Meghan Daum

Basically Dead

A Gen Xer contemplates mortality, burial, and decay

Photo by Leonardo Yip on Unsplash

I think a lot about being dead. Not necessarily dying (I try not to think about that) or death — but deadness, specifically my own eventual state thereof. I think about lying underground and decaying into the earth, my flesh feasted upon by parasites and spores, my bones eroding into the soil, my organs liquefying and being siphoned up through tree roots. As though listening to a yoga instructor tell me to relax each body part, one by one, during the final savasana portion of a class — release your left foot, exhale out your right shoulder, let your spleen melt into the floorboards — I imagine the incremental corrosion of my carcass. I imagine the passing of a season or two until wildflowers grow over me like a blanket.

I run through this sequence of thoughts at various times of the day and night; when I’m lying in bed trying to fall asleep, when I’m sitting at my desk trying to work, when I’m stuck in traffic staring at a mile of taillights stretched out ahead of me on the freeway. You might find this morbid; to me it’s soothing. I’m still in my forties, reasonably happy and, as far as I know, perfectly healthy. But there’s something almost meditative about conjuring my physical being in a state of active disintegration.

“We’re basically dead. Nothing we grew up with or cared about when we were young even exists anymore, so we sort of don’t exist either.”

I don’t know how or when I’m going to die, but I do know that when it does happen, I want a green burial. (Loved ones, please take note.) Sometimes called a “natural burial” (though definitions and standards of “greenness” vary), this is when a body is buried, without embalming, inside a shroud or container that can decompose right into the soil. The gold standard of green burials takes place on land trusts that have been set aside as permanent conservation easements and are maintained according to certain restoration ecology principles, but these, unsurprisingly, are few and far between. The next best thing is often a hybrid cemetery, which offers burial areas that minimize environmental impact by using only biodegradable caskets and shrouds and never burying embalmed bodies.

Many religions, such as Judaism and Islam, practice natural burial anyway, so in that sense, it’s not particularly exotic. It should also be said that cremation rates have increased steadily over the last several decades and now account for just over half of body disposals. But considering that the funeral industry still puts more than a million and a half tons of concrete and more than four million gallons of formaldehyde-soaked embalming fluid into the ground every year — and that a traditional cremation spews out carbon dioxide and even mercury into the atmosphere — the rest of us would do well to consider natural burial for carbon footprint-reducing reasons, if not religious reasons. (For what it’s worth, there’s also an ecological cremation method called promession, which uses liquid nitrogen to turn cremains into biodegradable freeze-dried powder.) Admittedly, it was a cable drama that got me thinking about green burial, specifically the third to last episode of the last season of Six Feet Under, in 2005. After five seasons of watching the Fisher family, proprietors of a multi-generational funeral home, embalm bodies, and peddle expensive caskets, we see prodigal son Nate buried in a cloth shroud and covered with dirt in an unmarked grave, according to his wishes.

“That was the first time that modern, TV-watching America saw what a green burial was,” Elizabeth Fournier, author of The Green Burial Guidebook: Everything You Need To Plan An Affordable, Environmentally Friendly Burial, told me when I called her the other day for tips on finding my own grave. “A lot of people were very affected by that scene. It kicked off a surge of interest.”

My interest in green burial has intensified in recent months, in part because my father died not long ago, relatively unexpectedly. We’d never talked about how he wanted his remains handled, so his ashes now sit, in a box, on a shelf in my apartment, awaiting some final resting place that remains to be determined. When my mother died nine years ago, we fulfilled her wishes and sprinkled her ashes in a public space, in which, I now realize, was illegal. In both cases, the process felt — and continues to feel — chaotic and insufficient.

Since I have no children, the chaos of my own death could very well become the burden of someone I’m not even related to. I want to keep that burden as minimal as possible. I already cringe when the utility guy comes every month and has to read the electric meter in the back of my mortifyingly messy closet in my mortifyingly messy bedroom. The idea of loved ones rifling through my stuff looking for instructions on what to do with me postmortem is too distressing to contemplate. (“Get a hot pink folder, write ‘burial wishes’ on it in magic marker, and put it someplace where people can easily find it,” Fournier says, though first I’ll have to override my aversion to hot pink.)

But the more I think about it, my recent interest in the subject has nothing to do with physical extinction — my parents’ or anyone else’s. It’s more like cultural extinction.

“We’re basically dead,” a fellow fortysomething said a few months ago during a conversation about how we feel geriatric despite technically being in early middle age. “Nothing we grew up with or cared about when we were young even exists anymore, so we sort of don’t exist either.”

I have some version of this conversation at least weekly now. Sometimes it’s about how young people don’t want our advice anymore because nothing about our past experience — “Pass out your business card at networking events!” “Look for potential romantic partners in bookstores!” — is relevant to the world as it is now. Sometimes it’s about the fact that no matter how digitally adept we are, we’ll never be “digital natives” and therefore will never be able to compete on the job market with people who can use terms like “social media influencers” and keep a straight face. Almost always, the conversation ends with us shaking our heads and wondering aloud if all this griping is just a generic byproduct of aging; if rather than talking about the revolutionary cultural shifts, we’re merely barking out our version of “get off my lawn.”

Is this why I want to literally sink into a lawn? Is it why I devoted an inordinate amount of time last week to researching the Infinity Burial Suit? Also known as the “mushroom death suit,” this is a garment lined with hybrid mushrooms meant to break down corpses while also removing them of toxins and sending nutrients back into the earth. Its creators are also the founders of The Decompiculture Society, an organization devoted to promoting “intimacy with and acceptance of the physical realities of decomposition as vehicles toward death acceptance.” Now operating as a company called Coeio, it sells the mushroom suit for $1,500 as well as a range of other burial products, including mushroom-infused pet burial shrouds starting at $75.

The mushroom suit, which looks like footie pajamas as might be worn by Obi Wan Kenobi, doesn’t appeal to me as much as the idea of just being wrapped in a piece of linen and left to my own devices. The nagging question is where I can be buried and whether I should try to get in on some real estate now. I’ll probably never reside in the kind of place that would allow me to be buried in my own backyard, appealing as it may sound (though perhaps less so for anyone who might want to sell said land after I’m gone). There’s also the frustrating fact that California, where I often live and suspect I’ll die, doesn’t offer any conservation trusts and the handful of hybrid cemeteries are in places I don’t feel a personal connection to. That includes Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica, which can be a real schlep in traffic from my stomping grounds on Los Angeles’ east side.

I’d go directly into the heartland soil in nothing but a cotton dress, where I’d decompose and eventually be reincarnated as a Willa Cather paperback.

At one point in my conversation with Fournier, it dawned on me that a great place to be buried might be the Nebraska prairie, where I lived for several years in the early 2000s and to which I feel a strong spiritual connection. By strong spiritual connection, I’m referring to multiple attempts to buy some kind of dilapidated farmstead on which I pictured myself strolling through the tall grass in a cotton dress and possibly even a sunbonnet. These attempts were all thwarted either by recalcitrant sellers or my own chickening out, but the allure remains.

“Google funeral homes in the part of Nebraska you’re interested in being buried in,” Fournier told me. “Then call and ask what the rules of the local cemeteries are. Some of these tiny cemeteries in the middle of nowhere might have available space and be open to natural burial.”

For a moment, it all seemed so right. I’d go directly into the heartland soil in nothing but a cotton dress, where I’d decompose and eventually be reincarnated as a Willa Cather paperback. But then it occurred to me that my body would have to be transported to Nebraska, and that would be a hassle for those involved; worse, even, than the commute from the east side of LA to Santa Monica. Maybe better to stay in California after all. But then I checked the prices at Woodlawn Cemetery: $17,617.50 for an adult green burial space, not including required funeral services! There’s the west side for you.

“We’re basically dead.” The sentence imprinted itself in my brain the moment I heard it and I can still feel it there pressing upon me. Recently, while buying an overpriced coffee, I triumphantly presented the barista with exact change, after digging around furiously in my wallet.

“We don’t accept cash,” he told me.

My immediate thought was that somehow the coffee was free. But obviously, that wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that they accepted only debit or credit cards or some way of paying on your iPhone that I would never consider. What was also obvious was that I was basically dead. “But, but,” I thought to myself, “I just dug up $4.68 in exact change! That includes a nickel and three pennies, rare coins!” The cashier, who I’m certain had a man bun in spirit, if not in actuality, looked at me with actual pity.

I think about going back to that coffee shop wearing a mushroom suit and demanding that I be allowed to pay in legal tender. I imagine the barista looking perplexed as I explain, “You’re staring death straight in the face right now. This is what it looks like! I’m decomposing right before you!”

Ancient Greeks buried their dead with coins in their mouths so they could pay the ferryman to cross the river Styx to the underworld. Maybe my generation will resume this practice, burying each other with cash that’s no longer needed in the era of Venmo and Apple Pay. And maybe my generation, by virtue of our precocious obsolescence — and increasing life spans — will also have so much time to think about our deaths that we start making some space for burial plots that don’t cost upwards of $17,000.

For now, though, I’m wondering if my visceral need to decay into the loamy earth speaks to some sort of visceral need to be relevant, to feel a tactile connection to people, places, and things. Maybe the idea of being eaten by microbes and fungus has something in common with the feeling of handing someone your business card, talking to a stranger in a bookstore, strolling through prairie grass in a cotton dress, or simply paying with cash. Maybe this obsession with being dead is actually fantasy about staying alive in ways that seem no longer possible, or at least no longer useful in today’s world.

On Sunday, a screen grab went viral that showed a news graphic outlining birth years for generations that are currently alive; the silent generation, baby boomers, millennials, and post-millennials. There was only one problem. Generation X, a small but very real cohort tucked between the baby boomer and the millennial had been left out. On social media, many Gen Xers responded with our characteristic appreciation for the irony of it all, even a wry satisfaction. “Exactly as it should be! Wouldn’t want it any other way!” The solidarity was moving, even inspiring. I had to wonder if “basically dead” is, in some perverse way, a form of better living.

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything.

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