What should be done with this body of mine when, as the saying on many old New England tombstones goes, I have departed this life? Over the years I spent writing a novel starring a gravedigger, this question crept gradually from the back of my mind to the fore of it.
My protagonist, Ben, champions green burials at a graveyard inspired by Forest Hills Cemetery (more on that later), and he devotes a share of his free time to creating a burial suit laden with mushroom spores, designed to turn his remains into “some really nice compost.”
Through several drafts of the novel, Ben both reflected and inspired my burgeoning plans for making an environmentally friendly transition from flesh to dust. Though I wasn’t up for engineering my own burial suit, I started to picture myself being lowered, free of a casket and embalming chemicals, into a hole in some conservation land, a possibility that an episode of the HBO series “Six Feet Under” first brought to my attention.
Then my father died.
For a long time, I’d known that he, too, didn’t want his body to end up in a casket--especially one opened to well-wishers at a wake, and surrounded by flowers that would, in his words, “just wind up in the garbage.” Instead, he wanted his body to go right to a medical school, through a donation program. Convinced, with good reason, that medical advances had allowed him to reach his eighties despite chronic heart disease, he saw the donation of his body as a practical expression of gratitude.
I was moved by his decision and honored that he charged me with making sure that his wishes became a reality. At the same time, for years following the news of his decision, I avoided thinking about the events and actions that would be necessary for the donation or set in motion by it, chief among them, my father’s death. I didn’t want to think about his body becoming only that, a body, or about the uses it might be put to. I certainly didn’t consider that I might ever make the same decision he had.
But in the months and years after his death, these feelings gradually changed. A significant driver of this change was the service that the Duke University School of Medicine, the recipient of my father’s body, held to honor him and other donors. During the service, several medical students spoke of how donors’ bodies became valuable, essential teachers to them. The students expressed publicly a gratitude they said they’d felt many times, privately, during their work with donors.
I was deeply moved by these testimonials, and I felt for the first time that my father hadn’t been just a body to the students who had benefited from his donation. He had made a meaningful contribution to their medical studies and a difference in their lives. Although my father had always been uneasy with praise and hated to be the center of attention (thus, his horror over the thought of an open-casket wake), I wish he could have heard these students’ words, which echoed the gratitude to doctors he expressed when he decided to become a donor all those years ago.
After the service at Duke University, I did some research into body donation and learned that there is a significant unmet need for cadavers given increasing medical school enrollments and growth in physician assistant and nurse practitioner programs.
In the end, I decided to donate my body to the Boston University School of Medicine, where cadavers are needed for the education of medical and dental students, postgraduate physicians, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and students in related fields. (If you are considering donating your own body for medical education and research, take time to research potential recipient institutions. To avoid so-called body brokers, which are reported to place financial gain above ethical practice, you might consult the list of donation programs provided by the Anatomical Board of the State of Florida.)
Although my donated body will eventually be cremated, not the greenist way to return to the earth, I hope I’ll be making some contribution to the greater good, just as my father did, and as my novel’s protagonist, Ben, tries to do, by advocating for green burials.
Ben’s father, also a gravedigger, says that after death, everyone should “leave at least a shadow on the earth”--to his mind, a tombstone’s shadow. But for me, it would be more than enough to become some medical students’ silent teacher, whatever lessons they take from my body persisting in the care they deliver to their patients.
To return to Forest Hills Cemetery, I’m grateful for the inspiration it provided for my novel. As I drafted every scene set in the fictional Bolster Hill Cemetery, I pictured the grounds of Forest Hills Cemetery, which are open to the imagination in unexpected ways. As one character observes, stepping in to Bolster Hill is “like entering some kind of weird, twisty dream.” Accordingly, I tried to portray it as a place where, like Forest Hills Cemetery, visitors can retreat from ordinary life and become pleasantly lost, both in physical space and in their thoughts. They can also connect with others–living or dead–in nooks of relative privacy.
Although none of my loved ones are buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, they’re often in my thoughts when I stroll its grounds, and cross shadows cast by years of memorials, years of loss and remembrance.
Beth Castrodale lives and writes in Jamaica Plain. Her novel "In This Ground" will be published by Garland Press in September. Beth will be reading from the book at 6 p.m., Monday, September 17th, at the Connolly Branch of the Boston Public Library in Jamaica Plain.