eternal choices

Light matter, Burning Man by Aaron Logan

I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’ for you —Blue Oyster Cult

Against a backdrop of clinking glasses and Motown’s “Baby Love,” TVs around the bar flashed breaking news—an airliner had crashed. The conversation shifted from football rivalries to death and friends who had recently crossed the Great Divide. That led to insurers’ euphemistic “final expenses.”

“I’m going to be buried,” said Riley, husband of 37 years to Connie sitting next to me.

“I’ll be cremated,” said Connie.

“No, honey, I don’t want you to burn up.”

“Well, I will,” she insisted.

Back and forth they went until I broke in, “Connie, if you die first, he’ll get his way.”

cremation - unknown attributionSeems more people are choosing cremation because it costs less than burial. Some folks don’t cotton to being buried, so they choose cremation. But what do people know about it?

Funeral directors, I’m sure, educate people as to what cremation entails but a lot of folks embrace the idea as casually as “I’ll have another glass of merlot.” I don’t want to be cremated, but to those who choose to incinerate a loved one or themselves in something akin to a pizza oven, read on. It’s a hot read that’ll give you chills. It’s not for the squeamish.

When I was two an accident took place in the dead of winter. Hot coals shot out the ashbin when Mom dropped a log into a wood stove. I lay on a blanket in front of that stove. Red-hot grayish embers, the kind that best grill a steak, landed on my chest and neck, giving me third-degree burns. Mom grabbed me and having no car ran toward the Augusta Highway that cold morn. Those coals notwithstanding, I’ve always been lucky. A dry cleaner deliveryman coming down our driveway rushed us to Augusta’s University Hospital where I stayed four months and had skin grafting, what would someday be called plastic surgery. I have no memory of my burning probably because I was too young and possibly because my mind blocked it.

Is anything more torturous than burning to death? We’re hardwired to do anything to avoid being burned. On 911, people jumped 100 floors to their death from the World Trade Towers rather than let flames engulf them. One couple held hands and launched themselves into eternity. Hardwired.

I reject cremation. At a tender age I felt fire, real fire but as my scars go, I seldom think about them. Over the years they faded, and the words of Harry Crews ring true: “There is something beautiful about all scars of whatever nature. A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with.”

Yes, all done now.

But cremation? Surely being burnt to ashes fires up the deadest of nerves, though dead is dead I suppose. I know this sounds absurd, but no one has returned from the Great Divide to describe cremation’s agony. I tell people I don’t want to be cremated and they always say the same thing, “Yeah, well what difference does it make. When you’re dead, you’re dead. Besides, it’ll cost less.” Cremating a loved one to save money is more about you than the dearly departed. Maybe that’s what Blue Oyster Cult had in mind. “I’m burnin’ for you.”

My imagination gets the best of me and sometimes it gets crazy wild. In graveyards on moonlit midnights I believe the dead have ways of communicating with other dead souls. I don’t think that’s possible if you’re in an urn on some shelf by yourself. You’ll never rise to hover over your grave and watch wafer-thin translucent apparitions join you for a night of communion and God knows what else. But the cremation bandwagon keeps rolling along. If that’s your choice and you have an inquiring mind, read on. If you really don’t want to know cremation’s ghastly details skip to the second dash.

It’s come to pass. Your body lies in a cool, temperature-controlled room until a coroner or medical examiner signs off on your cremation. Got to be sure no medical investigations or examinations wait ’cause there’s no body to exhume once you’re ashes. Had surgery? Treated for cancer? Ladies, did you enhance your bust? Things that explode such as pacemakers, prostheses, and breast implants must go. Radioactive “cancer seeds” must go too. Jewelry? Surely families or friends got your rings, glasses, and such.

Your body now goes into a container of plywood or pine. Cardboard will do. Encased in your soon-to-be fiery box, you rest on a rack of rollers. Destination? Inferno. When the incinerator reaches 1100 degrees Fahrenheit, doors open automatically and you slide down the rack into the cremating chamber, known as a retort. The door seals and a jet-engine-like plume of flame burns your container and licks at your torso. The heat dries your body. Your skin turns wax-like, discolors, blisters, and splits. Soft tissues tighten, burn, then vaporize. Your muscle char, flex, and tighten, and your arms and legs move about in a ghastly dance of nightmarish conflagration. Bones, last to go, calcify, flake, and crumble; they’ll be ground into fine gravel. For two to three hours you burn. Then grinders pulverize your remains and pour them into a plastic, lined container or urn. Families decide what to do with the remains. Perhaps your ashes will be scattered over a river as George Harrison’s were over the Ganges. I photographed a friend scattering his wife’s ashes along a shore by the cresting Atlantic. He sifted it out, ashes and fine grayish gravel. A solemn moment held me as I tried to remember her. I could go on but enough of this.

There was a woman once, sassy, pretty, loving, and adventurous. Her laughter pealed like soft bells, melodic, but she could be bossy too. She was practiced in the art of deception as the song goes. She died too young and was cremated. I find that hard to accept. Why cremate her? To me, she’s more than gone. She never existed. There’s no place on the planet where I can stand over her and remember her.

The Bible says everything will burn in the end: 2 Peter 3:5-13: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. All you believers, you’ll be cremated in the end. And if you’re a non-believer, the sun will incinerate us anyway.

Why rush things. Down in the cemetery an altogether new life may wait.



Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].

  1. Eileen Dight

    The reason I have elected to be cremated is that I have a horror of being buried alive by mistake. It happens. They have sometimes found scratch marks within coffins where people had tried to escape after interment. That is a far more grisly scenario than being burned as described here. I also don’t want my family feeling they should visit my grave. Yikes! I’d rather they go to the cinema or have a nice meal somewhere than waste an afternoon like that. I want to be remembered alive. Cheers!

    1. There’s a famous tale of a young woman who was buried alive on Edisto Island here in SC. It has happened. Today’s medical technologies surely can tell if a person is still alive. I understand your fear, however, and also the grave visiting compulsion although I go to my parents’ site on a regular basis.

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