Sept/Oct 1999 Salon

Sky Burial

by Paul J. Sampson

Not long ago, a fellow in California found himself in deep trouble, brought on by what might be called heroic procrastination. The man was a pilot, and he had contracted to use his airplane to scatter the ashes of several hundred deceased. In each case, he had been paid a fee for doing so.

Alas, his own health declined several years ago, and he lost his pilot's medical certificate, so he couldn't fly. A news photo showed the sad outcome: his dusty Cessna growing cobwebs in a hangar crammed with cartons of ashes. He had kept accepting commissions long after he became unable to complete them, adding grievance to the survivors' grief.

The media lost interest in a day or so, but I didn't. I kept spinning out versions of his story, guessing at the fictions he must have sold his clients: "Yes, it was a beautiful moment. I recited 'High Flight' as I released dear Wilbur (or Orville or Amelia) into the slipstream...."

And all the while he must have told himself he'd get it all straightened out one day. He'd get well, get his medical certificate back, get the airplane overhauled, put a schedule together, take twenty or thirty of those boxes at a time, five or six flights a day, empty out that hangar in a couple of weeks!

Add those dreams to the ash-heap in the hangar. Here the story turns from farce to tragedy: The poor devil, unable to face the sheriff and the angry relatives, committed suicide. The news stories omitted any reference to his own funeral arrangements.

But in spite of this fellow's failure, we do practice sky burial. We can, and do, strew our dead through the sky itself, seeding the clouds and the winds with tears and ashes. Off they go, literally flying home. Ask your local Funeral Director; he'll quote you a price.

The idea of postmortem journeyings isn't new: Charon ferried everyone from Achilles to Hector over the Styx. The ashes of pious Hindus swirl down the sacred Ganges; riverine peoples of the Amazon forests send their corpses off afloat in canoes. Old Vikings went to Valhalla from the deck of a boat, set adrift and burning by their mourning kinsmen. The destinations, we assume, were similar.

Other people, long before aviation, have practiced sky burials: The Parsis have long placed their dead in the Towers of Silence, naked for the birds to take in bits to heaven. The Indians of the American Plains built platforms for the same purpose, though they wrapped their dead in blankets; the birds carried them skyward nonetheless.

But we are a technological tribe, skyfarers and even spacefarers, and of course we have adapted aircraft and more recently rockets to launch our dead into their new trajectories. No less a personage than Timothy Leary (or at least a bit of his ashes) has been fired past the atmosphere to circle us, a tiny satellite, a very minor moon. This is, I am told, a commercial service; if your survivors can afford it, you too can be sprinkled in the sky.

And just this year, our species buried someone on the Moon itself.

I'm surprised this didn't get more attention from the media, but the Associated Press did move a little story on the burial of Eugene Shoemaker, an astronomer who worked on NASA's Voyager expeditions. An expert on collisions of bodies in space (he was co-discoverer of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that crashed into Jupiter in 1994), he himself collided with the Moon. His NASA colleagues loaded an ounce of his ashes into NASA's Lunar Prospector spacecraft. When it crashed into the backside of the Moon on July 31, 1999, Mr. Shoemaker became the first of our tribe to be buried on another planetary body.

Actually, it was only by a lot of heroic effort that other astronauts didn't precede Mr. Shoemaker as residents of the lunar cemetary. Thirty years ago, when the first manned lunar missions took place, the Nixon White House had a speech all prepared for the president to deliver if one or more of the astronauts could not be retrieved. It would be delivered while the spacemen were still alive--a chilling touch. We are all grateful that it was never needed, especially given Mr. Nixon's speaking style.

As we continue to fill the Earth with (among other things) ourselves, we may need to give more thought to such novelties as sky and space burial. I read with sorrow in a recent edition of the Dallas Morning News that dozens of British graveyards, containing thousands of bodies, are being moved to make room for everything from housing developments to basketball and tennis courts.

Shocking. I remembered at once, of course, some appropriate verse, which I heard sung by the immortal Stanley Holloway (unless it was some other immortal with heavily diphthonged vowel sounds and missing aitches):

They're moving father's grave to build a sewer
They're moving it regardless of expense.
They're moving his remains to lay down nine-inch drains
To irrigate some rich bloke's residence.

Now what's the use of having a religion?
If when you're dead you cannot get some peace
Cause some society chap wants a pipeline to his tank
And moves you from your place of rest and peace . . .

Now father in his life was not a quitter
And I'm sure that he'll not be a quitter now.
And in his winding sheet, he will haunt that privy seat
And only let them go when he'll allow.
Now won't there be some bleedin' consternation,
And won't those city toffs begin to rave!
But it's no more than they deserve, 'cause they had the bleedin' nerve
To muck about a British workman's grave.

While I was meditating on these melancholy matters, I decided to see what some colleagues had in mind for their own final disposition. I polled a group of writers, poets, literature professors, creative writing teachers (and teachers of Creative Writing, not always the same persons) and editors, asking what they want done with their leftover parts when they croak. I wanted a show of hands for: (1) burial; (2) cremation; (3) other (a specific choice). I asked what sort of service they hoped for: religious, or perhaps such secular choices as a howling Irish wake, dignified poetry reading, flag-draped gun carriage pulled by six black horses decked with plumes, etc.

I also asked if they wished to be recycled in whole or part (organ donation for transplant or whole-body gift to a med school). In either case, what's left of them could get any of the other treatments, too. If they specified burial, I wanted to know whether they had a preference in location, and whether they had one picked out already (a pre-need selection, as they say in the trade). If the choice was cremation, I asked their preference for handling their cinders. Urn? If so, kept where? Scattering? If so, where and how (over the waves from a sailboat, over the rim of the Grand Canyon, distributed in the ashtrays of their favorite saloon, etc.).

Hardly a scientific survey, but I was hoping more for art than science. I got very damn little of either, which serves me right for my nosiness. Nevertheless, several people generously supplied answers, and I present them here, slightly condensed.

Kate Thorn, a writer who makes her living as an Intensive Care nurse: "Cremation, but I want a wake with a huge party, lots of food, music and wine! Nothing could keep me away from such an event!"

Carol King, who describes herself as "an academic": "I would choose 'other' and will define it as this: The body is not embalmed nor cremated but refrigerated until all the close relatives have had a chance to stop by, touch, look or say goodby in other ways. Saying goodby in some tactile or sensory way seems important to releasing the loved one... After any public ceremony, something like a 'viewing' in a funeral home, I would be buried without ever being embalmed if my children wished. If not, I would be just as happy being cremated and spread over the California hills and valleys that I so love. If possible, I would also donate my organs to science for research."

John Whitted, poet and "indentured servant to The Almighty International Corporation," says: "I'd like to be cryogenically preserved and unthawed [shouldn't that be "thawed?"] a couple thousand years later. Barring that, I'd like my brain preserved and transferred into a robotic body when the Evil Robot King takes over in 3010." This event, John says, is predicted in the film "South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut." John is a member of the much-worried-over Generation X. You can see why we worry.

Bruce Harris Bentzman, resident essayist at the on-line magazine Snakeskin: "My wife and I have discussed the unavoidable. Neither of us wants to take up valuable space in this shrinking world after we're dead. We have decided on cremation. Whoever survives will take possession of the ashes of the one who died first. In time, when we're both finally dead, we want our ashes mixed. And then...." Bruce goes on, "Being an Atheist, I require no service. I don't expect to attend the ceremony. The survivors will know best how to alleviate their sadness and morosity so I will leave such matters to them. Whatever organ I have left, I will be happy to spare from the cremation and donate to the living." He gave the name of a person, another writer, who might use his heart, but charity forbids recording it here. "As for where the ashes go," Bruce added, "that has not yet been determined."

The prolific British author Alex Keegan said, "Cremation for me, my ashes scattered in the natural harbor at Lundy Island, an almost uninhabited 3-by-1-mile place in the Irish Sea. I find burials, big box and all, much more painful for the mourners, cremation less so. Also, there's no grave to be left untended."

Robert R. Cobb, poet, artist, and recently retired art teacher, said: "I hope to have miles to go before I sleep." He and his wife will eventually lie side by side in a small cemetery in his wife's home town, Washburn, Illinois. He adds, "I hope that we are buried with all parts intact!"

The noted author, composer, and polymath Nick Humez, who recently added teaching mythology in college to his resume: "Since you asked: I have an arrangement with the University of New England med school in Biddeford, Maine, to (1) use my cadaver for teaching gross anatomy and (2) to prep my skeleton and have it recycled for classroom use. I thought it delightful that they acceded readily to the second part (nonstandard), for having learned so much from seeing classroom skeletons during my own school days I thought it a pity to waste it. My soul, if indeed I have one, will go wherever souls go, and I hope for a proper Anglican funeral, by the book (including 'Man that is born of a woman...' and 'Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts...' and all the rest, preferably sung to the settings I wrote in the early 1980s). And, like a true Frenchman, the joyous toccata from Widor's Fifth Organ Symphony as a postlude."

Trevor Reeves, editor of the New Zealand-based online and print journal Southern Ocean Review: "Burial. Religious service at funeral parlor chapel. Followed by a poetry reading at the grave site. I always wanted to have a graveyard reading called 'The Graveyard Smash' (nearly organized one in the early 1970s, under the Parnell Bridge, in Aukland)." He has a place picked out: "The Family Plot (no, not a short story device) but my granny's and g-dad's grave." Music? "Maybe that Peter Gabriel thing the 'Passion of Christ.' CDs of it would be available at the service to defray expenses."

So wrote my respondents, and may they get their wishes, one and all.

And where will my own bones end? I'll get to that in a bit, but first, let's look backward. Sir Thomas Browne, our language's great epitaphist, meditated unmorosely on the modes of bones' repose he knew. This learned and curious physician, who died in 1682, wrote a little book called Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial. It is a commentary on some ancient Roman burial urns that had just been found in Norfolk. More than that, it is a lively meditation on the mortal subject of disposing of the dead. It is far too rich to condense here, but some quotations are irresistible. Here, for instance, are reasons he offers to prefer burning to burying:

"To be knav'd out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into pipes, to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations escaped in burning burials. Urnal interments and burnt relicks lie not in fear of worms, or to be an heritage for serpents."

And: "When the bones of King Arthur were digged up [in the time of Henry the Second], the old race might think they beheld therein some originals of themselves; unto these of our urns none here can pretend relation, and can only behold the relicks of those persons who, in their life giving the laws unto their predecessors, after long obscurity, now lie at their mercies. But, remembering the early civility they brought upon these countries, and forgetting long-passed mischiefs, we mercifully preserve their bones, and piss not upon their ashes."

Browne himself was buried in a lead-sheathed coffin. A graceful Latin epitaph has been translated thus by a Mr. Firth of Norwich: "The very distinguished man, Sir Thomas Browne, Knight, Doctor of Medicine, aged 77 years, who died on the 19th of October, in the year of our Lord 1682, sleeping in this coffin of lead, by the dust of his alchemic body, transmutes it into a coffer of gold." But for all that, for all his civilized defense of decent burials, he was dug up in 1840 and his skull ended up in a museum. Knav'd out of his grave, indeed.

So then: Where should I myself elect to lie? After I have been mined for spare parts to stave off this decision for someone else, something will have to be done with me.

Well, I don't like the prospect of being moved to build a sewer, or a tennis court, or a shopping mall, or (most ironically) a landfill. On the other hand, I do like the idea of gradually rejoining the nitrogen cycle, literally pushing up daisies with my nutrients. And I have visited many a pleasant graveyard, good places for ones's survivors to stroll, sit, picnic, even flirt. So burial has some attraction, even if I won't be the one who enjoys it most.

But I'm an aviator, and the thought of my ashes forming a plume of dust behind a plane has its appeal (There are more reliable flyers available for the job than the gentleman whose downfall began this story). In one version of this fantasy, my fellow glider pilots use my ashes to mark the course of a thermal, and soar around my smoky trail. The main drawback, I think, is that this process would be hard to see from the ground, and might deprive the mourners of the last look they had hoped for.

But ultimately it will be the mourners who decide. I assume they will find a way, satisfactory to themselves, to do what Sir Thomas said in the 17th Century: forgetting my long-passed mischiefs, they will mercifully preserve my bones, and piss not upon my ashes.


Previous Piece forums serendipity Next Piece

What did you think?