Even in our bureaucracy, where the government controls where you live, go to school, when you can work and how you can dress, there is one area in which ordinary citizens do have an incredible amount of control: in death. Even an authoritarian government like ours generally does not violate the sanctity of a legal will. You’re going to die, and you should take as much care as you can to avoid the indignity of a death unplanned. After death, your corpse has influence—and you should be prepared to wield it.
Death-positive author and mortician Caitlin Doughty, whose mortuary Clarity Funerals and Cremations offers a preemptive funeral planning service, has a video series called Iconic Corpse. It focuses on the ways that various individual’s death plans—or lack thereof—made them an iconic figure postmortem.
For instance, Jeremy Betham, born in 1748, was a fierce utilitarian who wrote in his last will and testament that he still be useful after death. He asked that his body be preserved and displayed in the halls of University College London for study and companionship. The parts of his body that have been successfully preserved, combined with wax sculpture, remain there today. Another figure from the series is Japanese Empress Tachibana no Kachiko, a Buddhist who was frustrated by the public’s focus on her beauty as opposed to her teachings. She stipulated in her last will and testament that her body be thrown into the street after her death for wild dogs to eat, showing the brevity of corporeal existence.
More famous, however, are the many individuals whose wishes for their own deaths were swiftly ignored by the state. Among these was James Barry, a successful doctor and transgender man who was misgendered and whose male identity was otherwise denigrated after his death. Many other figures did not have their death wishes respected, among them Charles Byrne the Irish Giant, Saartjie Baartman and Eva Peron; it is worth noting that these individuals received the fates they did not only because of their lack of a legal will, but in large part due to their subjugated status. Nevertheless, their fates are a chilling reminder of the need to use the law to the best of your ability to defend yourself against the State that would so willingly desecrate your corpse in the name of science, religion or shock value.
So how on earth do you even make a death plan? A comprehensive death plan includes writing your last will and testament and getting it notarized, outlining your wishes for the funeral and memorial services, designating power of attorney, preparing an advance health care directive, and organizing your finances and passwords. It’s a lot of complicated stuff, but if you are reading this, you are likely a college student. So it probably isn’t necessary for you to complete every step of your death plan right now, although there are a few things you should be thinking about. As Arts and Entertainment Editor Tyler Mendoza said when asked about her death plan, “Being young, broke and single made this ‘death plan’ thing pretty easy.”
For starters, think about what you want done with your body—there are plenty of other options besides burial. Burial wreaks havoc on the environment, using on average “30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid,” according to Doughty. The toxic substances used to embalm a body eventually leak into the water table of wherever the body is buried. Doughty also points out that the most popular alternative to burial, cremation, “is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide and climate-changing carbon dioxide.” Alternatives are in development, such as aquamation (water-based cremation), recomposition, and mushroom-growing burial shrouds, but at the moment, the most easily accessible and environmentally friendly option is a natural burial. Natural burial is what “for most of human history … was just called ‘burial.’ A simple, shallow hole dug into the earth, and the shrouded dead body placed into the hole.” Natural burial is safe, easy, legal and inexpensive. It also provides more opportunity for intimacy with loved ones; families can be directly involved in laying a body to rest. Another option is conservation burial, which Doughty refers to as “chaining yourself to a tree, post-mortem.” A conservation burial commits potential burial fees to a conservation easement, which protects the land from development and ensures that native plants are planted there. During the Campanil staff’s discussion about our respective death plans, assistant Opinions editor Ari FitzGibbon voiced support for the natural burial method: “I would like to be disposed of via natural burial so that my death has as little negative environmental impact as possible.”
Another important thing to keep in mind is assets; as someone without siblings or dependents, FitzGibbon emphasizes the importance of charity, instructing that if “that I die without any legal dependents, I would like all of my money to be donated to the GoFundMes/Kickstarters of queer and trans people of color. If I die with a legal dependent, they should still have to donate at least 25% of my earthly funds to said GoFundMes/Kickstarters.”
As a college student, you are unlikely to have many assets. As Mendoza puts so succinctly: “I don’t have much to be accounted for except the debt I’ve accumulated here at Mills. My dog can [live] with my mom and visit my dad on the weekends. And my dad can have what’s left of my groceries in the fridge.” While they are not a material asset, you’ll also want to think about what you’d like done with your passwords, for social media and otherwise. Do you want your accounts to be shut down after your death, or memorialized? It is important to keep all your passwords in a safe place not only for security during your life, but so your next of kin can access them and execute your wishes regarding them after your death.
While less practical as a college student, thinking about your funeral or memorial service is something you can do as well. By envisioning how you want to be remembered after your passing, it can help you become more comfortable with death. For example, our Chief Copy Editor Dana Culpepper mentioned her desire for “a celebration of life instead of funeral, and I’ve always had the idea to have everyone wear my favorite color turquoise instead of black.” You can have some level of control over your funeral—the choices you make in life will have consequences long after your passing.
While planning for your own death is daunting, it allows us to familiarize ourselves with death while we are still alive, as well as making things easier on our loved ones.