Death on a Budget

This was a column I wrote for the opinion page of the Morganton News Herald in North Carolina.

September 25, 2002 — “Just stuff me in a Hefty Cinch-Sack and stick me out by the curb.”

My wife gets annoyed when I tell her that. Every once in a while the subject of death arrangements comes up and she asks me what I want done with my body. I invariably shrug my shoulders. Once I’m dead, that’s it. What do I care what happens to my body?

My philosophy on body disposition is simple: whatever’s cheap. Heck, if some money can be made off my corpse, then by all means sell it! I saw on the TV show Ripley’s Believe It Or Not an artist who slices up preserved cadavers and turns them into macabre art. His work is controversial, but if he is willing to pay a few bucks for the use of my carcass, then we can set up a payment plan right now. My big nose and growing Buddha belly ought to give the guy plenty of material to work with.

I’ve thought about donating my body to science, but I recently found out that scientists apparently have plenty of bodies in stock and are now picky about the corpses they accept. That’s a depressing thought. I’ve been rejected plenty of times during my life, but having my dead body rejected would be one final insult I can do without. I can see the writing on my tombstone now: “Rejected in life and death. The guy can’t even give himself away!”

So, if it turns out that the cadaver artist and scientists have no use for me, then what is the cheapest route to go? I Calvin Sossoman III, of Sossoman Funeral Home, was kind enough to talk with me for a few minutes about general funeral costs and the funeral business. Federal regulations require that anyone who steps into a funeral home asking about prices be furnished with a complete price list. So, Sossoman presented me with five pages full of various items and services. Not surprisingly, this long menu of caskets, urns, and various funeral services was mind-boggling.

Sossoman patiently pointed out the cheapest casket: the Doeskin Cloth Covered Wood White Satin for $695. I could also go for the immediate burial package at $2,020 with the casket included. The burial plot and headstone purchases are not handled by the funeral home, but Sossoman gave me some ballpark figures. A cemetery plot can cost somewhere around $550 to $800 and the headstone starts at about $250. Additionally, some cemeteries require an outer burial container so that the grave doesn’t sink in; a basic concrete box is $695.

As the costs started adding up, I couldn’t help but wonder what ever happened to the days when the deceased was viewed in the family living room and buried in the family cemetery. Sossoman told me that about 50 years ago that was common, but now that families tend to be scattered long distances apart, conducting memorials in the home just isn’t practical anymore. It can still be done, but no one wants to do it.

That last statement caught me off guard. It can actually still be done? I figured that such things would be outlawed by now, but Sossoman was confident; you can even bury someone in your own back yard.

Not that I didn’t trust Sossoman, but burying a relative next to the old oak tree in the back yard just didn’t seem right for some reason. I could picture a neighbor stopping by to say howdy while I’m knee-deep in a suspicious-looking hole.

“So, what are you up to?” he might say.

“I’m digging a grave for my grandmother,” I calmly reply while tossing dirt over my shoulder.

The next thing I know the cops are banging on my door asking questions.

David Rust, Burke County Health Director, cautiously assured me that I could bury someone on my property. He was quick to point out that he doesn’t encourage the practice, but he does know it has been done. There is simply no law preventing such activity. However, I would have to do some fast-talking to the cops because the county health department doesn’t have permits for home burials.

I’m in the minority, though, when it comes to cheap body disposition. Some yahoos will spare no expense to memorialize their loved ones. LifeGem, headquartered in Chicago, will take the carbon from the deceased’s ashes and produce a certified, high-quality diamond. People have been known to put cremated remains into a vial on a necklace, so why not go the next step up and wear your dead spouse in style? Prices for this service range from $4,000 to $28,000 depending on the carat size and color selected. My wife told me loud and clear, that if I ever did that to her she was coming back to haunt me. I don’t think she has to worry.