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February 28, 2017


JanieM, such a thought-provoking post. I will just say that all my preconceptions about the fate of the/my body (I don't care what happens to me, or anybody else, the body is just a husk and the person is no longer inhabiting it) were thrown into doubt when, after my father died and they were preparing to bury him (wrapped only in a shroud, as was customary thereabouts) they knocked his head while lowering him into the grave and my hugely furious and protective reflex (purely internal) surprised me and put the lie to all my previous opinions.

Thank you JanieM. First, a fun TEDtalk about that

My mom had gotten plots next to her parents, who are buried in Wisconsin, but at some point, she sold those plots. This left it to my brother and I, and I guess she anticipated she would be closer to us, or at least to my brother.

Here in Japan, the body is not really so important, but it is the remembering, so the ceremonies happening at specific intervals after death are important as is Obon. The grave, which is maintained and cleaned is simply a marker to keep a person in mind.

My first impulse is to suggest that gravestones and such suggest the western tendency/desire/obsession with things and represent the transfer of human emotions and memories to something that can quantified. It always seemed to me that the 'advantage' of the West has been its ability to quantify and reduce such things to objects and numbers. Not a new thought by any means, but one that your post provokes in the latenight dorm discussion version of me.

At any rate, thanks and welcome.

I'm planning to leave my body to science. There's a medical school here in my city and if I can help someone become a better doctor,then that's great. My dad did the same thing and the med school takes care of the remains. I need to contact my local memorial society and make the arrangements, which I do recommend to people when they know what they want to do. You pay for everything now and no one has to worry about what you want, which usually means what the funeral home thinks you want or can talk you into.

I've also told my daughter to throw a big wake with lots of friends, booze and music so she can get whatever emotional support she needs.

To be fair, my family was big on cremation and memorial services.

My family tradition is cremation. After each of my parents died, we took their ashes and scattered them at a couple of places that we felt had meaning for them:
- the little cottage in Santa Monica where they lived when first married, during WW II.
- the ranch near here where they lived the whole time they were raising 4 kids.
- etc.
I'm pretty sure it is illegal to distribute ashes that way, i.e. not at officially and legally designated places. But we cheerfully ignored that detail.

I expect we will eventually do something similar with my wife's parents. But for the moment, their ashes are sitting in a couple of containers in a cabinet.

As for ceremonies, we hold what is essentially a wake, in everything but name (and alcohol consumption). That is, we spend an evening sitting around and tell stories about the departed. No formality, no big production, just a quite family gather.

My grandmother was cremated and had nothing but a small graveside service - not even an obituary. I don't know if the fact that she was 93 and had outlived virtually all of her contemporaries made it okay, or if it was because she died in her own home and the close family was all there. But it was okay. It suited her.

JanieM, what part of Italy were your Italian ancestors from? My great grandparents came from Agnone in Molise, along with a bunch of other relatives, and settled in and around Youngstown. I think half of Agnone came over to Youngstown in the early in the early 20th century. (The rest went to Colorado and Argentina.)

I should probably mention that my grandmother's ashes were buried with my grandfather's remains, in case anyone thought a graveside service was contradictory to cremation.

hsh -- my dad's dad's family came from Marigliano, outside Naples. I don't know where my grandma's family came from, but I think the same general area. My grandma grew up in Brooklyn, my grandfather in Ashtabula (an hour or so north of Youngstown). Theirs was an arranged marriage, and a difficult one.

I spent a lot of time some years ago poking around the Ellis Island search database. I've got screenshots of ship manifests with my paternal great-grandmother and six or seven kids, heading for Ashtabula to join my great-grandfather. (I think in recent years they’ve made it harder to see stuff.)

The hitch was: they apparently tried three times before they actually made the voyage. Their names are on three manifests but crossed out on two of them -- maybe because of illness? There's no one to ask these days. But finding them was an adventure: my g-grandmother's first name was Giuseppa; it was copied into the search database as Guiseppa. Also, to make things harder, she's in the manifest and the database under her maiden name. It took me a while to figure that out; if I hadn't know her name, I would never have found the listings.

My paternal grandma's family was smaller, with a very common last name and common first names, so I'm not sure I ever found the correct grouping for them. I can relate to what you (hsh) said about half of Agnone coming over – not only did it seem like half my grandparents’ villages came over, but half of them had the same names.

My two oldest aunts were named for their grandmothers. My two oldest uncles were named for their grandfathers. Think about what happens if that custom goes on and on and on…. When I thought about that, and was searching through Ellis Island, I understood why all the Italian guys in my dad’s generation had funny nicknames: it was the only way they could tell each other apart. ;-) My brother has a four- or five-page handwritten list of these names.

Back to the cemetery topic…later.

I know Ashtabula. I worked at the Perry nuclear plant on Lake Erie back in the 90s.

Yeah, that thriving metropolis! Funny that you should know it.

Here's a shot looking west from Walnut Beach in Ashtabula. You can just make out a trace of the nuclear plant's cooling towers in the distance.

It's quite the thing to go down to the lake at sunset. I used to fish with my dad off the breakwall that I stood on to take this pic.

I haven't figured out what I want done with my ashes either. My first experience with death came a few months shy of my 8th birthday, when my paternal grandfather died. He had moved to live with us in Florida, for the last 4 years of his life, from Indiana where he lived most or all of his life. His wife, my grandmother, died a month before I was born and was buried in a cemetery in Indiana, so my parents were going to take him there for burial, after having calling hours at a funeral home in Florida. It was supposed to be closed casket, not a "viewing", but the casket was left open by mistake. I do not recall making it, but family lore has it that I blurted out a question about the utility of all the fine, soft fabric on the interior, since my grandfather couldn't feel it.

In late January 1998 I took a road trip while I had free time prior to starting at the company I still work for today. Part of it included a visit to family friends in South Bend, so on my return home I took the back roads through southern Indiana to the small town where my father was born and the cemetery was located. Took pictures on a cold, gray day of the marker for Roy and Zelah, and other pictures, I observed that there were relatives from her side of the family also buried there.

And about 6 weeks later I got the call from my parents informing me that my dad had cancer, and he died about 3 weeks later. I got visits in before he died, so he saw the pictures, and appreciated that I had taken that trip. His choice was cremation, and my maternal grandfather had purchased a number of adjacent plots in the south Georgia town where my mother grew up so his ashes went there. Most of them, anyway; my older brother and I wanted to do something symbolic, and not being sure our mother would approve, we secreted away a portion of the ashes.

All my growing up years my family had regular access to a beachfront cottage that my maternal grandfather had purchased around 1950, and my father was quite fond of the place, so we planned to go out in my brother's boat for a scattering in the Gulf, but, as it didn't seem urgent, we didn't pin down a particular date to do it. About a year and a half later, our oldest brother died, we did the same thing. He was also quite fond of the beach house, so we got our act together and went down to the coast and scattered the portions of both their ashes in the water off of 27th Street.

Six years ago after my older brother died, following his express wishes, my sister-in-law, mother, and myself scattered his ashes in the paths through the woods at the Lake Jackson mounds where he regularly exercised with his dogs. Where should I be disposed? Some place meaningful for me (as idiotic as that is since I won't be hanging about watching the ceremony), I guess. I'd like to think I've got a fair number of years to decide, but I'm all too aware there are no guarantees.

The first thing my wife and did together - before getting married, before buying a house together, before we even lived together - was to buy cremation plots together.

Long story, there.

I grew up mostly on Long Island, but have lived over half my life now in and around Salem MA. I have siblings and extended relations, but really my wife is my family. Where she goes, I go. And we go here, in New England.

My wife is also an OH girl, we sleep together each night on a bed made by one of her OH forebears back in the eighteen-aughts somewhere. He made it as a wedding gift for his wife. It was a rope bed, still has the pegs, although we use a box spring.

We used to go out to OH every year or so to folks there, but things broke kind of weird after her mother passed, and have never really been put right. So, now we don't.

At this point, half of the family I was born into is gone. They came to their final rest all over the continent, including in one case my step-sister's mantelpiece. Haven't been to any of their graves in decades, or ever.

When I go, I guess I'll be a handful of ashes spread in some dirt. But, in a really pretty place, and sooner or later commingled with those of my wife.

I'm good with that.

I don't really care about mortal remains, but the opportunity to leave a marker that provides a reason for people to read it, through the ages? Yeah.

Too bad
"On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia"
is already taken.

Thanks, everyone, for the great comments and stories.

russell’s comment highlights what I think my dilemma is about: connection. I’m single, so I don’t have a partner to make these decisions with; the connections I think about are family, loved places, the past, the future. For whatever reason, standing by my grandmothers’ graves in Ohio makes my memories of them more vivid. It’s like a psychic door. The kind of ceremony lj mentions might do the same thing if that was part of my culture.

This happens to some extent even when I’m in a cemetery where I don’t “know” anyone, like Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

Related to what GftNC said, my rational mind thinks that when I’m gone I’m gone. But some other part of my psyche thinks … who knows.

I’m reminded of a passage quoted by Andy Olmsted in his last post (which was my first experience of ObWi):

I will see you again, in the place where no shadows fall.

Or as Galadriel says when the traveling company is parting from Treebeard:

…in the willow-meads of Tasarinan we may meet in the spring.

And to round off the night, or at least my night, the opening passage from Alice Walker’s Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems:

To acknowledge our ancestors means
we are aware that we did not make
ourselves, that the line stretches
all the way back, perhaps, to God; or
to Gods. We remember them because it
is an easy thing to forget: that we
are not the first to suffer, rebel,
fight, love and die. The grace with
which we embrace life, in spite of
the pain, the sorrows, is always a
measure of what has gone before.

Cemeteries are one of the things that help me remember.

My parents ashes will be distributed at a favorite vacation spot. Because they loved it. The fact we will revisit annually is a bonus.

If I die in service to the nation, I would like to be part of a national cemetery. Basically another brick in the wall. Short of that my will donates my body to the Army to test against whatever will help future Soldiers. It turns out your dead meat has value getting blown up or shot as we test new weapons, and defenses. But lots of people are not willing to donate for that, so it is a shortage area.

My husband is an antiquarian bookseller, and a couple of years back we purchased the book collection of a Jewish married couple of scientists (deceased) who’d lived in a neighboring county (this is Germany). The man had been German Jewish, his wife had come from then-Palestine, where they’d met after he had gone there in exile as a very young man, alone. After the war she left her first husband and small son to remarry and move to suburban Bavaria with her new husband, and they both held prominent positions at the Max Planck Institute. It seems that they lived the rest of their long lives happily immersed in their work.
Their upstairs neighbors, a couple in their 60s, kind but simple folk, had been charged with emptying the apartment after she passed away (he had died a few years earlier); the wife proudly showed me a Christian candle on a shelf, the kind you get when you are baptized into the Catholic church. These two Jewish scientists had both converted to Christianity late in life, and are buried side by side in the village churchyard. Although I said nothing at the time, I strongly suspect that their reasoning had nothing to do with finding Jesus and everything to do with staying together in death, as in life, in the place they had chosen as their new home.

My wife and I are with "percysowner," above. We're leaving our bodies to science (probably specifically to Duke Medical School). That's what my mother did, and she and we and my sibs were all fine with that.

My father died when I was overseas and I didn't make it back for his funeral. He was buried somewhere nearby (Southern California) and I have never visited his grave. In fact I don't know where it is, though my sister probably does.

To us - both my devoutly Christian parents and my atheist self (as well as my in-between sibs and wife) - the deceased physical body just doesn't matter that much. I realize that this makes us outliers within the human race, and that burial rituals are very important to most people, and that we should respect their feelings, and thus ceremonies, etc.

We did in fact attend a memorial service for my mother (my sister, among others, spoke), and as a chorister I've sung at funerals as well as performed numerous "Requiems" (Brahms, Mozart, Verdi, Faure, etc.) which are often quite moving. And I feel that the desecration of cemeteries is a terrible, offensive thing to do, and I felt this even before I read the OP, which introduced me to new aspects of the horror it represents to some people.

But I don't personally share the (normal) human concern with what happens to my body once "I" no longer occupy it, which makes donating it for research an easy - and cheap - option.

More profoundly than most: YMMV.

"Thus that which is the most awful of evils, death, is nothing to us, since when we exist there is no death, and when there is death we do not exist." Epicurus

I think this makes a lot of sense (anybody fluent in ancient Greek to verify the translation?). So I am concerned more with lives unnecessarily cut short rather than death, because there are millions of those each year and it's just so damn unfair.

That said, giving the survivors a place to remember is a good thing and currently I'm thinking about Highgate cemetery as it's beautiful like Pere Lachaise or Montmatre - but hope it will be a while ...

I believe Highgate Cemetery is officially "full" novakant, so you or your survivors may have a problem arranging admission. However, I understand that exceptions are sometimes made, perhaps for people of local prominence, or maybe in return for sizeable donations, so you may get in after all!

I'd really prefer to leave my remains to science (resisting the urge to write "science fiction"), but I don't know if the missus would go for it. She already bought plots for us next to her mother's.

Which reminds me - I had surgery last month and found out my driver's license no longer has me down as an organ donor.

I assume you can be an organ donor while still leaving (the rest of) your body to science. Time to google!

Autocomplete anticipated my question. Sweet. At any rate, for those interested:

(This is not an endorsement of the particular organization linked, which I did not research in 2 minutes.)

I should mention that it's not a "the rest of" scenario. You can sign up for both, but you will only become an actual whole-body donor if your organs aren't wanted for whatever reasons (which, it turns out, is quite likely).

novakant, the translation is basically correct. The Greek original is slightly more precise in expressing time and space (I can't fully imitate that in English) and slightly more evocative of Death as an entity. 'pareinai' implies an active presence, so the 'there is no death' is a bit weak, it's more of a 'he is not present, taking part in what is happening here'. And the last part logically connects the very moment of Death being present and us not being.
Here I am, sounding like I know what I am talking about with my classical Greek actually being beyond rusty and me perusing the dictionary and a table of conjugation as a crutch. ;-)

If I don't make my wishes known otherwise, I'll be cremated. Like you, Janie, I can't decide, although the eternal reef seems nice!

My maternal grandparents have their rest at their local churchyard, near the graves of the previous generations. I think I have ancestors for several hundreds of years resting there. That, however, is far away. My paternal grandparents have their final resting place in the Veterans' Grove of their local cemetary: a place dedicated for veterans of the Second World War. That, too, is far away for a normal visit. Their ancestors, however, lie in the graveyards of those parts of Karelia, which were ceded to the Soviet Union. So, for me, when Christmas or All Saints Day come, I go and light two candles at my own local churchyard: one for the loved ones buried elsewhere, one for the ancestors restin in Karelian soil. Both types of far-away graves have their own memorials there, next to the Heroes' Grave.

However, my wife has family buried near our home, so it is easy to visit those graves, and I hope to be buried there, when my time comes, among the former generations that have toiled the same farm which my wife and I are taking over. That would be quite fitting, as I have no family grave that would be suitable.

The churchyards are a central focus of the Finnish civil religion. As the Finnish Defence Forces were able to evacuate almost all fallen back to their home municipalities for burial in the WWII, each churchyard has a Heroes' Grave at a prominently visible location. The ceremony of laying the wreaths of the municipality, of different NGOs, of the church and of any local military installations is one of the major ways Finns celebrate patriotic holidays.

A particularly beautiful custom relates to high school graduation: In many schools, students go, after the graduation ceremony, to the Heroes' Grave and each leave a few flowers by the graves. This is, naturally, both a tribute to those who laid down their young lives so that the high school graduates would be able to study now, and an implicit promise to do the same, if necessary. (Most of the graduating boys will actually start their conscription quite soon thereafter, and have been already issued their orders, so the issue is not just theatrics.)

I think I'll change my will. I want my body deposited in the middle of the night on the front steps of Trump's Washington DC, hotel.

It's a public service to mess (not the word I'd use in conversation) with his business.

I better get on my bike then, maybe I'll found a film club or something ...

Brompton Cemetery would also be nice, but the cruising might lead to some awkward encounters.

Thanks Hartmut, though I studied philosophy, I was too lazy to learn Greek, which is why I only ever gained a shallow understanding of Aristotle and Heidegger - or so I was told, shame really.

Let me assure you that Heidegger is incomprehensible even to German native speakers ;-)
Seriously, I got into an argument last year about reading Cicero in Latin class at school. I argued that the kids would have trouble understanding ol' Marcus Tullius even in translation, so one should not be surprised that they find it difficult to translate him based on understanding (as opposed to pure grammatical analysis). I used a random page from Heidegger's 'Sein und Zeit' containing not a single foreign/loan word, asking whether this would be suitable e.g. to teach German to English kids.
Btw, it would be impossible to translate it into classical Latin due to a weakness in said language that Cicero himself was well aware of but was unable to fix. There were things he could express only in Greek and occasionally had to insert it into his philosophical texts that way. It was the much maligned medieval Latin that found the fix.

My wife and I decided on cremation long ago. We're not sure what we want done with our ashes, although one idea we've toyed with is placing our urns in a granite or marble bench overlooking either my parents' graves (in Florida) or my in-laws' graves (in Texas).

My ancestors generally moved west with the American frontier. TTBOMK, the only places where there are more than one generation interred involve infant deaths. My wife's family isn't as extreme, but she moved away from the small town with their family plot when she was 18 and has only one living relative still there. As of now, I'm planning on making donations to get bricks engraved with my name and my wife's installed at all of the schools where we got our degrees -- all of them have either walls or walkways for such, with a guarantee that they'll be replaced if there's excessive weathering. We've agreed that the bodies go to the local med school, and disposing of the ashes is our kids' problem.

I need to start writing, well, not memoirs exactly, but the stories that I would tell grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the event I don't live long enough. A digital version, of course, but also a bound book, pigment-based ink on acid-free paper.

Lots of echoes here, but I'm sidetracked by unexpected minor crises at the moment. I just wanted to note something Lurker wrote: This is, naturally, both a tribute to those who laid down their young lives so that the high school graduates would be able to study now, and an implicit promise to do the same, if necessary.

My maternal grandfather died in 1925 at the age of 35, in part (probably) from the long after-effects of having been gassed twice in WW I. As a rational matter I know he was young when he died (though not as young as millions who died during the war itself). But ... he was my grandfather. Grandfathers are old. (This is the child's POV, at least.)

Sometimes it's just hard to wrap my mind around this stuff.


Also, Michael Cain said, I need to start writing, well, not memoirs exactly, but the stories that I would tell grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I'd like to do this too, but I keep procrastinating. It's like I don't know which thread to pull first.

JanieM: How would you feel about being buried far from “home” – whatever home means to you? I’m thinking of the World War I dead in France and Belgium, or the ANZAC soldiers buried at Gallipoli

You remind me of this, which I'll take any opportunity to quote. It's attributed (probably wrongly) to Kemal Atatürk, commander at Gallipoli and later President of Turkey:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours ... You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Michael, Janie, one thing that my cousins did was tape record interviews with family members. If you can get them with a tape recorder and some old picture albums and have them ask you questions, you can often get a lot of information that you probably would have forgotten.

JanieM, not knowing which thread to pull first is a perfect and original way to put it. I won't forget it.

Shane, that "possibly Ataturk" quote is extremely beautiful, and expresses exactly how I wish, in an ideal world (albeit one where there was still war!), these things could always be regarded. Thank you.

How would you feel about being buried far from “home” – whatever home means to you?

My personal feeling is that were I am buried, or where my ashes are scattered, would matter far more to my surviving relatives (and friends?). Whether because the burial ceremony, or scattering the ashes, is part of saying good-bye or for some other reason.

Personally, I have no feelings on the subject. And that even though I have rather strong feelings about what constitutes "home".

The first time I saw the ashes of a deceased person, wht I felt was outrage. HOe could a person be reduced to ashes? Actually the very first time I felt this was when my cat died. I had nightmares for months afterwards, narratives about trying to rescue Jimmy. In one dream I was flying with him in my arms. He was alive but something pulled him down down and he vanished. I have trouble accepting tht death happens at all. It just seems outrageous to me, no matter who it is that died.

I donlt think much about wher ethe ashes are but when I do I get a pang over the ones that were buried at a home now sold and owned by someone unconnected with the dead. My mothers ashes are in the garden of her home, but it is not her home anymore Someone else owns it. I wish now we had left he ashes somewhere else even thogh no place comes to mind.

The leaving of my ashes is not important to me. I think the choice is one tha tmaybe more important to the survivors than the dead person.

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