Being gutsy with the ultimate donation

Clearing out emails yesterday, I came across one labeled “Donor registration.” It could have contained all manner of information — my monthly donations to the Humane Society and SPCA, clothing donations to the V.A., etc. — but, no, it was something nakedly startling.

The email, dated mid-2016, regarded my registration to donate my organs when I die. It rushed back to me, and once a morbid residue burned off, I was again at peace with my decision to be chopped up and disemboweled when the big day comes.

Fact: one organ donor can save up to eight lives. That’s a pretty good payoff. I can live —or die  — with that.

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I’ve always ticked the donor box on my driver’s license, yet it’s remained an abstract, faraway concept, like: This really doesn’t concern me in the here and now, so why the hell not?

So I signed up for an official donor program called Donate Life America. I have no idea how I chose them. I didn’t interrogate their credentials, and there are many other donor companies. I could be making a terrible mistake. Maybe they’ll drop my eyeballs on the floor, kick them around as they scramble to fetch the errant orbs.

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DLA describes itself like this: It’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit “to increase the number of donated organs, eyes and tissue available to save and heal lives through transplantation while developing a culture where donation is embraced as a fundamental human responsibility.”

The group’s website also features the page “The Deceased Donation Process,” featuring tantalizing (terrifying?) links to “Brain Death Testing,” “The Organ Procurement Organization” and “Recovering and Transporting Organs.” (For gooey, grisly FAQs, go here.)

As I’ve said before, when I expire I plan to be torched into fine powder, suitable for an enormous ashtray. Frankly, being harvested for body parts — skin, eyes, heart, liver, kidneys, bones, arteries — makes me momentarily queasy, even a mite scared. But buck up we must. (Still, I am certain I don’t want to be poked and prodded, chopped and chiseled as a cadaver in a medical school. Family, please note.)

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My eyes, brown and clear, are strong, though they require reading specs, a big caveat to donor recipients, I imagine. My ticker is in fine fettle, thumping to the mid-tempo pulse of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” when at rest and Metallica’s “Whiplash” when worked up, and there’s minimal plaque or bad cholesterol gumming up the works. Plus, it’s a big heart: it loves to love and has capacious room for dogs.

Although I’m afraid my liver is probably as useful as a burned charcoal briquette, my kidneys, I think, are performing their business fluidly. I have decent, soft skin, and my bone marrow, healthy, hale, is possibly edible. The subject of my intestines will be mercifully avoided.

Using the one-body-can-save-eight-lives calculus, I reckon I could perhaps save five or six lives. Better than zero. Better than one or two. It’s ghoulish, but golden. This is important work, and really, it’s no work at all.

Want a reminder that you’re going to die? There’s an app for that

I don’t get people who don’t consider their mortality — the actual, undeniable fact that one day they are going to die, forever (because you are, reader, you are) — at least once or twice a day.

Surely that’s because I think about my death specifically and death as a brute phenomenon generally many times a day. This has been going on for years. Like since I was seven. I maintain a shelf of books about death, from “The Denial of Death” to “How We Die.” (My id is a vivid, hyperactive place. My therapy bills, exorbitant.)

Who needs a reminder of death? I wonder. It’s right there in the face that looks back at you in the mirror.

Who wants a reminder of death? my friends retort.

Apparently a lot of people, mostly millennials, do. They want a brief if pointed reminder that they are indeed going to buy it sometime. And they want it exactly five times a day, randomly. On their phone.

10We-CROAK1-blog427That’s what the new app WeCroak offers: quick, jarring jabs calling attention to users that, yup, death is waiting around the corner. With homilies like this from Herman Melville — “Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried” — the 99-cent app exists expressly to galvanize consciousness, a little existential poke to nudge you into the now. And maybe to scare the holy hell out of you.

“Each day, we’ll send you five invitations to stop and think about death,” says the WeCroak site. “It’s based on a Bhutanese folk saying that to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times daily. The invitations come at random times and at any moment, just like death.”

By turns soothing and somber, quotes are culled from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, Charles Bukowksi, Lao Tzu and Margaret Atwood.

“The grave has no sunny corners,” goes one. (For pessimists.)

“Begin again the story of your life,” says another. (For optimists.)

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(That one, for fatalists, I think.)

We think we have control over our lives by doing the right things — exercising, eating healthfully, thinking positive, traveling, communing with art and nature, procreating.

It’s rubbish.

WeCroak’s passages are meant to put you in touch with an untapped aspect of your spirituality, to jolt you out of complacency and into perhaps uncomfortable soulfulness. In fact, hokey as it sounds, I’d say the messages are nutrient-rich food for the soul.

The benighted disagree. People have actually called the app “sick” and “disgusting.” These people are babies. They are in craven denial. No matter — they’re still going to die.

“Death never takes a wise man by surprise; he is always ready to go.” — Fontaine

I don’t know if WeCroak offers that jewel, but it should.

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Museums of mortality — spooky, sublime

Last year I paid visits to those twin emporiums of ick and awe, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the smaller but almost equally macabre Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Festooned with bullet-riddled skulls, deformed fetuses crammed into jars, gnarled, twisted skeletons, diseased human organs, rusty surgical tools and random gangrened digits, these palaces of the perverse satisfied the ghoulishly curious. They were extravagantly ack-inducing, deliciously quiver-making. Paradise.

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He’s checking his texts.

As noted earlier, I’m deliberating my next journey, and, because I went large last year, I’m thinking small this year. Which means I might go to Chicago, a 2.5-hour flight away. And which means, more importantly, the International Museum of Surgical Science, a less squishy warehouse of medical wonders than the two above, but still a marvelous assemblage of stuff that spurs contemplation about our mortal flesh and all that can go wrong with it via disease, accident and sheer shitty luck.

Highlights include a vintage iron lung machine (can I climb inside?), an exhibit about pain and anesthesia through the ages and one about the history of wound healing (“From the use of herbal ointments and therapeutic clays among prehistoric hunter-gatherers to Galen’s treatment of injured gladiators in Ancient Rome, the care of wounds is among the earliest applications of medicine”), and the museum structure itself, an elegant, historic lakeside mansion. And who could pass up the exhibit “A History of Blood Transfusion: 350 Years of Apparatus Advancement”?

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Mural of early Caesarean section. Gleefully gruesome.

Reviewers note that the four-story manse is compact and, naturally, its array of freakish displays is no match for Philly’s world-class Mutter. Small is all right; I enjoy a good bite-size museum, especially one of such narrow scope. Sort of like the Russian Vodka Museum or Tokyo’s Meguro Parasitological Museum.

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Iron lung machine. May I?

For more grim exhilarations, I pivoted my research to Chicago cemeteries — I’m always up for a calming stroll through deathly opulence — but decided to skip the offerings. Several notable cemeteries pock the area, boasting the resting holes of everyone from Al Capone to Jesse Owens, Emmett Till to John Belushi, Gene Siskel to John Hughes. I sought out film critic Roger Ebert’s grave, but he was cremated and his ashes are kept by a private party, most likely his lovely widow Chaz.

We should all be so lucky. Cremation is the way to go, although I don’t want my cremains kept by anyone but the wind and the water -— whoosh. Thoughts like these will surely visit me at the Surgical Science Museum, a place rife with death and decrepitude. But they won’t get me down. They’re wondrous in their way and, far from depressing, something of a mind-reeling, soul-stirring tonic for the living.

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Bury me in the ball

What to do with your body after you die?

For me, it’s easy. I’ve instructed loved ones to cremate me, then put my ashes in a pickle jar, drive down the interstate doing 70 and dump the powder out the window — although the car behind, wiper blades slashing furiously, likely won’t be overjoyed by the Mount St. Helens-esque storm.

It’s simple, it’s cheeky, and it’s entirely illegal. For someone bent on cremation — I’m not getting leeched of my precious fluids, then pumped with toxic chemicals and put out to rot in an obscenely overpriced box for eternity — there must be another way. And of course there is.

I think about this stuff with unseemly frequency. For as long as I can remember, the specter of death has had its talons lanced into my gelatinous psyche. I read about it, I watch movies about it, I dream about it, I visit 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 kind of reality. As mortician-author Caitlin Doughty writes, since childhood “sheer terror and morbid curiosity have been fighting for supremacy in my mind.” It’s a bifurcated fascination, marbled and complex.

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Cremation is flat-out horrifying, but for me it’s the only option, none of which are especially appetizing. But then what? Ashes and bone kibble stored in a handsome urn and set on the mantel like an ornate candy jar? Cremains scattered over the San Francisco Bay or some other picturesque point of personal poignancy?

No, I got it. Bury me in a ball.

What’s that? It’s this: the wonderful 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, which can be up to six feet wide and five feet tall. Resting on the seafloor, its goal is to provide a teeming marine habitat for fish, coral and more.

image.jpgSeveral companies do reef burials, but Eternal Reefs of Florida specializes in more personal balls. Three sizes of reef balls run from about — hang on — $4,000 to $7,500, according to AtlasObscura.com, which goes on:

“The larger reef balls can accommodate multiple sets of remains, so that families can be ‘buried’ together, turning the ball into a sort of underwater mausoleum. Surviving friends and family can leave handprints, markings, and messages in the wet cement.”

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The reefs are fashioned from “environmentally-safe cast concrete” and are “placed in the permitted ocean location selected by the individual, friend or family member,” says the Eternal Reefs site.

I grew up on the Pacific Coast, from Santa Barbara to the SF Bay Area, and I’ve always loved SeaWorld and I’m a big fan of grilled octopus. The reef ball sounds like a ball, smack in my bailiwick for the eternal snooze. I’m intrigued by its eco possibilities, that it can nurture fishies and coral and plants and sea anemones and, if lucky, some impish sea otters. In the picture above, it’s not the prettiest grave on the lot, cankered and barnacled with squiggly mysteries of the sea, despite the dazzling Van Gogh hues. (Kind of looks like a six-month-old jack-o’-lantern.)

We should figure this out before it’s too late, while we’re still here, cognizant and, well, alive. We plan for vacations with great care and great expense. This is the most epic journey of all, the final destination, one-way ticket in hand. Not sure about you, but I want to go out with a splash.

Happy Halloween.