Friday, May 27, 2016

Cemetery Musings: Preparing for My Final Expenses

Oak Hill Cemetery, San Jose California
Since my wife had heart surgery on Wednesday, she became concerned with the what-ifs of our earthly existence, and figured it was time to arrange for our burials.  We already had our cemetery plots picked out and, along with our coffins, paid for, just a few yards from the graves of my parents.  However, there is more to final expenses than that.  You need a tombstone and have to pick out the type and color of granite from a wall chart, as well as a "vault," which is a metal box that encloses the casket.  The vault prevents your grave from caving in and prevents water intrusion.  There are several types of vaults to choose from, including stainless steel, copper, bronze and others.  We chose the stainless steel.  We settled on a slate-blue gray for the flat tombstone, which will be one stone for the both of us.

The cost of all this is $9,000 for the two of us, paid over five years:  $1,000 down and $150 a month to pay off the balance.  If one dies before payment is complete, the balance due for that person is forgiven.  If we both die, the entire balance is forgiven.

So when we die, our corpses will be sealed and preserved for centuries to come.  Why?  For what purpose?  I would prefer the old-fashioned way of burial, in a pine box where the remains are allowed to completely decompose back to their basic elements, perhaps adding some nutrients to the soil.  The other alternative is cremation.  As I watched the blur over the crematory's smoke stacks, i.e. the heated air carrying water vapor from burning bodies, I decided that was not for me.

Walking through the administrative offices of San Jose's Oak Hill Cemetery gave me the creeps.  Death is all around you.  Somewhere, down the halls in the back rooms, corpses are being washed, embalmed, coiffed and dressed in their Sunday best, then laid out in richly upholstered coffins for display.  A large HD screen in back of the reception desk displays the names of the deceased, the funeral services to be held, the burial dates, the chapels to be used.  A large percentage of the names were Vietnamese.

Everywhere you go, in the sales offices, the viewing rooms, the main vestibule, and even the bathrooms --  there is the cloying smell of flowers. It is a perfume that seems spread through the facility through the air conditioning system.  No doubt this has the same purpose that funeral flowers have had for millenia -- to hide the smell of death.  In older times, the smell was that of decay, but today the smell is that of formaldehyde, i.e. embalming fluid.  The smell took away any appetite I might have had.  I didn't even want to drink the bottled water they gave us.  It was "dead people's water."  Or so I imagined.

I first noticed the weird smell of a funeral when I was around seven years of age, and saw my first deceased person in a coffin -- my maternal grandfather.  I was very aware of the odor of embalming fluid, a smell that I will forever associate with funerals and death.  Which is convenient, since that's about all it is used for.

It's pretty hard to have any cheerful thoughts when visiting cemetery offices, to prepare for one's own final expenses.  You have to finally admit that you are mortal, that you are going to die.  You can ignore it and not think about it, and delay the morbid feelings that acknowledgement brings.  Let your surviving relatives worry about what to do with your body and how to pay for it.  Or, you can do as I and my Mrs did this week, make the arrangements well in advance, sparing your relatives the burden.

In spite of my morbid thoughts about this experience, I am grateful that cemetery companies exist, that morticians and coffin makers and florists and grave diggers exist.  Sending someone off on their final journey is not a pleasant task, but someone has to do it.  Now that it is settled, I plan to wait around for the Grim Reaper to show up, then punch him in the mouth and run.

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