Death Dialogues #4

Second Fool: “Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter?”

First Fool: “…a gravemaker: the houses that he makes last till doomsday.” from

from Hamlet

I sat on the floor across from the vet who had just put down our 12-year-old, yellow lab. Cody’s head was still in my lap and I could barely see through the tears. I heard him say, “And we need to talk about the disposition of the body.”

“OK,” I choked out, continuing to stroke the lifeless body; a brown, once soulful eye still looking at me.

“You have three choices, and of course it is completely up to you. You can get an individual cremation, where you get the cremains in a wooden box embossed with the dog’s name on it. Or, you can opt for a group cremation, which costs less. You would not receive the cremains back.”

“What do they do with those cremains,” I asked, trying to imagine Cody without his body; still not ready for them to take him away.

“We just dispose of them through the normal refuse system.” I pictured my beloved dog being dispersed unceremoniously at the dump amongst the empty food wrappers, broken appliances, and other discarded unmentionables.

“And the third option?”

He looked at me seriously and said, “Well. They can render your dog. It would be no charge at all to you.”

“What is that?”

“They boil the animal to release the fat and then they skim it.”

“And what would you do with that,” I said, my voice shaking.

“They use it to make candles and soaps, and some dog food companies add it as a fat in their products.”

The decision was simple, albeit expensive.

However, the personal and cultural values that informed the decision are not so simple.

We are taught from the earliest ages to build, create, and make— relationships, identities, structures, careers, businesses, pieces of art, ways of being. We are not well versed in dissolution, disintegration, deconstruction, or letting go. This deficit becomes very clear when faced with the question of how to dispose of a loved one’s body.

In the natural world, all death feeds life. The carrion of each living thing provides food for another: fungus and dead branch, insect and leaf, osprey and trout, alligator and wildebeest. Our own lives are generously fed by the plants and animals who sacrifice themselves, usually without consent, to our needs. Even stars, when they are dying, emit waves of clouds and dust over thousands of years, collapsing finally into black holes with a flourish. Each living entity gives of itself back to the whole so that life continues. And yet somehow, I would not consider allowing my dog’s body to be used for candles. The thought of it made me shudder. But, why?

Even though death is natural and in most ancient cultures personified as feminine, most of us don’t think of it that way. We see it as brutal and masculine, cutting and sharp, an enemy and something to be fought mightily. He is a looming figure with smoldering ember eyes and burnt, sticklike hands, poised to steal our right to a long, healthy life. Given that we all eventually succumb to this dark “foe” perhaps we demonstrate our final resistance by withholding our bodies and assuring that they do not feed anything– whether it be through burial or burning.

Since ancient times, people have buried their dead at sea, in caves, in trees, under the ground, or in the walls or floors of churches, or above ground in mausoleums. Wrappings were simple: hand woven blankets, rocks, or animal skins. Some of the earliest remaining graves show bones in a fetal position with cowrie shells rubbed with red ochre arranged in the shape of an egg. This practice has its origins in planting and summons the archetype of descent and resurrection–the release of rich nutrients, return to the womb of mother earth, being cradled, awaiting rebirth. The cowrie shells look like pelvises and the ochre, like blood. Psychologically, old ways of being have died and we trust that new ways of being will be birthed.

Simple coffins developed later to protect the body of the dead from predators and some say, to keep the wandering spirit of the dead enclosed so that it would not become confused and return to us. During the late 1800s, grave markers evolved into a measure of status –ornate headstones showed how much you valued your lost loved one. Modern practices include extravagant, hermetically sealed coffins that are guaranteed to house loved ones who are chemically preserved in embalming fluid for hundreds of years. These expensive practices offer the fantasy of permanence. Interestingly, we make sure that you will not rejoin the elements; that your body will most certainly not feed anything else.

Several weeks after our dog’s death, we receive Cody’s ashes in a small box with a note proclaiming that he has crossed the rainbow bridge. In Balinese and Hindu cultures, it is believed that the soul ascends with the smoke and it is purified by removing the constraints of the physical body. Looking at the ashes, I believe this to be true and know that nothing physical is left of the dog we so loved. They are colorless, odorless, cold (missing their previous fire) devoid of life and nutrients. When something is charred, you can no longer eat it.   In contrast to burial, we go to the other extreme and ensure that there can be no further decomposition.

During a small ceremony with family, I throw a handful of Cody’s ashes into the river and look at my empty hand. It is coated in white dust and there are tiny crystals glistening in the sun. These albino ashes are the antithesis of the colorful fleshiness of a lion gnawing on an antelope leg, a frog’s tongue encircling a fly, an eagle’s talons digging into salmon skin, a raccoon feasting on junco eggs, maggots writhing through a sheep’s hindquarter, autumn leaves rotting in the rain—death as it is meant to be—feeding life.

In the human realm, this rhythm is not so distant in our cultural memory. On any Sunday throughout the world, Catholics symbolically eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. In Papau New Guinea, primal peoples ritually cut a piece of the deceased person’s body and eat it to incorporate the soul of the dead into themselves to keep them alive. Down river from where I live, the Donner Party survived off of the flesh of their family and friends to make it through the winter of 1847.

I look at my dusty hand, and turn it in the sun so the sharp diamonds of bone and teeth glisten. And I just can’t help it, but very slowly and deliberately, I lick each finger clean.