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Commentary: I’m dead. Now what?

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Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

For Christmas last year, our youngest daughter Maren, gave me a book called “I’m Dead. Now What?” It wasn’t a gag gift or mean spirited. Instead, it was a gift given with the deepest love and compassion from a not yet twenty-year old young adult that reflected upon the open conversation we have had with our children for over a decade about life and death.

In their short lives we have lost three humans who were very dear to us. What memories our girls will have of these events as they grow older, I am not sure. However, what I hope both Willow and Maren will remember are some of the lessons the rituals that accompanied the passing of each life taught each of us.

Our dear friend Sean’s wake was a reflection of a man loved and respected by many around the world. The altar his friends created to honor him was a mirror of how he lived his life and a glimpse at some of the things, people, and places he touched.

Other funerals I have attended over the years were not quite as eclectic, but each in their own way were rituals that provided a glimpse into some of what brought meaning and purpose to those who passed. Each day as I watch the horrific news from Ukraine, I wonder who will honor the dead? How will the loved ones left behind will grapple with the grief of not being able to say goodbye?

In 2021, archaeologists from the National Museums of Kenya and the Max Planck Institute in Germany published a paper in the journal Nature, about a nearly 80,000-year-old grave discovered in Africa that holds the continent’s oldest-known human burial. The grave contains the remains of a child, who researchers have named Mtoto, from the Swahili word for child. The body appeared to be swaddled in some type of plant fibers or animal skin. Mtoto’s knees were tucked under their chin and their head rested on the remains of a pillow. The body’s peaceful pose suggests that the child was purposely laid to rest.

How do I want my body to be handled after I die? When Michael and I were young parents, we had our wills drawn up indicating who would take care of our children if we were unable to and who would get the stuff we left behind. We signed our medical directives and briefly talked about what form of burial we would prefer. We settled on cremation, mostly because it was the cheapest option.

Years later I learned that I could donate my body to a medical school to be part of a cadaver lab. The teacher in me likes the idea that even in death, I could continue to be an educator. Not to mention the fact that in exchange for donating my body to science, the medical school bears the cost of preparing my body, maintaining it, and cremating it for burial. One less thing for my children or spouse to have to deal with.

I recently reconnected with a dear friend from graduate school. Now an Environmental Studies professor at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, Mallory McDuff wrote a book called “Our Last Best Act.” In this book she explores the contemporary funeral industry and the option of a green burial from an environmental standpoint. A green burial is generally defined as an internment that happens in eco-friendly containers and without embalming. I learned that while no states have laws explicitly preventing green burials, outdated state and local laws have made it difficult for green burials to gain a foothold.

While Mallory’s book is a reflection on how even in death our end-of-life choices reflect the values we have tried to live, both books have reinforced the value of planning in advance for an event that is a given for all of us.

I must admit that I have been avoiding beginning to work on the assignments laid out in “I’m Dead. Now What?” I am easily overwhelmed by paperwork, but just as in life, in death there is a lot of paper shuffling. How should I expect my children to know my passwords or know where my life insurance policies are, if I don’t plan ahead and tell them?

Stedman Graham wrote, “It’s not what you have at the end of life, it’s what you leave behind that matters.” While some might interpret this quote as suggesting it is about the possessions we will physically leave behind, for me this quote is about the intangible or the legacy. How will people remember me? What values did I impart or what impact did I have on others?

I guess I have a lot of homework to do.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.