Updated: Apr 26, 2022
When I was in my twenties I thought old age was an island only accessible by a bridge I’d never cross. But I’ve crossed it, and at seventy-nine the subject of how I want to have my earthly remains disposed of is a topic for practical consideration. How much does it cost? Should I put aside money for it rather than get life insurance, which is a racket. Cremation is cheaper and being scattered in a special place, or in several special places, is appealing.
What does it mean to have a grave? A stone. A tomb if you’re wealthy, or a mausoleum for the family lineage where coffins are stacked one on the other like drawers. A grave in a cemetery implies the illusion of a continuing self on the part of the person who will fill it, and a place of homage for those left alive. There is some comfort in this, even if for the dying person it is illusory.
Funeral imagery in the US has always been about continuing to be--the soft, lined coffin with a pillow, as if the dead are merely napping, inside a sealed metal construction that resists decomposition as long as possible.
It is impossible to talk about graves and tombs without reference to life after death, which embalming practices and other preservation practices are a feature of. The Tibetans are not sentimental. They dismember their dead and leave them for the animals.
What happens to us when the body is gone? Everybody asks this in their own way, even scoffers when no one is looking. We are inculcated in this culture with the idea of a soul, something that continues after death and is punished or rewarded according to one’s life. Like Christianity, Islam believes in the continuation of the soul, and a judgment day on which the dead rise from their graves. I prefer Thomas More’s version of the soul; a soft, shapeless field of energy that contains the undifferentiated record of a self beyond a merely moral judgment. “It is precisely because we resist the darkness in ourselves that we miss the depths of the loveliness, beauty, brilliance, creativity, and joy that lie at our core.”
In another version of the soul, there is the “atman” in Hinduism, the individual self that is the embodied part of the greater Brahman, into which it is absorbed at death (and is the source of namaste: “The divinity in me salutes the divinity in you). In the folk Buddhism of Southeast Asia there is the belief that ghosts are the unfulfilled desires of the deceased. There is a folk Chinese belief claiming that in death we have two ghosts; one that hangs around the grave, and one that is absorbed into the heavens. Thai soap operas feature ancestral spirits; the viewing audience can see them but the living characters cannot. These anscestors live in the continual frustration of not being able to intervene in the lives of the living as they enact their various disasters. And then there are the Buddhists, for whom the extinguishing of the self is a central theme.
I was startled when I read a passage by Thich Nhat Hanh that says, simply, we’ll become part of the earth, we’ll nourish the trees, etc. In an interview, he takes it further: "Reincarnation means there is a soul that goes out of your body and enters another body. That is a very popular, very wrong notion of continuation in Buddhism. If you think that there is a soul, a self, that inhabits a body, and that goes out when the body disintegrates and takes another form, that is not Buddhism. When you look into a person, you see five skandhas, or elements: form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. There is no soul, no self, outside of these five, so when the five elements go to dissolution, the karma, the actions, that you have performed in your lifetime is your continuation. What you have done and thought is still there as energy. You don’t need a soul, or a self, in order to continue."
Thich Nhat Hanh is not alone in this: Stephen Batchelor in Buddhism Without Beliefs argues that many ideas, including reincarnation, were added later when Brahmanism absorbed Buddhism and made it a religion.
The Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that the self is an illusion, and we need not fear the death of it. Nevertheless, most of us fear this most of all, not least myself. I resist the idea that my consciousness will be extinguished. But I also think, at times, in a more positive light, that my suffering, physical and mental, may end with the cessation of self.
If my life continues as my actions, I hope the better ones survive.
However, Tibetan Buddhism, woven with the earlier Bon religion of Tibet, is quite adamant about reincarnation and instructs us how to navigate the space between incarnations through a conduit (a kind of "buffer") called the bardo. The Tibetan Book of the Dead offers detailed instructions for getting through this passage.
In Judaism, the Hebrew Bible is silent on life after death. That great religion has always been centered in life. I do find the custom of placing individual stones on a grave, hand by hand, to be deeply moving.
The Buddha in the Royal Ease pose. I thought it appropriate to leave the exit sign in this photo.
In 1972, four years home from Vietnam and running from my feelings, I wandered the country, settling for a few years in Tucson, getting a college degree; then San Antonio, Memphis, Chicago and New York City. In Memphis I worked for a marble and tile company. One of my jobs was to go to cemeteries and clean mausoleums. I worked with a man in his eighties, named Thomas, who was very powerfully built and as strong as myself. He was old enough in 1972 to have connections with people who had been born into slavery. He didn’t like going into the mausoleums. He muttered something about “the hants”* under his breath, spirits, ghosts.
In the mausoleums we worked in, the fluids of embalming and decomposition had leaked from the coffins and stained the stone. It was our job to sand and polish it good as new. I envisioned the family patriarchs who had these monuments built not wanting anything to stain their memories through the generations, literally or figuratively.
Even if one does not have a tomb in a mausoleum, conventional cemetery funerals cost money. My mother wanted to be cremated. She never told me why, although I think it may have been about expense. She died when I was in California. The funeral home “lost” her body. It was found later at the city morgue where it had been taken from the assisted living home where she spent her last years and autopsied by the coroner. I was told this was standard procedure. It was upsetting. I blew my stack at the undertaker and then apologized.
The undertaker informed me that the state required that the ashes be placed in a cardboard box, which cost fifty dollars. I suppressed a crack about what cut of the box fee did the undertaker get and what the state. I loathed, by the way, the reference to ashes as “cremains.” I wanted to punch somebody. They’re fucking ashes.
Prior to the cremation he’d removed her pacemaker and offered it to me to be recycled (for money). I was too upset to deal with that so I told him to take it. He’d know what to do with it. He gave me a handful of death certificates I had to mail to various agencies. I didn’t want this to be about bureaucracy.
I have seen many people die. I was a corpsman with a marine rifle company in Vietnam. There is something perverse about the dying and mangling of young people. All those years left unlived. It was always terrible to watch a face turn almost childlike in death, even if the lips were turning blue. But it is another thing to live a long life, which I’ve been lucky enough to do, and face the long slow decline. Montaigne wrote that “Sickness is God’s way of weaning us from life.” I have had two mini-strokes and have acquired a cardiologist, but I am far from suffering to the extent that I’d prefer death. I’m also very much in love and want to live as long as I can. What happens to love when we die? Hafiz believed it was not wasted. That love, even failed love, is an investment in the greater love.
This morning at my meditation group we talked about burials and cremations. We talked especially about alternative funerals: a “green” burial which allows for interment without embalming chemicals or even a coffin, or to be buried in the roots of a newly planted tree, so that we might nourish it.
Half of my mother’s ashes were scattered by my uncle and I on the family plot in Hickman, Kentucky, and half are in an urn in a church columbarium in Tucson. I thought I would like to be similarly divided. I have four spiritual homes: Tucson, Arizona, where I grew into a young man with a great delight in sensual pleasure; the desert remains alive in me; I can still smell it after a rain. The second is Vietnam; I escaped from the war only lightly wounded. I have come to love that country and its people, and have returned to it twice since the war. It is, after all, the place that changed me most. The third is New York City where I lived for eight years, which thrilled me, shaped and extended my mind. The fourth is Western New England where I began my recovery from alcoholism. I would like a fist full of me in each place. The tombstone and the cemetery no longer interest me. Let them go.