Sunday, June 10, 2012
At first I titled this “death wishes”, but that’s so morbid and I didn’t want to drive the readers away. However, one has to deal with the matter from time to time. It’s on my mind because I heard Katja talking long distance to our son J the night before her knee surgery, and she was giving him instructions on how to dispose of her earthly remains. She no longer discusses it with me because she doesn’t trust me to carry out her wishes. It turns out we have completely different ideas about post-life arrangements. We discovered this when J turned two. Conscious of our new parental responsibilities, we decided that we’d better have a will in case we perished together in a plane crash. The lawyer was very thorough and asked us many questions, including one about organ donation. Katja wanted to donate all of her bodily organs, and she instructed the lawyer to write this into our will. I said that would be o.k. for me too. Then the lawyer said that, because we were organ donors, we would of course want our bodies to be cremated. Katja completely balked at this idea, apparently because cremation is forbidden in traditional Jewish beliefs. The lawyer explained that cremation was normally done because organ donation involves cutting large holes in one’s body. Katja said that didn’t matter to her, that she planned to be buried in a casket whatever her physical condition. Then the lawyer explained that they would gouge out her eyes, leaving unattractive cavities in the center of her face. Katja said she didn’t care, she wanted what she wanted. The lawyer wound up incorporating both organ donation and full-body caskets into our will, though he frowned and shook his head as he wrote it down.
The cremation option has cropped up every now and then during the forty years since. During this time everybody in Katja’s family line has had an open casket funeral, followed by interment of their corpses in a cemetery plot. In my family everybody who has passed away has been cremated, with their ashes and bone fragments scattered in special places. My family’s commitment to cremation is mostly due to my father who resented the idea of giving lots of money to the funeral industry and who had a pragmatic, even nihilistic attitude toward death. Something like, when you stop breathing, that’s it, and you might as well get rid of the leftover stuff as quickly as possible. All of his children adopted his mindset and preferences. Because Katja and I misplaced our original will from 1971 some time ago, our body disposal choices are no longer set in stone. Since she’s made most of the major decisions in our lives, the best bet is that she’ll be the primary decision-maker about deathly matters as well. Corpses, of course, no longer know what’s going on, so maybe it doesn’t matter.
Lately we’ve moved beyond the cremation issue and started quibbling about burial plans. Several times Katja has expressed her desire that we be buried in the old Jewish Cemetery up the street from our house. Maybe there’s a Jewish law that says that couples should be buried in the cemetery of the wife’s religion, though I’ve never heard of this. I think it probably goes deeper than that. We haven’t practiced any sort of religion since we got married. It could be that Katja is thinking that, since she wasn’t a devout Jew in adulthood, her last chance is to be a devout dead person. I personally am not worried about religion after death and would just like to have my ashes scattered along the hiking trail in Miami Whitewater Forest. If I did get buried in a cemetery, I think I would probably like to join Katja’s parents at Spring Grove since it’s one of the more attractive and ecumenical cemeteries in the Midwest. Of course, if I were to last the longest, I could take Katja along on a hike and put her ashes to rest on the Miami Whitewater Forest trail too. I am not going to tell her about this possiblity in advance because it would definitely get vetoed (and I would probably be punched out as well).
-Terry O-S (6-20): Hi David - I'm spending most of the summer with a friend in Ocean City, NJ where I have less than satisfactory internet access and have not been able to stay abreast of Letters for George. I'm home this week and have been thoroughly enjoying catching up on your ever-delightful blog! Hope Katja's knee is now fully recovered. And - I have requested that my ashes be spread on the Bay at Henes Park (although I'm beginning to think that may be a burden since, sadly, my children really have no reason to go to Menominee.) Enjoy your summer! Terry
-Mary B (6-12): Another possibility to consider -- I've opted for a conservation burial, my body in a biodegradable shroud, with a bush or tree planted to mark the spot. That satisfies my son, who wants a grave site to visit, as well as my wish -- very much like your father's -- to not further fatten the coffers of the funeral industry (and further pollute the earth with costly and intrusive caskets).