© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

cul de sac

culdesacWhat a few weeks it’s been.

In the midst of the hectic usual, two people my family loved died. One, my wife’s 97-year-old grandmother, was expected. The other, my stepfather — though 84 — was not.

The kids have done really well. Deep sadness, especially at bedtime, but also that lovely working-through, that profound engagement.

Great-Grandma Huey was first, and they stared into her casket with the same combination of grief and wonder I felt when my dad died. She’s clearly not there. So where is she?

The girls had been a blur of questions and commentary since her death days before, including a tangent into reincarnation. I think it was Laney who eventually connected that idea to our natural cycle — that every atom in us has been here since the beginning of time, part of planets and suns and animals and plants and people before coming together to make us. That every bit of us returns to the world to fuel the ongoing story is a gorgeous natural symmetry that never ceases to move and even console me, and my kids have long been enamored of it.

The service was personal and emotional in that Southern Baptist way, including the usual fluster of assurances that she was now in the very Presence.

After all that, I was perplexed to hear the minister read from First Thessalonians at the grave:

We believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

For an hour we’d heard about Grandma’s current seat in heaven. Now Paul tells us she will sleep in the ground until the Second Coming, only then rising to meet the Lord.

It’s the single greatest gap between common belief and actual binding scripture, and the minister had put it right out there. I looked around. No one else was listening for content.

I quietly cursed myself for never being able to do otherwise. Once in a while would be nice.

As the crowd dispersed, Delaney suddenly pointed at the casket and whispered, “What is that thing on the outside?”

I’d been wondering too. The coffin was sitting in what looked to be a solid metal outer box. As Laney spoke, the cemetery workers closed the lid (of what I’ve since learned is called a burial liner, a fairly recent innovation used in the U.S. and apparently nowhere else), cranking down hard on four handles, sealing it tight.

Erin looked at the sealed apparatus, appalled. “So much for returning to the earth,” she said. “She’s never gettin’ out of there.”

After all of our talk about the beauty of going back into the system, of being a link in an endless chain, Grandma’s atoms end up bicycling in a cul de sac until the end of time — or until the sun goes nova, I suppose. Until then, the license to dance is revoked. I think it struck us all as just…wrong.

Now all three kids want to be cremated. Laney wants to be scattered from a cliff over the ocean. I’m following other processes with interest. But one way or another, I want my atoms on a through street.

(More later.)



This was written on Friday, 22. October 2010 at 15:42 and was filed under belief and believers, critical thinking, death, extended family, My kids, Parenting, wonder. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. When I die, I want my body put in a canister and shot into low earth orbit so it comes back as a shooting star in 5-10 years or so.

    Comment: jemand – 22. October 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  2. Death sucks. I hope your next few weeks are better.

    Comment: Charles – 22. October 2010 @ 6:51 pm

  3. I’m sorry to read of your family’s recent losses, Dale. Sincere condolences to you, to your wife and to your whole family.

    Comment: niftywriter – 22. October 2010 @ 7:22 pm

  4. I’ve always been squeamish about burial, but after watching Penn and Teller’s Bullshit episode on the burial industry, including what happens to your body in that sealed box within that sealed container/liner, I’m more than squeamish — I’m appalled. Your daughter is right; she’s not coming out.

    Sorry for your losses. Hope your family is doing well.

    Comment: Flahdagal – 22. October 2010 @ 9:36 pm

  5. I want to be cremated then have my remains mixed in with some potting soil and used to pot a houseplant.

    Comment: codysmom – 23. October 2010 @ 6:21 am

  6. I’m on record with my wife to have my body donated to science. I take some consolation that my bones may someday decorate a biology classroom somewhere.

    (Ok, that’s what the will says… in actuality my wife has instructions to donate me to MAD Science! I take some consolation that my bones may be used to terrorize the local villagers! Bwahahahaha!)

    Comment: blotzphoto – 23. October 2010 @ 7:22 am

  7. You can do even better than cremation. There’s a scheme here in the UK[1] that allows you to be buried in a managed mature woodland. Coffins must be fully biodegradable, and grave sites are mapped, rather than marked.

    [1] http://www.woodlandburialparks.co.uk/About-Us.ice

    Comment: Anonymous – 23. October 2010 @ 12:20 pm

  8. You can also be buried, without embalming, with wooden casket or shroud in a natural/green/woodland memorial park/cemetery in the US. I like the idea of being buried under a tree that loved ones could sit under and enjoy the shade of my atoms.

    Comment: AmyS – 23. October 2010 @ 2:31 pm

  9. I’m sorry for your losses. My husband and I redid our wills a couple of weeks ago. Strangely, when we first did them (when I was pregnant with our first son) 4.5 years ago, I considered myself agnostic. Doing them now, I’m very comfortable with the term atheist, and reading Parenting Beyond Belief played some part in that.

    When redoing our wills (much more detailed than we’d previously done), we made our funeral wishes known, and I mentioned I wanted to be either buried without being preserved (chemicals – yuck!) or cremated, but my surviving loved ones can pick their preference. Our Jewish lawyer explained how when members of his church are buried, they are buried unpreserved in a plain pine box with holes drilled in it, to allow the soil to enter and speed the decomposition. I was familiar with the unadorned box, but I’d never heard of drilling holes before – I’m not sure if this is a universal custom? Anyway, I love it. What a beautiful way to go back to the earth, and what a contrast to this new US funeral practice. Take care.

    Comment: cdnkb – 23. October 2010 @ 9:45 pm

  10. I am very sorry for your family’s loss. We, too, have had a year of loss in our family. My children are a little younger than your children, 6 and 21 months, but it still has generated a lot of discussion within our home. When my grandmother died, we attended a large service with a preacher demanding we repent or we would never see her again. She was then buried just as your grandmother. My husband’s grandmother and father, however, were revelations. Their “service” was held on the top of a mountain on family owned property. The cremated ashes were buried under a tree that we all felt exemplified each personality. We all took turns as a family telling stories about them, singing songs they enjoyed, or reading poems or pieces of literature that were important to them while other family members took turns planting the tree over the ashes. There is a park-like sitting area there, and anyone in the family who wants can be buried there. Seeing the difference in each service, and FEELING the difference, it really impacted my son.

    Comment: msraborn – 23. October 2010 @ 9:51 pm

  11. Dear Dale,

    I’m very sorry to hear about your losses. My condolences to you and your wife and children. My grandfather died a few weeks ago, and I understand when you say this is a difficult time.

    Ahem. Since I’m writing this, can I take the opportunity to say that I love your blog, and find you an inspiration for me in being an atheist who talks to Christians, a teacher and a future father?

    Best wishes, Korou.

    Comment: Korou – 24. October 2010 @ 12:41 am

  12. My heart goes out to your family, and I hope that as the days go by, you all find comfort through old stories, visits with friends, and family traditions.

    As I was reading about the cycle of life and everything going back to the earth, my cynical thought was that modern burial practices will thwart that. When my grandfather died a few years ago, my oldest son and I talked a lot about decomposition. Our family composts a lot of kitchen waste and his understanding of composting helped him to understand death and decay. At some point, he talked about being happy that “T-Pop” was helping flowers to grow. I felt bummed that in actuality, T-Pop’s body won’t get much of a chance to return to the earth. I wondered if I were being dishonest with my son, not explaining embalming.

    More recently, we had a family discussion about burial practices (sparked by a National Geographic that included pictures of animals mummified in ancient Egypt) and in addition to burial and mummification, we talked about cremation and body donation. I explained that I’d like my body to be donated to a forensic research facility to help scientists learn about how bodies decompose, and so my bones can be added to a library that helps many more people to learn. We talked about cadaver labs and how my husband studied a body when he was in medical school, and my middle son (who is 5) said that he would like his body to be donated to a medical school when he dies (which we hope doesn’t happen for a long, long time).

    Comment: spark – 24. October 2010 @ 8:38 am

  13. I also took comfort in the idea that my mom, who died at 52 of cancer, had returned to the earth. And being an Orthodox Jew, she was buried unembalmed in a pine casket, so I was thinking her atoms would be blowing in the wind in no time…except Minnesota law required that the grave be lined with a cement grave liner, which (though it is open on the top) I recently learned dramatically hinders decomposition. My daughter (6 at the time) really loved the idea that Bubbe’s atoms were everywhere and all around us. Now I’m learning that the cement adds at least 5 years to the process…so Bubbe’s atoms aren’t going anywhere for another 3 years or so. Better than being encased in metal forever, but still. Ick! My daughter doesn’t know about the cement, and I can’t think of any good reason to tell her about it now–but I did tell the state legislature what I think of the cement liner law!

    And really, more importantly than me being able to picture my mom’s atoms around me, I have my mom’s hands that I see before me every day, and her compassion and love and values, and those things will surround me and my family for the rest of my life. And they are things my daughter will bring with her when she starts her own family, and so on.

    Comment: SerahB – 24. October 2010 @ 10:10 am

  14. I am sorry for the loss you and your family experienced recently.

    I would like to offer you the process I went through deciding what to do with my body after I died. The notion of a burial liner in combination with the embalming process left the worst kind of taste in my mouth. It seemed like a perfectly good waste of a body when dermestid beetles would do a far better job. Cremation also did not seem like the answer as I would be more returning to the atmosphere than the earth. I wanted usefulness to come out of the process. I wanted my death to somehow reflect my life. I looked into my options. I considered the only two states that at the time allowed burial in a non-sealed pine box but it seemed more a waste of money. Then the idea hit me, I could donate my body to science. Why not, i love science, I would want nothing more than to advance science to help people. After a while of being totally comfortable with this idea and only mildly disappointed that my body might end up in a class designated for cosmetic surgeons, I happened across the best idea yet. I live in Tennessee and am quite proud of the work the done at University of Tennessee in Knoxville in the field of forensic anthropology. At this point in my life I have decided that donating my body to The Body Farm is the best option for anyone who wants their body to decompose naturally. I provide a link to the FAQ’s for donation to the body farm. I hope you find this helpful.

    Comment: Kerry – 24. October 2010 @ 11:11 pm

  15. I’m sorry for your losses. I’m sure it doesn’t make it easier when members of the family are at odds in their coping narratives.

    Since you brought up the Bible reading, I’m curious if churches have other texts or interpretations that fix the disconnect between common belief (right after we die, we go to some afterlife), and the passage you quoted from Thessalonians. If that text is the official bottom line for Christians, then where did the idea come from that our loved ones go directly to heaven?

    Comment: geekymoms – 24. October 2010 @ 11:25 pm

  16. @Kerry: It’s amazing that you’ve mentioned the Knoxville project. I’m reading the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach and just came across the long description of that fascinating project. Not to mention the fact that many donated bodies end up as practice for cosmetic surgeons — at least in part, or should I say in parts.

    @geekymoms: Yes, there is much grappling, but it mostly adds to the confusion. There’s Luke 23:43, Jesus on the cross to one of the thieves: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” His body then lies in the tomb for three (ish) days and his spirit descends to hell, which includes a region called “Paradise” (rimshot!). Nice joke on the thief, I’d say. Here are two articles that help confuse matters further. Neither ends up supporting the popular conception.

    Comment: Dale – 25. October 2010 @ 5:25 am

  17. I could use some advice. Although my 3.5 year old son has never personally experienced the death of someone he loves he is very interested in nature and is very curious and observant. Lately he’s been asking a lot of questions about death and me telling him about the circle of life and about how when someone dies room is made for new life in the world doesn’t seem to be enough for him. I grew up Christian and was told about heaven. Since I don’t believe what I was told as a child I am flailing a bit regarding what to tell him. Any advice?

    I am especially worried about what I should tell him when he finds out that his daddy had an older brother who died suddenly when his dad was in college. Right now all he knows is that when you are old you body stops working as well and eventually you die. He’s very empathetic and I know learning about that will really disturb him.

    Comment: mbaker – 25. October 2010 @ 9:31 am

  18. @mbaker: I’m an advocate of talking gently but honestly about mortality from the start. Elementary-age children can generally handle the topic better than the rest of us, in part because they have not yet achieved a full understanding of death’s finality and universality. There’s a window of opportunity in which children can hear and think about death with a certain amount of distance. That doesn’t mean they are not at all disturbed by it, but shielding them from early contemplation sets up a later disconnect that is much harder.

    There’s an entire chapter devoted to this in Raising Freethinkers, so I recommend you check your library for that title.

    Comment: Dale – 25. October 2010 @ 9:44 am

  19. I’ve enjoyed reading “circle-of-life” type books with my daughter (e.g. “A Log’s Life”).

    Just this Saturday we came across “Pumpkin Jack” at the bookstore, which uses a jack-o-lantern pumpkin to describe the death and rebirth in nature. Great for the 4-7 age group. And if you wait a week, you can probably get it on sale at your local store. 🙂


    Comment: nonplus – 25. October 2010 @ 6:30 pm

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