The title sounds confronting but be assured the message comes from a comforting place. While Sallie Tisdale doesn’t shy away from the hard content that some can find disturbing, there is much to recommend this book. Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying.
There’s no doubt about it we are, like it or deny it, future corpses, plain and simple.
Tisdale reminds us that, while it might appear many things go on forever and could be described as being ‘permanent’, she says, “Impermanence is the key to our pain and our joy.” She calls on Buddhist philosophy by saying, “Why should you treat yourself in a special way? … When you understand birth and death as the birth and death of everything – plants, animals and trees – it is not a problem anymore.” Finding an acceptance of this reality is therefore comforting. This way of thinking allows us to live out our remaining days, be they 80 years or 8 months, with a greater sense of purpose.
“Our lives, as we live them day by day, create the person we will be at the moment of death … you see it in the way a body rests or fights, in the lines in the face, in the faint shadow of a smile or a scowl, worry or peace. With every passing day we create the kind of death we will have.”
Tisdale reminds us that scientists have made great advances in overcoming many infectious diseases and as a result, community beliefs have changed such that many people believe you can delay death forever; but it’s not true.
Rather than seeking out a ‘good’ death, Tisdale suggests we might be better off thinking of a ‘fitting’ death. (p.49)
What this is all leading up to is an acceptance that we can’t ‘fix’ dying. We can make plans but when death decides to visit then that’s what happens.
In Chapter 10, Bodies (page 155), Tisdale points out that you don’t have to do any of the traditional things promoted by the commercial funeral industry. An increasing number of people are finding that they are able to take care of business themselves. These would include:
- “You can take the body to a mortuary or crematorium by yourself. People have been known to dress a body and strap it into the passenger seat with a rakish hat for the ride.”
- “You don’t have to have funeral.”
- “You don’t need to use a hearse or a coffin.”
- “You can speak to cemeteries and crematoriums directly and prepare the body yourself.”
- “You don’t need pallbearers but the reason six strong men may be required is the coffin. Most bodies can be carried by four women.”
- “Shrouds have handles for carrying purposes.”
- Good sources of information are the Natural Death Care Centre, Byron Bay and the Groundswell Project, Blue Mountains, NSW.
This might sound like a strange or left of field comment but under English common law no-one owns a dead body and a dead body owns nothing: “the only lawful possessor of a corpse is the Earth.” And when you think about it, how could it be any other way? So if you want to know what to do with a dead body, don’t start by asking a conventional funeral provider; start with a Civil Celebrant or one of the two organisations mentioned above.
Turning to page 171, Tisdale addresses the challenge we are now faced with: our population size and how we are going to deal with the inevitable number of corpses in the coming years.
Do we want to follow in the footsteps of the vertical cemeteries that exist in several countries? The tallest is Brazil’s Necropole Ecumenica in Santos; fourteen stories tall with 25,000 burial units. “It’s one of Santos’ most popular tourist sites with a snack bar on the roof and peacocks in the gardens. But Tisdale points out this is not a cost effective burial; a three year rental can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The three year period reflects the typical decomposition time after which the families have the remains removed to a cheaper place.
After death choices – what’s it all about? The word cemetery comes from a Greek word meaning, ‘a sleeping place’. Maybe this would help us think about other ways to put our loved ones to ‘rest’ and so on page 173 we learn about the Recompose project in Seattle, USA, its purpose being to recover our physical remains as a kind of fertile soil for use in parks and landscapes.
There’ s no doubt about it, this is a wonderful book. It’s another example of the reality that there are always new insights to be gained from seeing the world with new eyes. There are four appendices in the back of the book: Preparing a Death Plan; Advance Directives; Organ and Tissue donation and Assisted Death.
What the Living Can Learn by Looking Death Straight in the Eye, Parul Sehgal. June, 2018