Cryonics — a miracle, or just another coffin?

You’re alive. You die. Your body is then submerged in an icy bath of liquid nitrogen, clouds of frosty fog billowing down the sides of the tank in which you now float in suspended animation. 

The lid is sealed. And there it is: instead of being buried or cremated, you are being cryonically preserved, your body — or, in some cases, just your severed head — enshrined for eternity.  

If you’re lucky — say, the procedure actually works, or the planet doesn’t blow itself up while you’re in deep freeze — you will stir to life again, a muddle-headed Rip Van Winkle, yawning and stretching, wiping decades of goo from your eyes, and, oh, do hurry, brushing intractable halitosis from your maw with cases of Colgate. 

You can hear a delirious Dr. Victor Frankenstein baying, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” The excitement is electric. You’ve been dead — no, you’ve been a “patient,” say the scientists, who spurn the term “dead” — for 25 years. But now, in a miracle out of the most outlandish science fiction, you are, yes, alive. Indeed, re-animated. Forget the cancer. Forget the car wreck. You’re back in business.

Never happen. This is science fiction of the most cynical kind, a laughable, despicable scam convincing the gullible that there is life after death, as long as you freeze your body first. And as long as you cough up (cough, hack) $250,000 for your whole body or $80,000 for just your head. Costs only mount.

These sums come from the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a major cryonics company in Arizona “built on the spectacular wager that it can rescue its patients from natural post-mortem deterioration until a distant time when cellular regeneration, nanotechnology, cloning or some other science can restart their lives,” writes the Times

Alcor insists it can stop the dying process with cryonics, which it calls — and I kind of love this — “an ambulance to the future.” The company promises “future restoration of good health and reintegration into society for all patients.” 

Alcor has 182 frozen patients and 1,353 members, or living people who give Alcor cash as a sort of pre-freeze down payment. I hear a cuckoo clock in the distance.

This — death — is right up my morbid alley. I think about dying with unhealthy frequency, and, as I get older, the bleak thoughts strike with increasing ferocity. But I am not a life freak. I don’t pine to extend this predicament. I understand it’s all miserably finite. Plainly: I do not want to live forever. Freeze me if you like, but only if I’m placed in the TV dinner aisle. 

And so cryonics seems like so much quackery — misguided, wasteful and patently impossible. It reminds me of “Re-Animator,” Stuart Gordon’s 1985 horror classic in which a crackpot scientist is obsessed with resurrecting dead bodies, with splattery results. The movie was smart, playing the premise for gory laughs. 

I don’t think anyone is laughing — except to the bank — at Alcor and other cryonics outfits. They seem to really believe this twaddle. They believe a disembodied head can bob in freezing fluid and later be reattached to a torso and come to life. This happens in dazzling fashion in “Re-Animator,” but I’ll bet my life (ha) this will not happen to any real person. Ever.  

What if it did? What then? “I don’t want to do it because it might work and I don’t want to come back as a carnival act,” cracked actor Walter Matthau. I’m with the guy who coached the Bad News Bears. What kind of zombie-ish life can a thawed corpse lead after decades levitating in faux amniotic fluids? Are they immortal, or can they die again? Now I’m thinking of another horror movie: “Dawn of the Dead.” 

Yet freezing a corpse and jumper-cabling it back to life will never occur, and never has. Cryonics boasts no success stories. There is no Lazarus in its impoverished narrative. Peddling unabashed pseudoscience, cryonics advocates, and especially those who sell it, are no better than psychics, mediums and tarot card hucksters, ethical, religious and legal issues be damned.   

And who knows what nefarious schemes cryonic patients have cooked up before they died. As with anything, there are surely some bad people swimming in those tanks. Like disgraced, sex-trafficking financier Jeffrey Epstein, who wanted to have his head and penis frozen after death so that he could “seed the human race with his DNA.” 

Ick. 

When I think what I would do if my life was extended cryonically, I first see a long, leisurely trip to France, one of the most gorgeously alive places I know. If friends, family and doggies were still living — remember, I could be floating in a tank for decades before scientists figure this thing out — I would reunite with them with big, stiff-limbed hugs (I also see extensive and excruciating physical therapy after years of immobility).

Everything would have changed. My nephews might be old men — older than me when I died — making for some acute interpersonal awkwardness. The whole thing sounds messy, difficult and expensive. And, fortunately, utterly hopeless.

And yet proponents have faith. Says Alcor company honcho Tanya Jones, “If we can prove this works, everybody will know about us.”

Sorry, Ms. Jones: brace for obscurity. 

Baseball legend Ted Williams’ head cryonically preserved … ew, no.

Dead heads

When I die, give me head.

Scratch that. What I mean is: put me in a head. Specifically as ashes, poured into a ceramic simulacrum of my noggin, mug and all, including hair and rockin’ Don Johnson stubble.

This active seeker of novel burial techniques has found a new one, the ultimate head trip. It’s an urn by the company Cremation Solutions and it’s as ambitious as it is ghoulish: 

“Customers send in a photo of their face, and the company scans it, creates a 3-D model and then 3-D-prints an 11-inch polymer head (with an optional wig) and mounts it on a hollowed-out marble base. Cost: from $600 to $2,600.”

In a grody Hannibal-esque touch, you pop off the crown of the fake head, rather like a cookie jar, and deposit the ashes inside the plaster brain pan, which is naturally empty, much like the brain pans of some people I know.  

“Death masks are so eighteenth century,” quips one reviewer of the disembodied domes, adding that they can “stand looking less lobotomized.”

Yes, that glassy, dead-eyed gaze begs improvement — sunglasses perhaps? — as does the wax-museum luster of the fake flesh. While these 3-D computer models may console mourners, they ick me out more than comfort me.  

I wonder how many times someone yelps and clutches his heart when he catches a glimpse of one of those mannequin-meets-Marie Antoinette heads in his home office. I could see myself, in a frightened start, backhanding a loved one’s waxy head, sending it flying in shards and puffs of ash, because it’s so unrelentingly eerie. (The facial expressions are all about serene neutrality. I see a glazed embalming job instead.) 

In vintage corporate-speak, Cremation Solutions pitches this bizarre selling point: “You will never again have to worry that you might forget what your loved one looked like when you invest in one of these custom made, very lifelike cremation urns.” 

Curious, considering that forgetting what your loved one looked like hasn’t been an issue since the invention of the photograph 200 years ago.

Who really wants to see a macabre doll head staring at the wall every time they enter the room — a startling bust that could be mistaken for a fancy penny bank, or a decapitated midget? According to Cremation Solutions owner Jeff Staab, demand is low. 

“They look so real that they actually creep people out,” Staab tells Newsweek, with impressive candor. “Most people write what a stupid idea they are. But we do sell ’em. There are some weird people out there who want Grandma’s head on the mantel, looking at them all the time.”  

Or Obama’s head. Puzzlingly (suspiciously?), the company uses a fake head of the 44th President as a sample urn, pissing off some and pleasing others.

Staab says the Obama noggin was a “practical joke … I get shit all the time, people saying how dare you have an urn made out of the president’s head,” he says. “But it wasn’t even my idea. I’d rather have a George Clooney head.” 

The Obama head a “practical joke”? Couldn’t you say the whole enterprise is exactly that?

When the birthday is just an OK-day

“Death smells like birthday cake.” — Maggie Stiefvater 

My annual birthday plea goes something like this: Don’t get me a birthday cake. Please. And hold the balloons. God, hold the balloons. 

A scarcity of gifts is apt; a token thing (or two!) will do. Cash, books, booze — you’re getting warm. Otherwise, let’s dispense with festive rites, chirpy congrats and that piled frosted sugar loaf festooned with wax and flame. 

Tomorrow I sing the birthday blues with a warble and a plaint (and perhaps a banjo), a tragicomic melody pocked with twangy hiccups and gallows giggles. It’s not so much that I’m getting old. It’s just that I exist. Play in the key of D minor.

Don’t feel bad for me. Antisocial and anti-tradition, I luxuriate in birthday dread, meaning I get an antithetical kick from the “special day” than do normal people who clamor for attention, throw confetti-smattered parties, encourage conspicuous consumption and the lavishing of gifts.  

What then do I do on my birthday? I dwell on death and dying, the brevity of this vast charade, toe-curdling thoughts of cremation and the definitive absence of a higher power. (On that note, blow out the candles.) That’s part jest, but not really, because I reflect on all of that stuff daily. I wake up and see skulls. 

But the birthday is admittedly more frilly. Along with its black Grim Reaper robe, it arrives with cardboard cone hats, noise makers and other “fun” items I’d like to smoosh. It’s practically inescapable, the printed party napkins and peppy paper plates. Friend or family, someone’s going to get you.

I grew out of pointing the spotlight on me very early. As noted in the prior post, the last time I actually celebrated my birthday was on my 13th. It was a modest surprise party, featuring a new puppy, a motley gaggle of guy pals, and some very spirited doorbell ditch across the darkened neighborhood. 

It was fine, but I inexplicably never wanted to do it again. Going out for a drink or a good meal has since marked many a birthday, tiny gatherings all but foisted on me but that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s not like I slip under the car in the garage and hide on the big day. I’ve just never actively encouraged celebrations. I find them fussy and embarrassing.

People can be movingly kind and generous on my birthday, and I let them, of course. The attention is appreciated but unwanted and unwarranted, All this for little ole me?

It’s pleasant as long as we don’t go overboard. Like cake, which always seems such a waste. No one really finishes their teetering slice and most of the cake (especially the white kind) goes face down in the garbage. Talk about death.

And what’s this? Balloons. Once upon a time, they were blasts of helium hilarity, when anyone could suck and sound like a Munchkin, or Truman Capote. Now they bob in your face, buoyant environmental time bombs, all shimmery mylar and pretty poison.

I look at them, much like the day as a whole, and I think: No, really. Don’t. 

Dreams to die for

When I died in a dream last night, which I did, it was so weirdly serene and surreal that everything sort of meshed into a dark, enveloping calm and, refusing Dylan Thomas’ famous appeal, I went gentle into that good night. I died, and it was exhilarating. 

But is this right? Isn’t actually dying in your dreams against the rules of reverie? Doesn’t the dreamer have to live in order to carry on as the dream’s first-person protagonist and spin the id’s nonsensical narrative? Isn’t the musty lore true, that dying in a dream means you die in real life? 

Well, I died and lived to tell about it.

In last night’s dream — a nocturne of murky black and white, with wisps of color — I contracted an illness that I voluntarily succumbed to after rejecting treatment, hence, of course, my demise. As a kind of perverse medical suicide, it was anything but a violent death, lacking a crashing plane, alligator mauling or the classic tumble off a cliff and the interminable, gasping fall. 

Though I perished, I don’t consider the dream a nightmare — close, but not. It was freaky and unsettling, yet it transcended the sort of fright-scape that claws the subconscious, jolting you awake clammy and stricken. I instead slipped into a peaceful, hugging blackness, poof, gone. That’s the way to go, I thought, even as I vaporized. 

Sleep specialists wouldn’t be surprised at this cushioned departure, noting that dying dreams are anti-climactic, even strangely euphoric. “The most striking and consistent characteristic of dying dreams is their overwhelmingly pleasant content,” says one. 

As counterintuitive as this sounds, dream interpreters, who, face it, are about as credible as psychics and senators, claim dying in one’s dream signifies rebirth and life, new beginnings and personal growth. It’s like the Death card in the equally eye-rolling Tarot deck, which doesn’t symbolize death at all, but renewal and life change. 

I call bullshit. I don’t think for a second my dream death points to anything but my own compulsive morbidity. At most it denotes a longed-for escape hatch, a kind of permanent vacation, no matter if it is in Hades. 

And it obviously doesn’t denote real-life expiry, unless I’m an industrious wraith with pretty good typing skills. Dying in your dream does not equal actual death. (Then again, if you’re cast in “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” you’re screwed.)

I croaked and the show rolled on. That’s different from previous nocturnal ruptures I’ve had, which could be called near-death experiences. Those are the ones where I incur a fatal blow, jab or smash and, instead of vanishing, I spring back to life and complete the dream as a vital character, shaken but stirring. Death gets the middle finger. 

I like the other kind better. As the sleep experts attest, my dream death was tinged with quiet euphoria and surprising OK-ness. It was otherworldly, a little spooky and, somehow, exquisite. There was finality, until there wasn’t. Sometimes RIP is just REM.

Not much else to do but read (and read…)

Thanks to the collective corona cloistering, I’ve been ordering books online, greedily. With libraries and bookshops closed, I’m buying used books from third-party sellers on Amazon and new titles from New York indie institution McNally Jackson. 

Unquenchably, I’m ingesting words in the yawning vacuum of self-quarantine. Reading is nearly as nourishing as food. This is what’s on my literary plate. 

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I met “Birds of America” author Lorrie Moore at a book signing for that acclaimed 1998 story collection, and she wasn’t the most jolly person in the room. She was frosty to her gathered admirers, but I don’t hold that against her. Moore’s edge informs her tart, smart fiction, which is also infused with emotional immediacy and pocked with laughs. With stories like the award-winning “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the book is a contemporary classic that hasn’t aged a whit. 

Death looms these grim days, though mortality is always on the mind of this moody Cassandra. Long ago I read the updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s definitive 1963 exposé of the funeral racket, and I’m back at it, if not for the dazzling reportage and head-shaking stats — upshot: funeral peddlers are exploitative swindlers — then for purely great writing that makes a dismal subject pop. The book is not only essential muckraking, but lavish literary satire, nipping at a venal industry with the toothy, pit bull wit of Pauline Kael. This tangy volume is one big reason I will be cremated and thrown to the wind.

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51VIRgJYGcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While rereading books like the above, I’m also rewatching some favorite flicks, including “Casablanca,” the evergreen masterpiece in which every element of fine filmmaking miraculously falls into place. I love a good movie book so I clicked on Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie,” the gawky title of which tells you just what you’re delving into. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I’m hoping for historical Hollywood gold on par with the recent knockout “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood.”  

Dreaming about Paris, I tripped upon the site for fabled English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, that grand, musty emporium on the Left Bank, where I scrolled staff recommendations for Paris-set stories. Never mind its racy cover, I was lured to Elaine Dundy’s cult comic classic “The Dud Avocado,” a romp tracing the libertine escapades of a comely young American woman in the French capital who yearns to exist out loud. Called a “timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living,” the novel seems unlikely to disappoint this thwarted traveler pining for Paris.  41efY3TglbL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_On the note of cult classics, “Airships,” Barry Hannah’s award-winning collection, promises “20 wildly original, exuberant, often hilarious stories that celebrate the universal peculiarities of the new American South.” The book hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s highly anticipated after being called “one of the most revered short story collections of the past 50 years, remaining a vital text in the history of the American short story.” And this snippet from it makes me sort of love it already: “What a bog and labyrinth the human essence is … We are all over-brained and over-emotioned.”

51hhyhVwywLRaymond Chandler’s crackling and complex detective noir “The Big Sleep” scorches with style. The novel, a total delight, introduces private eye Philip Marlowe, literature’s great existential antihero, a shrugging loner with a gun, cigarettes and devastating wit. Chandler crams it with so many ravishing lines, images, similes, he elevates pulp to high literature. Marlowe, all slow-burn aplomb, speaks and thinks like the consummate smart-aleck tough: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners,” he grumbles. “They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Unknown.jpeg

“Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a western in priest’s clothing. Set in the mid-1800s, Willa Cather’s elegant epic about a gentle French bishop spreading Catholicism through Mexico and its southwest territories braids American history with lush spirituality and, at times, a mean Cormac McCarthy crunch. The title is a major spoiler, like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but Cather knew what she was doing, and the foregone conclusion hits hard — and beautifully. Her eloquence is breathtaking, and the glistening lyricism comes out of nowhere to stun. Here Cather describes two men running through the desert: “They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight.” 51qJIvsSX6L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

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

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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:

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  • “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. 

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Caitlin Doughty

“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.

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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.

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

Death becomes us

“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” 

Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death”

For some of us, the above “rumble of terror” is a buckling, earth-cracking tremor felt many times each day, a sort of clockwork bell that tolls every hour, on the hour. It is, of course, death, our unavoidable mortality, crooking a finger, baring its teeth and uttering a horror-movie cackle.

Drama aside, what Becker says is that without a sharp recognition of the reality of your own death you paper over a critical dimension of existence. Without death, paradoxically, a major chunk of life is muted. You reside in the dark.

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The existential denial Becker speaks of amounts to an ignorance as willful as it is mystifying. To mention dying has become taboo. How can the most important stage in life, the great closure, the monumental punctuation mark, be off limits? I don’t want to think about it,” goes a common refrain. “It’s just too horrible.” 

But is it? By being aware of your mortality, knowing you will die, that it is an unstoppable event, you can cultivate a richer, more philosophical, existentially awakened life. The aim of this consciousness, as I’ve written before, is to “put you in touch with an untapped aspect of your spirituality, to jolt you out of complacency and into perhaps uncomfortable soulfulness.”

Instead, people distract themselves from the big questions and tough realities. Texting, Facebook and binge TV shows are potent diversions. 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.

Rubbish.

“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing,” Becker says.

Death isn’t on my lips — I rarely broach the subject — but it weighs on my mind like an anvil. I’m not talking about the gruesome, corporeal details of death — the corpse, the medical examiner, the venal funeral industry, the land waste of burial — but the chilly philosophical fact of mortality, of dying. Not how we die, but that we die.

Hans Larwin's amazingly evocative 'Soldat und Tod' ('Soldier and Death') from 1917

It’s confounding that people dodder through life without considering death, as though it’s some vague, distant inconvenience that won’t afflict them — not even when they’re crossing a busy street or speeding down the highway or eating a marbled slab of steak or hauling around 100 pounds of extra body weight. The musty cliché “ignorance is bliss” could not be more fitting.

Accepting our fate now, in the present, dulls the fear factor. The idea of dying — Becker’s “rumble of terror” — is inarguably frightening, and that’s certainly why so many of us keep it at bay. But awareness makes you smarter, more prepared. It eases the angst. “The fear of death follows from the fear of life,” Mark Twain said. “A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

To live fully, says Becker, means to live mindfully, to be cognizant of that lyrical rumble of terror, to embrace one’s fate, or to at least be on cordial terms with it. It is, in fact, consciousness in full bloom.

A darkly delightful book of the dead

For the record, family: Do not donate my body to science when I die. Let them harvest an organ or two, scoop out my eyes like melon balls, carve off a carpet swatch of skin.

Then burn me up good.

Scary to say, but my obsession with death, dying and the post-life has only rocketed since I recently re-read Mary Roach’s weirdly engrossing, and joyously gross, 2003 bestseller “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”

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The title nearly says it all: Roach’s beautifully reported book is a blunt, euphemism-free, aggressively lighthearted examination of exactly what happens to cadavers that are donated to science and research. (Cue: barfing emoji.)

Facts, history, grisly details and the author’s vivacious gallows humor make the unutterable utterly readable. Roach is smart; she pauses for philosophical reflection about what’s before her, providing a finish of deep and dignified meditation to what could have been perverted voyeurism catering to “Faces of Death” sickos. 

The breezy read features jarring chapter subtitles — “Human Crash Test Dummies and the Ghastly, Necessary Science of Impact Tolerance”; “On Human Decay and What Can Be Done About It”; “Medicinal Cannibalism and the Case of the Human Dumplings” — that are so graphic, they may be all you need to get it. For example, that first one: Yes, dead bodies are used as crash test dummies in vehicles. Splat.

Plunge into the pages and you’ll get the smells, sights and sounds of expired bodies rotting, ripping, being gutted and even crucified. (Scientists still want to know how Jesus died on the cross. Freshly dead bodies are a prime instructional aid. Pass the nails.)

The doctors and scientists Roach meets are a reticent assortment. But she intrepidly presses on. 

o-SYNTHETIC-CADAVERS-facebookSometimes a source will turn his back on her, suspect of her macabre motives.

“You want a vivid description of what’s going through my brain as I’m cutting through a liver and all these larvae are spilling out all over me and juice pops out of the intestines?” snaps a vexed forensics examiner. 

Roach responds to us, sotto voce: “I kind of did, but I kept quiet.”

“Stiff” rests on my growing, groaning shelf of superlatively morbid but essential books on mortality, like “How We Die,” “Final Exit,” “The Denial of Death” and other festive titles. I recommend them all. They will, while you’re still living, change your life.