Did someone say

A question was posed to me on Twitter over the weekend that touched on a similar topic discussed on a podcast I listened to earlier this week. Both compelled me to take another look at a couple of popular green funeral products and their validity. The two products that were brought up in these conversations were the Capsula Mundi pod and the Mushroom Burial Suit. The claim on both Twitter and the podcast was that our bodies will harm the earth if put in the dirt by themselves (“raw” as someone put it, which has a familiar ring to it...)

My assumption is that they think this because of the chemicals we harbor from medicines, cosmetics, GMo foods, diseases, implants, etc. That’s not an illogical conclusion but it is largely unsubstantiated. Soil science shows that any chemicals buried with us are broken down by the microbes in the soil and rendered harmless.

An article published in The Guardian in 2015 examined several forensics studies on the effects of decay from Sam Houston State University, Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science facility, Alabama State University and a 2012 study that looked at the body decomposition effect on soil chemistry. The article concluded that:

"Initially, some of the underlying and surrounding vegetation dies off, possibly because of nitrogen toxicity, or because of antibiotics found in the body, which are secreted by insect larvae as they feed on the flesh.

Ultimately, though, decomposition is beneficial for the ecosystem – the microbial biomass within the cadaver decomposition island is greater than in other nearby areas; nematode worms also become more abundant, and plant life more diverse."

Decomposition is nature’s job and it performs it quite well. Are we more poisonous than we were 50, 100 years ago? Probably, but I am not sure that means we are a threat to the earth. I don’t think we’d be thriving if we carried that around in us. Regardless, everything I read expressed a need for more research to be done. Hopefully, it will be!

When it comes to the products, the claim is that they can enhance this decomposition either by removing the harmful toxins we bury with us (Mushroom Suit) or making it more aesthetically pleasing (Capsula Mundi). As of today, more information is needed.

Even so, while I am an advocate of truly natural burial - no embalming or caskets - I do see the value both of these products have. One is that most cemeteries have a regulation that requires an ‘outer burial container’ ie. a casket. Both of these are environmentally safe products that satisfy that rule. The other is that they serve as a catalyst for getting people a step closer to planning a more sustainable funeral. At this stage in capitalism, we emote through our consumption. If beautifully designed, well-thought out burial products get you to talk about green burial, so be it.

Notices from the weekend

  • We were supposed to participate in a lake & trail clean up on Saturday but it was cancelled because the lake is 147% full and the trails are flooded.

  • We went to the yearly symposium for a local non-profit that works for justice and unity among the black community in Austin. The exec. dir. implored all in attendance to use whatever privilege we had to help others who were being oppressed. He stood at the pulpit in a neighborhood church and said the churches needed to start speaking the truth as well. He then identified himself as cis/male and said because of this he needed to help the brothers ‘not like him.’

  • We were approached after the event by someone interested in creating a stronger DIY community in Austin. They said they were striving to be independent of the identity politics that weighed down the current efforts. They identified themselves as multi-racial and open to supporting all types of artists purely for their art, not their identities. A text between mutual friends we had with them later revealed incorrect pronouns were used to identify them.

  • I read a small article in our Community Impact newspaper about how Convict Hill got its name. Convicts worked on construction projects in that neighborhood. They were approved to build the capitol dome in order to ‘cut costs.’ I showed the picture accompanying the article of several convicts to my partner, who remarked they all looked like him.

  • The weather was so nice on Sunday I read outside twice and we both walked around the backyard, which we haven’t really done since we moved in.

  • It was raining again today. When I got up, I saw an early alert telling me to boil all my water before using it and conserve it as much as possible due to the rapidly depleting reservoir of clean water. In between boiling and pouring, I read the articles describing this administration’s attempts to narrowly define gender. It was the first day of early voting and lines in some places around town were 2 hours long. My friends gleefully posted photos of Beto stickers lining the parking lots, a signal that meant virtually nothing.

Calling your local crematory

I always encourage families to do their research and call around to local funeral homes to get prices, info, etc. in order to be prepared, but it can’t be understated how intimidating it can be.

It is still awkward for me and I’m a funeral director!

Since calling a funeral home is the first step I suggested taking in my post about reducing your carbon footprint during cremation, I tried this today myself. I called my closest funeral home (corporate owned) and surprise, surprise, they showed apprehension about why someone would be calling about this. But I pressed on and got some pretty good info. Their retort was installed in 2012, they do about 4-5 cremations a day and are inspected about two times a year, once by the state and once by a preventative maintenance group from the equipment company. They don’t purchase carbon offsets.

To help others who want to try this, I came up with a brief script to use when calling funeral homes about their crematories. I based my questions off of the FCA’s suggested questions for seeking out ethical crematories, focusing on asking the questions you will need to determine what their carbon output is.

Hello!

My name is --- and I am doing some personal research on cremations and energy usage. I was calling about the equipment your facility uses to perform cremations. [Confirm they are the best person to speak to about this]

My questions are:

  • How many cremation ovens does your facility have?

  • Do you know how old that equipment is-or when it was installed?

  • How often does your facility perform cremations?

    • If daily: How many cremations per day do you do?

  • How often does your cremation oven get inspected and who completes the inspection?

  • Does your facility offer the purchase of carbon offsets for families who chose cremation?

Thank you very much for your time!

Good luck- I’d love to hear what y’all find out

One way of dealing with it

“The solution is, first of all, to live in the city unless your work - that is, your economy - takes you elsewhere, and to learn to “do” nature there. The solution is also to learn to deal with the ambiguities of our relationship with nature through the exercise of the imagination, carried out in community and in the context of ritual and the arts.” - William R. Jordan III, The Sunflower Forest

climate change and cremation

I intend to write a much more thorough piece about this later but here are some quick thoughts on the recent climate change report and the inevitable cremation we will all experience.

Most people in this country are going to be cremated when they die. For decades now it has been presented as the logical way to fight back against the sins of the funeral industry, their bloated service fees and environmentally harmful practices. Cremation is just easier, right? It saves time, space and money, plus we’re so dispersed that no one is around to come to our funeral anyway.

The not-so-secret secret is that cremation is definitely not environmentally-friendly and will ultimately cost us in the long run if we don’t change our ways or stop choosing it completely. Since many people believe we are going to run out of land if we keep burying people, this is not likely to happen but I’ll get that later.

Regarding cremation, burning a retort (oven) uses enough energy to power a 500+ mile road trip. It emits carbon dioxide, among other chemicals, into the atmosphere and the resulting ashes are inorganic material with a high PH that can actually damage the soil where you spread them. But, you will probably be dealing with a cremation in the future so let's look at what you can do to reduce your footprint right now:

  • Choose the crematory closest to you that has the newest equipment. The newer retorts are going to be subjected to strictest emissions regulations - for whatever that is worth!

  • Buy carbon offsets yourself or find a funeral home the purchases these for every cremation. See if you can purchase additional offsets for the cost of the drive over there and for the courier who drives to get cremation permits.
    A word about offsets: I know there are a lot of scammy offset programs and the whole cap & trade idea they are born out of feels likes helping the rich profit off of climate control, but there is some (small) evidence that they are helpful. Do your research and purchase from groups with proven results (full disclosure: my friend who owns a funeral home uses this group).

  • Don’t buy funeral products that insist they are going to make a tree out of the ashes. For one thing, the tree doesn’t grow from the ashes because they basically turn to cement when they get wet. Second, the product was most likely shipped, or needs to be shipped, to you creating more of a carbon footprint. Instead, read this soothing gardening forum about how you can bury ashes in a meaningful way yourself.

On the topic of land. Land use and management, already a big issue, is going to become an even more urgent issue in the next...12 years. To that end, traditional cemeteries are definitely not a sustainable option and have never been. Aside from their well-documented pollution, one body, one grave is a uniquely American notion. Other countries that have much less land have practiced sharing grave space, renting graves and have been leading the green burial movement for decades. Green burial has started to make an impact in this country but funeral and cemetery laws differ from state to state and have made it difficult to dedicate space for this.

In short, (like, very short) green burial is legal in all states. At its most useful, green burial can restore a landscape and protect it from further harmful industrialization while sustaining the wildlife that thrives there. While reforestation is the best carbon filter, prairies and meadows can make a substantial difference in removing toxins from the atmosphere.

Start asking local environmental organizations you support if they would consider stewarding land that could be used as a green burial ground which could also act as reserve for endangered wildlife and plants. Start advocating locally that your city cemeteries allow for green burial space.

I am working on a couple projects like this in Texas and if you would like to get involved or you have land available, get in touch.

At the very least, keep an open mind about what death and funeral rituals should look like because truly, they need to change.

I can see now what stops me from going further

Yesterday, when I returned home from Boston, my boyfriend picked me up and we drove to get smoothies as small treat to ourselves. Somewhere during the ride I realized I haven't taken a drink or done drugs in four years. I think it came about because he mentioned one of his friends had been drunk over the weekend and I remembered that I used to do that and then remembered that I stopped finally, thankfully, one day and that day - holy shit - was this day.

The last time I went to Boston I was 18, maybe 19. I was with my family and we were so excited that my brother and I were close enough to legal drinking age that we all drank together in the hotel room and pubs where they were loose with the rules. I was enchanted by New England, by the Puritan graveyards and Salem witch museums. I took pictures of all of that stuff, with statues of Nathaniel Hawthorne and pirates outside of liquor stores. I knew I wanted to be a funeral director and was trying my best to be into the signifiers of the trade: history, cemeteries, booze. I am sitting here unable to recall much more about that trip except for stumbling through Harvard Square buzzed up, then falling asleep on the train to the airport where it was discovered I had lost my wallet somewhere en route. My mom tells me I almost did not board the plane. It all just seems like a nondescript, basic ass vacation. What I honestly remember most is that my parents let me drink underage and I was ecstatic about it.

This past weekend Boston was different in many ways, notably that I remember all of it and that I was a knot of anxiety as soon as I arrived because a long-ago feeling had been revived to a fever pitch, a feeling of insignificance and rage that started during my layover in Philadelphia where I had begun watching Dr Blasey-Ford’s statements. When I arrived in Boston I settled in for Kavanaugh’s questioning. It was gruesome. I stopped before it was over because my head had begun to throb with despair and I went to bed. It still hurt the next day.

The event I was in Boston for was held at Mt Auburn Cemetery, America’s first garden cemetery and home to a century’s worth of historical figures. Its expansive, undulating sections provided a serene space to wander through and be alone or to lay on its soft grass and chat with an old friend. It is a place for the dead so well cared for it that even though smoking was allowed, no one felt comfortable doing it. I learned about those Puritan headstones I took pictures of the last time I was there, the death head with wings that slowly over time transitioned into the face of a Puritan, representing the belief that fate was no longer predestined but in fact one we could control.

I thought about what was happening in DC, what had happened to me, what had happened to every woman I know and looked again at the cemetery, where the solid tombs of men whose imprint is so deep on this nation they may as well still be alive. The thick green ivy flapped like dollars against the cold granite.

The neighborhood I stayed in was full of the flavor that comforted me when I was still a working funeral director. Neighborhood pubs where waitresses served delicious food with thick accents. Funeral homes with family names on them that looked like actual homes. Canadian-American clubhouses. Armenian-American clubhouses. A large body of water nearby.

The event continued on throughout the weekend. I learned about the other Mt. Auburn, the one in Baltimore which is home to many Civil Rights advocates. At one time it was a wealth-building factor in the Black community but is now struggling against the same systemic injustices it faced back then as it tries to come up with the money it needs to create a preservation trust. I heard the man who handled the body of the Boston bomber lament the state for turning its back on the certain criminals while it chooses to laud others. I discussed how we as women who work in alternative practices can value ourselves and our work enough to ask for the money we know we deserve. I grew closer to some people I have known for a few years but don’t see often and discovered that everyone feels hurt from social media.

Walking through the neighborhood to get to Mt Auburn I saw a sign at a bus stop that said “Summer fun is hard to come by when all you can think about is” the final part covered by a sticker that said “where are all the black people?”  I told this to two women at the event, both POC who had shared with me they were sick of being stared at in Boston, were ready to go home. I walked back by the bus stop two hours later and the word “black” had been scratched out and in pen the words “white white” written across it.

On the last night I spent there, I went with friends I’ve known the longest to Olmsted Park to see Fujika Nakaya’s Fog x FLO sculptures. Nakaya has been working with fog for decades, having been obsessed with decay and decomposition, searching for ways to express our disappearance into the elements on a larger scale. When we arrived the park was clear, except for a crowd gathering to witness the coming cloud. Soon, from an embankment in the middle of the pond, plumes of fog began to tumble out of a hose-like device. We waited at the edge of the pond as it reached us, pulling out our phones in an attempt to document the impermanent art. The pictures made it look like any other foggy morning, or evening, or day when you ignore what obscures your vision in order to just keep moving. My experience was that I hoped it would cover me completely but it just floated softly around my body. Within minutes, it quickly evaporated into a fogless evening as though nothing had happened. But I remember what it was like, the excitement for the approaching haze, the shallow disappointment with the documentation, the relief that it was lifted by some magical element and that it gave way to a clear, if dark, space.

My first green burial workshop

I am presenting a workshop on establishing green burial space in Texas at A Natural Undertaking ATX in August. It's going to be a day full of everything you need to know about alternative death care, something I have dedicated my career in funeral service to.

Conservation burial practices and caring for our dead go together surprising well in Texas. Our laws are less strict about industry involvement, land is available for this use and well, there is a lot of it. Even for people who are just curious about green burial, who want to know if it is the right choice for themselves or their loved ones can benefit from learning about what goes into creating a space to bury the dead naturally. If we understand the full concept, we can more fully embrace the practice.

I'll be hosting alongside two other women in the Austin alternative death community who will be presenting on home funerals and death doula work. Visit our website for more details.

A Natural Undertaking ATX Workshop
August 26, 2018
10AM-6PM
Casa de Luz

Playing house

Right as Hwy 183 splits off towards Airport Blvd and 7th street, I looked at my phone and saw that Pump Project had started a live video of the artist talk I was on my way to. I knew I would be late but admittedly I did not think it would start on time, which is what kept me from turning around at several points in my drive over. I could have watched it at home, the live feed suggested, but I was already so close that I refocused my effort and put my eyes back on the road.

Arriving as the two artists, Tsz and Nat AKA Big Chicken and Baby Bird, were answering questions about their show The Door by The Garden, I couldn’t help but feel bad about my tardiness. Punctuality, when enforced, looks like evidence of good home training and I hated to think I was without it even among the most casual crowd.

Home training, that domestic sense that seems to be either completely missing or fully exploited with rare exception at events these days was partly the focus of their collaborative work which featured huge paintings on vinyl panels, smaller paintings on paper, furry wall hangings and plaster floor sculptures of headless creatures in various states of home life.

Many of the paintings featured a vessel-type creature that looked like a macaroni noodle, that most basic pantry item that has sustained millions with it’s cheap and easy prep. Along with it's familiarity, the creature played on our sense of direction. Even with the addition of legs, it wasn't always clear which end was the head and which was the ass. When it appeared to move forward, or have liquid sliding through it, you could just as easily imagine the motion happening in reverse.

In some scenes the noodle-being lounged in a pool, depicted on a platform not unlike the Barbie dream house toys where the sides of the structure are exposed to show the layers built into this play of luxury. In other scenes, it had legs and crawled hungrily around a pond of brightly colored nutrient that other macaroni creatures where feasting, or spewing, on.

The furry pelts that hung on the wall were cotton-candy colored tapestries alluding to the skin that might have once covered the black, headless dog sculpture-a focal point of the show. The removal of a skin and its subsequent display was a nod towards value and even costume, I felt, as I listened to the artists talk about the exploration of their identity as femme presenting women and their place within the domestic system. The dog was titled Won Coi, a Chinese term for abundance as well as a very common pet name in the country, cleverly exposing an obsession with attracting wealth as a sort of pet project.

The Mattel-like color palette of vibrant  pinks, purples, mint and yellows were enhanced by the many deep blue sections of the paintings and sculpture which the artists pointed out was influenced by the ‘blue screen of death’, the dead computer screen so many of this generation grew up understanding meant shit had gone terribly wrong. Like Ikea toys meant for kids who don’t have the space but want to play house, you can store your fantasies in an area the size of a computer chip but there is no telling when and in what form they’ll come out as.

 

Slanted

Each night at Enchanted Rock we were surrounded by coyotes, storms, and gun fire however the sky above us remained clear, full of stars and little more than wind blew into our campsite. Coming back to Austin feels like we're now in the middle of what was off in the distance, with the latest bombing occurring a mile from where we picked up food last night. I didn’t have cell service or even battery life over the last three days to do little more then send a quick text back to Austin to say “I’m out here, love you” and I thrived in the remoteness of the park. My brother and I climbed up and down the sides of the immense granite domes, sat for hours on top of boulders that gave us a view of all the stolen land along which a line of cars full of desperate visitors sat waiting to get a chance to see the world as we saw it.

Most days we walked silently along the quartz-lined pathways, watching the sea foam colored grass blow in the hot wind. A tree behind our tent hummed all day as swarms of bees pollinated it’s blossoms. The energy from the rock was so stimulating that even though I hiked for miles each day, sometimes with 20 lbs or more of water and gear on me, I had trouble falling asleep. My dreams were short. I was awake for the most part.

For the most part is too little I realized after we got back and had eaten and played Rocksmith and watched weird Twitch clips when the alert came telling us to stay indoors because two young men were injured by another explosion in our area. Suddenly, the two ambulances and fire truck that passed us on the way home had a destination. The next few hours tried to compensate for the most part, of anything suspicious we’d noticed or conjecture on who was behind this. I sent a text to a friend who lived a half a mile from the explosion. I woke up to news that this may be a more sophisticated attack then they once thought.

At one point during a hike in the park, I tried to sit on a rock that a rattlesnake was lying under. I quickly backed off once my brother alerted me to it. We watched for several minutes as the diamondback slowly coiled itself into a tight heap in the corner. We went back the next day to see if it was still there. It was gone, but the nightmare of the bite and the crisis that would have unraveled lingered in our minds for the rest of the trip, still now that we're home.

 

death: a simulation

I arrived at Casa De Luz in the light rain of yesterday afternoon. The courtyard was covered in ivy, ferns, bamboo and stone. Birds chirped and a breeze blew through the space. I went inside the auditorium and found a small table set with a memorial pamphlet with my picture on it. My birth and death date (yesterday’s date) were beneath it. An empty sheet of paper was beside it. Both were illuminated by a small, flickering candle. A group of people began to filter in and sit in front of their pictures. We were all silent.

We were there for a Living Funeral ceremony lead by Emily Cross of Steady Waves End of Life, an Austin-based death Doula service. Typically I am very suspicious of staged emotional events, but I’ve gotten to know Emily and hearing about her experience becoming a Doula intrigued me. I’ve also felt more open to exploring the emotional side of death to deepen my understanding of final rituals.

To begin, Emily guided us through a meditation that focused on looking at ourselves in the picture and letting go of that image. On the empty page, we wrote our final goodbyes. I wrote a full page. I wasn’t as emotional as I anticipated. The room was now fully dark, our flickering lights all that moved.

When we were finished, Emily announced that she would be collecting our words and giving them to another participant to read. Before I had time to fully process what that meant, she handed me a flashlight and a woman’s handwritten goodbyes. I looked at the picture of the woman and the words she had written. I tried to begin, but I was speechless. I had to pause several times before I could finally proceed. I knew the woman was somewhere in the darkness listening. I had no idea who the people were that she was saying goodbye to, forgiving, telling them she loved them. I felt like a cosmic messenger, reluctant and humbled by this task.

Some people expressed regret at having wasted time, others reached out to those who already died, hoping they would be with them again. They left instruction on what to do with their belongings and how to take care of their beloved pets. I found I had trouble contextualizing what was happening, it was unlike the thousand funerals I have been to before in that is was so intensely about the present moment.

As I listened to my own words be read, I felt less judgemental about them than I usually am. However, I wished I had written more specifically about what I was doing right now. How I’ve been reading the blog of a classmate who recently became a widow and learning so much about grief and expression from her. How I was anxious about meeting a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. How one of the tabs open on my phone is literally to the dictionary entry for pathetic. Writing as though the next moment is death is very liberating. I felt detached, but compassionate toward myself. I was grateful for the darkness I sat in.

Finally, we laid down and were covered with a shroud, an eye cover and a single stem flower placed atop us. Emily guided us into a space of selflessness and then back into life.

“I hope you have a lot of fun tonight, because you’re alive,” she said before we departed. I left to go meet up with my friends, including the one I hadn’t seen in awhile. I gave her the flower that had been placed across my body. She asked if it was a funeral flower and when I told her it was we both began to laugh. When I told her it was from my own funeral it somehow seemed even more funny. We passed the flower between us for the rest of the night, opening up about various moments of despair and elation we’d recently experienced. There were moments of silence during which we just looked at each other.

“You all look the same,” my friend remarked, as though the passage of time should appear more evident. I realized I hadn’t looked at myself since I saw my picture on the memorial pamphlet. I actually couldn’t form an image of myself in my head at all. I laughed again, this time with the great relief of knowing I could just be that.

Look for the flower arrangement

This paper jam article in the New Yorker hits on several topics I have been immersed in lately: the limits of technology, pleasure in work, problem identification and...flower arrangements, even symbolic ones. I am not surprised that it is a popular article this week; it's endearing to read about engineers who clearly love their job of redesigning Xerox machines that ultimately succumb to the paper jam. This 'problem' has always existed and because of the unpredictability in air flow behavior, it likely always will. No amount of engineering prowess or tech innovation applied to it has made it go away. However, there seems to be an acknowledged frivolity in the fact that we can just print copies on demand. The workers profiled in the story delighted in creating temporary solutions. More than being entertained or enlightened while reading, I felt jealous of this detail. If  you read enough literature on flow-state mentality or even skim worker psychology articles, you'll understand what I mean. What some people wouldn't give to have an unending problem to solve.

Flowers in private

To my knowledge, there is only one book that closely examines De Stijl artist Piet Mondrian’s largely unknowable collection of naturalistic flower paintings. Mondrian painted these at the beginning of the 20th century until the late 1920’s, mostly for money and mostly, as the author notes many times, under the guise of indifference.

Done in watercolor and ink, the works are heavy with mood and desire, if not a bit romantic in their overall existence. The book, aptly titled “Mondrian: Flowers” by David Shapiro does what it can with very little documentation about this side project of Mondrian’s. When considering the flowers in relation to the abstract line paintings that took him all the way to the top, it’s understandable why Mondrian refrained from discussing them in a meaningful way. They would have taken over the conversation with their unreal beauty, a concept Mondrian appeared to attack in the abstract, painting black line across black line on the canvas until only the distant idea of nature was evoked. If the discussion could be contained to the boxes of solid primary color, or better yet, the absence of it, Mondrian could be free to paint what was missing and he could do it in private.

Shapiro finds proof that Mondrian continued to paint these flowers even when he wasn’t being commissioned by advertisers or publishers. Mondrian would paper the walls of his studio with these floral images to show friends and his notebooks are full of many motifs of the same single stem of chrysanthemum, a favorite of his, or a lily or a rose. They are thickly outlined and alone, deep strokes of color moving up and down behind them. Rarely did he paint bouquets or arrangements. The bloom is isolated, itself a study in symbolism and the symmetry that appears in nature without mans intervention. It is also appears deranged. There is an unspeakable gloom in even the brightest burst of flora, as though Mondrian can’t forget that death is creeping up the stem. In one study of a sunflower the petals feather forward, the stem droops over heavy with age and the gigantic blossom center appears as a downcast eye. This private exploration of decay clearly struggles against the sterile block paintings occurring simultaneously and much more publicly.

Spirituality was on Mondrian’s mind, as his involvement in theosophy is well documented, and Shapiro finds these flowers to have been an extension of his spiritual practice. He writes that this “symbolism provided him with a spiritual refuge from an obsession with mere facts of vision that permitted him to engulf cubism without engulfing himself.”

It is likely that if Mondrian had tried to become a serious painter of nature, he would not have had much success pushing the form forward. The work is something of a lesser Van Gogh and lacking imagination. However, it's important to recognize that Mondrian probably knew this as well, yet didn’t care. Here he was painting for himself, despite what he told others, and extracting meaning from it that he could apply elsewhere, onto a style that was lacking it. He was able to transfer the task we typically place on flowers to express our emotions and give us pleasure onto panels of blunt abstraction. Like the timeless quality of flowers, Mondrian’s influence endures to this day.

 

In all caps

I spent about an hour yesterday attempting to locate an email from a friend that contained a compliment to me, given by one of their friends regarding some writing I had done. When I could not find it, I checked my DMs and the texts on my old phone to see if it had actually been sent there. It was in none of those places, leaving me to believe I either deleted it or dreamed it. The mental state I was in yesterday (fragile) occurs with enough regularity that I can't imagine I would have deleted such a valuable message. The people involved in it create work I very much admire and if I am to believe I was in an emotional place at some point in the past where their acknowledgement didn't mean enough to me to keep the container it was sent in, then I guess I will have to settle with believing I fantasized the whole thing.

I did however come across a message I had written to this friend asking for their address so I could send them a gift. I could not for the life of me remember what I sent them when I read their response saying how much they loved it. 

 

Some indication

In a rather tossed-off moment last week, Greta observed that I did not really care about gravestones when she mention that there were several cemeteries along Highway 71 just south of Fayetteville, AR that I might stop and look at. I didn't object at the time but the comment sat on me like moss and I couldn't figure out if she was right or not. In a sense, she is. For all of my enthusiasm for cemeteries as places of memory and dedication, I don't immediately seek out stone markers that to tell me about the space. I'm thinking now about the afternoon in which I drove over to see the Confederate cemetery she told about which lay in a woods near her house. I pulled up to the gate but didn't go beyond it, the white marble statues were plenty visible from the road. Right outside the gate was a family cemetery, smaller but just as walled off, inside of which large headstones with lettering sat. I could read them as I walked by them to inspect a few smaller, misaligned headstones that were planted among the leaves and branches. "Sally" was the only word on one, the others were too worn to read or had fallen face-down into their sunken lot. These were the slave graves Greta had told me about. I gently stepped around whatever stones lay on the ground, careful that my footsteps avoided going back in the direction from which I came.

The day's disgrace

Once, sitting in the back of a car that was driving along the pacific coast near the Santa Monica pier, I had a discussion with another funeral director friend of mine about what we had never seen. We’d seen a lot of traumatic death, but neither of us had seen a body hanging from a noose. We both agreed it was an image we were most uneasy with. The drama of it would almost surely bring with it the feeling that this had been a mistake. No matter how intentional the act was, the shock of it would make it seem wrong. I have been thinking about the person hanging from that tree in Japan and if they felt their life was cheap. To then be cast as the symbol of someone else's failed attempt at dark humor, their failed attempt at seriousness, at any sensitivity at all is an even more hopeless reality to wrestle with. However, if I think about what a powerful light that person’s body became in death by exposing the ugliest parts of the most hollow human, the parts that until that moment were unreachable, I am comforted once again by the power death has over all of us. It matters very little if the person being exposed (or confirmed) as a monstrous capitalist  understands that they look one million times worse than the person in the tree.
Their ignorance should not be our focus. We need to protect our dead, not be protected from them.

Cremation in India, liberation through the head

Filmmaker Sai Pramod Mohan described his first experience with cremation to me. Sai grew up in India, where cremation is a much different experience than what we have in the United States:

"My first cremation experience was at the age of 14-15 years, when my grand father passed away. He was 75 years, super healthy,  active and was living with my Grandmother and her mother in a very small spiritual town in South India. I remember my dad telling me that grandpa passed away in his sleep and we are leaving immediately with no return plans in place. By the time we reached, there were a few other relatives mourning next to my grandpa who was covered in a white shroud, his eyes closed, big toes tied together with a piece of cloth and left uncovered so people could touch them to pay their respects. The body stayed there for 2-3 days, while some of my  family members were busy with preparations for cremation and others sat next to the it. 

"On the day of cremation, grandpa was bathed, covered with turmeric, dressed in new clothes and brought to the patio of the apartment in a chair. A priest chanted hymns, and instructed my uncle-the eldest son and my dad to perform a small ritual as the other family members formed a circle around them. A wooden stretcher covered with a fresh white linen waited on the street for grandpa at the end of the ritual. 

"Once on the stretcher, four men including my dad, and uncles picked it up and the procession of men walked towards the cremation grounds as the women of the house wailed staying put on the street. There were 15-20 men in total including me and my cousins who were around my age. We enthusiastically threw petals of flowers on grandpa as the elders shouted a distinct chant that loosely translates into "There's nothing permanent in this world". By the time all the elders took turns carrying grandpa we reached the banks of the river, where an undertaker with a well framed pile of logs was waiting for us. Grandpa was moved to the top of the log pile and each of us started covering him up with more logs as the priest's chants continued. My uncle, being the eldest son had a log of fire in his hand and circled around the pyre a few times before the priest instructed him to light it up. As the flames picked up, we stood by them watching the embers form and take grandpa away slowly. Being a very restless kid, I remember asking my dad how long till we go home? The priest, who overheard it chuckled and explained that we are not supposed to leave till "Kapala Moksha"- i.e till the bursting of the skull which signifies leaving of the soul from the body. I wondered how we'd know when Grandpa's soul leaves but was fascinated enough to not ask anymore questions and just stare at the rising flames. After a few minutes, a loud thud sound reverberated through the flames. I knew that grandpa's soul had left us, as we prayed one last time before walking back home." 

An evening post

A holiday card arrived in the mail mentioning how nice it was to see a little bit of my life through my infrequent Instagram posts. A comment made during Thanksgiving expressed confusion about what I might be interested in as far as gifts go based on looking at that same feed. I did a tarot spread for myself in which judgement was the first card I drew, crossed with the nine of wands, the full weight of my desires. I'm not trying to be too reflective this year end, because I did so much of that already this year. Outwardly, I was slight and confused. Inwardly, I was working overtime. But I did the work and these last couple weeks have felt uncommonly clear.  I believe it started on the solstice, which I spent outside a tiny Texas town at a bonfire on a friends land. She moved out there when her folks died. She recently bought the town grocery store. We drove past several holiday Trail of Lights displays to get there. None were spectacular but you could still see them coming a mile off. The line of cars was longer than necessary as well. But our bonfire was bright too, even though it only attracted us and one fat cat. It was a nice display of heat in the long darkness and emitted a primal, nurturing feeling. It took several logs, two old rocking chairs and a year's worth of unopened mail from my friend to make that thing burn. My hair smelled like smoke for two days afterward, as if to remind me that nature has its own hazy attachments to people that aren't sure why they're there. 

Here's to a new year of space, protection, providing, creating, trust and rest.

 

More cremation insight

When I was in Germany over the summer, I saw many picturesque places that would have been perfect for scattering cremains. I also visited Holocaust memorials, so I wasn't sure how the country viewed cremation today. I was able to get some insight from a funeral worker from Germany:

"I don’t think people make a strong connection between cremation and the Holocaust. Maybe because the horror is more in having so many dead bodies at a time. The were hundreds of mass graves too. And we all know the pictures of that too. Hundreds of half naked, worn out bodies thrown into a huge roughly dug hole in the ground. Maybe these pictures are even more “real” than the ovens because there is no technical and abstract solution as cremation in between."

"So as long as it goes one by one everybody is fine. And there are strict laws and intelligent technical solution to make sure it’s one persons dead body at a time and nothing gets mixed up. Sometimes that causes problems too. We had already two times a case of a mother with child where the family wanted them to be buried/cremated together..."

"But because of WWll our traditions around death changed. Everybody lost so many people that they couldn’t cope with it the old way. So the whole funeral tradition was outsourced to professionals and people tried to have as little contact with death as possible." 

"Scattering ashes is not allowed in Germany. So if you stick with the official options it’s on a cemetery (grave or columbarium), the sea (in a special sea run that dissolved within 30’), under a tree (in special forest cemeteries). No ashes on the mantelpiece in Germany.
Except the city of Bremen actually. They [are] allowed to have to urn at home for up to 3 years. In general each federal state of Germany has its on legislation on how to handle bodies. That makes it a bit difficult sometimes."

Maybe tomorrow

Being left without imagination so early in the day, as I was this morning when I sat 'writing' for an hour, gave me a sense of despondency I was even less prepared to deal with. I tried writing again when I got to the office but gave up and tried just stamping documents. It was hard; I had to read numbers and put them in order quickly. I have no patience or efficiency, my work is fraught and slow. I indulged in deeply hateful thoughts about my aimless last few months.
I tried to explain to a coworker who was watching me that I lack the confidence to stamp quickly; I can't just trust that I know the correct order of numbers! She said maybe I should make it my goal to be a faster stamper.
If there is no holy ghost for all mankind then there most certainly is a small one for me, evidence here by the joke made of my present situation. I wish there was a less humiliating way to learn focus and pragmatism but I just can't think of any right now.