Burial Versus Cremation

Feb 19, 2012 | 1 comment

There’s a great funeral planning opinion piece in The New York Times today that ponders burial versus cremation. It’s written by James Atlas, author of My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale. It’s titled “Choosing Our Final Resting Places.” Enjoy!

“WHAT to do about grave sites?” my wife says at the breakfast table.

She’s learned from her brother that we own two plots in the cemetery of the Vermont town where we have a summer house. They were purchased by her mother some years ago, and are worth $400 apiece. Do we want to keep them for future use, or sell them back?

I hadn’t really thought about it. Over the years, there has been occasional banter around the dinner table about “ashes” vs. “dust” — cremation or burial. But it wasn’t urgent. We’re not actually that old, and expect to be above ground for a while yet. Like cleaning out the closets or “putting our papers in order,” it was a chore that could be postponed indefinitely. Also, neither option seemed great.

But unless we elect to be stuffed like Jeremy Bentham, embalmed like Kim Jong-il or have our ashes made into decorative beads — a new trend in South Korea — there aren’t a lot of choices. Cremation has its hazards: I’m always hearing about parents’ ashes left in a closet. Or you can get the wrong box from the funeral home and end up reciting “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” over the urn of some unknown person who it turns out thought Dylan Thomas was a drunken blowhard. Then there are the hazards of disposal: In Meghan O’Rourke’s “Long Goodbye,” the family gathers on a Connecticut beach on a blustery December day to scatter her mother’s ashes; the wind comes up and blows them all over her brother. “I’m fine,” he reassures everyone: “I just have Mom in my eyes.”

Burial, though, is somehow too … real. In the final scene of “Humboldt’s Gift,” Saul Bellow’s novel about the fictional genius poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, his friend Charlie Citrine attends Humboldt’s funeral. Citrine observes the process with dispassion: “The coffins went down and then the yellow machine moved forward and the little crane, making a throaty whir, picked up a concrete slab and laid it atop the concrete case.” But then the question to which we all know the answer bursts from his unconscious: “How did one get out? One didn’t, didn’t, didn’t! You stayed, you stayed!” Learning to tolerate this eternity of eternity is the biggest challenge of our lives.

I, too, worry about being put in the ground. What if it’s cold? My winter-averse mother has also voiced this fear. Or what if there’s a flood? In Roger Rosenblatt’s heartbreaking memoir, “Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats,” he writes that after a flash flood in Japan, “the cemeteries built on the hillsides become waterlogged. Coffins rise and float out of the earth and ride into the villages, fishtailing on the liquid streets and banging on the doors of the houses.”

On the other hand, burying your loved ones means that you can go see them whenever you want. You can, in some uncanny way, be with them. Driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, the unnamed protagonist of Philip Roth’s “Everyman” has an impulse to visit his parents’ graves in a cemetery near Newark airport. Searching for their plot, he encounters a gravedigger and prompts him into a detailed disquisition on the nature of his work. And he learns something even more important: why we bury the dead at all. “They were just bones, bones in a box, but their bones were his bones, and he stood as close to the bones as he could, as though the proximity might link him up with them and mitigate the isolation born of losing his future and reconnect him with all that had gone.”

Going through family documents, I came across an old contract from the Westlawn Cemetery in Chicago. My grandparents bought a lot there for what was then — 1947 — the stupefying sum of $1,600. My grandfather was a shrewd businessman, but however you look at it, this was a bad deal. His convertible Packard with a jump seat probably cost less. In the end, both were buried at Westlawn. (My grandmother, who lived out her last years in California, referred to death as “going to Chicago.”) But they were the last. I have in hand a transfer deed for the remainder of the plot issued to my parents, “Dr. Donald H. Atlas and Nora Atlas of La Jolla, California,” notarized on March 31, 1980 — a few years after they moved out there. Added as a signatory to this deed is “James R. Atlas.” My older brother, for some unknown reason, isn’t listed. (Don’t think you’re getting out of this, Steve.) For the sum of “Ten & no/100 dollars,” I learn, we have “quit claim” to “North twelve (12) feet of Lot ten (10) in Block twelve (12) in Section ‘C’.” I guess I won’t be going to Chicago.

So I’m still considering my options. In Varanasi, India, I once stood on a terrace above the mist-shrouded Ganges at dawn and watched the corpses burning on pyres below, black smoke from the bodies rising up to dissipate in the haze. There are a lot of ways to go.

Beads, however, are out.

A Good Goodbye