Funerals in the forest

I’ve talked here before about how to dispose of my body after I croak. I have particular, peculiar, deeply secular ideas. First, do not bury me; I am not landfill. Second, do cremate me; you can put my ashes in a curvy hourglass, a swirling snow globe, or a Magic 8 Ball to be shaken for answers to imponderable cosmic queries, such as, “Does Suzy like me?”  

These are some very real alternatives, as well:

* As I’ve written here, Washington State is considering allowing human remains to be disposed of and reduced to soil through composting. It works like this: Decomposing bodies crumble and decay into soil and are dispersed to help flowers and trees thrive. There’s no coffin, no chemicals, no pricey cemetery plot and none of the fossil fuels used in cremation. Eco-ecstasy.

* In another post I described the underwater reef ball, an eco-friendly, reef-building sphere of cement in which your ashes are placed and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. First you’re cremated. Then your ashes are stirred with concrete and shaped into a hollow, hole-pocked reef ball. Resting on the seafloor, its goal is to provide a teeming marine habitat for fish, coral and other sea critters.

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Now there’s another option, which I saw in the Times. “Could Trees Be the New Gravestones?” the headline asks. It’s a bit cryptic, but read on and it’s all about forest funerals. The first thing that popped to mind was hiding a corpse in the woods, throwing some leaves over it, and running. 

But no. This is about a respectable body receptacle, a burial place for human (and pet) ashes deep among towering trees, verdant ferns and Chia-lush moss, a sylvan Eden of mist and dew, deer, butterflies and half-men, half-goats. You want to be buried in beauty, this is your spot.

Better Place Forests, a Bay Area start-up, is “buying forests, arranging conservation easements intended to prevent the land from ever being developed, and then selling people the right to have their cremated remains mixed with fertilizer and fed to a particular tree,” the Times says. (Fed to a particular tree — Mother Nature’s bottomless buffet chomps on.) vc_insidersguidetocaliforniasredwoodcoast_st_rm_ea6f8r_1280x640.jpgIt sounds a lot like Washington State’s human composting proposal, but Better Place Forests seems to have this thing up and rolling with a tree-specific blueprint. The company emailed me this simplified explanation of how its “memorial forests” work:

  1. You choose a tree in one of our private, permanently protected forests.
  2. Under this tree, you spread ashes of family members and pets for generations to come.
  3. Our forests are easy to reach. Your family can visit your tree at any time.

Along with flowers, bring a backpack, picnic spread, bottle of rosé and bug spray.

So far, only two forests are taking cremains: one in Point Arena on the ocean-sprayed coast of Northern California and the dense Santa Cruz Forest, where 6,000 trees are available on 80 acres. Spots in Seattle, Denver, Portland and Flagstaff are in the works.

Dying is easy; paying for it is hard. What’s your budget? What kind of tree do you want to be eaten by? Some of the nitty-gritty (boldface mine):

“Customers come to claim a tree for perpetuity. This now costs between $3,000 (for those who want to be mixed into the earth at the base of a small young tree or a less desirable species of tree) and upward of $30,000 (for those who wish to reside forever by an old redwood). For those who don’t mind spending eternity with strangers, there is also an entry-level price of $970 to enter the soil of a community tree. (Cremation is not included.) A steward then installs a small round plaque in the earth like a gravestone.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not doing “a less desirable species of tree” (sorry, pine) or the community tree, which smacks of a pauper’s grave — fine for Mozart but not moi. I’m going for it — 30K to snuggle up to an ancient, majestic redwood, a barky skyscraper that kisses the clouds and tickles the sun. That sounds lovely. I’ll be dead, but still.

How strange to be sprinkled at the base of a giant tree in a vast shadow-dappled forest. Will an impish fox come dig me up, uprooting the whole rest-in-peace thing? Might a small-bladdered hiker use my tree as a makeshift urinal? Even stranger, could a fern sprout where my ashes are buried like in the book “Where the Red Fern Grows”?

That would be deliciously nuts — what color would my fern be? — and as surreal, incomprehensible and amazing as death itself.

Now, where do I sign up?

(The company’s video pitch is HERE.)

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“A small round plaque in the earth like a gravestone.” They’re not kidding. That looks to be about the size of a silver dollar.

Want to know if the dog dies? Go here first

In the bullet-peppered, body-slamming thriller “John Wick,” innumerable bad guys die stylishly gruesome deaths.

So, alas, does the dog.

The blameless Beagle puppy named Daisy is mercilessly killed before our hero’s eyes, which squint with vengeance instead of squinch with tears. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) isn’t taking this outrage sitting down — he’s not letting dead dogs lie — in the 2014 cult classic. He’s about to unleash a two-hour massacre.

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Play dead. For good.

Spoiler? You bet. That’s exactly what the fine, sometimes funny and oddly practical movie- and animal-lover site Does the Dog Die? is here for — to tell you ahead of time if the damn dog dies. You want to know. I definitely want to know.

Anytime a dog, or any animal for that matter, appears on screen I tense up and just hope the creature doesn’t get shot, run over by an SUV or mauled by a demon (or, if you’re the rabbit in “Fatal Attraction,” boiled alive). Animals in movies are too often sacrificial lambs, beelines to our heartstrings or, as in Wick’s case, catalysts for revenge. (Or just workaday roadkill. Shrug.)

The website covers all manner of movie, TV and book animal deaths. Fed by visitor input, it’s a spoiler sanctuary revealing what animals perish or get injured and how, in often graphic terms. (Sample: “A cat accidentally gets smashed by a book. A half-human, half-dog gets his arm chopped off and punched into the ground.”) Ha, ha.

It’s humorous. It’s helpful. It’s horrific. Here’s a short screen grab to show you what entries looks like (note, it’s not the prettiest web design):

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Some more reader reports about dogs dying onscreen at Does the Dog Die:

  • “The Babadook” — “For anyone who DOESN’T WANT TO WATCH THE DEATH OF THE DOG, don’t watch from 1:09:20 to 1:11:20.”
  • “I Am Legend” — “Dog is infected by a zombie-esque virus and is killed by her owner.”
  • “The Witch” — “Dog disemboweled in the woods.”
  • “The Good Place” (TV) — “A dog is kicked into the sun.”
  • “The Thing” — “Many dogs die on and off camera. One looks like it got doused in acid and is still moving around.”
  • “John Wick” — “Yes, and it’s terrible, BUT John Wick spends the rest of the movie deliberately, gloriously, and violently avenging the dog, so it feels really pro-dog overall.”
  • “Old Yeller” — “Yes the dog dies. He’s shot by his owner after contracting rabies.”
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“Old Yeller” — he’s either shaving or he has rabies. Yep: He dies.

Does the Dog Die goes well beyond dog deaths, featuring 50 queasy-making topics, things you might want to know before flipping on the TV or entering the multiplex. Some topics and contributor comments:

Does a kid die?

  • “Game of Thrones” (TV) — “Season 2, Episode 1: For goodness’ sake, don’t watch this episode if you can’t stand a child being hurt. A baby is murdered.”

Is someone burned alive?

  • “Thor Ragnarok” — “Someone is literally melted.”

Are there clowns?

  • “It” — “Shockingly, there are clowns.”

Does a head get squashed?

  • “Venom” — “Does a head getting eaten count as squashed? I’d say yeah, but some may disagree.”

Is Santa spoiled?

  • “Bojack Horseman” (TV) — “In the Christmas special, Bojack’s character admits that Santa is a lie in a way that is phrased to deny the existence of God.”

Are any teeth damaged?

  • “Room” — “Ma has a ‘bad tooth’ which hurts her when she eats. It eventually falls out and she gives it to her son.”

I can handle clowns, squashed heads and rotten teeth, but I hate it when the dog dies. Hate it. It’s one reason I call canine-killing movies like “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “Marley & Me” doggie-death porn. They all but fetishize the dog’s demise, milking the moment as they twist a knife in your heart, probably snickering as they do it. Sadists.

And so we have this neat site to tell us when to cover our eyes, leave the room, or skip a movie, show or book altogether. It’s not just a clever concept, it’s a public service.

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Sorry, Marley — you’re doomed.

Looking back at Chewbacca

This is the very first image I ever saw of Chewbacca:

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It was spring 1977 and I was young. I had hair like a mid-career Beatle. Movie-wise, I was obsessed with “Jaws” from two years prior. And, even at that early grade-school age, I thought “Dog Day Afternoon,” watched repeatedly on cable, was the dope. (Later movie manias would include “Close Encounters,” “Alien” and “The Elephant Man.”)

My dad came home with a thick press kit for the summer movie roster from 20th Century-Fox. (A journalist, he often arrived from the office with public relations goodies from movie studios and, maybe coolest, the Mattel toy company. We were the first kids in town to have Slime and Shogun Warriors.)

I don’t recall any of the movies in the 20th Century-Fox press kit but one, a mysterious little picture called “Star Wars” that was slated to hit theaters May 25. My immediate fascination with the movie, well before I saw it, is so clichéd that I will keep the recollection trimmed and distilled. 

Amid a sheaf of black and white stills of characters from the film, bound in a colorful folder emblazoned with the now-iconic “Star Wars” logo, my attention zeroed in on one particular photo. The caption read: “Chewbacca, the hundred year old Wookiee, co-pilots the Millennium Falcon, a Carnelian pirate starship.”

Chewbacca? Wookiee? Yes! This was the baddest movie character I’d ever seen, a hair-covered giant holding an automatic weapon in what appeared to be the desert with a Clint Eastwood, “Go ahead, make my day” expression on his Sasquatchian puss. The pure, scorching exoticism of it blew my little mind. I immediately stuck on my wall the 8-x-10 with four silver tacks. Anticipating the day I could see this creature move and (not quite) speak on the big screen became a pastime of electric excitement. 

The man I would soon learn filled the Chewbacca fur-fest was Peter Mayhew, a 7-foot-3 Briton who died of a heart attack at 74 yesterday at his North Texas home. (Check out his personal site Chewbacca.com.) The galaxy weeps. 

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Mayhew and Chewbacca. Similarities abound.

As Chewie, Mayhew growled and laser-gunned his way through five “Star Wars” features as sidekick and co-pilot to Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling Han Solo. They were a dynamic duo, BFFs who fought together, cried together, drank together and probably had a secret handshake. That’s all the speculation I will pursue.

Chewbacca wasn’t the most complex character. He had moist, soulful animal eyes and teeth like a German shepherd’s. The mournful, bestial yowls he had to rely on for vocal communication without the gift of speech could shred your ears, and rend your heart. (His voice was created with recorded animal sounds.)

“He put his heart and soul into the role of Chewbacca and it showed in every frame of the films, from his knock-kneed running, firing his bowcaster from the hip, his bright blue eyes, down to each subtle movement of his head and mouth,” Mayhew’s family said in a statement.

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Chewie and Solo — one of the great action duos in movie history

Valiant, righteous, a fighter, friend and even funny, Chewbacca as portrayed by Mayhew was more than a guy pantomiming in a gorilla suit. He lent the Wookiee spirit, spunk and purpose. I absorbed all of this when I finally, in a one-screen art-deco movie theater in the summer of ’77, saw my hero in action, this towering benevolent beast, who fleetly dispensed with Imperial baddies and didn’t complain when saucy Princess Leia dismissed him as a “walking carpet.”

It’s why as a kid I was so crestfallen when, at the end of the film, everybody got a Medal of Bravery for saving the galaxy and blowing up the Death Star except Chewie, who just stands there during the ceremony, tall and noble, nothing dangling around his neck. Only his mighty ammo-filled bandolier, worn like a sash on his left shoulder, bedecks him.

But that’s Chewbacca — humble, honorable, tough and self-effacing. He deserves a medal. If not for assisting in nearly killing Darth Vader, then for being both a literal and figurative colossus.

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Going down darkly with Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson — novelist, poet, playwright — wrote mad sentences. The author of the swooning novella “Train Dreams,” harrowing Vietnam War epic “Tree of Smoke” and, most famously, the indelible stories in “Jesus’ Son,” left behind a pageant of ravishing prose, much of it festooning the darkly lyrical stories in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” released last year after his death in 2017 at age 67.

I was reminded of his genius when I saw that this last book is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, whose winner will be announced next month.

I ran across a couple of brief, bleakly reverberating quotes from “Sea Maiden” that I’d scribbled in my journal. If Johnson could be grim, his poetics were reliably heartrending.

I’m getting depressed … you forgot to say prepare to fall down through a trap door in the bottom of your soul.”

Yeah boy he dragged me down to his jamboree. Dragged me down through the toilet formerly known as my life. Down through this nest of talking spiders known as my head. Down through the bottom of my grave with my name spelled wrong on the stone.”

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My compost-mortem

Sometime ago I wrote here about being cremated when I croak, and not being buried as a rotting or fluid-infused corpse in some kitschy coffin. I directed my family to roast me into fine powder and put me into salt and pepper shakers.

3-years-320x180.jpgThen I stumbled on another ashy option: the underwater reef ball, an eco-friendly, reef-building sphere of cement in which your ashes are placed and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. Sleep with the fishes — you bet. 

Why am I discussing this?

Because I’m cracked. As I described before: 

 “I think about this stuff with unseemly frequency. For as long as I remember, the specter of death has had its talons lanced into my gelatinous psyche. I read about it, watch movies about it, dream about it, haunt cemeteries all over the world to get close to it …

“I mull mortality, yours and mine, every single day. I’m a realist, but it’s a quivering reality. As mortician Caitlin Doughty writes, since childhood ‘sheer terror and morbid curiosity have been fighting for supremacy in my mind.’ Mine too is a bifurcated fascination, marbled and complex.”

So, yes. I have a dark streak. Onward!

Evidently there may soon be another legal option for the disposal of my exquisite corpse: human composting. A first in the nation, Washington State is considering allowing “human remains to be disposed of and reduced to soil through composting,” or what’s called recomposition, writes The New York Times. 

Decomposing bodies would crumble and decay into soil and be dispersed to help flowers and trees thrive. “It seems really gentle,” says a 71-year-old woman who yearns to be turned into fertilizer. “Comforting and natural.” Natural indeed: A body in the ground without embalming goop in it eventually becomes soil anyway.

This sounds fantastic. “There’s no coffin, no chemicals, none of the fossil fuels needed for cremation, and no expensive cemetery plot required,” says the Times. And composting is practically a bargain. It costs about $5,000 — much less than a traditional coffin burial, if a little more than cremation.

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How is it done, this conversion of a six-foot-long human body into palmfuls of coffee grounds? It doesn’t seem as simple as leaving a corpse out on the lawn to slowly putrefy in the elements like some horror show out of Lucio Fulci. (Please do click that last link.)  

No, it’s more scientific than worms and rot. There’s poetry to it. In a recent study, “six bodies were placed in a closed container, wrapped in organic materials like alfalfa, then bathed in a stream of air warmed by microbes, and periodically turned,” the Times says. “After about 30 days, the bodies essentially became soil.”

I want to become a stinking heap of soil. I want to nourish flowers and flora, be tossed in filthy fistfuls across the landscape. There go my corroded kidneys and bug-infested brain, in powder form. I’d need no coffin, no urn, no tombstone. Birds can nibble on me. Dogs can dig at me. Daisies and daffodils can bloom. Oaks, elms and pines can kiss the clouds. My new mate: mulch.

But as anyone can tell you, this is all rather counterintuitive, since I’m not an outdoorsy person by any definition. For one, I hate gardening. Pollen is my kryptonite. The sun and I are in divorce proceedings. Hiking is a personal Hades.

Yet I won’t be hiking when I’m in a wheelbarrow. I’ll be chilling. I’ll be a magic powder, literally fulfilling the biblical injunction of committing “this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

But that’s mystical phooey. This is about getting your hands dirty, with earth-saving, Whole Foodsy gusto. It’s death as a kind of birth, like donating your organs to save another body. It’s one final good deed before it all goes poof.

Of mouse and man

It’s hot outside, I’m hot, the dog is hot, the backyard plants are hot, and that reminds me, I need to water them. But not until it cools down, around dusk, say. Then that luxuriant jungle of exotic flora will get a soaking and gratitude will beam from the firmament.

A heat wave they’re calling this. It’s only 93 degrees right now but, coupled with sopping humidity, it feels like cruel triple digits. Within a minute of stepping below the blazing skies and into the muggy soup you break a sweat, rivulets down the cheeks, puddles in the small of your back. It’s disgusting. Right, this isn’t New Delhi or Bangkok, but still. Anyone who says they like this weather is either a liar or a twit or both.

Speaking of delightfulness, I recently destroyed a mouse. I did not want to, but my conscience got the better of me. So I held it by its gummy-worm tail and dunked it in the toilet and held it there until it drowned. It took fewer than two minutes, if that. Still, it made me kind of sick.

Why such horror? Thank the accursed cat, the tubby charcoal-gray tom with the white Hitler mustache. There he was, playing with a squirming, grievously wounded mouse, brown with a pink belly, in the dining room. It was the natural world in action, a realm Woody Allen, noting the pitiless animal food chain, dubbed “an enormous restaurant.”

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One might applaud the cat for capturing and maiming a crafty little house mouse, a ravaging rodent. I’m not giving ovations. I’m known for protecting and pampering animals, a latter-day St. Francis sans the amazing tunic, sneaking the dog table scraps and keeping sweet, smart rats as long-term pets. I rescued a baby squirrel from the maw of a snarling cur and a mauled bird from a godless outdoor cat (the bird didn’t make it).

And so I snatched the writhing, oddly bloodless mouse from the cat’s paws, carrying the creature by its silken tail. I wanted to save it, take it outside and let it scamper to freedom.

It scampered, but sideways, in a corkscrewy dance, clearly in pain and despair. It got away, crippled, ruined. I went back inside, crestfallen, wishing I had put it out of its misery. I figured it’d be out there, suffering a slow death for hours, maybe days.

Hours passed before it struck me to go and look for the mouse in the summer blaze. I promptly found it. It was motionless, hopefully dead. But when I touched it, it spun again in corkscrews, its whole body knotting in pain. This would not do. I pinched it by the tail, took it to the bathroom and snuffed what was left of its tiny life.

It was fast, but horrible. I held it moments longer than necessary to make sure the poor animal was out, gone. Then I carried the still, matted body back to the yard and set it behind the shrubs and covered it in mulch. I only wish I had done that five hours earlier.

These things aren’t simple. Even a mercy killing is troubling, against my nature. Pesky vermin — big deal, you say. Big deal, you bet.

Yet there’s no moral here. I don’t like what I did. Not one bit. But I’d do it again. In a heartbeat.

In defense of death

A new book is out and contains a passage that provides a frisson of happy recognition: 

“The human cannot abide the thought of death … Most people aren’t wrestling with dread so much as trying to ignore a chronic background anxiety.”

This comes from Sallie Tisdale’s windily, and wittily, titled “Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying.” It’s a slimmish, scintillating book, pimpled with wisdom and knowledge from the stance of a professional thinker, steadfast Buddhist and registered nurse — a trusty troika.

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But why does that quote sing? As I’ve touched on in prior posts (like this one), we are the whopping deniers, gymnastic dodgers, when it comes to confronting or even thinking about death. We know it’s there, lurking in the gloom of the collective id. Most people, as Tisdale says, are “trying to ignore a chronic background anxiety.”

I find this absurd and annoying, because I wonder: How, on a daily basis, does one not consider their inevitable, totally inescapable and at once entirely unpredictable (how and when will you die?) and completely predictable (you’re gonna die!) mortality?

“Advice for Future Corpses” examines that idea with a graceful, empathetic touch and it adds to a mini-mountain of mainstream literature about dying that includes Atul Gawande’s mega-hit “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” and Cory Taylor’s “Dying: A Memoir,” to name just two.

Why this death-book boomlet? Because lots of us are understandably freaked about the fearsome finality. (At least those who even consider it.) For one, people are living longer than ever and we find ourselves taking care of aging, often incapacitated parents and relatives. Death is in our face. And still, so many look away.

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Brompton Cemetery, London, 2017

Call me sick. Tisdale quotes William James on two personality types: the “healthy-minded … with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting,” and the rest, the “sick souls” who cannot blot out the naked prospect of mortality. Yes, a sick soul am I, but also enlightened, awakened and aware that our flimsy, fleshly bodies will someday fail us and atomize to dust.

I’m a nervous type so the fact that I look death in the eye doesn’t mean it’s a steely gaze. I lose that staring contest every time. Death scares me, even if, as I believe, it’s one big great nothingness — no heaven, no hell, no paradisiacal virgins — and we shouldn’t be scared of nothing. Yet the unknown is killing us, so to speak. Its foreverness terrifies.

Tisdale writes: “The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom describes the ego facing extinction as being ‘staggered by the enormity of eternity, of being dead forever and ever and ever and ever.’”

Totally.

“At some point,” Tisdale says, “most of us shift from realizing that sooner or later some future self will die to realizing that this very self, me, precious and irreplaceable me, will die. It’s a terrible thing to grasp, and though this insight may last a mere second, it changes your life.”

Her breadth on the topic dazzles. She addresses both sides of death-phobia (terror vs. liberation), our response to death (unalloyed grief), the certainty that we will die, the notion of the “good death,” personal anecdotes such as her dying friend shopping for biodegradable coffins and shrouds, and Zen-worthy declarations like “cremation can have a kind of stark beauty.”

She naturally can’t get to the bottom of it — death’s mystery is all-engulfing, impenetrable, the Big One — but her Buddhist-nurse compassion touches every page and she sheds copious slats of light into our shared abyss. My favorite citation comes from a dying Rabelais, whose last words were: “I am going in search of a great perhaps.”

The beauty in that is bottomless.

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Brompton Cemetery, London, 2017