beliefs on the afterlife get seriously challenged. Because we don’t want to let go. We don’t want to believe they are gone forever, beyond our reach, or beyond any hope of ever seeing them again. So how do you reconcile love and loss with no afterlife?

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I’m not ready too say there is nothing after death. My siblings and I had an unexplained moment when our dad died. We were far apart at the time, in our individual homes, and didn’t realize we’d each had similar experiences until days later. But even with that mystery, I don’t believe in some heavenly afterlife.

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I just don’t think it is something we can know or understand, or maybe even wrap our minds around. I think people’s attempts to define it in the language of religion are limiting something that is unknown because we, as humans, are also limited in our knowledge of the world around us.

I don’t believe in some all-knowing god. But I also can’t truly say, after that experience with dad, that there is nothing afterwards. I just have to settle for ‘I don’t know’ and try to accept that it helps not one iota with the loss that comes from death.

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We are made of energy, or as some say, we are made of stars. I think that energy dissipates, maybe stays around, maybe becomes something new, maybe swirls out there in the universe forming new planets and new life. Who knows? I sure don’t.

If I haven’t learned about all the life that exists, then how can I begin to fathom all the possibilities of what happens to life when it transitions, or dissipates, or moves on, or simply ceases?

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I hope that there is something after death mainly because it eases loss. That comes from selfish longing, not from some sense of fear about what will happen to me. Personally I’ll be happy fertilizing some trees.

But for those I have loved and lost, I hope they are among the stars.

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