After writing this column now for twenty years as of this month I’ve not ever been at a loss for subject matter. Our community presents so much rich, innovative and interesting activity by so many creative thoughtful souls that just a look and a listen brings inspiration. But having gone to way too many funerals and memorials in the past year of friends and relatives my age I can’t help but think of my own mortality and felt compelled to examine it. That’s hard to contemplate and a challenge to write about. So hard that it’s taken three months procrastination, reading four books, conducting two interviews and asking friends family and even strangers about their own plans for their ‘vessel’. So this is a bit of a morbid meditation on the inevitable, but in case you’re wondering, not for any immediate personal reason that I know of.
The day I turned eighteen, my father summoned me to his basement office in our home. He was very matter of fact. New York State had just passed one of the first do not resuscitate laws in the country and he wanted a DNR clause to be incorporated into his will. My mother refused to bear witness he explained and now that I was of the age of majority, I could do so instead. He was only forty-eight but his parents had both died by sixty and three of his four siblings as well, so he was a bit fatalistic and wanted his affairs in order. As it turned out, his DNR order was lost in the shuffle at a critical moment twenty-five years later, so as my fellow columnist Carol Henderson recently worried about in this very space, my family and my dad and all the taxpayers of the land had to endure a protracted and expensive demise. On the day my brother and I were finally enabled to ‘pull the plug’ we found him dead in the hospital bed. Per his wishes he was buried in the plot he and mother had purchased some years before in the lowlands of southeast Florida.
At that time, and not for twenty years since, did I recall that my father, as a younger man, a philanthropic soul and a scientist, had expressed a wish to donate his body to medical science. In fact that day in the basement, he’d also told me of that intention. Later in life, he, though not a terribly religious man, began to speak somewhat lightheartedly of ‘rolling into Jerusalem’ after his death. That is one vision of how Jews would be resurrected whenever it is that the Messiah or Messianic age arrives. Yes, as it sounds in this vision, all the bygone souls would burrow through the ground from wherever they might be interred, to Jerusalem to meet their Maker or his/her representative. In order to burrow effectively, the body had to be intact – and traditional Jewish law is adamant on this point – no cremation, no dissection. It did not occur to me to ask dad how and when that change of heart happened from science to faith from dissection to burial. Maybe it was aging and feeling more mortal. My mother doesn’t know either. So another layer added to the ultimate mystery.
In addition to dealing with my father’s corpse I’ve had only a few personal glimpses of death including a sidelong glance at my grandmother’s body at her funeral and my uncle who died in my arms in hospice. Being present when life leaves the body and you feel a person’s last heartbeat, hear their final breath and see their last look is a profoundly intimate look at the thing most of us fear and almost never speak of.
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More recent deaths of friends and a cousin exactly my age made me revisit this topic. As my father before me, I began to consider donating my body to medical science. I have no funeral plot; my wife desires cremation for herself and dispersal with the dolphins. I am already an organ donor and was one even back when my organs might have really done someone some good. So what is the difference between that and the next step of donating the whole vessel? I talked to the UNC Medical School representative and he encouraged me to look at the application forms for bequeathing the body, also noting I might be stored for two or three years before they used me and cautioning me I would certainly have to be formally accepted well in advance of my demise. Sadly he said many families have recently come forward out of financial need, offering after the fact to donate their loved one as they had no money for burial. That would be a ‘no’.
As I began to try on the donation idea out loud, reaction has been surprising even among my rational and science-minded friends. One in particular who had taught at the Duke Medical School was appalled as he’d seen students having a bit of anatomical fun at their cadaver’s expense. Another who’d studied physical therapy told me, “Of course we name them and make up stories about them while we’re working on them. We’re with them for a whole year.’
Most of those whom I ask of their plans are unsure or at least won’t tell me. One said, “My wife wants to burn me, so I guess I’ll let her’. While I started out convinced of my scientific mission, the more I’ve read and talked the more uncertain I’ve become. What if I can’t roll into Jerusalem should the time come?