Last week I visited the cemetery in Hastings to see where my paternal grandparents - Alma and Peter Bridgeman who died in 1980 and 1983 respectively - were buried. I hadn't visited for some years so it took us a while to find their plot amongst the rows and rows in the Orchard Road cemetery - or "graveyard" as my daughter, who has clearly overdosed on spooky novels, insisted on calling it.
Encountering tangible symbols of death is always a sobering experience. Many headstones commemorated people who had lost their lives in the Napier earthquake of 3rd February 1931. There were soldiers who'd died serving their country and there were far too many dead babies from long ago - including one headstone that listed six infants who'd died in six consecutive years. The casual observer can only guess at some of the tragedies that lay behind the precisely etched words.
Unsurprisingly, this visit ignited thoughts of mortality and raised the issue of whether burial or cremation is preferable. While different religious faiths and cultural belief systems have guidelines on how a deceased person's body should be processed, I like Jerry Seinfeld's take on the subject:
"People used to want a big, thick granite stone, their names carved... with a chisel. 'I was here, dammit!' Cremation is like you're trying to cover up a crime. 'Burn the body. Scatter the ashes around. As far as anyone's concerned this whole thing never happened.'"
Cremation found favour when it was feared that the world was going to run out of room in which to bury bodies. With the population explosion came the idea that we'd all eventually have to be buried standing up unless we changed our ways. The prospect of fruitlessly clawing the inside of a coffin if accidentally buried alive and the idea of worms tunnelling through rotting corpses further helped cement cremation's image as the most civilised option.
Yet it was recently reported in The Guardian that woodland burials - in which bodies are buried "in fields or woods in wicker or cardboard coffins" - are booming in Britain. A yen to escape the clinical nature of traditional cemeteries, as well as a desire to minimise environmental impact, is likely to have driven demand for such natural alternatives.
Burial at sea is a fitting farewell if the deceased has a connection with the ocean. There are specific zones off the coast where sea burial can take place, according to the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand's website which also advises that "[p]ermission must be sought from the local Coroner as well as maritime authorities, and the casket must be... weighted with holes drilled through the bottom to enable it to fill with water and sink." Then there's always the option of bequeathing your body to medical science so it can be used for research or teaching purposes.
The most public-spirited fate of a body is surely to use it to save or improve the life of another person by offering the organs for donation. When I applied for my lifetime driver's licence I ticked the box agreeing to be an organ donor. I ticked it again years later when the same licence was (weirdly, I thought) replaced by a non-lifetime licence. Evidently, over one million New Zealanders have done the same.
But, by all accounts, the deceased's wishes are not always respected in this regard. Apparently many families opt to thwart his or her good intentions in the stress of bereavement. Organ Donation New Zealand advises people to "tell your family your wishes and let them know which organs and tissues [such as heart valves, corneas and skin] you are willing to donate."
What's your preference: cremation or burial? Are you prepared to donate your organs should the opportunity arise?