My sister, leaning in to fix my grandmother’s makeup, as we waited to seal her in her coffin.
To have the final word on your body after you die is something that I’ve often thought about. Caitlin Doughty, an American funeral home director, wants a sky burial: to be eaten by vultures. “In my view burial by animals is the safest, cleanest, and most humane way of disposing of corpses, and offers a new ritual that might bring us closer to the realities of death and our true place on this planet,” she writes in her book on death rituals, From Here to Eternity.
She describes a Tibetan custom of celestial burial, where a dead man is wrapped in cloth in the fetal position, prayed over by Buddhist monks, then handed over to the rogyapa, the body breaker. The rogyapa saws away skin, muscle, and tendon, then pounds the bones with a mallet. Vultures gather, held back by other men with long rods.
The signal is given, the rods are retracted, and the vultures descend with violence. They shriek like beasts as they consume the carrion, but they are, at the same time, glorious sky-dancers, soaring upward and taking the body for its burial in the sky. It is a virtuous gift to give your body this way–returning the body back to nature, where it can be of use.
In this book, Doughty takes us all around the world in observation of death rituals that would, she argue, upend Western sensibilities–to Indonesia where the mummified dead live in family homes for years, Japan where shrines are held in modern facilities and whir to life at the tap of a card, to Bolivia where dreams, brought on by venerated skulls living in the homes of its people, guide day to day life.
On a visit to Tokyo, Doughty talks about how after cremation, the Japanese pick the bones of their beloved out of the crematorium with a pair of silver chopsticks and place them in an urn. She says that Americans would find such a practice horrific, distasteful, that the embalmed body is sealed away and buried as soon as possible, ensconced in coffin and concrete and crypt.
Last year held a lot of death for me. A friend’s father died, a friend’s mother died. My grandmother died last year, too. It was a lightning bolt cracking across a clear day, sudden and unexpected and, towards the end, an agony, I think. She was so absolute in her resolution to pass. She couldn’t speak because of the tube in her throat, so she spent hours gesturing at a framed painting outside in the hospital hallway. Finally we understood: she wanted to pick the photograph that would sit in front of her urn, be shown at her funeral. She chose the clothes to be buried in; she chose the length of the funeral.
But I want to contain that experience tidily to this post, where I am writing about bodies and death.
In that hospital bed she was restrained by mittens, because she kept trying to pull the tube out of her throat. We would hold her hands, which are long and elegant, pianists’ hands with moon fingernails, carefully maintained. My uncle massaged her feet. We moisturised her limbs and cut her nails. Her body was both alien hospital machine and familiar. We joked that following her heart rate and blood pressure on the screen–which we couldn’t help watching–turned us into stockbrokers, sensitive to the slightest dip or rise.
After she died, and when I reached the void deck where the funeral was to be held, her body was resting across three red kopitiam chairs drawn together, simply wrapped in a shroud. I could not see her, because an old Chinese uncle holding a smeared makeup palette was putting lipstick on her. The anticipation and dread of seeing her made my world slope. It would be the first time I would see her body in death. I feared she would look garish or unnatural.
She looked like herself, but while in repose, clearly no longer alive. At first I remained a respectful distance from her, not wanting to touch her, just looking at her and breathing and trying to exist as much as possible in that moment. My mother had been very resolute in telling us that we were not to touch her body as she passed, for fear that it would conjure up worldly attachments and draw her back to the world of life.
My sister regarded her with grief, but also growing dissatisfaction. My sister is both very loyal to those she loves and has a very exacting set of standards that she applies to her work and to the work of others, and she was not pleased with my grandmother’s makeup. She directed the makeup artist to change something on my grandmother’s face. Then, impatient, she eventually took the makeup brush from the makeup artist’s hand (he retreated hastily). She fixed my grandmother’s lipstick, leaning close, brushing pink over the closed lips.
I was a little taken aback. Could we touch her? Were we allowed? But who was to say we couldn’t? In this canvas pavilion cordoned off from everyone on a weekday afternoon, where she was dead and the only other person here was a makeup artist whose makeup brushes have kissed the faces of so many bodies, it was my grandmother and her granddaughters. Who else had better right to tidy her, knowing how vain she was in life, how much she cared about her hair, her lipstick, her clothes?
I took my sister’s lead. Somehow, eventually, we both became absorbed in the task. My sister fixed her lipstick, her eyebrows. I brushed fallen hair from her face, the top of her lip. At first we touched her with the makeup tools, then we touched her with our fingers. We would say, “sorry ah, Mama, just going to fix your makeup ah, yao ni mei mei [want you to be pretty] okay…”
This memory for me was so much more than the memory of her being sealed in her coffin, which I hated, seeing the glue set on the edges of the wood, imagining her hot and stuffy for all the days of her funeral. And it couples with my final memory of her body, where we, like the Japanese in Doughty’s book, picked her bones out of a metal tray of ash in turn, starting from oldest son and ending with youngest granddaughter. We lifted pieces of her skeleton and placed them in an urn, beginning with the legs and ending with the skull, and said to her, “welcome home, Mama.” Again I was first shocked at the ritual, its requirement that I handle my grandmother’s remains with my bare hands. But performing it felt clean, serious, and sombre, “haul[ing] our fear, shame and grief surrounding death out into the disinfecting light of the sun,” as Doughty writes.
While Doughty’s stories come across as a little thin–a brief, skimming travelogue of the macabre–and the tone occasionally so flippant as to be jarring, some of my favourite parts of the book are Doughty’s connections between women and death.
In one of the chapters, Doughty visits a facility in North Carolina, which is experimenting with the composting of human bodies. Run by Dr. Cheryl Johnston and initially imagined by one of her architecture students, Katrina Spade, the bodies donated to this facility are laid into the ground in a bed of woodchips and left to slowly compost. The scientists dig up the bodies at varying intervals to check on the process of decomposition, the goal being complete decomposition within six weeks.
Toward the end of the chapter, Doughty notes that the “main players” in this project–lawyers, anthropologists, scientists, architects–are all women. She writes:
“Women’s bodies are so often under the purview of men, whether it’s our reproductive organs, our sexuality, our weight, our manner of dress. There is a freedom found in decomposition, a body rendered messy, chaotic, and wild. I relish this image when visualizing what will become of my future corpse.
When deathcare became an industry in the early twentieth century, there was a seismic shift in who was responsible for the dead. Caring for the corpse went from visceral, primeval work performed by women to a “profession,” an “art,” and even a “science,” performed by well-paid men. The corpse, with all its physical and emotional messiness, was taken from women. It was made neat and clean, and placed in its casket on a pedestal, always just out of our grasp.
Maybe a process like recomposition is our attempt to reclaim our corpses. Maybe we wish to become soil for a willow tree, a rosebush, a pine–destined in death to both rot and nourish on our own terms.”
Isn’t it wonderful to think about our bodies as constantly rotting things? There’s something so radical about that, isn’t it, rather than things to be preserved and maintained and optimised?
Like prayer beads, I hold onto that as I think about both death and life, how I am torn between the desire to maximise the utility of my body through exercise and food and skincare and the recognition that it is to be sloughed off when I die. I hold onto Jane Kenyon, who wrote, “one day, I know, it will be otherwise.” And I hold on to this verse in Joanna Newsom’s Monkey and Bear, where the death of the eponymous Bear is a choice of self-immolation (or the opposite–of the deliberate drowning of the self), and is both terrible and transcendental, a counterpoint to the fainting, incidental death of Shakespeare’s Ophelia:
First the outside-legs of the bear
Up and fell down, in the water, like knobby garters
Then the outside-arms of the bear
Fell off, as easy as if sloughed
From boiled tomatoes
Low’red in a genteel curtsy
Bear shed the mantle of her
And, with a sigh
She allowed the burden of belly to drop
Like an apron full of boulders
Stepped clear of bear