The phone rang. The NYPD wanted to talk to me. My father’s cadaver had to be identified. I was living 3,827 miles away in Denmark. After the call, I downed some whiskey and phoned my father’s number to hear his answering machine greeting, to quell the fear that I might forget the sound of his voice (29 years later I still haven’t. We still have occasional nocturnal chats in my dreams). Meanwhile, in New York, his partner took care of the cadaver ID formalities.
A few days later I sat in the office of the funeral home with my brother, my father’s partner and my uncle. Collectively we had to make the usual decisions; open or closed coffin, timing of the viewings, the prayer for the funeral card, which saint’s image should appear on the flip side, and which coffin to purchase.
Years earlier my father had handed me a note with his funeral preferences. He named the funeral home, the church for the funeral, and indicated whether the coffin should be open or closed for the viewings.
I did not have that note with me while we made his funeral arrangements. In the rush to get to New York I could not locate it. Eventually, after my return to Denmark, I did find it. Of the big decisions, we managed to get 2 out of 3 correct. We only botched his preference for a closed coffin. Sorry about that Dad, but I did want to see you one last time, and I was ignorant regarding the option for a private viewing.
I also had no idea how often we would be meeting for chats in dreams.
After reading her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I revised my own cadaver-management preference from cremation to science donation. In that process I toyed with the zero-carbon footprint idea of having my remains inserted into the ground to serve as fertiliser and worm food. This is Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s preference, being a more environmentally-friendly approach than cremation.
The downside is that this would involve costs and organising efforts for my survivors that I’d rather not burden them with. There are no costs involved with letting science have my remains. They’ll pick up my carcass, do whatever research they wish, and once they are done with the former ‘me’ they will dispose of whatever bits and pieces remain at no cost. Yeah, a very practical solution.
Will that deny anyone an opportunity to mourn? No. If anyone has an urge to gather once I’m gone there’s nothing to stop them from doing so on their own terms, at their own convenience, and in their own way. Why should I dictate any of that? I haven’t even got the authority to dictate anything, so why bother to try post-mortem?
The thing is, I’ll be dead. Out of the picture. Whatever happens with my remains will be of little consequence to me. In terms of having some lasting impact, locally or globally, out of the roughly 150,000 cadavers added to the global mound every day, my sole carcass won’t make much difference no matter how it is dealt with.
If every cadaver was planted in the soil of the Earth, then there might be an incremental positive effect on climate change. But it will be a long time before that becomes a global practice.
So I’ve settled on the option that minimises expense and hassle for those I leave behind. If coronavirus gets me, perhaps this could be my way of helping to find a vaccine, treatment or cure, as a truly silent partner in the process!
Who knows? I surely won’t.