“What’s the matter, Boris?”
“… Should I call an ambulance?”
“No! No, not now! No, not tonight! I mean, eventually!”
“Boris, everybody dies.”
— from the 2009 Woody Allen film Whatever Works
I’ve never set foot on a battlefield, but I’ve spent years on the front lines of the War on Drugs — the streets and cells and halfway houses and needle-strewn squats of Portland — where I’ve witnessed a number of unexpected deaths and self-kills, usually claiming the lives of people much younger than me. A year ago, a close friend of mine from the streets, Nick (a.k.a. Mr. Nixon), overdosed and died. He was 34.
It was mid-morning when I got word of Nick’s passing. I’d been up all night popping prescription speed and scribbling nonsense in my notebooks (see my story in last month’s issue, “Speed Demons,” for more on that experience). The bad news arrived not long after an erroneous report of another street partner’s untimely demise (Kosmo). All this morbidity, combined with a speed crash, compelled me to finally confront my own mortality and, more specifically, to realize how unprepared I was to meet the Reaper.
If there’s a bright side to terminal illness, it’s that the terminally ill have at least a ballpark estimate of when they’ll be leaving the field. For the rest of us, it’s a maddeningly unsolvable mystery. The three maiden Fates of Greek and Roman mythology are in charge: Clotho (the “Spinner”) spins the thread, Lachesis (the “Allotter”) measures it out, and Atropos (the “Unalterable” or “Inflexible”) snips it. No mortal knows how long their thread is.
As a Catholic, I’ve recited a lot of prayers that have this rider of sorts near the end, a request for a peaceful, happy death. I’d never really understood that — a happy death? What the hell was that? Death, by definition, is the ultimate bummer, right? But if you dare to quickly glance over your left shoulder — “Death is our eternal companion,” the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan tells us, via Carlos Castaneda, “it is always to our left, at an arm’s length”— you’ll catch a glimpse of an unhappy, scary kind of death, the type that is both unexpected and unplanned-for. A peaceful, happy death is the opposite of that. To achieve it, you need more than prayer — you need preparation. To me, dying with peace of mind means giving my loved ones as much solace and as little stress as possible. We must all, indeed, prepare to die, for the sake of the living.
The Death Box
“In a world where death is a hunter, my friend, there is no time for regrets or doubts,” Don Juan further counsels us. “There is only time for decisions.”
The first and, for me, easiest item I checked off what I’m calling The Other Bucket List was compiling the playlist for my funeral. Who knows what awful, schmaltzy songs could be chosen by your bereft survivors in the delirium of their grief, or picked by default by the funeral director. God save me from one more rendition of “Amazing Grace,” especially the first verse of that jailhouse standard — the only one anyone seems to know.
I posted my funereal playlist on YouTube. Other important lists and instructions go in a cardboard container, kept in my closet, called a Death Box. Citizens with coin to spare may prefer a safety deposit box inside a bank vault for this purpose, but in the not unlikely event that your death coincides with the pending collapse of global capitalism, you’ll wish you’d opted for this simpler, cheaper alternative.
Aside from my dog, Bella Jean Abzug; Bella’s cat, Mrs. Haversham; and the cat’s cat, Josephine Tangerine, I live alone. My three daughters all reside out-of-state, way down south, so I sent them each an e-mail with a link to a video showing them where the Death Box is and how to get in my apartment without my key.
There are some obvious items you’ll want to include in your Death Box: copies of the will, user names and passwords, insurance policies, titles, deeds. But those are just the basics, so be sure to get a big box.
I first read about Death Boxes years ago, back in my twenties, when I was immortal. You may not have the opportunity to say that “goodbye,” or “I’m sorry,” or “I really love you” before the last train leaves the station. Leaving letters to loved ones in your Death Box ensures that you can.
I initially imagined writing long, grandly worded, life-changing missives, and that’s the sort of task that should not, and cannot, be rushed. So I put it off. Then Mr. Nixon crossed over, and I realized I might not be far behind. So I grabbed a pad of paper and jotted quick notes to everyone I’d want to say farewell to, then put those in the Box. I can always write more, but if I cross over tonight those little notes will be gold to my family and friends.
A really long time ago, when I was a child and giants roamed the land, there was this TV show called Eight is Enough, a family sitcom about a couple with eight kids. The actress who played the mom (Diana Hyland) died during the filming of the first season. In season two, middle son Tommy’s anguish about celebrating Christmas without his mother is assuaged when his dad (played by Dick Van Patten) discovers a gift she’d bought him before she passed. It’s even wrapped.
You don’t need Hollywood magic to pull off a similarly wonderful surprise — just stash a few gifts in your Death Box, too.
This brings up an important question: Do your kids know you? I mean, what do they really know about your life? I thought I knew my adoptive parents, but wow, when they were gone, having left no diaries, I realized that aside from basic biographical details and a few anecdotes they’d let slip over the years, I didn’t have a real sense of their life journeys. How I wish now that I’d asked them more questions, probed a little deeper.
In that spirit, I’ve written out the highlights of my action-packed existence thus far, as well as lessons to be learned from each episode (many of these stories being cautionary tales), and stuck that in my Death Box. My life story is also my legacy, a guide passed down for future generations. I describe personality traits I possess that they may have inherited. I tell them how to slay some dragons and how to ride others. I share family myths and trace bloodlines back as far as I can. I warn them about certain individuals to avoid. I end with a blessing.
Fortunately, I also have videos from my life on the streets of Portland to Sherwood Forest to Freeport U.S.A., plus blogs I began writing back at Windham Prison, the articles I’ve published, unpublished autobiographical pieces … tons of stuff, all in the Box. Thank God I also have some footage of Nick — not only for his daughter, who he won’t see grow up, but for all the grandchildren he’ll never hold.
Sorry to cite Woody Allen again (I know how we feel about Woody these days), but there’s that scene at the end of Manhattanwhen the protagonist (played by Woody) asks himself, “Why is life worth living?” and then comes up with a list that includes Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Frank Sinatra, “those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne” and “the crabs at Sam Wo’s,” concluding with “Tracy’s face.” I came across a website that challenges you to rewrite that soliloquy with your own proper nouns, Mad Libs–style.
This inspired me to make my own Death Questionnaire with categories like Favorite Music, Favorite Meal, etc. Here’s the link. It’s open-source, so edit it, add to it, download it, and stick it in your Death Box. I filled mine out for the first time last year and I’m sure some answers have already changed, so you’ll likely want to update yours every year or so. Decades from now, your ancestors will eat this stuff up: “Wow! Great-granddad had a Facebook page! What a [future slang term for “fool”]!”
My parents left behind a box of pictures and I went through those snapshots years ago, separating them into groups based on subject and year. But then I’d find a picture of, say, a skyline, or some random girl on a beach, with nothing to indicate why it was significant enough to save. Unknown people, unknown scenery — into the trash they went. I mention this to note the need to annotate the images and other mementos you leave behind. I made a separate video for my daughters in which I explain the significance of the sacred objects scattered around my sanctum, lest a valuable artifact get sent to the thrift store or incinerator.
The hay barn next to my parents’ old Victorian was full of knickknacks and childhood relics that my mother, my dear mother, had lovingly placed there over the decades on shelves that my late father, a proficient carpenter, built expressly for that purpose. While she was in a nursing home, afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and I was in Windham, incarcerated with alcoholism, my sister got power of attorney and liquidated her holdings, including all the keepsakes in the barn.
I bring this up as a roundabout way to stress the importance of maintaining a livingwill, a document you update over time. In mine, I have clearly stated that I do not wish to be put into a nursing home (I’ve worked at several). My mother could have easily afforded to receive the support she needed at home (in fact, she’d have saved money). To my daughters, I say, Ladies, if you lock me up in a place like that, I will rogue the fuck out on a daily basis, steal medication, file frivolous lawsuits, set off fire alarms, etc.
Bottom line: Be kind to your kids, but, as with everything, put it in writing. You can download your own living will, at no charge, at doyourownwill.com. Fill it out and pop it the Box. Now we’re cooking!
John and Jane Doe
Many years ago I worked as an Independent Living Skills Specialist at a group home for mentally ill adults in Augusta. I was in charge of weekend recreation, and one week the clients voted to go to a tattoo parlor. One fellow, a big guy we called The Governor, got his Social Security number tattooed on his hand. He told me he wanted to be sure the authorities would be able to identify his corpse.
A simpler remedy is to always carry identification, but what if you’re jogging or hiking or biking or swimming with no wallet or cell phone? What if your camping trip turns into an eternal vacation? What if, like me, you live alone and days or weeks might pass before your absence causes someone other than the dog to get worried?
According to my friend Ian, who worked for years at Maine Med, if hospital staff can’t identify you, you’re shipped up to the state forensic lab in Augusta, where they get your fingerprints and a DNA sample and run those through databases to find a match. If you’ve never been in the system, no one reports you missing, and foul play is not suspected, your corpse will eventually be disposed of through some unceremonious state burial or cremation process. Egad!
Fortunately (?) for me, my prints, DNA, physical description, mug shots and pictures of my tattoos are all in the system. The state’s databases are filthy with my info. I’ve probably already been cloned. These days, there’s a decent chance your prints are also on file. The list of professions that require fingerprinting has grown long over the years, and now includes everyone from truck drivers to lottery-ticket vendors to pretty much anybody who works with kids or the disabled. Government and commercial DNA databases have similarly swelled. The FBI’s CODIS (Combined DNA Information System) database reportedly has upwards of 17.7 million genetic profiles at this point. The ancestry-research company 23andMe has the chromosomal info of 5 million clients.
Another option is the microchip implant. Though still considered too invasive by many of us frogs floating in the slow-boiling water (happy as we are to share all sorts of personal information on social media), the RFID (radio-frequency-identification) chips will most likely be mandatory in America’s dystopian future anyway, so why fight it? (Check out the article in The Atlantic published a few months ago, “Why You’re Probably Getting a Microchip Implant Someday.”) And if your carcass arrives at the E.R. before you’ve crossed over, imagine how helpful it’ll be if they can scan your smart chip to get your complete medical history (and then e-mail you the bill, the way Square sends the receipt for your coffee).
Bella has what I call the “streetnik’s microchip.” It’s not an implant; I just put my extra CVS rewards tag on her collar. If she ever gets lost, whoever finds her just needs to bring her to the nearest CVS, scan her tag and kazzam!— there’s my name and contact info.
Having considered all this, I now carry ID with me even on short dog walks around the village. I also stuck a piece of paper in my battered old wallet with a list of emergency contacts. The numbers are important, because even with ID it can take awhile to locate your next-of-kin, and it may not be the next-of-kin of your choice that gets the call.
Your identification doesn’t have any important phone numbers on it, does it? Think about it now before it’s too late: Who’s in yourwallet?
Organs and tissue
This brings us to another crucial piece of information listed on your ID: whether you’re an organ or tissue donor (there’s a difference, as I’ll explain in a minute). If you haven’t indicated your preference, then your survivors may be confronted by a white coat whose job it is to convince them to donate your organs and tissue, and to make that decision quickly. Not a fun position to be in while in a state of sadness and shock.
A friend of mine, a nurse down at Houston Methodist Hospital, used to have to perform this task. They call them transplant facilitators. He said the job was really difficult at first, but eventually you figure out how to get what’s needed from grieving family members, and since you believe it’s for a good cause, you have no problem using the kind of emotional tactics that you wouldn’t use to sell a car.
It’s sales, but not a hard sell these days. Organ transplantation has become safer and more common in recent years, yet the need is still urgent and immense. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the nonprofit that manages transplants nationwide, a single donor can save up to eight lives, but an average of 20 people die every day while waiting for a transplant.
We all know about heart and liver transplants, but there’s also skin for burn victims, bone for hip replacement, corneas, kneecaps — it goes on and on. The white coats can harvest as much useful gore from a dead human as the natives of the plains used to get from a dead buffalo. And let’s not forget schools like the University of New England, which are always grateful to get bodies for their students to dissect and learn from. (Visit une.edu/com/bodydonor, or call 602-2202 for an anatomical donation form.)
When I was young, I was gung-ho to donate the whole shebang to science. Then, after ending up in Houston, my attitude began to change. First, it was my friend the nurse’s description of bodies floating in tanks waiting to be given over to knife-wielding twenty-somethings. Despite being a transplant facilitator, he wasn’t a donor himself. Then there was a story in the news about a young woman whose entire body had been donated to science, at her request, but her cadaver hadn’t been utilized. I don’t recall why — maybe they were just corpse-heavy at the time — but the hospital eventually returned her remains to her family in a ghastly, closed-coffin state.
There were also stories about hospitals making lots of yen by selling donated corneas or what have you, and reports of the poor in India selling their kidneys to wealthy Americans. I think Weekend at Bernie’s came out around that time, too.
So when I began this project, I put a note in my wallet along with the emergency contact list. It read:
When I die, I wish to donate my internal organs, but I want my body intact for my final journey.
The Ghost of Robin Rage
Then I did more research. I discovered that in Maine you can sign up to donate your organs and/or tissue online (visit maine.gov/sos/bmv/donatelife). In other, less progressive states, they lump organ and tissue donation together — “It’s all or nothing, Mr. Dirtnap!” I hadn’t realized there was much of a difference. I mean, organs are body tissue, right?
No, actually — at least not in the eyes of the harvesters. The tissues we donate are not always as life-saving as we’re led to believe. Your tissue could actually be used for cosmetic surgery. How do you feel about that?
There are companies out there that specialize in for-profit tissue collection, and they’re ready to fly out at a moment’s notice to mine your body for tendons, veins, skin, bone — anything that’s not a vital organ. One former collector, a guy named Chris Truitt who was interviewed in 2012 by NPR, won’t be donating his tissue. “Tissue donation, at the base level … of helping somebody else live a better life is a phenomenal thing,” he said. “But unfortunately, just as easy as your tissues can go to something like that, they can also go to penile implants, for example.”
I’m still keeping the note in my wallet, but I changed it after learning about all this. It now reads:
After death I wish to donate my internal organs, but NO TISSUE for any reason. NO TISSUE FROM THIS DEAD GUY!
Thanks for reading.
The Phantom [I upgraded] of Robin Rage
Funerals for the frugal
My adoptive father crossed over back in 1999. His family had their own boneyard on one of Maine’s islands, but he wanted to be buried in the veterans’ cemetery at Togus so it’d be easier for my adoptive mom to visit him. The old man had tons of insurance, and after he died he was bussed up to Plummer Funeral Home, in Augusta.
As I recall, the VA at Togus wouldn’t allow mourners to actually observe the coffin being interred. The Murphys, the good people who ran Plummer’s, had a video showing the caskets of veterans being plunked — not just unceremoniously, but carelessly and clumsily — into the open graves, the kind of treatment you’d expect at a convict’s burial.
Through family connections, we were able to witness the burial, but that was just one small part of everything else going on, everyone who needed to be hired, instructed, directed, and then paid. It cost, you can imagine, quite the chunk of yen.
Around the same time, a previous employer of mine, a former CIA cowboy named Fred Fagin, suffered the loss of his mother. After asking about, and then gasping at, the cost of my father’s services, he told me how he’d handled the same situation.
“I’d already made her a pine coffin, old buddy, just a glorious affair in every way,” he said. (Fred’s a master carpenter and cabinetmaker.) “After getting a permit to transport the corpse, I took the coffin to the hospital and had them place her inside. I then took her to the crematorium, where I had her cremated in the coffin, then had [the cremains] placed in an urn that I’d brought with me. The family gathered on the farm at the banks of the Sheepscot River for an intimate celebration of my mother’s rich life, culminating in her ashes scattered on the rippling waves of the river at twilight.
“Total cost: $300.”
The cold practicality and efficient simplicity of Fred’s method begs the question: Do we need funeral parlors? Can’t we just do it on our own?
Probably not, if for no other reason than you don’t want your daughter driving around with your corpse stuffed inside a suit bag in the back of a borrowed station wagon.
This is another item on The Other Bucket List that you need to nail down before the Reaper arrives. We’ve already covered how your grieving survivors could be assailed by a seasoned tissue harvester who’ll try to talk them out of every profitable cell in your still-warm corpse. Next they’ll face a second wave of death profiteers: the funeral home salesmen.
If you didn’t pre-arrange things, some orderly is going to ask your loved ones if they have a funeral home they prefer. No? No worries, he’ll call one.
After that, one or two (hopefully at least two — never go into the den alone) of your sturdier survivors enter this funeral home, where they’ll be greeted by a salesperson experienced in dealing with people whose minds are befuckled with grief. Some temper their need to sell with understanding and genuine compassion, but others will fake the same as part of their pitch, their script. They’ll sell your survivors an insanely expensive coffin with unnecessary (even possibly damaging) bells and whistles as part of over-priced package deals. Your loved ones just want to get it over quickly. They don’t have the headspace to do research, comparison shop, etc., which is why you need to plan ahead.
The website of US Funerals Online (us-funerals.com) has lots of helpful information on a range of topics, including a section on “How to Save $$$.” Though the site is funded by private parlors, they’re brutally honest about the types of high-pressure tactics employed at less scrupulous homes.
One key piece of advice: shop around. Prices for the exact same services, caskets, transport, flowers, etc. can vary considerably from parlor to parlor. If they can’t or won’t give you a quote over the phone, cross them off your list. A standard casket will set you back about a grand or two. And yes, you can buy cheap ones online from merchants of death like Walmart and Costco.
The Federal Trade Commission, following a rash of “distressed purchases” (funeral parlor scams and unscrupulous sales tactics), put laws into place that protect consumers in need of postmortem services. The FTC’s “Funeral Rule” requires, among other things, that salespeople show you a list of all available options and prices before they show you any caskets, and it prohibits a home from refusing to work with a casket from another company or charging you a “handling fee” for the same.
The FTC has its own useful checklists and tips (visit consumer.ftc.gov before Trump orders the site taken down). One of them echoes what I’m saying here: Decide exactly what you want before contacting the funeral home, and stick to yourscript so you don’t get talked into paying for things you don’t need.
Funeral insurance, or burial insurance, are other names for what is really just a small whole life insurance policy. They normally pay out from $5,000 to $20,000, enough for your survivors to get you where you wanted to end up, with maybe a little left over for the hereafter-party. Nerdwallet, Reviews.com and ConsumerAffairs.com all have pretty good lists of companies that offer this type of insurance. Figure out how much all your burial costs will be and go from there. In 2016, the median cost of a funeral with burial was $7,200; $6,100 for a funeral with cremation.
It’s also important to understand your policy. For example, whole life will pay out as expected (the whole amount is paid out upon your death), but some policies sold as “whole life” are actually “simplified issue” or “guaranteed acceptance” — these don’t pay out the entire amount for a few yearsafter you die. Term life polices are only in effect for the life of the term (10, 20, 30 years). If you outlive your policy, no payout for you.
After numerous inquiries and a lot of cajoling, I finally got a funeral home associate to talk to me, albeit off the record, about some of the tricks of the mortuary trade. “I always used to ask the grieving — in addition to how much of the services would be covered by insurance — where they were from, what neighborhood,” he confided to me. “I check out their car, even their shoes, to kind of gauge the amount that they’ll probably be able to painlessly spend. Or I’d just try to meet the total of their insurance benefit, although some [associates] will purposefully go a little over. That’s business, you know?”
When it comes time to choose the casket, the operative line is, “He (or she) deserves the best,” my source said. First the salesman will roll out the top-of-the-line model, a beautiful bronze affair for $10,000. Your loved ones can’t help but gasp at the cost and meekly ask to see something more affordable. So out comes the puke-green coffin. It’s only $1,000, but it’s hideous. “Do you have anything else?” your most steady survivor inquires.
“Well,” the salesman smiles. “We do have this one.” He leads them to a third option, which costs around $5,000 (still pricy, but presentable). As my source confessed, the third option is the one he intended to sell all along.
“Good choice,” he’ll assure them. “He’d’ve liked this one.” And the spiel continues: “Now, we do offer, and I highly recommend this, the option of a gasket which will completely seal the tiny gap between the lid and the coffin. It’s low cost and it will keep out the moisture and the rain. There are horror stories that I won’t relate to you about coffins that were improperly sealed.”
This is where shit goes from shady to criminal to downright grotesque. I read years ago — at the Hubbard Free Library, in Hallowell; that’s how unforgettable this was — about coffins exploding. Why? Gaskets. Coffins fill up with the gases produced by your natural decomposition. If there’s no way for the gas to escape… Just so you know, the federal Funeral Rule prohibits funeral homes or mortuaries from using words like “seals,” “protective” or “gasketed” to imply that paying for those additional options to keep water and soil out will better preserve the body.
Death is a business, baby. Caveat emptor. Though I hasten to add that there are plenty of reputable funeral homes out there, especially those run by families like the Murphys in Augusta. My uncle, another intelligence guy, had a habit of swiping small objects (like pens and ashtrays) from bars and restaurants and stuffing them in his pockets. When his wake was held at Plummer Funeral Home, they let his nieces and nephews stuff a few of their pens into the dead man’s pockets. Professionalism tempered with compassion and, when appropriate, even a touch of humor. That’s how it’s done.
Oh, and here’s one other thing that surprised me: embalming is not only unnecessary these days, but is actually frowned upon. According to the website Funerals 360, the embalming process is “not strictly regulated” and “the blood and other fluid waste are disposed of in the sewer system or septic tank.” Formaldehyde, a carcinogen, is a major component of embalming fluid, as is ethanol, and these chemicals can seep into groundwater. Even cremation isn’t a solution to this pollution. Formaldehyde “enters and remains in the atmosphere for up to 250 days,” where it “combines with condensation and rains down onto plants, animals and water supplies.” The scientific paper about this cited by the Funerals 360 site is titled, “Drinking Grandma: The Problem of Embalming.” I’ll leave it at that, except to point out that there’s no law that requires embalming, and if you’re planning to have an open-casket viewing, keeping the body cool and dry works about as well as anything’s gonna.
You’ve been to open-casket services, right? Everybody remarks how good the deceased looks, but let’s be honest: they don’t look good; they never do.
OK, now we’re down to the last items on The Other Bucket List. It’s time to shop for plots.
My own research into this type of real estate revealed that your basic Maine grave starts out around $1,000. There are message boards online where plots are bought and sold, and some of the more affordable ones are designated as “pre-owned.” This doesn’t mean you’ll be buried on top of someone’s grandpa because the clan has fallen on hard times. It just means gramps ended up moving to Wales and no longer plans to occupy the resting place he purchased years ago.
You don’t have to spend eternity in a cemetery. In Maine, you can be buried almost anywhere — right in the back yard, if your municipality is OK with it. Just check with your local zoning administrator before you start digging.
If you do choose to go the cemetery route, there will be certain regulations particular to whichever burial ground you select. For example, a burial vault (or grave liner) may be required. Now made out of concrete (rather than wood or brick), burial vaults were originally designed to thwart grave-robbers, but these days folks don’t toss expensive jewelry into caskets the way they used to. Cemeteries now require grave liners to prevent the casket from collapsing and causing a dip in the ground. Environmentalists maintain that a “green burial” with no casket and no liner leaves less of a dip than will occur when the liner itself eventually collapses. Oh, and there’s also the millions of tons of steel and concrete that get buried in the earth every year in the form of grave liners. But hey, that won’t be your problem, eh?
You’ll also want to watch out for charges like “perpetual care fees” and note any restrictions on markers. Have you been to any of the newer cemeteries? No character, right? Flat markers only, so the landscapers don’t have to do any weed-whacking.
Growing up in Augusta, I was just down the hill from this massive, classically terraced New England cemetery full of fascinating headstones and stone sculptures of angels and orbs and Marys and lambs. On the lower east side is a bricked-in mausoleum, once the bullpen for winter’s dead awaiting the softer ground of spring. In the 1970s, someone carved “help me” into the cement at the base.
On the terraces high above the holding tomb are the big mausoleums for the Hills, the Gannetts, the Macombers. My mother’s family was related, by marriage, to the Macomber clan, and one of their matrons is interred in the Macomber tomb. It’s a beautiful rich-man’s affair and, as I remember, even more lovely on the inside, with imported Italian marble and stained glass. (Yes, we had a key to the tomb and would go inside at least once a year to lay flowers on the too-good-to-bury caskets.) Years later, it was sealed forever, the iron gate and its lock welded shut. Apparently some local thugs had broken in, smashed the marble, and did other things. It was ghastly.
The headstone is usually part of the package sold by the funeral home or the cemetery’s proprietors. The flat, sunken-to-ground-level markers start at around $100 and get pricier from there (I didn’t even browse for mausoleums). Here in New England, we still have Owen Meany–type master stone cutters who can make raw granite gleam like marble and last forever (well, the relative forever). Unfortunately for them, the Internet offers the best prices and has online tools to help you design your own epitaph. But to ensure the best karma, I recommend you avoid the corporate death peddlers and support the stone artisans in your area. In other words, die local.
So, what about cremation? According to stats compiled by the National Funeral Directors Association, about 42 percent of Americans choose this option, and in New England it’s over 60 percent. Ferrymen are stepping up to meet the demand, of course. In Maine, the number of crematoriums has doubled in the last six years, according to the NFDA. In fact, we’re so progressive up here that we even have bio cremation (also known as aquamation), an eco-friendly alternative whereby the body is dissolved in a mixture of water and lye through a process called alkaline hydrolysis. Wows!
Now, even with cremation there are bells and whistles to be sold, starting with the urn. The prices charged by crematoriums and funeral homes range from modest to princely to absurd. Some operators will insist that you have to purchase one of their containers, but that’s just plain illegal under the Funeral Rule. If you’re strapped for cash, use a coffee can decorated by your grandchildren.
If you plan to have a pre-cremation gathering featuring a personal appearance by your lifeless body, don’t forget to get a casket for that occasion. Reputable funeral homes should be willing and able to rent you a coffin for your wake or funeral. You don’t need a coffin to be cremated in, though some salesmen may try to persuade you otherwise. You may want a witness at the cremation, just to be sure it’s your loved one you’re getting back in the box, and some mortuaries have special viewing rooms where mourners can witness your final journey. As with any dealings with the funeral industry, shop around, get price lists ahead of time, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Just as important as the cremation are your wishes concerning where you want your cremains to end up. I know families who’ve split the ashes between siblings, and I knew a guy from Fayette who took his father’s ashes and, while drunk, painted his face with them. So customs vary, as do local ordinances regarding the scattering of human remains. As with burial decisions, check the zoning code first — or don’t (hell, what are they gonna do, fine you when you reincarnate?).
I’m planning a doubleheader: Roman Catholic funeral rites and a graveside service. I’ve made this known in the Box, and included contact info for the relevant priests and professionals. I also scribbled down the epitaph for my stone.
Now, you know I’m crazy, right? The following is kind of eccentric, but just hear me out. When I started this Other Bucket List, I also started a list of people I definitely didn’t want ghouling around at my wake or funeral. If I wouldn’t have you in my home, why would I want you skulking about my death rites? I originally envisioned having someone stand at the door, with my list in hand, turning away unwanted guests and, perhaps, telling each of them the reason why I didn’t want them there. But, of course, this is totally contrary to the goal of the entire project, which is to make things easy for my survivors. Instead of being a hero one more time, it would be me, being a bitch one more time.
The thing is, I’d assumed there’ll be notices in the newspaper and online about the services, along with my obituary. It was my good friend Ray who recently remarked to me, referring to arrangements for his son, “I didn’t want anything in the paper.” None of the funeral info has to be public. Even if you want an obituary published, you don’t need to direct any creepers to the place and time of your services.
What else could I leave my daughters? A treasure map would be nifty, I imagine. But instead I’ll go with this quote. You know why I love to use quotes in my stories? Because great words are like great paintings, comrade, whether spoken by the living or the dead. Art is permanent revolution. I first found this one when I was 10, and I still love to recite it. It’s a poem simply called “Requiem,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, and it’s carved into his gravestone in Samoa.
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.