The Way of All Flesh
All Photos: Sally Mann, from What Remains
A few winters ago, a friend and I (hung over or quite possibly still tipsy from the combination of the previous evening's wine and altitude) wrenched ourselves out of bed at 5:00 am and drove down the hill to Park City, Utah. We left our husbands slumbering. We were on a quest, hoping to nab early tickets to a film--any film.
Sundancing without passes fairly requires reckless abandon. You see what you see based entirely on luck. Pick a large theatre, scan the program for daybreak films, and keep in mind that Documentary, Foreign Language, or Shorts are your best bets. You may have no idea what's about to go up on the screen, but you'll be in.
Such was the turn of events that placed us, bleary-eyed and undercaffeinated, in the audience for Stephen Cantor's subtle, unsettling, glorious, unflinching documentary, What Remains, which follows photographer Sally Mann (and her family) as she creates art out of death and decay.
First, a dog. Her dog. A greyhound, Eva. Left to decompose. Bones, skin, bits of fur. A singular claw, surrounded with carefully sprinkled bone dust. Then, a shift. Human bodies, lying in a forensic investigation yard, in various stages of breakdown. I was shocked. I had no idea such places existed. Places where bodies are simply laid out among the woods and weeds, allowed to simply return to earth.
Of course detectives and investigators need a real-world set of baseline data to figure out how long a body exposed to the elements has been decomposing. Of course they do. But I'd never stopped to think about it.
There is more in the film--much more. See it.
But A Film Is Not Really What I'm Writing About
Backtrack with me a few years.
At 17, in the middle of a November night, 7 months before I hoped I would start college, I was quite suddenly and unexpectedly faced with the urgent, overwhelming, and most unwelcome task of what we Americans euphemistically call "making arrangements" for my father.
Stunned by his sudden death at 45 (although it was not completely unexpected, as he'd weighed in at 365 lbs. and lived with serious heart disease his entire life), I was sitting in my living room, at 2:00 am, speaking with my brother and grandmother and the "family" funeral director. I'd gotten to know the FD relatively well in the early 80s, burying one paternal relative every two years. First grandmother, then grandfather. Now, Dad.
And so, while I knew the funeral director was a kind man, and at heart good man who just happend to make a living by selling his services during people's worst moments, I also knew what this conversation meant.
It's impossible to grieve when you're hearing things like, "He was so large, we'll need to order a special casket. It'll be here in two days. Of course, that does cost more..." "I think we'll need an oversized vault, as well..." "I know money may be a little tight, but I wanted to let you know, we do have vaults and caskets in that size range that are better/more watertight/element-proof..."
Vault, casket, flowers, plot, wake, funeral, mass...too much. Too much to think about, too much to make decisions about, too much to buy. And yes, of course I was "buying." I did not want, I could not afford, but I had to buy. What was the alternative?
I wanted to quietly slip out the back door and walk away. I wanted this production to become somebody else's problem. It was certainly driven by somebody else's expectations. I had no desire for a full-fledged mourning-and-wailing theatrical production. Dad had not been a terribly religious man, nor was he particularly tradition-bound. But none of that mattered. There was a death, and there was a funeral. It was simply done.
Death is expensive. In 1985, the final bill for getting rid of an inconveniently oversized body was $10K, lumped atop an "estate" that was finally tallied up at negative $40K.
Two years later, when once again I found myself going through the same ritual of "arrangements" for my brother (a victim of enthusiastic night driving on a dark country road), I made a pact with my own damned self: The death industry would never collect a dime from me.
Since those two funerals, all of my significant others and remaining clan have been told what to do.
In the event that my death should leave behind any physical remains at all (who knows? I could sink to the bottom of the sea, burn to cinders, be crushed beyond all recognition, eaten by a dingo), I will be a whole body donor. Physical remains, to me, are merely a bundle of potentially lifesaving recyclables, plus a lot of leftover meat.
I really don't care what happens to the leftover meat, as long as nobody pays to make it go away.
Several years back, there was a bit of a ruckus in the popular press over donated bodies being used for military cadaver land mine research.
Why? Research is knowledge.
Being blown up by schrapnel or hurled at a concrete wall in a cadaver crash test may not sound as "romantic" as being lovingly sliced and diced by anatomy students (who will doubtless dedicate their medical careers to pro bono medicine for orphans in the Third World, sniffle sniffle), but honestly, the world needs all kinds of data, and gathering some of it isn't exactly pretty.
I doubt the subjects who donated their bodies and became a part of Sally Mann's collection had any notion they would end up molding and rotting in the southern sun for medical examiners to gently poke and prod as maggots busily broke down their flesh.
But they also had no idea their deaths would help to make art.
I'm thankful that some people are finally waking up to the fact that cemeteries are prettified toxic waste dumps full of otherwise usable wood and metal.
Don't get me wrong; I love cemeteries as much as the next grown-up semi-goth girl. They make for lovely strolls, games of night tag, and black & white photographs. I just figure we've got more than enough of them already.
Cremation spews carbon dioxide. The casket-and-vault industry appropriates tons of raw materials and energy to manufacture useless and unneeded death accessories that could be used for more constructive purposes.
In short, I'm rooting for the upstart Green/Natural Burial movement.
Anybody care to join me in my quest to shuffle off this mortal coil without leaving behind an obscene pile of wasted resources, greenhouse gasses, and crippling bills for my loved ones?