The Milestone Birthday: An Essay On Pondering Our Place

Dec 15, 2015

I don’t mind turning fifty, really I don’t.  I suppose after you lose your hair at thirty, aging just becomes an abstraction:  I can’t really go gray after all, and I’m too blind to see my wrinkles, so no big deal, right? 

That said, I have noticed a trend I’m not so crazy about, this one where people I know and love, people my age, get sick.  And they don’t get better.  That’s not so good.  I’m not so crazy about that

Perhaps consequently, more and more often as my friends and I gather, the conversation turns to the whole question of what happens after we die.  Burial?  Cremation?  Buried where?  Are our ashes scattered? Or do we sit on the mantle all day, waiting for the cat to knock us over? 

There are some people for whom none of this is a problem.  My wife for instance:  “Cremate me,” she says.  “I won’t care.  I’ll be dead.”

“But,” I say, “won’t you want us to come visit you?  Wouldn’t you like a gravestone we could leave flowers by?”

“No,” she says.  “I’ll be dead.”

“Well, I’d like to be buried somewhere where people could visit me,” I say.  “Otherwise, you know, I think I’d feel sad.” 

“You won’t,” she says.  “Because you’ll be dead.”

I have other friends who are very specific about their plans:  one would like to be eaten by a bear.  Another wants to be eaten by wolves.  These two people do not know each other, leading me to believe that either this sort of post-mortem devouring fantasy is fairly common, or that I need to be more selective when choosing my friends. 

It’s worth noting that this question of what to do with the remains is becoming increasingly complicated for everyone.  Cemeteries are filling up.  Cremation is bad for the ozone.  In India, members of the Parsi community are facing an alarming reduction in the number of vultures, causing them to seek alternatives to their long-held practices.  In some Jewish communities, the tradition of burying the body within twenty-four hours is bending to accommodate out-of-town mourners.  Some are even resorting to cremation, a practice forbidden for thousands of years.

Meanwhile, I still have no idea what I want.  Maybe a plain wooden box that would deteriorate, leaving my body to decay in the soil?  Maybe cremation, with my ashes scattered at three or four or nine of my favorite places?  I mean, what good is dying if you can’t annoy the crap out of your family by making them traipse all over the globe with zip-locks full of your remains? 

All of this finally takes me back to my grandmother Evelyn, my mom’s mom, who died a decade ago.  A quiet woman with a low tolerance for nonsense, she buried two husbands and a son before choosing to pass away on her own terms at the age of ninety-four.   She was laid to rest on a hot August afternoon in a country cemetery up north.  As we gathered around her grave for one last hymn, a big man in overalls and a white-collared shirt stepped into the lane just up the road.  His back turned, he kept a eye on us, one on the tarmac.  Should a vehicle approach, he would hold it off, keep it from interrupting the burial of this one woman, this one old woman who was loved by so many for so long.  She would have her time, this woman.  The cars would be stilled, the fields would be silent, the world would be hushed for just one moment, out of respect for her. 

So maybe that’s what I want:  for traffic to halt, for a half-minute of calm, for thirty seconds of quietude.  For the planet to stop, just for an instant, just a small moment to acknowledge my absence.  That will do.  That’s what I want.

But finally?  I’m guessing that’s all that anybody wants.    

You can find out about some of Paul Hanstedt's writing projects on his website, here.