We are stardust

We are golden

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden ………

                                       Joni Mitchell

July 2017

My wife asked me some time ago about what she should do with my ashes. Although I wasn’t completely sure at the time I think she meant after I had passed on, hopefully from natural causes, and my body had been cremated. When it comes to disposing of dead bodies, we don’t have much of a choice here in Singapore as there isn’t enough land to house both the living and the dead. I had no idea then, but thought I should let her know soon enough so she wouldn’t have to agonise over it should I keel over unexpectedly.

It wasn’t easy for her to bring up the subject. People just don’t like to talk about such things. Death, illness and things like that are not discussed lest they bring bad luck. Even those not prone to such superstitions stay away from the subject for fear of offending others. By the way, I am not preoccupied with the idea of death, I just think people should be able to talk about it without getting all squeamish and awkward. Everyone knows that unless he is very lucky (or unlucky depending on how one looks at it) he is going to die before he gets anywhere close to 90. So, when you are 66 like me, you hope that your remaining years are the ones you will enjoy and …. I was going to say treasure, but what’s there to treasure when you’re 6-feet under? It’s weird, but while we are aware of our mortality most of us don’t seem to realise how close the time of reckoning can be.

Why should I even be concerned about how to dispose of my dead body or its ashes? As I’ve said in a previous article there is simply nothing after we die, we just slip into nothingness. Even if you believe that you have a soul and it survives your earthly life, surely you would agree that your dead body is simply going to become dirt regardless of what forms it takes on its way there (if you’re eaten by vultures, as in a Tibetan Sky Burial for example, it will become you-know-what after it passes through their digestive systems before it returns to the earth). So, while we are alive we should be spending our time and effort on living rich and rewarding lives. But as I’ve also said before, when you die it is no longer about you. It is about those you leave behind. Your family and those who love you need closure. They need to grieve and say goodbye one last time so they can go on with their own lives. The funeral service may seem like a good place to do that, but most services as we know them are hardly the time and place to take your final leave of someone so close to your heart for so many years.

The traditional funeral in Singapore mostly goes like this. Your body lies in a coffin at home or at a funeral parlour for a few days. Each day, visitors will come and sit around for a while. Everyone tries to put on a solemn face but no one seems to be grieving – the ones who are usually don’t do it in public. Every few hours there will be a prayer session. The Buddhist and Taoist ones are noisy with lots of incense burning. Somehow, it all seems very impersonal, cold and mechanical. Once, I went to the funeral wake of a friend’s father in the void deck of an HDB block in Toa Payoh. I walked straight to where the coffin was and was about to light a joss stick and pay my respects of bowing three times before the coffin when I realised that no one (I mean the live ones) looked familiar. I was with a friend and we realised to our hilarious horror that we were at the wrong wake! My friend yanked me out of there when he saw me struggling not very successfully to stifle my stupid giggling. Back to the subject, on the day of the funeral, a hearse takes the coffin to a crematorium. There your body will be cremated after a brief service. Your family returns to the crematorium a few days later to claim your ashes which are in some kind of container (urn, vase, box). Your family would have by then made arrangement with a columbarium to house the urn in a niche alongside dozens of other urns, each in its own little niche sealed into a wall like so many pigeon holes. And there are dozens of such walls and the whole place resembles a miniature HDB estate. Each niche housing an urn has a little space to inscribe your name and your time in the world, and a few words that hopefully say something about your existence (they usually don’t).

Although not widely practised these days, you can choose to have the urn containing your ashes placed at home instead. It can be in a nice vase sitting somewhere in the living room or in a box buried under the shade of your favourite tree (if you’re lucky enough to have one). You can have your ashes made into ornaments such as a bust, mixed in paint and used to paint a portrait of yourself, or simply put inside a solid block of glass sitting on the display cabinet. It can even be made into wearable jewellery that can be worn by your wife or daughter. Pretty cool, but I doubt these will catch on in Singapore. Some people have the ashes encased in concrete blocks and placed under the sea at their loved ones’ favourite fishing grounds. For some reason, they think by doing this they can continue to enjoy their favourite hobby in the netherworld, but I think they will more likely be fending off the fishes taking revenge for what they did when they were alive.

If you think having your ashes preserved in any manner isn’t such a good idea you can have it scattered.  It can be done over land, at sea, out of an airplane, or blasted into the sky as fireworks. You pick the place you like, and when the time comes your family can have a private moment before they let the wind carry your ashes away. Free at last, but try not to pollute the environment – I dread to think what can happen if everyone is going to have his ashes scattered this way. Although it’s quite popular in western society, somehow we feel it isn’t quite right. Somehow we think it is disrespectful to dispose of the ashes like it was dirt. For some reason we also feel that we are abandoning the person we love by discarding it this way. We don’t think of the ashes as, well, ashes; same as the ones at the end of a cigarette.

For those who care about the environment and want their deaths to contribute to instead of polluting it, there is another way. There is an organisation called the Urban Death Project in Seattle that promotes transforming bodies into soil through composting and returning it to the earth. You come from dust and you return as dust to enrich the earth to sustain life. This sounds like a wonderful idea, but I think it may take a long time to overcome traditions as well as ethical and emotional issues before it catches on. But at least it is not as radical an idea as that depicted in the 1973 science fiction movie, “Soylent Green” where in an overcrowded, polluted and impoverished world, dead humans are made into protein-rich biscuits to be eaten by other humans.

If you want to be leave something of yourself behind but don’t want your family to hang on to the ashes, you can still have your memory preserved in a nice way. This is what a friend on mine did – after he died, his family had his name and some words about him inscribed on a plaque that is attached to a bench in a Sydney park. They paid a sum of money to the State for the privilege. Actually, I think it’s a great idea to remember a person this way and raise money for a public good at the same time. If the idea catches on there can be a lot of facilities (benches, tables, statues, swings, drinking coolers, shelters, trees, etc) in public places (parks, bus stops, train stations, museums, libraries, hospitals, polyclinics, schools, hawker centres, etc) all financed by dead people!

I can’t put off answering the question indefinitely about what to do with my own ashes. Honestly, I still have no idea.  But this much I know – I wouldn’t like a noisy or smoky funeral wake. Just a quick and quiet affair with family and friends to pay their respects and catch up with each other (no mahjong games). The crematorium service should be simple and quick. After things have settled down, at a time of their choosing, I would like my family to get together at home or some other peaceful place where they can joke about their “old man” and say their personal goodbyes to me quietly in their hearts. And then they can “release” my ashes, it really does not matter where or how it’s done. Every one of my family should then go on with her life knowing that her husband or father had lived a good and contented life.

Now, let me get on with enjoying what’s left of my life.

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