Opinion: Looking forward to resting in motion


Published: 05-18-2024 7:00 AM

Parker Potter is a former archaeologist and historian, and a retired lawyer. He is currently a semi-professional dog walker who lives and works in Contoocook.

Not too long ago, Nancy Jo and I finally buttoned up our estate planning documents. Ours is not a princely estate, and its distribution will be quite straightforward. Still, it was a relief to complete this long-overdue task. We have had several recent deaths in the family, some with better pre-planning than others, so I’m glad that we’re all set. Talk about crossing an item off the bucket list!

Right after we finished our estate plans, I wrote my obituary. Don’t worry. I plan to stay right here on the ppinion page for quite a while before I migrate to the obits; I just wanted to spare my survivors a little work, and it turned out to be really fun. I highly recommend it. Who doesn’t want to have the last word?

As for what happens after my obituary runs, I was raised in the Catholic church with Sunday school and the whole nine yards. I learned about heaven, hell, and all the celestial pitstops along the way. From reading Chinese fiction, I’ve also learned about the Jade Emperor, the Yellow Springs, and hungry ghosts.

However, the ultimate destination of the non-corporeal part of me is way above my pay grade. What is up to me is what will happen to my body when the rest of me no longer needs it.

Around here, the conventional home for bodies no longer in use is the graveyard, and graveyards can be very interesting places. Three careers ago, when I was an archaeologist, I read a fascinating study of the imagery — death’s heads, cherubs, willows, and urns — carved into New England gravestones in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

When my family and I traveled through China, I was intrigued by the burial practices we saw. In Hong Kong, we saw tightly packed Western-style cemeteries with graves in grids and ranks of headstones. In the southern countryside, mostly through train windows, we saw tombs cut into hillsides with entrances that looked like big horseshoes. In the northern countryside, we saw small burial mounds, some with a stone or a tree or two, right in the middle of working cornfields. There was, no doubt, plenty of feng shui involved.

For many years, I planned on having my body buried in the cemetery just down the street from my house. I had even picked out a quotation for my tombstone, “The custard is gone,” which is a line from a poem that appeared in my college literary magazine, a poem that described the scene at Asbury Park in the autumn, after all the merrymakers had departed.

I still really like “The custard is gone,” but inspired by Nancy Jo’s long-time interest in more natural methods of handling human remains, I have had serious second thoughts about taking my big sleep in the cemetery down the street.

For one thing, I’d like to think that I have lived my life in such a way that people won’t need a marble slab or a brass plaque to remember me by. Moreover, to get the tombstone I have been envisioning, my body would have to be pumped full of preservatives and then put into a sealed box. That sounds suspiciously like being locked in jail. For eternity.

The more I have thought about it, the more interested I have become in having my body return to nature as quickly and as directly as possible, perhaps in the embrace of the root system of a tree. Even if I am just sprinkled in a meadow somewhere, the result would be the same.

Roots would draw me up and turn me into stems or branches or leaves or blossoms. Any foliage I contribute to would eventually fall to the ground, turn into dirt, and keep on going around and around. I could help create food and shelter for untold thousands of bugs and birds and mammals. I could help make shade for people and wood for them to build with, doing my own little version of Shel Silverstein’s masterpiece, “The Giving Tree.”

If I were returned to nature directly, I wouldn’t be in jail at all. Thanks to the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and the life cycles of the plants I nourish, I could end up anywhere. I could be everywhere. I will be free.

Returning to nature a.s.a.p. will also benefit my survivors and spare them the sight of my waxy-looking husk lying in a casket. And if I am returned to nature rather than sealed in a box planted in a vault six feet underground, my survivors won’t have to come to a cemetery to visit me. I’ll come to them, flowing by in a stream, wafting by on a breeze, or buzzing around, mingled with the pollen on the legs of a honeybee. I’ll be resting in motion.