Rest in Peace: Stories About Death Care

I. I’ve been thinking: What would my life look like if I were not afraid of death? Thinking too closely about not existing, not having a consciousness, sends me spiraling into a panic attack. Protestant Christians believe in an afterlife—a heaven, a hell. I did, too, for a while. I was confident, fervent, about heaven. I was no longer afraid to die. Now I’m not so sure. Nothingness scares me, but so does an eternity spent somewhere else.

A month ago, I shared a reading list about architecture. My pick from The Stranger was about Katrina Spade, an  archeologist from Seattle interested in environmentally friendly, community-centered death care: city centers dedicated to composting human beings and reuniting their bodies with nature. It’s called the Urban Death Project. A few days ago, Spade debuted her fundraising campaign to make the project a reality.

I studied artist Iris Gottlieb’s drawings of plants and fungi and Spade’s architectural plans. I liked the idea that the composting hubs would be unique to each city—much like libraries, which take on aspects of their communities while serving the same essential purpose worldwide, Spade explained. Reading the details of Spade’s proposal, I felt genuinely moved, and, for the first time in a decade, peaceful.

 

II. On Saturday night, my partner and I went to Congressional Cemetery in southeast Washington, D.C. to attend Atlas Obscura’s “Sinners, Scoundrels and Scandals,” a night of storytelling by docents and experts. We went on a tour of the cemetery’s most notorious residents: a co-conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination, the richest madam in D.C., a beloved con artist and many others.

Much as I enjoyed these stories, what struck me most was the cemetery’s beauty. The last graveyard I’d visited was in Centralia, Pennsylvania, the abandoned coal town that inspired the horror media franchise Silent Hill. Congressional Cemetery was the opposite of Centralia’s silence and cold—it was green, lush with cherry blossoms to rival the famous trees a few miles away. Our docent, Tim, explained that cemeteries used to serve the same purpose as public parks—neighbors picnicked, strolled and played. Congressional seeks to bring back that spirit—it hosts yoga, book clubs, tours, 5Ks and a dog-walking program. The docents urged us to come back and visit, without a trace of irony. They seemed to have a great respect for Congressional Cemetery’s history and purpose, but no fear.

 

III. Death is not easy. In spite of radical, green burial options and beautiful graveyards, it’s real and frustrating and tragic. “Master Hayden Finn Boerum, 7-year-old son of Melissa J. Golden and Michael P. Boerum of Frederick, died Sunday.” Hayden, his brother, and his mom, Melissa, are beloved in my community of theatre nerds. Hayden had been in the hospital for a long time by the time I met his family. His older brother, A., is kind and a little shy. His mom is strong and beautiful and quick to laugh. “Because of Hayden’s upbeat, positive and courageous attitude with his battle against Histiocytosis, Hayden’s Heroes, Inc., was created.” I have a Hayden’s Heroes tank top in my drawer. “He was known as ‘Nurse Hayden’ on the 4th floor of Children’s hospital. Although he was unable to eat and enjoy food, he found great pleasure in having his nurses print pictures of his favorite foods … Hayden loved doing many things, and he greatly enjoyed playing with Legos and matchbox cars, trucks and trailers (anything with a hook), camping with his family and listening to his IPod … Hayden will be greatly missed.”

I lost it at the last sentence.

 

IV. In the lists I prepare for Longreads, I try to push myself to read and write about things I don’t always understand, but want to learn more about. I don’t know a lot about typography or architecture. Sometimes I’m learning about a new, controversial law. This week: five stories about laying the dead to rest.

1. “Confessions of a Mortician.” (Eric Puchner, Matter, November 2014)

Eric Puchner has suffered from a profound fear of death since he was a young boy. He travels to rural Pennsylvania to meet a dapper, sixth-generation mortician who might have a cure.

2. “Sky Burial: Excarnation in Texas.” (Alex Mar, Oxford American, September 2014)

“In the middle of a culture that is in denial of aging, never mind death, the body farm at San Marcos is one of the only places in America where death is literally splayed out in front of us, laid bare in a field, undeniable—and it makes most people very uneasy.”

3. “Korean Thanksgiving in a California Cemetery.” (Mary H K Choi, Aeon, November 2013)

Mary H K Choi didn’t plan to spend Sunday sprawled amongst the family plots, but her mom had other ideas.

4. “A Place to Rest.” (Shannon Firth, Narratively, September 2012)

A brochure about burial sparked Shannon Firth’s search for the perfect gravesite in New York City.

5. “A Project to Turn Corpses Into Compost.” (Catrin Einhorn, New York Times, April 2015)

The Times covers Katrina Spade’s efforts to make death a collective, eco-friendly endeavor.