Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.
Over the years I have been accused of being macabre because I find it fascinating when people get bored of their own funerals and last arrangements and decide to gussy up death a little bit. I have to wonder, why not? Why not greet the afterlife with flair, or humor, or downright eccentricity? Why not give our loved ones something to talk about for the rest of their lives? Though I don't know what I'll be doing after I've kicked the bucket and joined the living-challenged, I do know I have a whole series of options after looking into it. I doubt I'll be checking off the boring old "Christian Burial or cremation" box and perhaps neither will you after reading this article.
I realize not all of us want to break completely from tradition, that some of us actually find comfort in good old Christian burials, but why should we be interred in a plain rectangular wooden casket when we could go take our dirt nap in something a little more artsy and spectacular? The Ga tribe of Ghana was probably the first to popularize this practice sixty years ago. Here the recently deceased can spend up to a year's worth of their wages to buy themselves a coffin in the shape of a shoe, a bottle of beer, a car, an animal, a cell phone, an airplane, a hammer, a cigarette, anything that symbolized the person in life. Apparently this trend is catching on in the West as Vic Fearn and Company, a British business, is now making custom coffins to order. Fredric Baur, the designer of the iconic Pringles can, preferred to be cremated so that his ashes could be snuggly fit into one of his cans at his burial in 2008.
I got into an interesting conversation one day with a woman who had lived for eight or ten years in Japan. She claimed that the strangest aspects of Japan were their obscession with toilets (apparently the better off you are the more bedazzled your lou should be, with an attached bedet and at least thirty buttons to choose from) and a curious new custom of themed funerals. She claimed salespeople would come around to your door and give you pamphlets, telling you how you could have a funeral with laser lights and tacky music. She even had a list of garish songs, like Over the Rainbow and Wind Beneath Your Wings, that could be played at these... events. I have been unable to find any evidence of this online and she may have just been completely crackers but I do like the idea... I must say though, allowing someone with a warped sense of humor to pick their own funerary playlist may not be the brightest idea. I mean I myself would be super tempted to write down Only the Good Die Young, and Live and Let Die. Don't get me started on all the suicide songs I could think of off the top of my head... Mad World, How to Save a Life, Darkness Darkness, or Seasons in the Sun. Or perhaps you just want to give the world one last side-ways smirk and play something like the Squirrel Nut Zipper's Hell. I mean, I could see myself looking up at the mourners at my funeral, smiling and singing allong, "Now the d and the a and the m, And the n and the a, And the t and the i-o-n!" However this could really tweak out the mourners.
Giving It to the Birds
Perhaps you want to go super traditional and opt for a departure that's O'Naturale. Some of our oldest mythologies tell of a belief that people have had around the world that various animals are responsible for taking our souls to the afterlife. Ravens and crows still sometimes get blamed for this, one of the reasons they're associated with death. Ancient Romans sometimes believed Dolphins brought the soul to the underworld. Some ancient European traditions relied on wolves to dispose of the dead. However in current day Tibet the animal of choice is not wolves or dolphins its vultures. Buddhists here are either cremated or cut into bits by monks and fed to vultures on top of the mountain. I find this idea strangely comforting. Personally I'd rather be in the belly of a bird soaring high above the land than in the belly of a worm slithering just below the surface of the earth. That being said the tradition is practiced less and less these days and is probably not legal anywhere else. That's a damn shame, I wouldn't mind being fed to gimpy tigers in a feline retirement home or something.
Bringing New Meaning to "Sleeping with the Fishes"
In the old days if you died on a ship you were lobbed off the side unceremoniously and eaten by sharks, it was nothing personal, today we have a more gentile way of returning our loved ones to the sea. This one's great for wildlife conservationists and the super green. Why not become part of the "Eternal Reef"? Apparently our coral reefs, here in the US, were dying out, and a small band of people tried to encourage new reef growth by dumping various objects in the ocean for corals to attach themselves to. This could be old used subway cars or in the case of Eternal Reefs, a concrete reef ball. Loved ones are encouraged to take part in the creation of these reef balls, where they can mix the cremated remains of loved ones into their own aquatic memorial. Also included in these reef balls are shells, rocks, occasional pieces of ceramic pottery or broken sea glass, and of course holes and cubbies for small fish and critters to hide. A memorial plaque is included as well. In the coming years coral does attach to these reef balls and grows, small fish, shrimp, and other little wee beasties come around and call it home. In the decades to come the hope is the reef balls will become absolutely overgrown with coral as they become the bedrocks of a new ecosystem, a process loved ones are welcomed to witness as they dive at the location of each reef ball graveyard. It’s a really sweet idea and one that's catching on fast. The company that does this Eternal Reefs were created to rehabilitate aquatic habitat, not bury loved ones, but I guess fate had other plans for them. Meanwhile I don't think this is an option for me as being picked at by starfish for a millenia just gives me the heebie jeebies.
Pushing Up Daisies
For those of you who are really green, and I mean really really green, like those yahoos who chase down whaling ships in little dingies, aquamation may be the choice for you! Imagine a gentle bubbling brook, see how peaceful and lovely it is in your head, now replace that brook with a stainless steel tub and you got the idea of aquamation. Basically using water of just the right temperature, alkalinity, and movement, the body is reduced to liquid in a startling four hours. Of course the bones will be left but apparently those are ground up and given to the survivors. What happens to the rest of your now liquefied remains? Well... its apparently fantastic fertilizer, especially suggested for flowers... perhaps even daisies. Proponents of this method of body disposal say its the most enviromentally friendly method there is out there, without polluting the earthw ith a glossy new coffin or creating one last carbon footprint with our cremation. Of course no one's ever stopped to consider the devastating loss of jobs in the worm world but I guess that's a concern for a later date.
Tree of Life
It's not unusual to have someone plant a tree in honor of a deceased loved one - what is a smidge unusual is if that tree is the deceased loved one. A company called Bios Urn now makes biodegradable urns that are designed to renew life, in a way. You see these coffee cup shaped urns contain soil and the ashes of your loved one. From here the urn can be planted with a seed of your choosing which will take nutrients from the ashes and hopefully continue growing long after the urn has decomposed.
Tastes Like Chicken
What if you don't want to be fed to wild animals, creepy crawly sea creatures, or plants? What if you want to be eaten by people? I know, I could hear you gag from behind my computer. This is indeed one of the last great taboos. In fact anthropologists like to call it the most taboo of all taboos but we're just learning recently we may be wrong on this subject. For instance discoveries of fossilized human scat (that’s poop for you not in-the-know) in the Midwest were tested and found to have human DNA in them. Now poop only has the DNA of whatever you last ate in it, not your own, so the only conclusion was that some tribes were practicing cannibalism in the not too distant past. This wasn't that surprising as some tribes in South America were still practicing ritualized cannibalism as late as the 1950s. That's were Kuru came from, the human-to-human form of mad cow disease. More recent studies have shown we all carry genes that suggest we became immune to some prehistoric diseases by... you guessed it... surviving eating others and having children who shared the same genes. Even in our more recent past sailors often would draw straws to decide who got eaten during a mid-sea crisis and prisoners escaping from extremely rural prison camps were known to take 'cows' with them... that is another prisoner who could be sacrificed for lunch if things got bad. The population of Easter Island nearly went extinct when their population boomed and their food sources dwindled. Most ate each other toward the end. There's even an old saying up there, "I got your mother stuck between my teeth." And of course there's the inspiration for Alive, the movie that depicts that poor soccer team whose plane crashed in the AndesMountains and who were forced to eat each other for survival. We have a rich legacy of cannibalism in our literature, stories and sayings, just look at our fairy tales! Hansel and Gretel, Baba Yaga, the original version of Snow White where the wicked queen demands that the hunter kill Snow White and tare out her lung and liver, to be sautéed and eaten with salt. Its no wonder our current day villains, serial killers, still sometimes practice cannibalism. Think Jeffrey Dahmer or Ed Gein. But I think the most shocking case of cannibalism I've come across is the case of Armin Meiwes and Bernd Jürgen Brandes. Mewes was a socially awkward innkeeper (I swear I'm not recounting the plotline to Psycho here) and Brandes was a guy he met online who wanted to be eaten. Funny how people get together these days. Mewes admitted he'd taken on his willing victim, cut off some sensitive parts while he was still alive, at his request, fed it to his now heavily bleeding but still alive victim, and ate a bite himself. After Brandes died he was butchered, stuffed in the freezer, and periodically eaten until two years later nothing remained of his carcass. Now this is a fascinating case.... because the victim wanted to be eaten, should we punish his killer for obliging? People are still divided but cannibalism - and murder - are still completely illegal in most jurisdictions so I don't suggest trying this one at home.
Down at the Body Farm...
Perhaps unlike the last part of this article you'd rather help stop crime than partake in it. Some people donate their bodies to science, so that their cadavers can be sliced up by eager medical students with jittery hands and a thirst for knowledge. This is all well and good for those who want to help the medical world progress, what about those with a taste for forensics? Well, these days you can donate your body to science in order to be used at the Body Farm. The Body Farm is a hellish sort of place where dead people are set out in the sun, tied under water, put in shallow graves, covered in leaves, or otherwise left to rot or be scavenged upon by animals. During this process people will be staring at you, watching you decay, taking measurements and pictures. How long did it take you to decay in exactly the setting they put in you in? Did anything interesting happen to you? These seem like morbid flights of fancy but really, these things are important to know when investigating murders. The people who donate their bodies here really are helping advance science and bring a little bit of justice into the world. It's a nice thought.
Is it Medical Science or Art?
Gunther Von Hagen was the first to pioneer a technique called plasticization in which he could take dead bodies and preserve their muscles, tissues, and nerves in such a way that they looked perfectly preserved. He started this to make better models for the medical students to learn off of than the plastic ones that were often passed around. Fresh bodies are hard to come by and are in too short a supply to use them whenever pointing out some relevant fact the students had to learn. Somewhere in this time he started to preserve whole bodies and animate them by almost sculpting them into extremely athletic positions. Now the general public can see his work, on both humans and the odd animal (a camel here, a horse there, an odd elephant standing in the room) when Bodyworlds come to town. I went and saw a Bodyworlds 2 Exhibit and let me tell you... it’s stunning. You can see every organ, every nerve, every muscle, just as if the person were still alive and dancing without their skin on. It's a perfect marriage of science and art and no matter who you are you will learn something while being humbled at the same time. Absolutely profoundly beautiful. I highly suggest going if you ever see one of these exhibits near you. You can also donate your body to this project if someday you'd like to be an exhibit yourself. Perfect for exhibitionists! In fact there was some controversy over one exhibit in particular where two cadavers were locked in perpetual intercourse. I still don’t know if its necrophilia if both participants are dead.
Roald Dahl's Landlady Would be Proud
Maybe you'd like to be art but you're a little too old school to appreciate the whole plasticization thing... that's fine! Why not go for a bit of taxidermy? That's what philosopher Jeremy Bentham did. His body was dissected, as he wished, during a public lecture, and then his skeletal remains were fleshed out with hay which was then dressed in his clothes. He was given a wax head as his real head was botched during this whole process... In any event he became a sort of scarecrow and is currently still displayed in the main building of the University of London, where he very occasionally attends board meetings and is written down as "present but not voting." How sweet.
Piece of my Heart
Did you know it’s illegal to leave your heart in San Francisco? In fact any dead persons are forcibly evicted from the city and sent to Colma California, a real city of the dead. Its one giant cemetery, the only living souls are those in the funerary business. But this is all besides the point... In the last section I discussed taxidermy of the whole body, but what if you only want part of your body preserved? What if you want to be chopped up into dozens of pieces and have bits of you delivered to various countries for a political statement like Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of PETA? I don't know... but I do know some attempts to save just one or two certain body parts in the past has been successful. You might be horrified to know that there are tattoo collectors out there... who don't have a drop of ink on their own body. It’s true! And if that isn't morbid enough there's Antoine LeBlanc, an accused triple murderer who in 1833 was hung in MorristownNew Jersey. LeBlanc was dissected by a local surgeon and his skin was turned into wallets. As twisted as this story is it’s apparently not completely unique. There are rumored to be other human skinned wallets around. On the other hand André Tchaíkowsky, a Pianist who died in 1983, asked that his skull be preserved and given to the Royal Shakespeare Company so that it could star in productions of Hamlet. It took awhile for the good people at the Royal Shakespeare Company to shake off that eerie oogey boogey feeling and actually use the skull but it has been in performances and still can occasionally be seen on stage.
An Explosive Finale
What if you're a writer with a reputation for being absolutely effin' insane and a taste for pyromania? The answer to this seems obvious... have your ashes shoved into a firecracker, after you've put yourself out of your own misery, and get blasted into the air. This was Hunter S Thompson's last say to the world. The writer of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the father of Gonzo journalism thought this was an appropriate way to go! The firework, in case you're wondering, was made in the shape of a two-thumbed hand holding a button of peyote, the symbol of his Gonzo journalism seen at the side here... I guess he may have been onto something because I have heard of at least one other person deciding upon this explosive send off. Its not quite spontaneous combustion but its close enough!
Up Up and Away!
Since we're talking about writer's here I decided to continue with them. I'm not going to talk about Ambrose Bierce and how his choice of funeral arrangements was to just disappear off the face of the earth (possibly for "shits and giggles" or he was massacred in the Mexican War, your choice really.) I am going to instead talk about the creator of Star Trek Gene Roddenberry (hold on Trekkies, I'll get to the good stuff in a second) and the somewhat lesser known Timothy Leary... you know the ridiculously overeducated LSD activist that said, "Turn on, tune in, drop out." Anyway, both of these....interesting....people decided they wanted an even more explosive sendoff than MR Thompson over there. Sorry buddy, it's a dog eat dog world out there. Anyway, part of the cremated remains of these two super stars was rocketed into space where they will orbit earth for awhile before getting bored and plummeting back down to earth where they'll be vaporized long before reaching the ground, call it space suicide if you will.
Perhaps You too can be a Head in a Jar
Since we're already talking science fiction let's consider the Futurama approach. I know, I know, it's a cartoon, but wouldn't it be cool if it were real? Some people think it is! Sorta. Cryogenetics is the perfect option for people who just don't want to deal with death period. It’s a process in which you're frozen in a giant tube in the hopes they'll come up with a cure for... well, death, in the future and somehow reanimate you. You think cell phones are complicated now? HA! Try it in 300 years when they take your sorry carcass out of of its tube! And just in case you're sitting there going, "I can't afford more than $200,000 to deny deaths existence!" How about a compromise? Cryonics companies are now offering to just freeze your head for a cool 80 grand. You too can be a head in a jar! Like Leonard Nimoy or Al Gore!
Diamond's are a Corpse's Best Friend
This last option I like to call Death Diamonds, because that has a super cool dark sound to it... but this is probably just because there's a cryptic old dude crooning in my head, "There are no diamonds in the coal mine!" Actually they're called LifeGems. Death Diamond, LifeGem... I guess it is a is your glass half empty or half full sort of thing. In any event its rather neat. Diamonds are basically carbon (same stuff cremated human remains are) put under extreme pressure. Someone somewhere decided that human ashes could be used to make artificial diamonds. When I first heard about this you could only get yellow or blue but I guess they've tweaked the proccess and now you can have grandma turned into just about any color bling you want, blue, clear, yellow, red, green... who knew there was such an assortment! Every woman would love to know shes beautiful, so let her know that even death doesn't mean you can't look like a million bucks. If not a million bucks then perhaps a chic two or twenty thousand.
And in conclusion... I have not really figured out what I want done with my remains, nor have I covered every option. I have yet to write about people burying themselves in their cars, or kings walling up their live servants and slaves with them, or the tantalizing prospect of modern mummification. I also have yet to explore amusing last wills and testaments and kick-ass epitaphs, though I really hope to at a later date. If you have come across any other clever ways to dispose of yourself do let me know and I just may add it in! But for now I'm off, feeling terribly nerdy, as I have made jokes about Star Trek, Futurama, and now Doctor Who (guess who is talking to the skull!) That’s OK, I’m sure there are other geeks out there who are laughing. Thanks Geeks, your my core fan base!