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The End

Times staff writer Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

One day I will own a hobby farm--10 acres, more or less, with horses, chickens and goats--and on that farm I’ll have a rustic garden, where a braided creek will purl and tumble through thickets of wild raspberry. It’s in this garden where I’ll drink my coffee in the evening, watching fat bees as they make their last commute of the day. And it is my fondest wish that one day, in this garden, I will look up, clutch my chest, wet my pants and keel over dead.

Bury me where I fall.

In earlier years, I was indifferent to the disposition of my remains. I was, in fact, signed up to be a whole-body donor. It pleased me to think I might wind up the beloved cadaver of some first-year medical students. Perhaps they would give me a nickname--Frosty? Ole Blue Eye?--or take me to football games. They could position me on all fours and use me as a bicycle rack. I just didn’t care.

My wife, however, would prefer that this mortal coil not shuffle off to some anatomy lab in Buffalo. So wither?

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Well, if I must care, then I utterly refuse to submit to a traditional American burial. You would have to go back to the Egyptians to find a more ghoulish process than our standard practice of putting formaldehyde-infused bodies in ornate caskets, in concrete vaults, buried 6 feet under, there to “slumber” in some unhappy parkland until--I presume this is the hope--the Rapture, when the dead will rise from the grave, looking good.

For anyone looking into death, I recommend Mark Harris’ recent book, “Grave Matters.” Harris gives readers a slab-level view of embalming and traces the rise in so-called green burial. As he says, the typical cemetery is less an Elysian field than a toxic waste dump, the ground so tainted with mortuary chemicals that it is like a modern salting of the Earth.

In increasing numbers, baby boomers are choosing vastly simpler, cleaner and cheaper funerals, in which the deceased’s body is put in a plain wooden box or wicker basket or even the evocative winding sheet and buried unembalmed in special cemeteries that serve as natural conservancies, perpetually preserved spaces that push back against development. Worms and microbes do the rest.

For a generation whose members have managed to politicize their every consumer choice, it’s no surprise that funeral arrangements should be keyed to temporal and secular values: Call it death style. According to the Cremation Assn. of North America, about one-third of all Americans opt for the flame. We are, after all, a restless lot. Cremation allows the deceased loved one to be easily moved: ash and carry.

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But there’s a problem. Placing a body in an oven at 1,800 degrees for two hours spews vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, as well as heavy metals and mercury (vaporized from the amalgam in people’s teeth). It seems inconsistent, and painfully ironic, that a dutiful green-nik should ride a bike or use solar panels on his house only to see his lifetime carbon savings go up the smokestack, so to speak.

Now, I grant, fretting about the global warming effects of my funeral pyre might seem a little nutty. And yet, I’m not alone. In fact, a whole market is springing up to satisfy the last wishes of the carbon-conscious. Take alkaline hydrolysis, which uses lye, heat and pressure to reduce the remains to an ashy pulp. Commonly used in veterinary schools, the process stirred controversy this year when a New Hampshire funeral director--hoping to pitch it to the eco-minded--applied for a variance to use it under the state’s cremation laws. The problem is the oily, coffee-colored slurry of fluids that goes down the drain. It tends to freak people out.

There are other ways to decrease the deceased. A Tulsa, Okla., firm called Compacted Dignity offers a “tasteful and attractive alternative” to cremation. The company uses a 400-ton hydraulic press--formerly a stamping machine at a mining company--to squeeze the remains into a block small enough to put on your mantle. The company calls its process “the clear choice for body compression, reduction and liquifactious-deminution [sic].” Who am I to argue?

But the mortuary option most in keeping with our times is thermal depolymerization. Theoretically, at least, it is possible, using steam and pressure, to “crack” organic solids such as human remains and, by manipulating pressure and temperature, assemble useful hydrocarbon chains. Translation: You can cook people into a pile of chemicals and a few quarts of oil. One day it may be possible to drive to grandma’s funeral with the dear old gal in the tank.

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Sounds funny now. Wait until gas is $10 a gallon.


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