There are two things you want to get right. One is that all-important thing called Life. The other is that long-term project called Death.
If you’re like most people, you’ve already screwed up that first thing. Not completely, but substantively in your own personal way—that way that makes you you. And of course you’ve done some of it right, too. You did what you could. And you will continue to do so because deep down inside, you’re a pretty decent person. You want to do what’s right.
And then you die. Maybe you can get that right, even though you (the you you) have never done it before.
The best you can do with death is pull off a transcendental switcheroo. You can turn death into life, and in so doing, do life itself—all life—a big favor.
Life depends on death. No big news there. It’s been going on for a long time, that perpetual renewal, that passing on of the carbon baton, that continual conversion of ash and dust into flesh and bone. This is well within your capacity. You can do this right.
Or you can do it wrong. You can plan to have yourself gutted and pumped full of formaldehyde to preserve your appearance of rosy-cheeked vitality. You can have yourself locked into a varnished, air-tight, worm-proof box, and you can have that box isolated from earth, water, and worms in a vault of concrete or steel. You can put off the inevitable for centuries, removed from Mother Earth, all alone in the dark, lying in the clutch of your own preservatives, deader than dead, your carbon-based molecules stuck in a limbo beyond the reach of life.
It’s understandable why some people choose to do that, or, more likely, have it chosen for them. Their loved ones want to remember them as they looked in life. It’s denial, of course, but there’s probably a reason people succumb to it. After all, what is life if not a long process of denying the inevitable.
But that’s doing Death wrong. It’s locking away life’s nutrients from life’s cycles. It’s hardwood trees felled to make a nice box. It’s dead trees hauled hundreds or thousands of miles in a diesel truck. It’s topsoil stripped away so sand and lime could be dug up for a concrete vault, leaving a hole in the ground that will remain lifeless for about as long as an embalmed body. It’s untold gallons of fossil fuel burned to turn the sand and lime into cement that’s then hauled hundreds or thousands of miles in yet another a diesel truck. It’s yet another truck hauling in fertilizer for a grassy toupee. It’s the marble or granite for a headstone dug up a long way away and hauled to a grave. And then come the lawnmowers, grim grass reapers burning yet more fuel.
That’s quite a stain to leave behind, quite an insult to the planet that gave the deceased so much for so many years of life.
Cremation? Not much better. It’s 28 gallons of fossil fuel combusted. It’s nutrients and personal collection of toxins— lead, mercury, BHT, Red #5—up in smoke. It’s the gritty cremains not good for much no matter where they’re scattered.
That’s not what you want to do. You want to do Dead right. You want to expedite your return to Life. You want to minimize your carbon footprint as you retreat into—and become—the Earth. Not trying to kid anybody by looking alive, you want your body left as it was when it died, unpolluted by carcinogenic chemicals, just wrapped in no more than a cotton shroud or a casket of local wood. You don’t want a vault just to keep the land above you level. You want the soil that you’ve displaced mounded in a bosomy tumulus. You want it to settle slowly, as it surely will. You don’t want lie under a manicured lawn; you want a beautiful blanket of autumn’s leaves and, soon enough, spring’s flowers and eventually a tree. You want to be kind to Mother Nature, who has nurtured your since your start. You want to rest in peace. You want to go gently into that good night.