A matter of the gravest importance

An interesting article in Time Magazine (24 June 2013), “The New American Way of Death” by Josh Sanburn, tells how cremation in the USA accounts for about 20% of the $13.4 billion “death industry” – the way Americans deal with the end of life. One novelty on offer is a reef burial, in which cremated remains are placed in an artificial, eco-friendly environment on the ocean floor.

“Reefs are merely the surface when it comes to options for ‘cremains’, the ash left behind from a cremation. The quirky and booming merchandise business includes the following: cremains that can be exploded as fireworks, cremains used as paint in artwork, cremains stored inside jewellery, cremains unloaded from shotgun shells, remains pressed into vinyl records – not to mention countless customizable urns. Couch potatoes can reside in an urn that features a remote control. Yankees fans can have a baseball-themed one.”

The article is not for the faint-hearted, and those familiar with Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963, updated 1996) are still in for one or two surprises, such as the Resomator, “a stainless steel chamber that uses a combination of water, potassium hydroxide and heat to break down bodies into peptides, soaps, salts and sugars.” The chic alternative to the burning fiery furnace.

ThorntonReef-burials apart, people have been buried in unusual graves for a couple of centuries or so. There are many fine cemeteries around the world housing elaborate and curious monuments. In England, William Henry “Harry” Thornton was buried in London’s Highgate cemetery having succumbed to the global flu pandemic of 1918. A classical pianist who played for the troops in World War I, his family had a grand piano, lid open, carved in stone and engraved with his name above the keys. A lyric on the side of the piano reads: “Sweet thou art sleeping; Cradled on my heart; Safe in God’s keeping; While I must weep apart.” The words are an English translation of lines from Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly.

In the USA, country music singer, television host, actor and businessman Jimmy Dean (1928-2010) rose to fame in 1961with his country crossover hit “Big Bad John” and the television series, “The Jimmy Dean Show”. When Dean died, he was entombed in a $350,000 piano-shaped mausoleum overlooking the James River on the grounds of his estate. His epitaph modestly reads “Here Lies One Hell of a Man”, a lyric from the uncensored version of “Big Bad John”.

Death is so much a part of life that everyone who is anyone has written or spoken about it. Shakespeare’s plays are full of death. “Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust” (Cymbeline, Act IV, scene 2) is just one memorable example. And then there’s Steve Jobs: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

Death is the great leveller but, as the Time article points out, it’s also good business.

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