Up in smoke
I'm arranging my own funeral for two reasons:
to save money and put on a good show.
BY BILL VAUGHN
ALTHOUGH I'M NOT PLANNING TO DIE anytime soon, you never know. Fifteen years after moving to Dark Acres I’ve reached the Happy Hour of my life, and have begun developing phobias. One is getting brained by a frozen shitball excreted from a commercial airliner. Another is I’m sprawled in my hammock and suddenly there’s no gravity. And after losing first Radish the dog then Greenwich the horse, the fact of my own mortality has begun to reveal itself.
So, without kids or a real job, I’ve had plenty of time to rehearse a funeral I'm sure some people would enjoy. My own.
I started with a given—that the affair should be held in the open air by the river. Among the events I wanted to include was a scary reading in order to get everyone in a nice goosebumpy mood. And then, to change that mood, I wanted live music you can dance to. After that I thought it would be a good time for people to step forward and say things.
Or they could fish.
Finally, I wanted smoke and flames, and plenty of both. I wanted incense and fireworks and a huge bonfire. There’s nothing like a crackling blaze and the great outdoors to stoke a crowd’s appetite for the bison chili feast I envisioned as the centerpiece of the drunken wake to follow.
The autumn morning I made this decision I jumped from bed and turned my attention to the funeral pyre. Designing this thing wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. You can’t just pile up a bunch of brush and expect it to reduce a 180-pound man to six pounds of clinker. You need a plan. You need engineering. I Googled the problem but couldn’t find anything like Cremation for Dummies. I mean, how big would the pyre have to be? And where do you put the stiff? Underneath? In the middle? Or on top? If on top, how do you make sure the smoldering corpse doesn’t roll off and frighten people?After I remembered that the Hindus and the Buddhists like to torch their dead, I found some revealing photographs taken at sacred cremation grounds on the banks of the Baghmati River in Katmandu. These showed the whole process.
Finding wood wasn’t a problem. For a good, consuming fire there’s nothing like the pine and water birch that are plentiful in our forest, trees killed by bark beetles or drought. At the end of a sweaty morning with my chainsaw I had felled a big Ponderosa killed by bark beetles and a smaller birch and cut them into rounds two feet long. To add some extra fragrance to the smoke I sectioned a juniper that had died of old age, and the rootball of an old cedar I’d found in one of ourswamps. Then I removed a dead trunk from a hawthorn I determined was more than a century old, being careful not to harm the five other trunks, which would be bad luck.
After lunch I split all these rounds with an awl into flat slabs. I stacked these slabs, alternating their orientation from layer to layer in order to give the pyre stability, with enough space between the slabs to insert bark and pine needles and wadded pages from the Sunday New York Times. Our dogs watched till they got bored, then dove into the river for a swim, Clara first, followed by Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Welsh corgi we adopted after Radish died.
When I was finished I stepped back to admire my work. The stack was a neat rectangle four feet high, eight feet long and four feet wide, the classic dimensions of a cord of wood. Okay, it was a little bigger than the standard pyre, but I was going for something theatrical here. But how would I get the cadaver from house to pyre? Because of Lake Morel and Little Back Creek the river side of Dark Acres is usually inaccessible by pickup. I considered the idea of having my carcass driven upstream to a put-in on the river, then brought down by boat. But that would involve the monkey business of carting me out of the house, into the truck, out of the truck and into my canoe, then out of the canoe and onto the pyre, a spectacle that might alarm other recreationists, who might call the sheriff.
Finally, I saw that the solution was to have the pallbearers splay me across the back of Scarlett. Then Kitty would lead her through the swamps with Rolex. Although the drama of a final ride appealed to me, this turned out to be easier said than done. Scarlett is not a pack animal, she’s a highbred Quarter Horse trained to compete in rodeos. It’s not that she’s skittish so much as easily insulted when asked to do work she feels beneath her.
However, after I heaved myself sack-like onto the saddle a few times Scarlett got the point and allowed Kitty to lead her for a few feet before I slid to the ground.
“Tell me you’re not serious about this,” Kitty said.
“What, you want to blow $6,000 on a boring funeral?”
“What about Willy von Bracht?”
Von Bracht is a Montana furniture maker whose Sweet Earth Casket Company sells a nice pine kit for a mere $300 that serves as a book depository or an armoire till it’s time to plant the stiff. A few years ago he sent one to Johnny Carson, who told Von Bracht in his thank you note that he intended to be buried with a couple bottles of the wine he was using the casket to house. While I don’t object to burial for others, as entertainment I didn’t think even a homemade, old-timey funeral in the woods would be dramatic enough for me.
“How am I going to bring in da funk from a box?” I asked.
“I mean, I think people want action.”
“Why can’t you just get cremated like normal people? I’ll spread the ashes wherever you want.”
“You’re going to have people over to look at an urn? That’s like inviting them over to watch a movie and showing them Gigli.”
The next day I was surfing the web and came across a description of the first crematorium in America, built in Pennsylvania in 1876. The author said in most states, including Montana, only licensed crematoria were allowed to toast a cadaver.
I couldn’t believe it. And then I remembered the crematorium in Great Falls, my odious home town, a foreboding and sterile white fortress that emitted from its smokestacks the sweet and cloying smell of burning kerosene. I sent off a letter to the Montana Board of Funeral Service, using my nom de plum, Richard Kranium. They sent me Montana Code 37-19-705, Cremation Procedures. “Human remains may not be cremated except in a licensed crematory,” it said. I was astounded. A quarter of the world’s people cremate their loved ones on funeral pyres. In India, where death is a chance to move on up in the spiritual pecking order, the Ganges River is lined with public cremation grounds. Can 1.5 billion people be wrong?
Of course, due to the lobbying power of the Montana Funeral Directors Association the state of Montana is not noted for its progressive regulations regarding last rites. Until 1980 the law required that all bodies had to be embalmed. And it dictates that a private landowner can only bury blood relatives on the land, which means that most final remains will end up in a pricey plot at the local cemetery. It seemed to me that what I did with my own corpse on my own land was none of their goddamn business.
So I sent the bureaucrats a response: Dear sirs, kiss my ash. However, Kitty saw me walking the letter to the box and retrieved it before our carrier could pick it up. I saw that she was probably right—no reason at this point to get the authorities all hot and bothered.
When it was time for the rehearsal I picked a cool, overcast day, moody but calm. The gray, sullen sky stretched away like the heavens in one of those somber medieval paintings. At a safe distance from the pyre I arranged a couple of lawn chairs. Kitty sat down to watch, shaking her head. We’d shut the dogs in the house because they get wigged out by fireworks.
A couple days earlier I’d come across a whitetail doe killed with an arrow to the belly by some cruel and lazy bowhunter. Ravens had pecked out her eyes. She now lay upon the pyre, under a white bedsheet festooned with incense and blue and yellow wildflowers. Next to her I had placed my mother’s American flag and my father’s cowboy boots.
To get things off to a roaring start I emptied two liters of my favorite vodka on the pyre. Then I torched the business end of a broom with a lighter and began sweeping the base of the pyre with it. As the flames climbed through the stack and the smoke began to swirl I backed away. Soon, the pyre was roaring. My face felt like I had a fever.
I looked at Kitty to gauge her reaction but she was busy talking on her cell phone to one of her sisters about horses.
It takes three hours at a temperature of 1700 degrees Fahrenheit for the ovens in a crematorium to fry an adult. The peak temperatures in my pyre would range from 1200 to 1500 degrees, toasty enough to do the job, it would just take a little longer, maybe even overnight. But that’s all right—I had nothing but time.
All at once there issued from the pyre a mélange of fragrances as complicated as an old wine aging in interesting ways: carnation, jasmine, alcohol, cedar, grilled venison, and the pungent reek of burning hair and flesh. I opened my book and read T. S. Elliot’s terrifying poem, The Hollow Men, letting my voice get theatrical at my favorite part:
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are in the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom
Then I punched on the boombox and we listened to a CD made by Cheap Cologne, a jazz band that had played at our wedding party. Although they disbanded a few years ago I hoped Kitty could convince them to reprise their excellent nuptial performance at my funeral. As the final chord faded in a flurry of drums I used my smoldering broom to touch off a display of Chinese fireworks I bought on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and rigged up myself. First there was a terrific volley of Screaming Busters. Whoosh! they went as they launched themselves out of their mortars, and a second later Boom! as they exploded above the river in great spreading bouquets of green and blue. A second later the echo rebounded off the Bitterroot Mountains. Ducks rose in alarm, thinking duck hunter, confused about which way to flee. Next came a fusillade of Cracking Pistols, sticks that rapid-fire a dozen shots each, a relentless chucka! chucka! chucka! that sounded like midnight in Baghdad. Afterwards, a vast silence fell over the floodplain, broken only by the remote howling of a dog. I made a note to triple the number of Screaming Busters.
Meanwhile, flames had completely engulfed the doe and vaporized the bedsheet. Her blackened skull and abdomen had ruptured, and her jaw had dropped away from her face, giving her an antic mile-wide smile, as if the moment of death had been hilarious. Her brain was frying, her juices were sizzling, and her bones were popping. Although this was a grisly sight, it had a certain morbid appeal, like something mutant in a bottle of formaldehyde the eye registers but the mind resists. The images of my own dénouement would be even more gruesome—people recoil from the human form on fire because it shows us like no other damage how fragile is our flesh, how fleeting is the physical life. As we shudder with a revulsion that is probably hard-wired in the old parts of our brains, our thoughts race anxiously to witches, and Joan of Arc, and flaming monks in the streets of Saigon.
The longer I watched the events of the pyre unfold the more I felt at peace. Not only was this the kind of drama I was after in a funeral—a strong narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—its struck me that it was also a moving and emotional way to dispose of the dead. The flames would strip away my layers in the reverse order they were constructed, a poetic and symmetrical return to nothingness. There was a Teutonic element here, as well—the ancient Germans believed that the smoke issuing from a pyre made of hawthorn lofted the soul directly into the afterlife. Plus, because of the incense, the pyre even had some of the Catholic cosmology that rubbed off on me from the Morans. Although for centuries the Church condemned cremation as a pagan ritual the ban was lifted in 1963. Still, scattering the loved one’s cremains is considered sacrilegious.
“Are you finished?” Kitty asked, putting away her cell phone.
“What do you think?”
She sighed. “If this is what you want, I guess this is what you’ll get.”
“But no Sati,” she said, surprising me. Sati is the archaic Hindu custom in which the widow threw herself on her husband’s pyre in the belief that she would go directly to heaven. Her suicide also freed any of her forebears who were rotting in Hell.
“You’ve been doing your homework,” I said.
The first shadows from Black Mountain had fallen upon us, and it would soon be dark. The steaming pyre was now only a foot high. I could see the doe’s bones glowing in the dusk.
We went back to the house for a Martini, our gin game and dinner. At midnight when I walked out to the river with the dogs the fire was still smoldering and the coals were too hot to touch. But the next morning, which broke with the promise of a storm, the pyre’s work was finished.
A wind swept up the river, throwing around the branches of the trees, and then it was quiet again. On the ground lay what was left of the doe in a carpet of ash. I reached down and took a handful of what she had been. This wasn’t ash, of course, but shards of brittle bone. In order to mask anything recognizable as human, crematoria grind the bones before they turn the urn over to the family.
I stood up and admired the river as it swept around the base of the mountains and out of sight through the corridor of pines and cottonwoods, whose canopies were turning yellow. The peace and solitude and quiet on this moody morning in Dark Acres was so profound my ears started ringing just to have something to do.
A sudden whirlwind lifted the ashes of the pyre into the air and dropped them on the water. And then another gust scattered the bones.
COPYRIGHT © 2006 BY BILL VAUGHN