Posted by: smstrouse | March 1, 2014

Ash Wednesday: In Dead Earnest


As Ash Wednesday approaches, I’ve been thinking about death. Or I should say I’ve been thinking about what will happen to my body after I die.

Several things precipitated this concern, even though I’d already done my advance directives some years ago, including the decision about the disposal of my remains. I opted for donating my body to science. I’ve always been big on not throwing something when it could still be useful. Why not the ultimate recycling project?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. And I hadn’t thought anything about it until just this week when, of all things, I was listening to an audio book in the car. I’m addicted to listening to mystery books (the suspense makes me look forward to driving), and in this one, the detective is interviewing an anatomy professor. He walks into the lab just as the class is about to cut into a cadaver. Even though it was an audio book, the scene was graphic in my mind’s eye. And it was not pleasant. I felt an immediate jolt of “OMG, that’ll be me!” recognition. I began to consider changing my directive. Maybe cremation was the way to go (pun intended).

But then, as part of the story line, the professor gives an impassioned speech about his gratitude and respect for the people who had donated their bodies so that medical students could learn to heal. I was  quite moved – and the recycling project was back on track.

Coincidentally, I read an article this week in The Christian Century  about green burials, an eco-friendly way of “taking serious the biblical reminder, ‘for you are dust and to dust you shall return.'” I learned that a green burial doesn’t include embalming (if it does it’s with only earth-friendly chemicals). Caskets are made of untreated wood or other natural materials. So, while there is no denial of death, there is a profound emphasis on rebirth. I like that – the cycle of life and all. Although there’s still the matter of taking up space in the ground.

And speaking of dust to dust: along with that article, there was another about the likelihood that cremation is not all that eco-friendly. There’s a lot of energy expended in the cremation process, and bodies to be cremated are still embalmed. Plus nasty pollutants from metals in tooth fillings and surgical implants are released. So, despite it’s growing popularity, cremation isn’t such a  good deal after all.

So in light of all this, I’m going to stick with my original recycling plan. It’s the best I can do in the spirit of the late Lee Hayes (member of The Weavers and author of great folk songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”). His poem  In Dead Earnest says it all:

     If I should die before I wake,
     All my bone and sinew take:
     Put them in the compost pile
     To decompose a little while.
     Sun, rain, and worms will have their way,
     Reducing me to common clay.
     All that I am will feed the trees
     And little fishes in the seas.
     When corn and radishes you munch,
     You may be having me for lunch.
     Then excrete me with a grin,
     Chortling, “There goes Lee again!”
     Twill be my happiest destiny
     To die and live eternally. 

Amen, Lee! Amen!



  1. Thank you for this. Is it not correct to assume that when one is an organ donor, the researchers and transplant team will take all they can use?


    • Good question. My understanding is that after they harvest what they can, they’ll sew you back up and release you for burial. So the burial/cremation question still needs to be determined.


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