How Do I Want to Be Dead?

The July 9 New York Times Sunday Review contained a feature by Richard Conniff. Driven by his research on English moles, he visited the grave of Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows. What impressed Conniff, and inspired his op-ed, was that Grahame’s grave was in both “a graveyard and a wildlife refuge. …[A]ll of Grahame’s characters would have been at home there…. This is how I want to be dead” (emphasis original).

The Times invited readers to comment on how they wanted to be dead. I am taking up their invitation here.

Now I have nothing particularly against trends towards more natural burial. In fact, I think we desperately need a pastoral conversation within the Catholic Church in the United States about reducing the costs of “the American way of death.” I pray the ground lay light upon Kenneth Grahame, along with the “natural succession of snowdrops, daffodils, and so on through the seasons.”

One of the paradoxes of contemporary culture is that it combines an almost obsessive focus on sexuality with an utter disparagement of the body. The results of this dualist schizophrenia, in no small measure the outcome of Cartesian shrinkage of the person to mere consciousness, is what Jacques Maritain called “angelism”—a view that ignores the bodily reality of being human, a vision at profound odds with a religion calling itself incarnational.

This secular angelism is systematically destroying what I call our Western, “Genesis heritage.” St. John Paul II once said that if contemporary people want to understand who they are, where they came from and to whence they are bound, they should go back to the first pages of the Bible. In the first three chapters of Genesis, they’ll discover some basic truths, bequeathed by Israel through the Church, that have been foundational to our culture. They include: man is a creature; the sexual differentiation of humanity is part of whom man is, is good, and is Divinely willed; man has one foot in the material world and one in the spiritual; fertility and work are, first of all, Divine blessings; man is qualitatively different from, and exercises dominion over, the rest of the material world; and the human bodily-spiritual compositum, made in the image and likeness of God, is “very good,” the only creature so pronounced, the only creature God wanted for himself.

What does this all have to do with “how I want to be dead”?

While I am part of the material world, I am not just an overgrown snowdrop nor daffodil fertilizer. In this flesh once (and will one day once again) pulsed the breath of God, grace. In it dwelt the Holy Spirit. That reason alone says why the body deserves respect.

Yes, that body will undergo corruption. But it’s also paradoxical how the modern mentality has flipped the meaning of bodily decomposition (in no small measure probably fueled more by imaginings than contact with reality, since “the vanishing corpse”—from cremation to minimalist wakes to keep-the-kids-away-from-dead-grandma—has made familiarity with death disappear). In his Preparation for Death, St. Alphonsus Ligouri proposes a reflection (Consideration I, Point II) on how our mortal coil becomes food for worms, not to suggest our eco-friendly oneness with the cosmos but where the ugly corruption of sin will end for each of us. (Talking—much less preaching—about sin has become, however, almost as gauche as talking about death.)

But the human body hardly enjoys respect if it is seen primarily from the perspective of the impact of its “carbon footprint,” a post-mortem variation on the old materialist canard about how the body is just “$2.95 of assorted chemicals and a couple gallons of water.” Conniff notes that “the heat generated in a local crematory from the fat of the dearly departed now gets piped over—I’m not making this up—to warm the water in a town swimming pool” in England. I’m not sure if he approves of this new way to warm the town pool naturally and organically. I guess, by that criterion, Fairfax County, Virginia might reconsider its recreation policy that forces little kids out of its pools ten minutes every hour for a bathroom break.

Conniff also offers alkaline hydrolysis (“originally devised to dispose of animal carcasses”) as another way to get rid of the body by “dissolving the corpse in a stainless steel tank filled with water and potassium hydroxide. …[T]he resulting fluid ‘can be recycled’ … at the local wastewater treatment plant—that is, with the sewage.”

Conniff seems far more sympathetic to “naturalistic cemeteries” where unembalmed bodies in biodegradable caskets will eventually decompose more naturally. I cannot fail to observe that what seems to me to be a certain measure of liberal guilt still accrues, because Conniff wants to pair such “natural burials” with “an endowment and legal restrictions” to ensure such sylvan sepulchers never become “a conventional cemetery.”

So, because I hold as part of the Genesis heritage, that I am the image of God and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and not just precursor humus for wildflowers, that I do not want to be reduced to ashes to make some swimsuit-clad bodies momentarily toasty, nor to become wastewater pouring into the Anacostia River upon which eco-friendly paddle boarders can ride as long as they take care not to fall into the foaming brine.

I could see myself buried without embalming, and I am impressed by the simple coffins some religious orders now make available throughout the United States. (See here, here, and here.) I could even imagine what Conniff calls “unobtrusive grave markers” although I want a marked grave, because God called me—even through death—by name (Isaiah 43:1).

I know that someday that marker, too, will disappear. When I was a child, I was fascinated by a tombstone adjacent to my grandparents’ graves. The gravestone, then already collapsing, weather-worn, and in a language I could not read (Hungarian), marked the resting place of a man no one ever visited. The marker has since disappeared, only its foundation remaining.

Such anonymity will befall all of us, known but to the One who first knew me by name. But until it does, I am John, called into eternal existence by God and not just some alkaline hydrolysis runoff. Nor am I interested lying alone in some forest glade. I want to lie in the consecrated ground of the Christian community, where I do not fade into forgottenness among the forget-me-nots, but where those still treading on that earth might say a “Hail Mary” for me. That was also something that impressed me about my grandparents’ graveyard: most of the old Polish headstones had a simple phrase inscribed on them, “Proszę o Zdrowaś Maryji” (“I ask you for a Hail Mary”).

I could obviously also comment on wanting to lie in a tomb, like my Savior, who also assures me that the grave is not marked “entrance only,” but that is another story.

Dying is a statement, in fact, it is one’s last words. Conniff admits as much when he observes that some might dismiss his natural burial as “one last baby boomer fantasy, carrying the boutique lifestyle to the grave, or maybe, recalling their better, younger selves, staging a sort of perpetual environmental lie-in protest to protect the land from development.” I suggest, instead, that how one is dead should be first and foremost a profession of faith.

That is how I want—and do not want—to be dead.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “All Saints Day” painted by William Adolphe Bouguereau in 1859.

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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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