The only guarantees in life are taxation and death, according to Benjamin Franklin. For Ellen Arrison of New Salem, that reality is literally sitting inside her living room right now — in the form of a rectangular pinewood coffin.
“I hope it has lots of coffee rings and wine stains on it before I have to use it,” said Arrison, who was one of a dozen participants who took part in a recent coffin-making workshop in Greenfield that was co-sponsored by was co-sponsored by Green Burial Massachusetts and the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Massachusetts. According to Arrison, an experienced hospice nurse, making a coffin “made death more real” and caused her to confront end-of-life questions — a subject that she says is taboo in western culture.
“We’re all going to die, but we don’t believe it. Part of life is appreciating the time there is,” said Arrison. Housing the coffin in her living room serves as “a conversation starter” and is a constant reminder of her own mortality. She intends to keep it there until it needs to be used for its intended purpose.
“I knew I wanted a green burial, so that’s part of it too,” Arrison said. “I live in a rural area and I’d like to be buried in my own land. I love it and I’ve spent a lot of time and energy and money — I’d like to give back to the land.”
The coffin making workshop, which was led by Joan Pillsbury of Greenfield, treasurer of Green Burial Massachusetts, a nonprofit advocacy group, cost $210 and covered about two to three hours. Participants made “quick coffins” with pine provided by carpenter Chuck Lakin of Waterville, Maine, who also provided the tools and oversaw the construction process, Pillsbury said. The workshop drew people from varied walks of life.
“Everyone’s skilled were varied. Some people had no experience with tools, some could have finished the project in an hour,” Lakin said. “I tried to explain and guide people through the process.”
Afterward, the group, like pallbearers, “made a ceremony out of carrying their coffins to their vehicles,” Lakin said.“Everyone would carry a coffin to someone’s car, then that person would drive and park. Then they would do the same thing with someone else’s coffin. It must have been a sight for someone just passing by.”
Don Joralemon, a retired Smith College anthropology professor, is keeping his coffin in the basement of his home in Conway. He said he decided to make a coffin because he “isn’t a fan of the funeral industry” and he wanted to take the burden away from his family when the time comes.
“I hope to make use of it in land in Conway,” Joralemon said. “It’s a simple process. You have to get permission from the Board of Health and there needs to be a permanent indication that there’s a grave on the property.”
He said the experience of building the coffin was wonderful and he would recommend it to anyone.
The craft of coffin making
Before making coffins, Lakin, who said he’s been a woodworker since he was 26 when he got out of the United States Navy, made a living as a librarian at Colby College. When his father was dying, Lakin said he spent the last six weeks of his life surrounded by family and loved ones. It was a very personal and moving experience, Lakin said.
“He was in his own bed with each of his family touching him when he passed,” he recalled.
After, his family called a funeral home and his father’s body was taken away.
“He was hauled away and I hated it because it had been so personal and all of a sudden he was gone,” said Lakin.
Later on, Lakin read a manual about how to take care of a loved one after they have died. The book included instruction on how to wash, present and bury someone after death. Before, Lakin noted, “I hadn’t thought of what was next.”
“That’s when I began talking about these things with people,” he continued. “Not to convince them of what to do, but to provide information so they can have the experience I wanted to have.”
He decided to try his hand at making coffins so that others wouldn’t experience the emptiness that he felt. These days, Lakin says he makes between three and five coffins a year and uses the money he makes to travel to events throughout Maine and talk about the options people have funerals.
“People have no idea they have as many options as they do,” Lakin said.
He met Pillsbury at one of these events, the annual Funeral Consumers of Maine, and agreed to hold the coffin-making workshop. If there was enough interest, Lakin says he’d be willing to put on another workshop in the future.
A healing endeavor
For Lakin and the workshop participants, building the coffins was a way of confronting their mortality head-on. According to Lakin, Americans are proficient at ignoring the reality that they are going to die someday.
“You have to recognize and admit it is going to happen,” Lakin said. “It’s a natural part of life; there’s a transition in and there’s a transition out. It happens to everyone. … Your attitude toward it and preparation makes all the difference. It turns what could be a tragedy into a spiritual experience.”
Lakin was speaking from personal experience. When his wife, Penny, died in 2017, Lakin held the funeral at their home. He said he wife was in their house for the last five weeks of her life and, for the duration of those weeks, it was like a “long party.”
“We have a good support group, and we told them to stop by anytime,” Lakin said. “Sometimes there would be 12 people in the living room.”
After her death, Lakin said that two of her best friends anointed and dressed the body. Lakin built her coffin and invited guests to come over and draw and write messages on it. Then after four days, which included a time to display the body, they held a burial ceremony followed by dinner at her favorite restaurant.
“We offered people the ability to do something physical — writing or drawing something — to help them (grieve),” said Lakin. “They were grieving and I don’t think they knew what they were going through.”
Arrison had a similar experience with a home burial as a child after a friend’s grandfather died.
“He was laid out in the living room for three days,” Arrison said, noting, “I, personally, find the idea of viewing a body when it’s presented in an artificial way macabre. It makes it seem disconnected in some way.”
Green burials and the death positive movement
The term “death positive” might seem like an oxymoron, but those who are a part of a growing movement of the same name say it’s an effort to demystify mortality in American culture.
Joralemon, the retired Smith professor who attended the workshop, covered the topic in his book titled “Mortal Dilemmas: The Troubled Landscape of Death in America.” Americans have made death into a taboo subject, he says. But it hasn’t always been that way.
“It didn’t use to be so bad. Deaths would happen in the home. The body would be washed, coffins would be made by a carpenter. It wasn’t a surprise or taboo,” Joralemon said. “Then the profession of funeral director was made when more people were dying in hospitals.”
In contrast to culture’s perspectives on death, he said it’s imperative that people confront their own mortality.
“Life is a transformation and death is part of it,” Joralemon said. “Bit by bit, hopefully, we can start to recover the comfort with death and celebrate the moments before that.”
Along with the workshop, Arrison noted that her experience as a nurse has helped normalize the idea of death.
“I did hospice care for some time and I’ve been with people in the process of dying,” Arrison said. “It was valuable and a privilege. It also makes the inevitability (of death) more real. It’s familiar when it’s happening to someone else. I think that the experience is not difficult or frightening, it’s interesting and curious.”
“You get a health care proxy, a will, build your coffin,” Arrison said. “These activities take some of the dread out of it. It normalizes it and you appreciate the time you have — it’s a procrastination deterrent.”
More than preparation for the end of her life, knowing that she’s going to die someday “softens my heart,” Arrison said. “I know that every person is going to die, too. It enhances the experience of life. I have a more positive perspective. It’s actually life-affirming.”
Lakin said he learned about the term “death positive” from Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and funeral home director in Los Angeles, California, who made videos answering questions about death and dying.
“She started by answering people’s basic questions about death, then she ran out of common questions and had to look for topics,” Lakin said. “I found it informative and entertaining because she has a sarcastic sense of humor. I don’t think she coined the term ‘death positive,’ but I think she popularized it.”
He said the death positive movement coincides with a similar trend called the “green burial movement.” Both stress a more personal quality to end-of-life care.
Green Burial Massachusetts is a grassroots organization that educates people about green burials — where a person is not embalmed and put into a coffin or shroud that will biodegrade along with the body. The person is buried about 3 ½ feet in the ground, where aerobic decomposition can occur.
“A burial will happen on a piece of land 3 ½ feet under the ground, where the person isn’t embalmed and there’s no concrete,” Lakin said. “Everything is biodegradable — the person can be buried in a shroud, a coffin, a cardboard box. They also typically use stone from the area as monuments, engraved with the names and dates.”
Joralemon said his philosophies align with the green burial movement because “this is what we did for millennia and there’s no reason not to set aside land for people who would like a green burial.”
“I couldn’t believe the suffering. We can’t not support these families.”
By Meghan Holohan
When Holly Wilkerson was 21 weeks pregnant with her second child, she went for an appointment to learn her baby’s gender. Instead she heard tragic news: The baby had passed away at 16 weeks. Soon after she went into labor and returned to the hospital to deliver her stillborn baby. She had no idea what would happen. Then Heather Bradley arrived.
“I was very thankful to have her navigating. I had given birth before. This was a very different experience, obviously,” Wilkerson, 32, a high school German teacher from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, told TODAY Parents. “She really helped talk us through the feelings we were feeling, kind of making sense of things.”
Bradley is a bereavement doula, a professional who supports people “through grief and loss” of childbirth. While doulas coach families through pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period, bereavement doulas help families through pregnancy loss. That means they comfort them during the labor and delivery, help them fill out death certificates, assist in making funeral arrangements, help moms when their milk comes in and coach them on how to react when people ask, “What happened to the baby?”
Bradley had worked as a doula for years, but when a friend suffered a miscarriage she felt stunned by what the grieving mom experienced.
“It was awful. Hearing what other people said to her and how other people abandoned her. I couldn’t believe the suffering,” Bradley said. “We can’t not support these families.”
She started researching bereavement doulas, sometimes called death doulas, and took some online courses and attended conferences. For the past year, she’s been offering her services in the Pittsburgh region.
“The research out there has shown what is important to these families is continuity of care,” she explained. “It is the same person who knows your story and your issues. Having access to resources and options is key.”
Heidi Faith founded the bereavement doula training network Still Birth Day, which she started after she experienced pregnancy loss and grappled with so many difficult challenges. She wondered how she could tell her husband or what it was like to be a mother to a child who did not live. She had worked as a doula for a decade, so she realized she could offer something to families going through the same thing.
“I am here to bridge the gap where birth and death meet. I am here to provide comfort,” the Kansas City, Missouri-based doula told TODAY Parents. A bereavement doula, she said, “is someone who can translate and help them move forward while they’re crumbling.”
Often family or friends of a woman going through pregnancy loss finds Faith and connect with her or another bereavement doula for support for their loved ones. Faith finds that treating the family with dignity and respect helps them mourn and celebrate their child.
“A few generations ago they thought the most prudent thing is to rush the baby out of the birth space and tell the mother just to move on,” she said. “Women in our family tree will tell you, ‘50, 60 years ago I gave birth to my baby and she died and we never talked about it. I wish we would have.’”
When a hospice counselor is called to the bedside of a child who has just died, he leads the parents through a Buddhist ritual for cleaning the body. In the process, he guides them through the fires of grief, which burn away everything but love.
One day, in the middle of writing a foundation grant report, I got a call from a man I didn’t know. He explained that he was the father of a 7-year-old boy who had been very ill with cancer. Some people had told him that I might be able to help him out.
I said certainly, I would be willing to help the family through their grieving process. I made some suggestions about how I might be able to support when the time was right.
The man paused. It was clear that I didn’t understand yet what was happening. He practically whispered, “No, Jamie died a half hour ago. We’d like to keep our boy at home in his bed for a little while. Can you come over now?”
Suddenly, the situation wasn’t hypothetical; it was real and staring me in the face. I had never done anything like this before. Sure, I had sat at the bedsides of people who were dying, but I had not attended the death of a young child with two grieving parents in unimaginable pain. I honestly had no idea what to do, so I let my fear and confusion arise. How could I possibly know in advance what was needed?
I arrived at the house a short while later, where the dispirited parents greeted me. They showed me to the boy’s room. Walking in, I followed my natural inclination: I went over to Jamie’s bed, leaned down, and kissed him on the forehead to say hello. The parents broke into tears, because while they had cared for him with great love and attention, nobody had touched the boy since he had died. It wasn’t their fear of his corpse that kept them away; it was their fear of the grief that touching him might unleash.
I suggested that the parents begin washing the boy’s body— something we often did at Zen Hospice Project. Bathing the dead is an ancient ritual that crosses cultures and religions. Humans have been doing it for millennia. It demonstrates our respect for those who have passed, and it is an act that helps loved ones come to terms with the reality of their loss. I felt my role in this ritual was simple: to act with minimal interference and to bear witness.
The parents gathered sage, rosemary, lavender, and sweet rose petals from their garden. They moved very slowly as they put the herbs in warm water, then collected towels and washcloths. After a few moments of silence, the mother and father began to wash their little boy. They started at the back of Jamie’s head and then moved down his back. Sometimes they would stop and tell one another a story about their son. At other times, it all became too much for the father. He would go stare out the window to gather himself. The grief filling the room felt enormous, like an entire ocean crashing upon a single shore.
The mother examined and lovingly cared for each little scratch or bruise on her son’s body. When she got to Jamie’s toes, she counted them, as she had done on the day he was born. It was both gut-wrenching and extraordinarily beautiful to watch.
From time to time, she would look over at me as I sat quietly in the corner of the room, a beseeching question filling her eyes: “Will I be able to survive? Can I do this? Can any mother live through such loss?” I would nod in encouragement for her to continue at her own pace and hand her another washcloth, trusting the process. I felt confident that she would find healing by allowing herself to be in the midst of her suffering.
It took hours for the parents to wash their son. When the mother finally got to the face of her child, which she had saved for last, she embraced him with incredible tenderness, her eyes pure reflections of her love and sorrow. She had not only turned toward her suffering; she had entered into it completely. As she did, the fierce fire of her love began to melt the contraction of fear around her heart. It was such an intimate moment. There was no separation between mother and child. Perhaps it was like his birth, when they had the experience of being psychologically one.
After the bathing ritual was complete, the parents dressed Jamie in his favorite Mickey Mouse pajamas. His brothers and sister came into the room, making a mobile out of the model planes and other flying objects he had collected, and they hung it over his bed.
Each one of them had faced unbelievable pain. There was no more pretense or denial. They had been able to find some healing in each other’s care and perhaps in opening to the essential truth that death is an integral, natural part of life.
Can you imagine yourself living through what these parents did? “No,” many of you will say, “I cannot.” Losing a child is most people’s worst nightmare. I couldn’t endure it. I couldn’t bear it, you may think. But the hard truth is, terrible things happen in life that we can’t control, and somehow we do bear them. We bear witness to them. When we do so with the fullness of our bodies, minds, and hearts, often a loving action emerges.
And sometimes they act with enormous compassion toward others who have suffered similarly or who may yet in times to come.
One of the most stunning images of this that I can recall came after the major earthquake and tsunami disabled the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. A photo in the newspaper revealed a dozen elderly Japanese men gathered humbly, lunch baskets in hand, standing in a line outside the plant’s gates. The reporter explained that they were offering to take the place of younger workers inside who were attempting to contain the radiation-contaminated plant. In total, more than five hundred seniors volunteered.
One of the group’s organizers said, “My generation, the old generation, promoted the nuclear plants. If we don’t take responsibility, who will? When we were younger, we never thought of death. But death becomes familiar as we get older. We have a feeling that death is waiting for us. This doesn’t mean I want to die. But we become less afraid of death as we get older.”
Suffering is our common ground. Trying to evade suffering by pretending that things are solid and permanent may give us a temporary sense of control. But this is a painful illusion, because life’s conditions are fleeting and impermanent.
We can make a different choice. We can interrupt our habits of resistance that harden us and leave us resentful and afraid. We can soften around our aversion.
We can see the way things actually are and act accordingly, with wise discernment and love.
The Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah once motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”
After being with Jamie’s parents as they bathed their son, I returned home, and I held my own child very close. Gabe was also 7 years old at the time. I saw clearly how precious he is to me, what a joy he is to have in my life. While I felt devastated by what I had witnessed, I also was able to appreciate the beauty in it.
Initially, the cemetery in Rhinebeck, New York, appears conventional: businesslike granite squares placed in rows, flags and silk flowers sticking up here and there, grass mowed tight all around.
In one corner, however, a walking path roped off from vehicles invites visitors to stroll into the woods. The area looks wild, but it turns out to be part of the cemetery. A hardwood sign marks it the “Natural Burial Ground.” Cherry, beech, and locust trees stretch tall. Ferns cover the ground. The sweetness of phlox, a purple wildflower, wafts in the air. The lawn portion suddenly looks as contrived as a golf course.
“It’s stark, isn’t it?” Suzanne Kelly, the cemetery’s administrator, says of the contrast. On a spring day, she’s taking us on a tour of the natural section she helped establish in 2014. We step in and she starts describing the deer, wild turkeys, and songbirds that pass through (and also warns us about a poison ivy patch). About 100 yards in, we start to see mounds and a few small fieldstones, some engraved with simple words like “Dear Nature, Thank You, Evelyn.” These 10 acres have been permanently set aside for bodies to be buried without the chemical embalming, nonbiodegradable caskets, or concrete vaults that often accompany the modern American way of death.
Kelly is a thoughtful Gen X academic-turned-garlic-farmer-turned-green-burial-activist-and-expert. She remembers first feeling disconnected from standard funerals when her father died in 2000. She stared at the vinyl carpet covering his deep concrete vault and wondered what all the trappings of her dad’s Catholic service were for.
“The idea of ‘dust to dust’ seemed to be missing,” Kelly remembers. “Even though we were standing at the grave saying those words, we were not living those words.”
After moving back to the Hudson Valley in 2002, Kelly joined Rhinebeck’s cemetery advisory committee. She hoped to create options for people who wanted highly personal burials that connected to the earth. Since then, Kelly has positioned the Rhinebeck natural burial ground at the forefront of a growing international movement to reclaim death by bringing back burial traditions that are more environmentally friendly, more personalized, and more connected to place.
In 2015, Kelly wrote Greening Death, the definitive book on the grassroots efforts behind the movement. “The impetus has been to make death more environmentally minded, less resource-intensive, and less polluting,” she says. “And to tie us back to the land.”
While Stiles Najac buried her partner in March, she found that the Rhinebeck ground gave her an unexpected peace. Najac was nine months pregnant with their son when her partner, Souleymane Ouattara, died by suicide last fall. Six months of bureaucratic complications followed before Najac could lay him to rest. (A medical examiner stored Ouattara’s body in a cooler, a common preservation method before natural burials.) Ouattara was an Ivory Coast native, and his Muslim family wanted Islamic “dust to dust” burial traditions, which typically eschew vaults.
So on a crisp day, Ouattara’s friends and family traversed the burial ground’s muddy lane to a chosen spot in the sun. They lowered his body into the ground using straps.
“It added another level of connection,” Najac says. “People actually returned him to the earth.”
As sunlight flickered through the branches, each mourner had a chance to speak. Ouattara’s uncle had plainly felt the stigma of a family suicide. As the service went on, Najac watched his demeanor change. His nephew was still beloved.
Afterward, though lunch was waiting, everybody lingered. “We were nestled in the trees, which create warmth on even the coldest day,” Najac remembers. “I had that feeling of comfort and acceptance. This was nature’s home.” She plans to bring their exuberant baby son, Zana, to picnic in the woods with friends in the warmer months near his dad.
Since the Civil War, American death rituals have become increasingly elaborate, complete with artificial embalming, concrete vaults, and satin-lined metal caskets. But in 1963, writer Jessica Mitford’s witty exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, sold every copy the day it was published. (Spoiler: Plenty of material is wasted along the way, but lavishly buried bodies still decay, perhaps even more spectacularly than their pine-boxed counterparts.) The book changed the way Americans thought about funerals and contributed to the growth of cremation rates, from 2% then to more than 50% today.
Still, cremation has limitations in both cost and impact. In 2017, the median cost of an American funeral with viewing and vault was $8,755, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The median cost of a comparable cremation wasn’t dramatically less, at $6,260.
In the age of climate change, environmental concerns have also prompted more people to cremate. For example, a conventional burial contributes to the production of about 230 pounds of CO2 equivalent, according to Sam Bar, quality assurance and manufacturing engineer at Green Burial Council, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for “environmentally sustainable, natural death care.” But burning isn’t as eco-friendly as many assume. Cremation relies on fossil fuels, produces about 150 pounds of CO2 per body, and releases mercury and other byproducts into the air. Burning one body is equivalent to driving 600 miles. And scattering “cremains” isn’t good for soil.
Then a couple decades ago, activists on both sides of the Atlantic came up with similar alternatives to the $20 billion funeral industry: What if we returned to burial practices that allowed bodies to decompose naturally? And what if lands could be preserved in the process? The author and social innovator Nicholas Albery helped establish “woodland burials” in the United Kingdom in 1994. The first similar but independently generated concept in the United States was Ramsey Creek Preserve, established in South Carolina in 1998. Billy and Kimberley Campbell are proud that it is now a dedicated Conservation Burial Ground, with a permanent land trust agreement. “Instead of wasting land, you’re actually protecting ecologically important land,” Billy says.
Whether next to a regular cemetery or on conserved land, there are now around 218 natural burial grounds in the U.S. , up from around 100 just five years ago. The Green Burial Council certifies about one-third of them. (New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy keeps a longer list that includes grounds not certified by the Green Burial Council, while other burial sites remain unreported.)
The Green Burial Council holds dual nonprofit status: a 501(c)(6) that certifies grounds and a 501(c)(3) that conducts education and outreach. The organization formed in response to the growing green burial movement and has since become the standard bearer of, and leading authority in, the U.S. movement. That’s no mean feat, given the divisions of purpose that have fragmented the nascent industry in the past. Lee Webster, director of the Green Burial Council’s education and outreach arm, says parts of the early movement were “very elitist,” and there is still a lot of confusion around terminology and standards.
The Green Burial Council currently has three certification standards for green-burial grounds. Certified “hybrid cemeteries” are modern cemeteries that reserve space for burials without embalming or concrete vaults (each year, burials in the U.S. use more than 827,000 gallons of dangerous chemicals and 1.6 million tons of concrete, materials that can be toxic to produce and damaging to the environment). Certified “natural cemeteries” prohibit the use of vaults and toxic chemical embalming. And certified “conservation burial grounds” meet the other requirements of hybrid and natural cemeteries plus establish a land trust that holds a conservation easement, deed restriction, or other legally binding preservation of the land.
Webster spent three years on the Green Burial Council board through 2017 and returned earlier this year to help steer education and outreach. “Because of the myth people have been sold about vaults and caskets, we have to reeducate people on the safety of bodies being buried in the ground without all the furniture,” she says.
The Council updated its standards this spring to better align them with land trust and land management conservation practices. Establishing a land trust for a burial ground lends legitimacy to what’s still a niche movement, in addition to preserving the land and creating a potential revenue stream—crucial at a time when cemetery funding is short (in large part because increasing U.S. cremation rates have cut burial-plot revenues).
As private and municipal-run burial grounds fill up, they can’t keep adding bodies, which means they have to dip into endowments to fund operations, Webster says. It’s not uncommon for a private cemetery to be abandoned when it runs out of money, at which point a nearby municipality often takes over, stretching funds even thinner.
To advocates like Webster, land conversation is the future of green burial. “The way it’s been approached has been to see it from a cemeterian’s point of view rather than a conservation point of view,” she says. “We’re going back now to encourage more land trusts to participate in this and understand how burial can be a conservation strategy.”
Others are going even further. In May, Washington became the first state to legalize body composting as an alternative to cremation or casket burial, a process pioneered by the Seattle-based company Recompose. Other companies offer still more unusual methods of handling human remains: You can have your body mummified, dissolved in water and lye, buried in a pod and planted with a tree, “promessed” (frozen, vibrated into dust, dehydrated, and reintegrated into soil), or put into the ground with a burial suit embroidered with mushroom-spore thread.
Webster believes that body composting and other methods of reintegrating human remains into the environment are “the answer” for urban settings, where burial space is increasingly scarce. So why keep advocating for natural burial grounds like the one in Rhinebeck? It’s the potential they hold for land conservation that’s exciting, she says, and remembrance ceremonies can become new ways to engage with the land.
On the day we visited the Rhinebeck natural burial ground, two people bicycled on the pathway through the woods. Although they’d heard the site was a cemetery, they were using it as they’d use any public park.
“Conservation is about people needing and caring for land,” Webster says. “They’re going to conduct life-affirming activities: Getting married there, baptisms, confirmations, bird-watching, hiking, family picnics—all kinds of things are happening in these spaces because they’re conservation spaces first. That’s the value of it.
“It’s not just that we’re going to put people in the ground without concrete. It’s about the big picture and how it affects people, the way we relate to death but also the way we relate to each other in life.”
There is disagreement within the movement on how best to grow. The values driving green burial suggest there should be more conservation cemeteries, but to meet that standard usually requires starting a new cemetery rather than converting or hybridizing an existing one. That costs a lot of money and requires securing new land and going through a complicated zoning process. To date, the Green Burial Council has certified only six conservation cemeteries in the U.S., compared to 35 hybrid cemeteries.
Cynthia Beal, of the Natural Burial Company in Eugene, Oregon, is a vocal proponent for converting existing cemeteries to natural burial spaces. That averts the zoning issue and provides an educational opportunity for the community.
“If you’re coming into a situation where the cemetery has been abandoned or poorly cared for and you make natural burial its new focus, you’re likely to have neighbors as advocates, happy to see the grounds renewed and the place cared for again,” Beal says. “Every cemetery is unique, telling its own stories of a community’s establishment and growth, and that history is also worthy of stewardship.”
Webster, for her part, is pragmatic about the challenge: While it would be great for more conservation cemeteries to come online, practices at local cemeteries should be improved in the meantime. That would also increase education and access.
“A sense of place is critically important to this,” she says. “I’m not going to [be driven] 300 miles to be buried in a green cemetery. My family is going to associate me with here, where we lived.”
Even in places like Rhinebeck that build at least partly on existing cemetery infrastructure, establishing green-burial sites takes time. Ramsey Creek Preserve was easier, Kimberley Campbell says, because South Carolina didn’t bother regulating. “I called down to the funeral board and got a delightful secretary,” Kimberly remembers. “She said, ‘The cemetery board has shut down. … I think what you are doing sounds marvelous, and there is absolutely nothing to stop you.’”
For Rhinebeck administrator Kelly, using municipal land didn’t require raising the $50,000 in trust for upkeep that is standard in many places. Still, it had to be planned, bid, surveyed, plotted, and certified, which took around five years.
The payoff of a natural burial ground can be big for a community. Gina Walker Fox, a Rhinebeck real estate agent, says she feels more comfortable with death for having bought a plot. (At 61, she recently asked a local quilter to sew her a raw-linen shroud, which she plans to embroider with a symbolic river.) Fox’s plot is near a blackcap raspberry bush she knows her adult children will want to visit.
“That old way—where people pick berries, sit, visit, picnic—that speaks to me,” she says.
Kelly laughs when we ask where she’ll be buried. She hasn’t picked or purchased a spot yet. Even a green-burial activist can feel like she has plenty of time to live.
“Once in a while,” she says, “I come by here and think I should probably get around to getting a plot.”
Jon Meacham is the author of “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”
Tuesday was to be the day — in the morning, because everything was taken care of. The goodbyes had been said, the tears shed, the coffin handmade. In the spring of 2018, Dick Shannon, a former Silicon Valley engineer with untreatable cancer, took advantage of California’s “death with dignity” law to end his own life once all other medical possibilities had been exhausted.
“My observation about the way people die, at least in America, is they . . . are not allowed the opportunity to be part of the process,” Shannon explained. “For my way of thinking, the part that bothers me just immensely is not being allowed to be part of that process. It’s my death. Go with what you believe, but don’t tell me what I have to do.” Discussing the ultimate decision with his doctor, Shannon remarked, “It’s hard to fathom. I go to sleep and that’s the end of it. I’ll never know anything different.” He paused, then said simply: “Okay.”
When the day came, Shannon was ready. The end-of-life medical cocktail was mixed in a silver stainless steel cup, and he drank it in front of his loving and tearful family. “I’ve accepted the fact that I’m dying,” he’d said earlier. “There’s nothing I can do to stop it. Planning the final days of my life gives me a sense of participation and satisfaction.” As he prepared to slip away, he told his family, “Just know that I love you — each and every one of you.”
America is becoming ever more like itself when it comes to death. From Walden Pond to Huck Finn’s lighting out for the territory, we’re a nation of individualists, shaped and suffused by self-reliance and a stubborn allegiance to the live-free-or-die motto of the Revolutionary era. With this twist: Baby boomers and their successor generations are insisting on being free to take control of death itself. Innovation, creativity and customization — the hallmarks of our time, an age in which we can run much of our lives from our mobile phones — are now transforming both how we die and the mechanics of remembrance that come afterward.
The coming revolution in death — and Dick Shannon’s story — is laid out with uncommon wisdom in a powerful, new HBO documentary, “Alternate Endings,” which debuts Aug. 14. Only eight states and the District of Columbia have death-with-dignity laws, but three of those states — Hawaii, Maine and New Jersey — have put their statutes on the books within the past year. And 18 other states considered such laws in the 2019 legislative season.
The movement has not attracted the same attention it once did; in the 1990s, Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian, the right-to-die advocate, drew considerable public alarm. As the documentary by Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neill makes clear, the conversation has entered a new and compelling phase now that Americans are thinking about death as something as disintermediated as commuting, dating and shopping.
The United States has a long history of rethinking the rituals of death. Embalming became part of the popular understanding and tradition of death during the Civil War; the task then was to preserve the bodies of dead soldiers so their families could see them one final time. Abraham Lincoln may have done the most to raise the profile of embalming when he chose first to embalm his 11-year-old son and then when his own corpse was embalmed for the long train ride home to Springfield, Ill., after his assassination.
Now the death industry in the United States has evolved with the culture. For many, corporate consolidation has reshaped a funeral home industry, which was once made up almost entirely of local, family-owned companies. (And which, as Jessica Mitford wrote in her 1963 book “The American Way of Death,” unctuously gouged grieving families.) The Internet has disrupted the casket industry with Walmart and others selling directly to families. As “Alternate Endings” reports, there are now green burials (including using a loved one’s ashes to help restore coral reefs), space burials and even drive-through, open-casket viewings.
Once the great gatekeeper of life and death, organized religion, too, is losing its sway. In an era in which friends routinely ordain themselves on the Internet to preside at weddings, the rising numbers of Americans who are “unaffiliated” with any particular faith mean that institutions that once gave shape to life and meaning to death are being gradually supplanted family to family.
The issues raised by Dick Shannon’s story are the most profound. Many religious authorities — notably the Roman Catholic Church — oppose euthanasia (Greek for a “good death”). Such teachings face a generational head wind as more people (and states) move from deferring to institutions to simply making their own decisions. The questions involved are intricate and complex and painful — but it is plain to see that we are witnessing another rite of passage undergoing an irrevocable disruption.
When the Shannons held a “living wake” for friends to say goodbye to Dick, the family hung a banner on the wall: “Life is what you celebrate. All of it. Even its end.” Before passing, Shannon said, “I want it to be on my terms.” Given that death comes for us all, so, too, will many of us have to confront the agonizing decision that he faced with grace.
People die every day—and yes, that includes when they’re traveling. It’s not something most of us think about when planning a trip, but for some, it’s an unfortunate reality. But what do you do if you’re traveling with someone and they pass away? It’s not like you can Weekend-at-Bernie’s them and fly them back on their original coach ticket—so what are your options?
In short, it depends on the circumstances of the person’s death and where it happens. Though it’s important to remember that each situation is different, here are a few tips to help get you started.
Acknowledge your grief
If the deceased is a family member, friend, partner or colleague, you are likely in shock and grieving. According to Robert Quigley, M.D., senior vice president and regional medical director of International SOS, the world’s largest medical assistance and security company, your first step should be to address the fact that you’re grieving. “It’s important that you’re emotionally stable when you start this process, because the process is extremely complicated,” he tells Lifehacker.
Take into consideration the circumstances surrounding the death
If there was any foul play suspected in the person’s death, then the authorities—meaning the local police or embassies—first need to sign off on any paperwork before the body is transported anywhere, Quigley explains. In this case, it could take weeks for the body to be released and cleared to travel.
But for the purpose of this article, let’s go with a hypothetical scenario that doesn’t involve foul play—like a relative having a sudden heart attack and dying while you are traveling together. More information on what to do in the case of a suspicious death—and pretty much every other scenario imaginable—is available in a detailed whitepaper from International SOS. The organization assists with the transport of approximately 2,500 deceased individuals each year, Quigley says, and has seen it all over the course of their 36 years in business.
Connect with a local funeral home
If someone dies while traveling, they will likely end up at a local hospital where they will be pronounced dead by a doctor or medical examiner, who will then fill out the appropriate paperwork. Since you are not from the area, the hospital should be able to put you in touch with a local funeral home. From this point on, the funeral director will be your main point of contact in the process of transporting the person back home.
If the death occurs abroad, Quigley says that there is huge variation in the quality of funeral homes and services around the world in terms of how they prepare and transport the bodies, taking into consideration different cultural and religious traditions. This includes factors like whether or not they embalm bodies, or if cremation is an option.
At this point, you may want to seek help from a medical assistance company like International SOS or Global Rescue to help you make local connections and the arrangements necessary for the remains to cross borders. Medical assistance companies work closely with insurers and hospitals to provide the medical services people may require while traveling—including in the event of their death. Like insurance policies, the cost of these services varies significantly, depending on where you’re traveling, your age, your health, the length of your trip and other factors. Your best bet is to either visit the company’s website or contact them directly for a quote.
If the death occurs in the United States and you are looking to transport the body to another location in the United States, it’s a little more straightforward.
Chances are, the funeral home has done this before and has a good idea of which local airlines are the best options, given that each have different criteria for transporting human remains. Quigley says the funeral director will ask you questions regarding how you’d like the remains handled (i.e. embalmed, not embalmed or cremated)and let you know how much it’s going to cost—more on that later.
According to Elizabeth Fournier, a funeral director in Oregon, in her experience, most dead bodies traveling within the United States are transported on Delta or American Airlines. Typically, funeral homes contact the cargo department of a particular airline and make a reservation. The ticket is not purchased until the body actually arrives at the airport, she says, because plans change all the time. For example, sometimes a family member decides at the last minute they want to be on the flight with the body, or there may be a delay with the paperwork. A body must arrive at the airport at least two hours prior to the flight’s departure. In addition, there has to be a funeral home lined up at the final destination, which will then claim the body from the cargo area of the airport, she explains.
If the body is traveling within the United States, Fournier says you just need a death certificate and a permit. However, other regulations involving the type of transportation and the condition of the remains vary from state-to-state, so make sure to check local laws before doing anything. Usually the local funeral home is familiar with the laws on their end and can help you navigate any other legal questions.
And as Quigley explained previously, you’re arranging for human remains to be transported internationally, you’ll need additional documentation from authorities in both the origin and destination countries. This can become even more complicated if the person died abroad of an infectious disease (another topic addressed in the International SOS whitepaper). In these situations, those handling the remains must balance respect for the deceased, with the health and safety of those who come in contact with the remains, like a coroner or mortician. Depending on the type of the infectious illness, the body may be placed in quarantine, in compliance with local regulations and public health authorities. For example, the remains of those who had smallpox, plague, botulism, Ebola, Lhasa fever, Junin fever or any viral hemorrhagic fevers are typically treated with more caution. Those with yellow fever, encephalitis, HIV, tuberculosis, shigella, Nipah virus or Hanta virus may also require special handling or quarantining, though do not pose as much of a danger to the people who come in contact with the body as the illnesses in the first category.
Preparing the body
Again, the funeral home will handle any preparations necessary for the body before it is transported. This is another case of checking state laws: some allow unembalmed bodies to travel, while others require embalming or cremation.
According to Fournier, prior to a flight, the average deceased person would be embalmed and then placed in an air tray—a wood-bottom tray with a lid made of cardboard. The body may or may not be wearing clothing. She recently shipped a body from Portland, Oregon to Austin, Texas. They were unembalmed and they flew on Southwest—one of a handful of airlines that permit unembalmed bodies (yes, in addition to considering state laws, you also need to check on airline regulations).
That said, the process of preparing the body for a flight is relatively straightforward, according to Fournier. First she double-wrapped the body in plastic, then packed it into an air tray filled with cooling gel packs. Typically, caskets aren’t used in this process, she explains, because there’s a good chance the casket could get damaged during travel. Instead, caskets are usually purchased from the funeral home on the receiving end of the flight. Once the body has reached its final destination, the receiving funeral home will take over the rest of the arrangements.
The costs of shipping a body
Initially the funeral home—either the one shipping or receiving the body—pays for the cost of transporting the body and that expense is then added to the rest of the cost of the arrangements. Like plane tickets for the rest of us, fares vary for shipping human remains. For example, the ticket for the body Fournier sent to Texas from Portland cost $750, while shipping another person from Portland to Idaho a few months ago cost $500. Cargo passage to the Netherlands from Oregon costs nearly $2,000, she says.
If a person dies while traveling for business, Quigley says that oftentimes the deceased’s employer will assist the family with bringing their loved one home. They may even bridge the gap in costs if the person’s insurance doesn’t cover the transport of their remains, which, he says, is pretty typical. If this is coverage that you do want, he suggests reading the fine print on your insurance policies—including any life, health or travel insurance (including policies that come with certain credit cards) you may already have—though note that most policies don’t cover all of the multiple steps involved with transporting human remains. For example, one of your insurance policies may cover the plane fare, but not the cost of embalming. Or, it may have a sub-limit on the cost of the coffin, or stipulations on coverage based on the cause of death, according to the International SOS whitepaper. But, as is the case with other types of insurance policies, Quigley says that you can purchase a rider specific to your needs.
Transporting cremated remains
If the deceased has been cremated prior to traveling, it is much easier to transport the remains. Most U.S. domestic airlines allow you to bring human ashes in your carry-on, but again, this is something you should check with the airline first. However, it is important to select a TSA-approved urn in order to make the process as smooth as possible. It is illegal for TSA employees to open the urn in order to determine what’s inside—even if requested by the passenger—so it must be X-rayed. As a result, select an urn that is easily X-rayed, like one made out of a light-weight structure like wood, cardboard, fiberboard or plastic—even if it’s only temporary.
Inside the poignant, bizarre, and necessary world of tending to the belongings of the deceased.
By Shane Cashman
We park the box truck in the dead man’s yard like a six-ton hearse and knock on the front door. A disheveled middle-aged woman answers, still in her pajamas.
“I forgot you were coming,” she says, leaning out the door to see the truck. Emblazoned on the side: William J. Jenack: Estate Appraisers & Auctioneers.
“I’m a mess,” she says. “My mother’s dying.”
We ask if she wants us to come back another time.
“No, please come in.”
She’s been living in the dead man’s house for the last two years, a white Victorian-style home with blue shutters and ivy reaching up the side. She’d known the dead man, Stanley, her whole life. He was on Broadway and she used to sit in the garden as a little girl and watch him sing show tunes. Before he passed, she promised to take care of his home, which is decorated like Stanley’s still around. His photos hang on the wall; open songbooks are displayed on the piano.
You learn a lot about a dead man rifling through his house – lifting his furniture, clearing his walls, going through his closets, finding out which psalms are dog-eared in his Bible – searching for anything that might be worth selling at auction. It feels like trespassing.
Sometimes the most genuine reflection of a person’s identity is found in the inscriptions they’ve written in books. Inside one of Stanley’s he wrote a note to himself titled Self Esteem:
I’m a handsome, wonderful human being who deserves a good life. I grabbed a mirror, gave it a big smooch and said, “I love you. You are the man, Yessur.”
Stanley’s neighbor drops by. He’s 85, bent over a cane, and speaks with a thick Ukrainian accent. He came over because he saw our truck. Now he’s asking for Stanley’s address book. But the lady tells him she threw it out years ago.
“You put him in a cemetery or you cremate him?” he asks.
“Cremation,” she says. “His ashes went to North Carolina with his wife.” She died fourteen years ago on Independence Day. She and Stanley never had kids.
In the garden we’re shown the four-foot-tall cast-stone fountain. Stanley’s house sitter says it stopped spitting water just before he died. We yank it out of the ground. Fat bugs crawl out from underneath.
“Stanley was gonna leave me a fortune,” she claims. “He said I’d never have to work again.”
“It was never in writing…The lawyer was gonna come to the house on a Tuesday…to put it in writing. Stanley died that Monday. Of course, right? So I mourned the loss of my friend…and the loss of my fortune.”
Before we leave we even take Stanley’s mailbox, almost erasing him from the block’s history. The woman says she’ll call us when her mother dies so we can come get her stuff too.
As auction gallery furniture movers, we do pickups year-round. My partner, Ryan Wagner, is 29, six-foot-two and 250 pounds. His size is crucial whenever we have to move things like 900-pound hand-carved marble Foo Dogs. Once, on a dare, he pushed the box truck across a parking lot with his bare hands. People tend to watch us move stuff like we’re in a sideshow. See the two men lift, sling, tip, slide, drag, tilt, duck, pivot and coffin things into a truck!
We start in the basement and work our way up through the house. We lift up mattresses, kick aside small tumbleweeds of hair and carry bedframes down the hall. We pack Halloween costumes and wedding dresses into banana boxes. We climb out bedroom windows onto roofs to see if weathervanes are worth anything. We step into decayed barns and collapsed sheds and pull tackle boxes, snow blowers, and tractor parts from the wreckage.
In March we traveled to the home of ninety-year-old Barbara Harris, who lived alone, save for her nurse, in Rock Tavern, New York. She was dying of Parkinson’s and couldn’t afford her farmhouse anymore.
Barbara was still in bed and the nurse led us around telling us what to take – portraits of horses, the dining room table, her rugs, her safe, and the crystal lamps on her mantle.
We heard Barbara struggling to lift herself out of bed and into her wheelchair. The nurse ignored the moans coming from Barbara’s room. “Take the stuff and go, go, go,” the nurse said. This was odd, so we stopped and waited for Barbara. “You’re not going fast enough!” the nurse yelled.
Barbara rolled herself into the living room.
“How are you, Barbara?” Ryan asked.
“Horrible,” she said. “I have an aide here who is so bossy. She’s taking everything off the walls.”
“We don’t want you to feel that we’re taking things out from beneath you,” Ryan said, even though we were there to do just that.
“I’m not comfortable with anything with her here,” Barbara said, trying to point at her nurse – her hand just trembled a little above the armrest.
“You can’t pay to heat your house,” the nurse scolded in response. “You’re going to freeze to death in here.”
Barbara wept. Ryan knelt down and put his arm around her.
Maybe the nurse was right, but we didn’t like the way she was talking to Barbara. Ryan asked the nurse to leave until we were done.
I wanted to leave something behind for Barbara, anything she could hide so she could at least have one piece of her old life to hold onto. But there was nothing. All her things, furniture and paintings, were squeezed like Tetris pieces into the back of the truck. We didn’t know it at the time, but a few months later, Barbara would be moved into a senior citizen home.
We left the house empty. Just Barbara and her nurse.
The William J. Jenack Auction Gallery is an aluminum-covered steel frame that looks like a green airplane hangar flanked by mountains in Chester, New York, fifty miles north of Manhattan. It is divided into three large spaces: the Fine Art showroom, the Town & Country showroom, and the sale room set between the two.
William Jenack, 70, and his wife Andrea, a certified gemologist, own the place along with Kevin Decker, who specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artifacts. They appraise and inventory everything Ryan and I bring back to the gallery. Everything is siphoned through to the back and stored away. Large items like grandfather clocks, sofas, armoires, and credenzas stay in one of the four trailers behind the gallery. Works of art are stacked by the hundreds on shelves in the back room. Smaller pieces – angelfish skeletons, vintage dental molds, African masks – are lined up along their own special shelves. Items that aren’t worth much are divvied up into boxes and stored upstairs in what is like a morgue of personal belongings. Single items in the world of auctioneering are called “lots.” They can sell on their own, but the things upstairs are called “box lots” – many bidders love the thrill of sifting through a box lot as if they’re a kind of cardboard treasure chest.
It’s a strange feeling having to tell someone that the things they thought were worth a lot aren’t worth much at all. William, after nearly thirty years in the business, says to this day, “It’s difficult to tell someone that her prized possessions are worth a hill of beans.”
William and Andrea were antique collectors for a decade before William began auctioneering in 1988. In those days, they stored their antiques in a garage, and when they’d amassed enough stuff for a big sale, they’d rent a firehouse or church and hold an auction.
William has walked through thousands of homes in the region, appraising people’s things, while coming to know old-timers who collect esoteric mechanical pencils or Edison light bulbs or vintage silhouettes. These types of collectors tend to drive to the gallery with a trunk full of their prized collections in a fit of downsizing. Inevitably, the same people will then preview the upcoming sales, looking for anything to add back to their collection.
On auction day, after everything is catalogued, numbered, and put on display, both in the showroom and on our website, we open the showroom for “preview” – when clients observe the upcoming sale the way one would walk through a museum.
At preview I learn about strange world history from clients. We once had an ancient Roman tear catcher for sale. A client taught me that Roman mourners would cry into bottles and place them in the tombs of those they loved. One ninety-year-old Englishman, always in a suit and cap, has told me the same story at every preview for the last four years – how he worked in a coalmine in England during World War II, how he remembers the sounds of the British warplanes flying overhead filled with bombs. “They sounded heavy,” he’ll say. He remembers the engines flying home later with less drag.
Military-themed sales draw good crowds in any economic climate. We lay out carpets, hang chandeliers, line up rows of shotguns and rifles on the gun racks, and arrange swords and daggers in showcases. William shows up with his grey manicured mustache and the charm of a yacht captain about to take his clients for a three-hour tour through Russian icons, high-end cowboy boots, and Nazi paraphernalia. On pickups we come across more Nazi coins and medals and Mein Kampf copies with personal inscriptions than I ever imagined we would – even in Jewish households. My partner Ryan says he knows of Jewish people who buy Nazi memorabilia just to destroy it. I’ve also heard of Jewish people who buy it as proof to refute Holocaust deniers.
A Filipino woman comes in looking to inspect the Indonesian dagger before the sale starts. She must’ve seen it on our online catalogue and couldn’t wait to hold it. There are two in the sale, but she’s interested in the longer blade that’s shaped like a snake. She unsheathes it, holds it up to the light and counts the curves of the blade.
“Seven,” she says and smiles. She stabs the air with the dagger and twists it into an invisible victim. “Seven curves are good. When you twist it in you, all of your belly comes out.”
Another young woman hovers over the showcase. Her hair is pulled back into a bun, nose-pierced, and she is shy around the swords. Some guy jokes, “You don’t seem like the military dagger type.” An older man in a sleeveless shirt with long white hair and a long white beard, inspecting a Nazi air force officer’s dagger, intervenes. “You never know,” he says. “I have a neighbor and she can put an axe through the center of that picture over there.” His name is Mark Bodnarczuk, and another gentleman at the sale tells me that he is “the sword expert.”
Bodnarczuk laughs. He says he doesn’t need any more swords, yet here he is. His collection started piling up five years ago with a Union Civil War sword. He says it’s a disease. He picks up the three-foot sword of a German Imperial officer – a highly regarded status symbol for pure Aryan members of the Third Reich’s armed forces. Now it’s being passed back and forth between me – I was raised Jewish – and Bodnarczuk, a pleasant man with faded crescent moon tattoos on his arm, who looks like he’d pal around the Renaissance Faire. It’s important for Bodnarczuk to come to the sale in person to feel the blades, see if the scabbards fit, and “look in the nice little red eyes of the lion” on the handle of the Imperial sword.
However, Bodnarczuk came today specifically for the Civil War artillery sword. It is heavy and made of brass with a wide blade that’s just over two feet long. “The idea with these swords,” he says, holding the handle against his chest so the sword points out, “was when you were on your back on the ground, and the cavalry’s coming at you, you’d hold the sword up and hit the horse in the chest.”
A crowd begins to form around the Nazi memorabilia. Some people turn away quickly, like they see someone urinating in public. But there are plenty who’ve come strictly to hold – and bid on – the Nazi swords. Tom Coulter, 72, is an avid collector of German World War II memorabilia. He’s here for the German paratrooper gravity knife, which looks like a small, plain wood handle that’s missing a blade. But the hand guard doubles as a secret button. Earlier, other men asked to see the gravity knife and none could figure out how to open it. Coulter turns it upside-down, clicks the hidden button, and out slides the ten-inch blade. “Gravity,” he says to anyone listening.
William says the appeal of Nazi memorabilia is in the craftsmanship, and collectors are excited by “the whole heraldry of owning something that was involved in that time.” It’s legal to sell Nazi paraphernalia in some military shows and auctions in the United States, but it’s illegal to sell certain Nazi items on eBay. It’s also banned in France, Israel, Austria and Germany.
Coulter tells me to grab the American trench knife – basically a pair of brass knuckles welded to a twelve-inch blade – and the German gravity knife.
“Which one would you want to fight with?” he asks.
My fingers are slipped through the brass knuckles of the trench knife. It’s heavier than the gravity knife.
“The trench knife,” I say.
He points to the gravity knife. “This is practical,” he says. You can cut yourself from your parachute tangled in a tree with it. However, he says pointing to the trench knife, “This is to kill somebody. The back end is for cracking skull. The knuckles are for punching face and this is for stabbing.”
Coulter, who was a marine in Vietnam and had one-third of his lungs removed thanks to Agent Orange – you can hear the damage in his voice – says his house is stuffed with Gestapo rings, German helmets, swords, Luger pistols, and a small painting of a church steeple by Adolf Hitler. He’s traveled the country, and even to Europe, to purchase many of these items. He only visits our gallery when we have a good deal of Nazi pieces in a sale.
“No American stuff?” I ask him.
“Well, they’re just not unique,” he responds. “I have American stuff. I have my Marine bayonets. They’re nice, sure, but the Germans carved eagles into everything.”
“What would you say if someone came over to your house and saw all the swastikas and felt uncomfortable?” I ask.
“I’d say, ‘every weapon is a hate item. They’re all hate items.’” He says it’s for the love of history.
The Nazi daggers are beautifully crafted, but it is hard for me to divorce them from the black and white photos of the Holocaust that are also in this sale – naked prisoners with theirs hands over their genitals standing like skeletons behind barbed wire, and men shoveling human bones into a brick crematorium.
The sale begins and most people follow William into the middle room where he takes his place at his podium. It looks like church. The weapon collectors loiter behind in the showroom, inspecting the weapons one more time, squinting down the barrels of rifles like telescopes. The guns and swords are the headliners of the sale, though it will be a few hours before they’re up for bidding. Weapon-lovers never seem eager to sit through the bidding on pottery, costume jewelry or vintage seltzer bottles.
William auctions off a mechanical baby in a crate. It’s a two-foot glass-eyed doll that was an advertisement for a soap company in the 1940s. All of its limbs used to move, like a baby stuck on its back, but now only one arm and one leg work. “I hope somebody plugged it in for ya,” William says. “He lights up…and he turns his head.”
It goes for $450.
Another item for sale is a vintage Ku Klux Klan panoramic photograph, dated 1925. Hundreds of men and women and children in white robes and pointed hoods stand in front of the nation’s capitol. Not too far in the background, sitting on window ledges, are black children watching the scene. When the photo sells for $225, William looks at it and says, “I haven’t seen that many dunces in one place in a long time.”
William auctions off two hundred lots in two hours before reaching the portion of the sale where certain people are leaning forward, white-knuckled on their bidder number paddles, hoping to win their guns and swords of choice.
Mark Bodnarczuk stands. Tom Coulter pulls his Vietnam vet hat down low. As the auction goes on, others side-glance, trying to see who they’re bidding against. Then there are people like Sal Vargetto who rushes in near the end of the sale, bids on two shotguns, wins, runs into the preview room, takes them off the rack, aims them at the ceiling and pretends to shoot with a long, unlit cigar hanging from his mouth.
Bodnarczuk doesn’t get the brass Civil War artillery sword. It goes for higher than he is willing to spend. But he does buy a Japanese sword. Coulter wins the gravity knife, and I see the Filipino woman leave smiling with the Indonesian dagger in her hand.
The next day we clean up and begin to organize a new sale. There are now antique Russian menorahs in place of the Nazi swords.
What doesn’t sell after a few tries is either donated or brought to the dump – the great American intestine. Everything that winds up here at the Orange County Transfer Station is flattened, cubed and shipped out on trucks heading for the landfill behind it. I’ve seen Darwin’s On The Origins of Species and Suzanne Somers’ Fast & Easy cookbooks destroyed in unison here.
The filled box truck is driven into an enormous shed with a cement floor. There are beat-up American flags on the wall and gnarled teddy bears tied to the grills of dump trucks – things employees have pulled from the trash. The shed has its own atmospheric pressure and smells of thick, hot rotting. A mist falls from the ceiling so the place doesn’t spontaneously combust. There are smashed pianos and old refrigerators and dead televisions and shattered glass and old dirty mattresses, which the man operating the excavator grabs with the claw of his machine and uses as a broom to make way for our new pile of trash.
The dump weighs the box truck on our way in, and subtracts the weight we lose on our way out. Our last trip here was with Barbara Harris’ unwanted stuff. By now we had gone back one last time to clear out her old barns in the backyard. Most of it was in such bad condition it went right to the dump. In five minutes we threw out 3,500 pounds of her life.
There’s a sign at the weigh station when you leave that reads, Thank you for your garbage.
We sweep out the box truck before a new pickup. A trumpet player is dead. His family rented a giant dumpster for everything that won’t be going to auction. His place must be emptied, no evidence left of him whatsoever, to stage the house for sale.
I find his résumé in his office desk. He played with the band on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. He played with Sinatra and Buddy Rich. I find studio recordings of him on cassette. I put them in his stereo and let his trumpet echo through the empty house and out the open doors into the street where his neighbors walk by. They do a double take as if their old neighbor is back from the dead to perform one last time.
Once we’ve packed all his sellable stuff in the box truck, we climb into the big dumpster. We jump up and down on his trash to make sure it doesn’t overflow.
It’s a 55-and-up gated community. The neighbors aren’t amused. Chances are we’ll be back soon for them too.