How to Be Dead

Jeanne Wilkinson

       Lately I’ve been thinking about dying. Not on purpose, although that’s been on the table more than once while sinking into the dark, sticky chasm of despair where life seems less than agreeable and hardly doable for a day or two before I haul my sorry ass out of there. And not about the process of actually transiting from life to death, which I hope in my case is fast and painless and maybe a little surprising, like the old trope about waking up dead. At the very least I hope it's not a long drawn out affair where I’m laid low (or high) with wild and crazy drugs while people hang around in that droopy way of hospital visitors staring at me hopelessly or perhaps impatiently while I’m befuddled and drooling and unable to sit up with diapers on and tubes stuck into my hard-to-find nearly invisible veins shrinking away as their red rivers run dry and once in a while I drift back into their realm and try to smile and they say, oh look, she’s trying to say something and I will be and it will be an apology, an “I wish I could have done it better, maybe next time” speech that doesn’t quite reach my trembling, withered and lipstickless mouth. 

       Really? Has no one thought to dab some cheerful color on my arid, empty lips? Or is the ironic incongruity of sultry coral paired with wrinkled, road-mapped pallor just too unbearable to countenance?

       So no, none of that. Instead I’m thinking about the time when the tubes are pulled out, the machines are blessedly non-beeping and people are no longer paying attention to the sad shell of me but are talking amongst themselves making plans about what to do with what was once a helpful and lively presence that liked to play Sorry and badminton and drink an occasional glass of wine (every night) having become a dark threat hanging ominously over the room like a bad smell, which it soon will be, especially if it’s summer.

       I’m thinking about the time when to be or not to be is moot because I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil and now the question is: what’s next? Not in the sense of where I’m going, as in to heaven or that other less friendly part of the Christian dialectical construct of either/or afterlife options that limits one’s post-death experience to eternal boredom or eternal burning, because in that particular matter, I’m choosing none of the above. Personally, I think it all keeps going round and round until you’re sick of being a jerk and you start giving it all away in a spirit of fierce generosity and earthshaking kindness so you can just toddle along on that spiral and finally reach the oneness arena, unless of course you decide to be a Bodhisattva and stay down here with the rest of the fools laughing at the whole circus of it all while nevertheless uplifting all whom you touch. 

       In other words, I’m into reincarnation. But not the kind where you reappear as an aardvark, nematode, zebra—once you’re human, that’s it. Nope, not even a Golden Retriever or a Blue Point Siamese. Sorry. Not a dolphin either. Get over it. Besides, there might not be any dolphins next time around because, uh, climate change? As in ocean acidification and warming waters? I’ve heard people say that reincarnation is a cop out, like you don’t have to try very hard in the here and now because you can just fix things next time, but the way I see it, reincarnation in the time of climate change is a recipe for apocalyptic depression when you look ahead and see only disaster. Or maybe it’s a call to arms, not the deadly ones but the ones hanging at your side, as in reach down and pick up your ubiquitous trash and support clean energy because your future life depends on it...

       Anyway, back to dying. I read once in some spiritual book that for humans it takes three days for the, um, not sure what to call it exactly...your spirit-soul? Your etheric essence? Anyway, that thing that’s not a thing has to disengage from its lowly physical shell and it doesn’t happen automatically when you die, it happens slowly, gently, in a sort of letting go/rising/emanating kind of way if I’m reading it right. Which brought up the question: what if you don’t let the body be for a few days, what if you start messing around and emptying things out and putting other things in, could your soul be somehow stymied? Could you become a ghost, a trapped spirit with feet of clay stuck somewhere on the great spiral, sort of like in Beetlejuice only less a fun comedy with cool songs than one of those B-movie horror flicks with creepy laughter and overwrought orchestration dogging your every doomed step?

       But seriously, reading about the necessity of the three-day post-death rest period made me worry about the whole burial extravaganza where you’re whisked away to be relieved of your essential fluids and innards that have served you so well and for so long and refilled with nasty chemicals like formaldehyde, which, by the way, I’m allergic to, all of this in service to the living so they will remember how nice and “normal” you looked in your coffin dressed in that special outfit for all of eternity, which for me would probably be one of my abstractly hand-painted blue and green ocean/earth shirts and my favorite black linen slightly stretchy skinny pants, or maybe just my favorite gray jeans, with a nice bottle of Chardonnay under my arm and maybe a lipstick like the ones I tucked into my mother’s beautiful manicured hand when she lay in her own lovely satin-lined coffin, two tubes so she’d have a choice of colors...what woman doesn’t want a choice of colors...

       Wait. See the thing is, I don’t think I really want all that to happen. First of all, for the above reasons, I need my body to hang around for three days (which seems strangely Biblical) before it’s dispatched. I would imagine it could be refrigerated or dry-iced...hopefully cold doesn’t get in the way of the soul-body as it sheds its fleshly burden? But after the three days, again that burning question: What’s next? Not for the etheric me which is, one would hope, successfully on its way to wherever...maybe to some kind of processing place where my spirit guides and I will sort things out and figure out where I messed up and what tedious issues still have to be worked on next time around...which could take a while, ha! Although who knows how time works in that context. Could you be having what seems like short a conversation while back on earth a thousand years have passed taking you from your life as an Assyrian warrior killed on the battlefield to being a Roman soldier killed on the battlefield to being a Medieval knight killed on the battlefield to being a twentieth-century G.I. killed on three battlefields, I mean will you ever learn? 

       So while my eternal essence is busy for who knows how long, what happens back in the world of minutes and hours to the remains of my days, to that sad sack of flesh and bone that used to house this fleeing, fleeting spirit? And isn’t this the question of questions, the one that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, this affinity toward treating dead bodies like precious artifacts, storing and preserving them like Grandma’s peaches and pickles and then stacking them away somewhere, not necessarily so we can eat them like we did Grandma’s strawberry-rhubarb jam on ice cream, obviously, but to revisit and remember? So we coddle and memorialize our dead while animals simply let it be, so to speak, allowing their dear and departed to return from whence they came, fertilizing the soil while feeding numerous other species with their apparently delicious rotting flesh. 

       But it's interesting because as soon as you say oh, that’s what separates us from the animals, in the next breath science comes along and says, hey, hold off with the aren’t-we-humans-so-superior business, because animals do all that stuff too! They use tools and language, they have parties and preen in mirrors, and guess what! Several, even numerous species mourn their dead with what looks an awful lot like a funeral, like, for example, chimpanzees, elephants, giraffes, crows and all the rest of those super-smart corvids. And what about bees and ants hauling their dead away like medics in a war zone? But all you human-o-centrics: have no fear! We are yet raised from the congress of creatures because while animals beat us hands down in the weird-mating-ritual arena, none of those beasties can come close to our propensity toward complex and codified burial customs that beggar belief, ranging from the decorative, like dispatching the dead in jade ceremonial suits or turning cremated ashes into pretty glass beads, to the cruel, like strangling a woman after her husband dies so she can properly accompany him into the afterlife, to the icky, like mixing cremated ashes with bananas to make an edible paste shared by the living—sounds delicious, no? People-pickles, anyone? Soylent Green?

       Nothing like that happens in my family, of course. We do not eat our dead. Our rules are pretty basic: place your loved one in an impermeable box, lower it into the ground, pile on the soil and mark it with a headstone and seasonal flora. We have a plot in a beautiful tree-filled cemetery in northern Minnesota where my father, mother, aunt and brother lie, the latter in a five-year-old size coffin dating from his death many years ago from an inoperable brain tumor when I was four. We visited him for many years until my father finally joined him at the age of eighty-three and then my mother at ninety, and there is room for a few more family members still. It’s a lovely spot, and I’ve always thought I’d like to be beside my brother at least in this symbolically united way for all of eternity, or at least as long as this cemetery exists, hopefully into the very indefinite future. 

       There was a major storm a couple of summers back that toppled over a hundred grand and giant pines and took down a few headstones, but all that is repaired now and the tree-bodies have been cut up and taken away and the dead and living carry on as before as do the ducks, geese and swans in the pond. And a lot of trees still grace the grounds. In fact it was right after this storm, surrounded by partially dismembered trunks looking like creatures from some giant tree-spider planet, that we watched my mother go down into to her final resting place. 

       As they lowered the coffin into her rectangle of dug up earth and we threw down our flowers, I couldn’t help but think, why so fancy? Why so protected? She’ll be in that coffin for years and years in her pretty outfit just getting dry and desiccated with nothing but those two lipsticks for company. No life in death, as it were. It seemed so utterly cold and lonely, that box that we put her in. I began to wonder for real: is this what I want, to be closed up in a canister pumped up with chemicals while my body mummy-ises and I do nothing to nourish the planet but instead just take up dead space? Literally? 

       And so much dead space! There are maybe three whole spaces or six halves left in our plot, and I’m beginning to feel greedy for wanting a whole even though I am in fact the oldest family member (how did that happen!?!) and kind of deserve it. Then again, if I were cremated, I would only need a half-space. But I don’t know. Being fed to the fire seems a bit too hellish for my taste even though it’s not really hell, of course, just hot hot real-life flames that devour your flesh and leave behind a pile of dark lumpy grit. I know it’s not logical—you’re dead, you won’t feel a thing, you won’t even know—but cremation seems creepy to me, worse than turning into leather in a metal can. Although there are some pretty cool urns around. I have a ceramist friend who makes them for friends and I’m sure she’d make me a nice one, something funny and poignant. But still, that fire. 

       Given a choice, I’d rather feed the worms than fill an urn. But then I wonder, am I too invested in that particular place? Do I need to be where people can visit me like we do for our parents and brother? Do I really care about that? And then I answer myself, well, yes, I kind of do. I am different from the animals that way—I mean, I really doubt that even elephants have burial site preferences, right? Or am I wrong there, too? Anyway, it’s not that people would come to my grave all that often because the cemetery is kind of remote, but maybe I want to be where people come when they can, like every five years or even every decade if not the yearly pilgrimage that I somehow manage to carve out of my own busy life. Maybe I want to be in a place where people will think about me and even miss me with a few tears running down their cheeks like mine do when I think about that lost little boy I never really got to know even though he was my first and purest love, and my parents who are with me now only in dreams. But is that just ego talking? Or worse, insecurity, like people won’t remember me unless they are confronted by a headstone with name and dates? Of course I’ll probably drift online forever, popping up on people’s threads every so often while they wonder, hmmm, didn’t she die a while back? But then they’ll have to think about me for a moment whether they want to or not, so there is that. 

       But what’s out there besides impermeable boxes and burning? Shall I open up my mind and allow other ways of thinking about funereal traditions to filter through? Nothing to do with banana paste, certainly, but maybe something that seems less corporate and more corporeal? More environmentally friendly? More earthly?

       I know there are “green” burials now, where you are encased not in concrete and metal but in wicker, or plywood, even cornstarch or cardboard containers. Or just in a scented shroud. This seems kind of nice. Kind of like the Three Little Pigs story turned on its head where the house that the wolf can blow over easily is actually the best one. Where your flesh just melts into the soil as it’s banqueted on by the myriad of squirming, scuttling things that inhabit the dark world under the surface of our green spaces if we haven’t poisoned the life out of them. I’m not sure about the rules in our cemetery, but could something like that be done? And could we keep using the same space as long as one of us has already gone back to the land? Although I don’t see cemeteries ever being that would they sell plots if people recycled the same one over and over? Although perhaps they could just charge a burial fee...which would be good especially in crowded city cemeteries...

       But what about going altogether plotless? Without being burnt, that is...

       I recently came across the concept of “sky burials” like they used to do in Tibet where the deceased were cut up and subsequently laid out on big human-sized bird feeders. So there you are being lifted up, literally, carried off into the next world one bite-size piece at a time. Not that I would personally have the guts, metaphorically speaking, to arrange that singular activity for my funeral, which is probably a non-option anyway because of prohibitions on chopping up your loved ones and placing them on open-air platforms. And come to think of  it, you know how they say don’t feed the animals lest they develop bad habits, like gulls at the beach that come right up and grab the tuna sandwich you’re stuffing into your mouth or bears tearing down tents for more chocolate cake? Do we really want, say, crows flying around looking for more of those yummy snack-size body-bits? I mean, Alfred Hitchcock anyone?     

         For myself, I’m glad to see us get beyond our knee-jerk ideas about how my favorite shiny black birds are the spooky, creepy avian symbols of death and evil because they happened to take their meals where they found them, like on battlefields where stinking spear-riddled soldiers piled up, or in ditches stacked with wretched victims of the Black Plague, going first for the eyeballs, the softest of body parts and apparently quite the crow-table delicacy, at least in the shadowy past. I think (hope?) that in my own part of the world crows have gotten out of that particular habit since we don’t hang heads from city walls or conduct bloody warfare in local fields and forests, thus depriving them of opportunity. And while we might think that eye-eating is pretty creepy, don’t we humans (at least the omnivorous ones) eat every weird part of every animal—I mean, haggis anyone? Rocky Mountain Oysters? But in any case, maybe the sky burial isn’t such a good idea...

       I once did some research on Native American ways of burial—this study done for my novel starring a charismatic Ojibwe motorcycle-mechanic, still sadly unpublished—where I learned about a tradition of placing bodies in trees so the deceased not only has a clear shot to the next world, but won’t be harassed by wolves and the like. They would wrap the body closely in skins or birchbark, the point being not for the birds to carry it away, but apparently to let the dear-departed hang out for up to a year to completely decompose, all the while being gifted with food and drink and company. And I must say, I kind of love that idea.

       If I ruled the world, here is what I would order my minions to do: place my carefully wrapped remains (not in plastic, please) in an old, multi-trunked shining white-and-black birch along with almonds, raisins and Chardonnay while friends and family and perhaps the odd stranger sing and dance and chat at the foot of the tree and I will definitely share my wine. Hang those green bottles from the tree like Christmas decorations, along with a few nice reds! Maybe not for a whole year—who has time in their busy schedule these days for a year of mourning, even if it’s a party?—but for a good long while, letting my body rest and its molecules disperse into the great blue beyond. And I suppose if the crows get at me at some point, well, so be it—less of me to worry about down the line. But since I don’t rule the world, an open-air burial is probably not in the cards, unfortunately. 

       Then there is the burial-at-sea option, something our family calls “swimming out.” This is an on-purpose event stemming not from depression but from an unselfish determination to no longer suffer some awful mind-and-body-deteriorating disease while your loved ones suffer along with you. It’s pretty basic: you travel to the North Shore of Lake Superior, the Shining Big Sea Water that we so love, and simply swim out. The lake is very, very cold all year long so you won’t get far before a certain limb-numbing lethargy takes you down, down, down to where you (at least whatever’s left after the fish have done their work) will mingle with the Edmund Fitzgerald souls and other shipwreck victims of yore. Then again, mightn’t that be a whole other kettle of fish/can of worms kind of thing because what if a random rip current washes you up where a little kid in a kayak finds your fish-torn body floating just below the surface—do you really want your legacy to be that macabre Ophelia-vision haunting her dreams for years to come? Plus won’t you be wrecking the lake for your family because instead of meditating on nature’s truth and beauty they’ll look at that vast watery space and think oh, that’s where she went down to be gnawed on by northerns and walleyes? 

       But now—breaking news!—I’ve come across a new kind of thing from Italian designers where you’re placed in the fetal position inside a “pod” made of biodegradable materials that’s buried in the ground like a huge seed with a tree planted on top of it! Maybe it’s not as cool as hanging out in a tree, but then again, you’d become a tree. I’m not sure if our cemetery could handle this newfangled pod burial deal, but I’ll have to see. Obviously cemeteries are going to have to adapt to new kinds of death wishes where people don’t want their very own eternal cubicles but would rather be embraced by the earth that bore them, by the Great Mother who will welcome them back into her bosom maybe not via her feathered friends but through her special earth workers: beetles, worms, bacteria and the like. 

       They also have cremation-size pods, which I suppose would be more likely to fit into our family plot as is...well, I have a lot to think about here, along with some professional consultations to plan. Hopefully I’ve got a few more years—knock on wood—to work out these issues, burning and otherwise. But bottom line, whatever my wandering soul/spirit is up to, I would love to find a way for my nutrient-rich body to be engaged in its own kind of reincarnation as it feeds the earth, with maybe a special tree or even a few flowering shrubs (which I think our cemetery already allows) rising in memoriam to this person who loved her family and husbands and kids and the earth and is now off on other adventures who knows where or when, trying once again to do it better next time around, and trying to help our beautiful earth stay beautiful.

About the Author


Former "back-to-the-land" organic dairy farmer, Jeanne Wilkinson is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, NY and Madison, WI. Her essays have been featured on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, NPR's Living on Earth, Coil Magazine, and Lemon Theory. Her fiction has appeared in Columbia Journal, Digging Through the Fat, Prometheus Dreaming and Fresh.Ink. Adapted chapters from her memoir, "1969: My Year with a San Francisco Drug Dealer," have been published by The RavensPerch and New Millennium Writings. Another short memoir was recently published in Metafore Magazine. Her short experimental films have been screened at BAM, at the Greenpoint and NYC Indie Film Festivals, and the 13th St. Repertory Theater, Manhattan.