Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Coming soon: Caskets-R-Us


Betty Bell

Recently, Scott Simon, my favorite radio guy, told about going to the local Monster Mart to buy diapers for his daughter, figuring that the bargain price cancelled out a small risk that, in an exuberant somersault, she?d expose a derriere swaddled with a generic logo.

Beyond the aisles of casseroles-for-a-mob, books on the cheap, hunting boots along with flip-flops, and pans and pots and kettles, he came upon the startling sight of rows of caskets: functional and designer caskets, real wood and plastic caskets, extra short and extra long caskets, all for a lot less than the prices offered at the mortuary when his great-great-grandfather passed. Simon thought, and I agree, that it?s good to have caskets in plain sight where the price can be checked without a somber mortician making us feel like tightwads.

What these rows of discount caskets in Monster Mart portend seems obvious. Soon, a Caskets-R-Us in every mall. Maybe then we?ll let-go of some of our burial mores better suited to when you?d buy a wee final resting place for less than a season ski pass. And great-great-grandfather might get a kick out of choosing his own box where the action?s upbeat and the fast food section has everything he?d ever want to eat except maybe mush.

Here?s a possible Caskets-R-Us scenario: Picture a young couple squished into 500 square feet of so-called affordable housing and no place to store anything. So loving parents choose their caskets that, God willing, they?ll not need for years. They loan them to the young?uns who use them for storage?skis in summer and golf clubs in winter. And if the kids are desperate for counter space, one casket might be the model with hinges that folds over on itself and sports a slick Formica top.

We?ll probably be able to buy a biodegradable model too, one made of compressed leaves with hemp hinges that?s guaranteed to be well into serious decomposition within 90 days. No environmentalist worthy of the name could be caught dead without opting for biodegradable.

Once upon a time, in Katmandu, I chanced upon the ritual ceremony of a body on a bier being burned by the brook, OK--by the river. I was appalled back then, but now I see it as sound environmental practice. We could ease into that ritual by transitioning with a briquette-bottomed casket instead of the oh-so-public bier.

Cremation instead of burial was still novel when I became licensed to fly for money. I made a nuisance of myself until I was hired by Sun Valley Air in Hailey, where one of my first flights was in a little Cessna 172 to fly a mother and her two young sons over Baldy where they?d honor their husband/father?s wishes and disperse his ashes over a place he loved.

We lifted from the runway on a beautiful morning and headed up-valley. Over Baldy, I throttled back, added a notch of flaps, and eased into a soothingly-shallow right turn, and then I opened the co-pilot?s window. The sudden blast of air shocked me as much as my passengers.

?Hold your dad?s ashes way out before you release them,? I shouted to the boy beside me. He did, and out sailed the ashes, but they didn?t fall. Gravity couldn?t hold a candle to slipstream, and a big gray cloud of prickly ash flew right back in, right into the back seat. I pulled the window closed before I dared look back there and saw a Halloween-haunted-house scene, mother and son sputtering through ashes reluctant to settle down. Back at the airport, with the script in such shambles, we were all too chagrined to look at one another.

I?ve often imagined ... hoped ... that a handful of the ashes escaped and got sucked up into the jet stream and then sailed around the world. And when they sailed back across the states, I imagine, hope, that some of them drifted down on the Sawtooth Gardens, or onto your little patch of garden, where they still enrich the soil.

Maybe Caskets-R-Us will branch out into aerial ash dispersal more successfully than I did. You?ll be able to sign up for your ashes to be sent flying way up there at flight level three-one-zero, and after they sailed around the world a couple of times, a handful might well drift down on some far-away farmer?s plot where they?re sorely needed. And when the farmer?s crops then flourish year after year after year, you?d call that life everlasting.

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