“Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.” — Teen philosopher Holden Caulfield
Quirky kiddie queries about death, dying and other fun stuff
As people grow up, they internalize this idea that wondering about death is ‘morbid’ or ‘weird.’ They grow scared, and criticize other people’s interest in the topic to keep from having to confront death themselves. … Most people in our culture are death illiterate, which makes them more afraid.” — Caitlin Doughty
Children, meanwhile, fueled by unfettered curiosity and innate innocence, don’t always harbor silly adult fears of death. They’re allowed to, expected to, wonder about death and dying. It’s a learning process; it’s not “morbid” or “weird.” It’s eye-opening, mind-inflating. Asking questions about it is a step closer to not being “death illiterate.”
The quote topping this post is from Caitlin Doughty’s new book, the funny and informative “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?,” whose subtitle is “Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death.” That means both wiggy and weighty queries from children about death, inquiries she routinely receives as a death-chick rock star: mortician, author, podcaster, “death activist” and “funeral industry rabble-rouser.” In the book Doughty answers 34 kid-friendly (well, kinda) questions about death and dying, and a bit beyond.
A total pro, her attitude is cheeky, frisky and upbeat, often with a wink. It’s hardly just kid’s stuff. She applies sweeping research and her own mortician’s know-how, a braid of science, craft, technology and, unavoidably, morbidity. It gets gleefully icky at times.
Doughty goes into gripping, grisly detail about livor mortis (“bluish color of death”), rigor mortis (“stiffness of death”), putrefaction, embalming, burial, cremation ovens, blood draining, organ donation, and, #1 on the hit parade, postmortem gas.
And she does it with oozy, crunchy, gelatinous eloquence:
- “Welcome to putrefaction,” she writes. “This is when the famous green color of death comes into its own. It’s more of a greenish-brown, actually. With some turquoise. … The green colors appear first in the lower abdomen. That’s the bacteria from the colon breaking free and starting to take over. They are liquefying the cells of the organs, which means fluids are sloshing free. The stomach swells as gas starts to accumulate from the bacteria’s ‘digestive action’ (i.e., bacteria farts).”
- “In the first ten minutes of cremation, the flames attack the body’s soft tissue — all the squishy parts, if you will. Muscles, skin, organs, and fat sizzle, shrink, and evaporate. The bones of the skull and ribs start to emerge. The top of the skull pops off and the blackened brain gets zapped away by the flames.”
- “Oh, how to describe the smell of a decomposing human body — what poetry is needed!” Doughty gushes. “I get a sickly-sweet odor mixed with a strong rotting odor. Think: your grandma’s heavy sweet perfume sprayed over a rotting fish. Put them together in a sealed plastic bag and leave them in the blazing sun for a few days. Then open the bag and put your nose in for a big whiff.”
Now, on to questions, a sampling of the kids’ queries, which on average yield two- to three-page responses in Doughty’s book. In brief, inquiries include:
- The jejune: Will I Poop When I Die? (“You might poop when you die. Fun, right?” Doughty giggles. True: It depends on how “full” you are when you croak. You don’t automatically doo-doo at death.)
- The sentimental: Can I Keep My Parents’ Skulls After They Die? (No. No. And no. There are such things as “abuse of corpse” laws, our trusty authority tells us.)
- The ludicrous: What Would Happen If You Swallowed a Bag of Popcorn Before You Died and Were Cremated? (What do you think would happen in 1,700-degree flames?)
- The freaky: What If They Make a Mistake and Bury Me When I’m Just in a Coma? (Pretty impossible — a battery of medical tests are conducted to confirm brain death.)
- The ghoulish: We Eat Dead Chickens, Why Not Dead People? (Guess what — some people do. They’re called cannibals. Next!)
- The metaphysical: Is It True People See a White Light As They’re Dying? (“Yes, they do. That glowing white light is a tunnel to angels in heaven. Thanks for your question!” the author ribs.)
- And the vaguely vain: Will My Hair Keep Growing in My Coffin After I’m Buried? (Sorry, Rapunzel. That’s a big fat “death myth.”)
About the book’s titular question, “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?” — this refers to the dreaded scenario of you dying alone in your home, your corpse left for days and your unfed pet, well, getting hungry. Doughty relishes this one.
“No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs,” she writes. “Not right away, at least.”
That’s the short answer.
The longish answer shivers with excitement:
“Cats tend to consume human parts that are soft and exposed, like the face and neck, with special focus on the mouth and nose. Don’t rule out some chomps on the eyeballs,” Doughty says, but more likely your feline friend will dig into the lips, eyelids and tongue.
And what about Pepi the peaceful poodle, human’s best friend, your cuddle buddy?
“Your dog will totally eat you,” Doughty assures.
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.
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.) It 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:
- You choose a tree in one of our private, permanently protected forests.
- Under this tree, you spread ashes of family members and pets for generations to come.
- 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.)
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.
Then 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.
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.