Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where R.H. Macy, R.W. Sears, and J.B. Bloomingdale alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about respecting a parent’s wishes.
My mother recently told me something and I’m not sure how to handle it. When she dies, my mom has decided she wants her body to be “bio-cremated.” This is a new procedure, and I had to look it up: basically, she wants her remains dissolved in a vat, then dehydrated into a powder. People who like this idea approve of how eco-friendly it is (it uses a quarter of the energy of regular cremation), and I suspect this is why my mother likes it so much.
Muffle, this skeeves me out so bad.
I don’t have a good reason, really, and I know I should respect her wishes, but a big part of me has a huge problem with the idea of turning my mom into, as Wikipedia describes it, “a quantity of green-brown tinted liquid” and some dust. What do I do? I hope my mom has many more years before this really comes up, but I’m not comfortable pretending to be okay with it while she’s still here if I’m not going to follow through once she’s gone.
Don’t Melt Mommy!
It’s times like this I realize that I am not the av-er-age bear, because I think that’s so cool. I had to look it up too, and there are so many new and weird options for body disposal! Eternal reefs! Space burial! PLASTINATION! I had no idea!
Anyway, I understand your feelings about this. This is your mom we’re talking about. It feels wrong, somehow, to think about doing something so destructive and final to her body. You’ve never known her without that body, and it’s a part of her; you want to respect it like you respect her, and that’s admirable and natural.
That said, I suspect much of your alarm comes from the fact that this method of handling remains is so unfamiliar to you. Objectively, without the cultural baggage of what we’ve come to expect, it’s plenty weird to seal our loved ones in wooden boxes, which we then place in bigger, metal boxes, which we bury underground and put a rock on top of. It’s also pretty weird to put our friends and family in a very, very hot oven, then crush any pieces that remain and put them in a flower pot with a lid. Death is strange and uncomfortable, and we’ve tried to normalize a lot of pretty odd customs to give ourselves some familiarity with the otherwise distressing and disorienting process of grief.
So, if I were you, that’s where I’d start. I highly recommend reading the book “From Here to Eternity” by Caitlin Doughty, a mortician from California who explored and wrote about a variety of burial and funeral traditions from around the world. It might sound morbid, but her perspective on the ways in which different cultures respect their dead is enlightening. I wouldn’t choose to mummify my mom and bring her out on special occasions years after her death, but I understand now why the people of Toraja in Indonesia do so, and looking at the world from their perspective helped me to better understand that death doesn’t mean just one thing, and there’s a lot of significance in how we choose to approach it.
Even so, you might not find that this gets you to the degree of comfort you’d need in your situation. After all, this isn’t the death ritual of some far-away people you’ll likely never meet; it’s your mom. After taking the time to get more familiar with biocremation and death in general, if you find that you’re still not on board with your mother’s wishes, then I think you have to talk to her about it. Your letter makes me think that you ejected from this conversation pretty quickly the first time (since you “suspect” she’s interested due to the ecological implications), so it’s important that you get a better understanding of why your mother wants this, and how serious she is about the idea. It may turn out that this was a passing fancy, and she’s actually fine with a more traditional method of handling her remains. Or it may turn out that she has sincere, compelling justifications underlying her decision, and understanding those would bring you closer to peace with her choice.
Regardless of how it turns out, I don’t recommend just ignoring your mother’s wishes. No matter your feelings about an afterlife and whether she’d be watching you disapprovingly as you went against her request, if her desires are known to others and you choose another path after she’s gone, that can cause a lot of drama and resentment during an already difficult and emotional time. Plus, funeral rituals are about respecting our dearly departed; it kind of messes with the tone if the first thing you do is disregard their explicit instructions.
Snark and tipples,
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