Understanding our mortality is also what sets us apart from other animals on the planet. Last week was busy with events for Dying Matters Awareness Week and on Thursday I spoke at a Transition Lancaster Event at the Friends Meeting House about the finances of bereavement and, in particular, looking at funerals.
The Neanderthals started burying their dead 70,000 years ago. Egyptians used sarcophagi, ancient Greeks used clay urns and Romans carved coffins out of limestone. American Indians buried their dead in canoes or turtle shells and these days you can be buried in a coffin, a basket, a shroud or a cardboard box.
Following the legal case of Crown v. Stewart in 1840, it is law in this country that dead bodies are dressed in a manner which is “decent”. Indeed, some folk have very firm views about what they want to wear in death; eternity is a long time to spend in an ill-fitting suit.
For some, cremation can represent either the freeing of the spirit from the body or the prevention of the return of the dead. It can take up to two hours to cremate a body and the optimum temperature is 900°C. Despite urban myths to the contrary, only one body is cremated at a time as in crematoria the chamber isn’t big enough for more than one. Magnets are used after cremation to pick out any surgical pins, coffin nails or titanium limbs.
Much of the mercury in the atmosphere comes from burning the amalgam fillings in teeth. So, for some people, going out green is a preferred option. There are a number of eco-friendly ways to make a final journey. You can be cremated or buried in a cardboard coffin produced from recycled paper and non-toxic chemicals. You can be buried at sea or interred vertically to save space or wrapped in a shroud or bio-degradable body bag.
Woodland burials offer the opportunity to plant a tree instead of placing a headstone. If you want to go out carbon neutral, you can calculate your life’s carbon footprint and then leave money in your Will to pay for the equivalent number of trees. Clean air certainly would be a great legacy for future generations.