I feel like people find it a little strange that I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want done with my body when I die. I’m 22, I’m in good health and while plenty of people in my family have potentially hereditary diseases and conditions, I can only think of one (fairly distant) relative who died young. I’m very lucky in that respect.
The only condition that comes close to being life-threatening for me is my mental health, and even that has been far more stable over the last year than ever before.
But things do happen. I could develop a fatal illness, or be hit by a car. And I think it’s important that my wishes are made known in case of such an occasion.
Being non-religious makes settling on a death plan both easier and more difficult. I don’t have any beliefs regarding the afterlife and what I’ll need there, what body parts are sacred, or what burial customs are and aren’t acceptable from a spiritual perspective. This means my options aren’t limited, which is neat. It also means I have less guidance on what I should be looking for, which is less neat.
Then there’s the financial aspect, of course. This is the factor I’ve put the least thought into for the simple reason that it’s significantly more depressing than thinking of death ever will be. I don’t have the sort of money to start thinking of saving for my funeral, or investing in life insurance. I can just about afford to pay my living rent right now, so I figure there’s no point in looking at finances for death until a little later in life. At the end of the day, my burial will be determined by my (or my family’s) finances at the time of my death, and I can only hope efforts will be made to get as close to my ideal burial as prices will allow. (I don’t want anything fancy anyway)
As far as I’m concerned, the question of organ donation is a no-brainer. When I’m dead, I won’t need my organs anymore – take them all. I’m intrigued by the amount of people who have no religious or spiritual beliefs but when asked about donation are willing to give everything but their eyes, or their heart. It’s a deeply personal decision, of course, and I fully respect their preferences. But I’m always curious to hear more about why they feel that way.
Regarding brain death: If a doctor says I’m not going to wake up, it’s pretty dang likely I’m not going to wake up. I want life support left on only long enough to keep my heart suitable for transplant. Once that’s no longer useful/necessary, I want it turned off.
Once any useful organs have been taken, it comes down to what should be done with the body.
I try hard to be logical here, and I know that there’s no real reason that I shouldn’t donate my body to science. It’s important that medical students have cadavers to work on. However, at this moment in time, I’m just… not comfortable with that, somehow?
I may well change my mind in time, but for now I’m only comfortable with organs being removed for transplant rather than dissection. (This, perhaps, is something else I should read about in greater detail.)
For a long time, I favoured cremation as my means of burial. I wanted my body cremated, and the ashes buried and marked subtly. The idea of my body being put in a box and left to decompose over an undisclosed period of time made me deeply uncomfortable, so I was happier with the concept of being put in an enclosed space only for long enough that my body would be turned to ash – a significantly shorter time period. I also viewed urns and other ash-containers as being less flashy and therefore simpler than and superior to the larger, clunkier coffin options.
Last month, however, I finally had the pleasure of reading Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity and have since been giving even more thought to the topic. As Doughty points out:
… after the 1,800-degree cremation process, the remaining bones are reduced to inorganic, basic carbon. With everything organic (including DNA) burned away, your sterile ashes are way past being useful to plants or trees. There are nutrients, but their combination is all wrong for plants, and don’t contribute to ecological cycles.
As a teenager, I saw information about the Bios Urn floating across my Tumblr feed and latched onto that notion, but Doughty also explains this idea isn’t quite as perfect as it sounds:
Bios Urn resembles a large McDonald’s cup filled with soil, a tree seed, and a place for cremated remains… Bios Urn charges $145 for one of their urns. The symbolism is beautiful. But symbolism does not make you part of the tree.
The disappointment (and mild outrage at myself for not realising this sooner) that I felt when I read this was unpleasant, but it was good because it made me realise what it was that mattered to me about my burial. I don’t believe in reincarnation or souls or anything like that, but I do like the idea of becoming a tree. And by this, I mean I want the nutrients that make up my body to return to the soil and provide nutrition for decomposers, then plants, then animals.
I realise that what I actually want is a natural burial – just me and a hole, no coffin, no smoke and no embalming. And research suggests that this is… potentially possible? There are no natural burial grounds in Northern Ireland, but there is one in the Republic. Being buried somewhere like Woodbrook Natural Burial Ground in Co. Wexford would allow my body to decompose like it’s meant to, and a tree can be planted on the grave.
Ideally, this plan won’t have to be executed for another 50+ years, but I get a strange satisfaction from knowing what I want done. I’m yet to take any steps like writing my Advance Directive, but making sure people around me know my wishes is better than nothing until I get around to that.