What Remains

I was five years old when I first learned of cremation. After a surprise mid-week dinner of burgers and fries from a local fast food joint, our mother turned to my brother and I with a long and serious face. The grim set of her expression brought a quiet over us. She told us that our grandfather had inexplicably died overnight.

Hanging on the periphery of the kitchen sometime later, my brother and I listened as my parents consoled one another. We learned that grandfather wished to be cremated and to have his ashes spread over the acreage he owned in Missouri. At that point I had never experienced the loss of a loved one and the idea of ceasing to exist felt unfathomable. My mind was further blown by trying to imagine my grandfather’s body put to fire. Seeing my discomfort, my parents explained cremation to me in matter-of-fact terms, and soon enough I was parroting my grandfather’s wishes. Of course I had no idea what I was saying, let alone any real sense of death, but I kept the idea of cremation with me most of my lived life.

My mortality is a real and sobering contemplation now that I’m fast approaching 50. There is no denying the creeping marks of age. Staring into the mirror I’m greeted with wrinkles and filaments of gray that no longer seem to disappear with a good night’s rest. Those magical, youthful abilities that washed away suggestions of age have lost their powers. I’ve survived a brush with cancer at 26, and have embarked on managing a heart issue in my 40’s. Beyond myself I’ve lived through harrowing health experiences with loved ones, and experienced the deaths of friends and family. All of these experiences have driven home the inevitability of dying, taking it from the abstract to the concrete. One day, at any given moment, I will cease to exist. Beyond imagining how I will die, is the thought of what will be done with my remains.

It always felt practical to have the old meat bag thrown in an oven and flame-broiled until reduced to ash. I figured there were added benefits, as you’d likely save money on the cost of the coffin and a burial plot no one was going to visit. This approach check’s off two values important to my Midwestern upbringing: it’s economical and lacks inconvenience.

Then one day I was holding the box that held my fathers remains. It was a small, white, cardboard cube stamped with the bold, red declaration “Human Cremains”. This was one of those moments – you know, one of those moments that strike you as having a profundity beyond words? Without digressing too much, my father was an imposing figure, both in physical stature and psychological menace. I had a long and troubling history with him. A history that left many scars. And there I stood holding what was left of him, and it amounted to a small cube of about 2 pounds.

Curious, I opened the box to see what was inside. Inside was a container made of flimsy black plastic, and inside this was a clear plastic bag filled with my fathers ashes. Whenever this bag shifted, the black, granular nuggets inside would crunch together. Holding this box of crumbly briquettes dispelled the notions I held of powdery, white-gray ashes. I realized my idea of human cremains being something that could be whisked away on the wind, releasing a spirit over the land or some crap, was nonsense. This was a pile of black charcoal that would float on the wind about as well as a handful of tossed rocks. The idea of cremation no longer felt welcome.

Growing up, my father often proclaimed he didn’t care what happened to his body after he died. “Throw it on the trash heap. I won’t be needing it anymore”. Little would he know how close his body has come to that. My father left no direction in his will for what to do with his remains upon death. As the funeral home bagged my fathers body for removal from my parent’s living room, my mother was pressed to make an on the spot decision. After a few moments of hand wringing she decided to have his body donated to “science”. I like to imagine this meant he wound up as a cadaver in a classroom where doctoral students sliced away at his corpse in a quest for knowledge.

Look, I watched all five seasons of “Six Feet Under”. It was enough of an education to know that I don’t want my body “prepped” for viewing. Gluing, sewing, stuffing the body, and pumping it full of preservative, while also flushing bodily fluids and other waste down the drain seems enough to dissuade anyone from choosing a traditional burial.

That paints a nice, respectable image. Yet when imagining this my mind inadvertently flashes back to high school biology class when my classmates and I hacked at pale, fleshy pig uterus’s with dull surgical knives while suffocating in a cloud of formaldehyde and the sweltering humidity of a late Chicago spring. I can’t help but recall the mess of animal parts and fluids we left slopped on the classroom table tops as we sought to separate delicate uterine fibers with all the precision of a blind man wielding a chainsaw. I only hope the conditions my fathers body underwent, wherever it ended up, were more respectable and ceremonious than the slaughter and overall lack of learning that took place in that high school classroom.

No matter where it ended up, two years after the donation his cremains arrived on my mothers doorstep in that small, white box. I like to imagine there were a few moments of somber reflection before she placed the package on an overhead closet shelf where, as far as I know, it still remains. I often fear the box will be mistaken for clutter and wind up thrown in the garbage.

Traditional Burial

I fault no one for choosing a traditional burial for themselves or their family, and understand the importance it can hold for families when saying goodbye to their loved ones. Of course, not all traditional burials involve open caskets, viewings, or many of the other preparations that can be made to a body. Still, many aspects of traditional burial are problematic for me. I find the dressing up of a body and its display to be a grotesque adult show-n-tell where we pretend that laying before us is the person we once knew. I’ve seen a number of bodies on funeral display, some with such poor make-up applications that it made them appear clown-like, or worse yet, waxy and unreal to the point of tipping into uncanny-valley territory. I’ve also viewed faces sagged and molded into a death mask that so deranged the features I barely recognized them. Those viewings left a deep sadness with the disfigurement and indignities of death more than any sense of comfort or closure. Perhaps it’s selfish, but I’d prefer to remember the life of the person and feel the gratitude of having been able to share in their experiences of living, without having my memory of them marred by a visual defacement of their features.

Then there is the preparation of the body for viewing. Look, I watched all five seasons of “Six Feet Under”. It was enough of an education to know that I don’t want my body “prepped” for viewing. Gluing, sewing, stuffing the body, and pumping it full of preservative, while also flushing bodily fluids and other waste down the drain seems enough to dissuade anyone from choosing a traditional burial.

If that isn’t enough, there is the burial plot. There is no way for me to see how traditional burial is sustainable. A lot of people die, every day, in a town or city. How much land do we afford for the internment of bodies? It seems like a poor use of a valuable resource. And after a generation or two, how many of those plots are even visited?

I’ve also read enough news stories describing hurricanes or other forces of nature breaching cemetery grounds, releasing the dead from their burial plots, and washing caskets and bodies throughout communities. I’d rather not imagine any chance of my corpse coasting on the crest of a tidal wave of sewage, automobiles, and other garbage as it pours through main street.

Without digressing further into the macabre, it’s suffice to say that none of this may be of much importance as time goes on. Since 2015 cremation has replaced burial as the top choice for bodily disposal after death, and according to CNN, it continues to grow in popularity.


As noted, cremation had been my disposal method of choice for most of my given life. That changed when holding my fathers ashes. Why should holding my fathers ashes cause a change of mind about cremation? Holding my father’s ashes revealed I held contradictory feelings about the disposal of my body. On one hand, I see the utility in cremation, and believe that once life leaves the body it’s just leftover meat. Donate your organs, or donate the body to science, but there is little to be sentimental about; the life is gone, the body was simply the machinery that carried it. My assumption that there would be significant cost savings has proven to be the case as well. A few moments of research reveals that putting a body in the ground is prohibitively expensive, while cremation is relatively affordable. It also gives the survivors a host of creative ways to dispose of the ashes. Some of the creative ways available include embedding the ashes into wearable jewelry, or much like Hunter Thompson, blasting them all over the landscape through the explosive force of fireworks.

On the other hand I realized my ideas of cremation were colored by misinformation, and sudo-spiritual dreck. I truly believed the cremated body was reduced to fine, grayish-white ashes. Peering into that box immediately revealed my naivety. Yet why should the texture or color of the ashes matter? I haven’t a good answer for this outside of an inkling that because the remains are crunchy bits they remind me of leftovers. Think blackened rib-tips, the caramelized top of a meat-loaf, or the cooked-on morsels you deglaze from a frying pan. I also have no religious or spiritual beliefs. Though with examination I discovered I was holding onto “poetic” feelings about all of this: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, returning the body to whence it came. This idea held a “cycle of nature” appeal to me. It contained enough symbolism to leave me feeling comforted with the process. It also revealed I was being sentimental about the remains. This contradiction left me discomfited.

Ultimately it came down to those crumbly, crunchy sounding charcoal bits. I was filled with something I can only describe as body protectionism. It left me convinced being reduced to charcoal and then dumped somewhere was no longer the way I wanted my body disposed of. The poetical cycle of life consummated in cremation, the symbolism of that process, while appealing and to an extent desired, fell apart in the face of those “leftovers”. The rose-tinted story I told myself about cremation was stripped away and revealed to be some seriously deceptive mind voodoo.


For a time body liquification (also known as Alkaline Hydrolysis) was on my radar as a contender for the disposal of my remains. The process of body liquification involves being melted down in a heated and pressurized vat. The resulting slurry can be batched up in a container much like an urn, or in some states, flushed down the drain. Right away, flushing a human milkshake down the drain seems uncaring and hostile to the memory of a loved one. It doesn’t seem much different than flushing them down the toilet; a truly awful insult to a life lived. Obviously there are multiple levels of “yuck” to pouring a liquified body down the drain, though what I immediately want to know is where the slurry ends up. It can be used as fertilizer and is often donated for such use. It can also, and often does, wind up being poured down the drain, processed at water reclamation sites, and served back to the general public. I for one do not want to think for a moment I’m going to end up drinking grandma. I don’t care if it’s sterile or not.

The liquification process involves extra work once the body has been melted down. The bones remain and must be ground to dust. This extra step of pulverizing the bones feels like a lot of effort. I mean, first the body has to reach such a brutalized state that it dies, then it’s put into a vat under extreme pressure and heat and reduced to a sludge. Then the sludge is sifted to leave behind the bones and any non-organic items such as metal implants and pacemakers. The bones are then crushed, and ground, and worked over until they’re dust. All in all this seems more like the body processing tactics of a drug cartel than the dignified machinations of a funeral rite.

Fun Fact: While refreshing myself on cremation and body liquification I came across a tidbit that said the leftover non-organic items such as pacemakers and other implants can be returned to family on request. I suppose this is nice, but I don’t know why anyone would want their father’s hip replacement or grandpa’s pacemaker. Anyway, if declined by the family these items are donated and re-fabricated into street signs. I have no idea if this is true, but found myself piqued enough to include it here. I’ll never look at street signs the same again.

Human Composting

Human composting is presently available in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. Human composting involves interring the body in a stainless steel vessel surrounded by plant material and over the course of about a month reducing the body into about a cubic yard of nutrient rich compost. Bones, teeth and all become nutrient dense black soil to be used as a soil amendment for trees, gardens, or conservation lands. In the case of Washington based company Recompose, the surviving family can choose to donate the compost to Bells Mountain, a legally protected wilderness located in southern Washington. There it will be used to fortify and rebuild the habitat. While I believe this same soil could be used to plant fruits and vegetables, it is noted that this is prohibited. Not that I’m advocating for anyone to try eating grandma, but really, how would anyone know?

It was only a short time ago when I first read about human composting as an alternative burial option. Immediately it was as if a light went off inside me. Here was a body disposal process that speaks to my desires:

Lack of fuss. Place the body and plant material in the vessel, and thirty days later you have compost. No need to dress up the body, pump it full of preservatives, stuff it, sew it, or any other bodily insults prior to disposal.

Simplicity. No bodily leftovers, no crunchy bits. No need to break an extra sweat working over them bones either. Nope, the bones and teeth break down and turn into compost as well. Pay for the process once. No need to pay for a casket, pay for a funeral service, or pay for a burial plot.

Positive environmental impacts. I’m far from a staunch environmentalist. I’m probably like most people – your typical, half-assed, care-about-the-environment kind of person. Of course I’ll take some positive environmental benefits if I can get them. Obviously human composting saves using more of the landscape for housing the dead, saves on the materials to construct a casket, and it does not require chemicals for preserving a corpse for display. It does not require the use of fossil fuels for cremating the body. In fact, by turning the body into compost it sequesters CO2. There is the added benefit of putting nutrient rich soil back into the environment. Just being alive has far reaching negative impacts on the environment. I like the idea of leaving with as little negative environmental impact as possible, and maybe even doing some good.

Cycle of Life Crunchiness. Feel good processes, poetical intimations, back-to-nature lifecycles – this covers them all. We’re born of this Earth and have the means to return to it in a most fundamental form. If you donate your compost, you can rest assured knowing you’ll be assimilated back into the environment, absorbed as nutrients for trees, grasses, flowers, and more. You will become a living part of a protected environment. If your loved ones want to make an effort to visit you, they will be able to enjoy a stroll through a living wilderness instead of wandering through an overly manicured maze littered with gravestones.

For a time, the soft imprint of your being will remain, little artifacts that say, “I was here”. Perhaps a reminder jotted on a slip of paper, or a jacket casually slung over an office chair. Little signposts of your existence, a person who slipped out but would be back in a moment. The clothing in the closet and chest of drawers still smelling of you, as if you’re still a part of this world.

What Remains of a Life?

When it’s all said and done, when the body has been interred, or reduced to crumbly bits, or viscous sludge, or best yet, turned into nutrient rich compost – what then? What remains of a life?

The burial service, no matter what it is, serves as a final summation of a life lived, and an attempt to grant dignity to a death that often came with pain, suffering, and indignity. In the face of that enormous blackness we seek to make meaning, to grant meaning to the known quantity of a life, and to bid that life farewell. To release the life back to a god, or nature, or the void.

When you die, your consciousness will fade and fade, reduced to a whisper, until it flickers out and is no more. Your life will remain as the memories of you the living hold onto. Your life, now devoid of physical feeling, will move in captured vignettes that dance behind the eyes of the living. Your life, absent and still, will become animated through the words and stories the living speak, a life that syllabically traverses a tongue and touches an ear and paints a picture of you in the listener’s mind.

For a time, the soft imprint of your being will remain, little artifacts that say, “I was here”. Perhaps a reminder jotted on a slip of paper, or a jacket casually slung over an office chair. Little signposts of your existence, a person who slipped out but would be back in a moment. The clothing in the closet and chest of drawers still smelling of you, as if you’re still a part of this world.

Eventually that will fade. The scent will leave the clothing, and really, your loved ones cannot hang on to every one of your possessions so some of it will be donated to GoodWill. Of course, a few items will be kept that hold sentimental importance to those you left behind. Likely things you’d never have guessed, while the things you most valued are tossed or donated without a second glance. And the reminder you wrote that was left behind, it will be put away, or thrown away while the living tidy up, and any of the last vestiges of your body’s physical movement through space will be erased, wiped away, vacuumed up.

For most of us, within a generation or two, as our children and friends and families leave this world, as their children grow older and have children of their own, the memory of our lives will fade and fade. Eventually our life will not reside in anyone’s memory, as everyone we ever knew will be gone. Our life may become reduced to a few anecdotes, a couple of photographs handed down, until eventually these are lost as well, and it’s as if we never existed.

I could erect a monument to my memory, place a stone upon the ground with my name and the years I lived. This monument could contain an aphorism I thought witty or telling at some point in my life, chiseled into the stone with the hope it would impart a message to the living. Yet eventually this would fade, become neglected, and weathered, and worn. So I don’t see any point in this. I cannot deny having a sentimentality regarding the memory of my life, wanting somehow to keep it preserved, for it to have some deeper meaning. I acknowledge this is vanity. And so I’ll opt to have my body reduced to soil, to become an amendment to a plot of land, and if there is a small window of time where I reside in the memory of others, they can choose to revisit my life as they stroll a landscape.

I had a number of conversations with Erin, my wife, while working on this piece. I bounced ideas off her and opened the conversation for her input. It was during one of these conversations that she shared her thoughts with regard to what we leave behind – what really remains of a life, seeing that time will do it’s best to erase the fact that we ever lived. She waved it off; attempting to leave something permanent didn’t matter to her. I liked her response. It made sense to me, and so I share it here, butchered and bastardized, with some of my own amendment:

While living I can strive to be a better person, to be kind, and to form a positive place in the memories of others. Those actions may grant that I will live on for a time. I can humbly seek to be remembered as the flawed person I am, though a person who strove to do better, and to do right by others. That is all I can ask, perhaps all I should ask. To attempt to make a positive impact on the lives of others, and then rest comfortably that eventually I will return to the same absence in the world that existed prior to my being born.

Author: Jason Jacobs

Jason Jacobs is an artist, project manager, and frontend web designer living and working in Boise, Idaho. Beyond work he spends his time with family, as well as reading, writing articles for Uhmm, and working on his art. All words and opinions, etc., are his and do not reflect the positions or beliefs of anyone other than himself.