I have a friend who is fascinated by death. I don’t mean that in an overtly morbid way, although, she is a bit of a drama queen, and I suspect the concept of total finality intrigues her. I’m bringing this up because she’s always discovering cool ways for people to dispose of their remains. The most recent discovery is that in New Orleans, you can legally have your remains fed to crawdads. The key word there is “legally,” because — and I will admit to a minimal amount of research here — I strongly suspect that in a place like New Orleans, “devoured by crawdads” is just the tip of the body disposal iceberg.
Bit of history here — one of my aunts is seriously Mormon. That might seem like an odd phrasing for a group whose extremists largely seem to believe in aggressively ugly sweaters, Disney films, and using mayonnaise in salads (I mean, there are weird little off-shoot cults and sects that still practice polygamy, but they are to most LDS folks as those weird Catholic groups that still have the entire mass in Latin, with the priest facing away from the congregation are to most practicing Catholics). This sticks strongly in my mind, because last year, at the height of my cancer treatments, she came out to visit, and spent a large chunk of the visit — this is true — looking at potential cemeteries and burial sites. Again, I’m all for treating cancer survivors like anyone else, but don’t take us on cemetery tours, please. I guess where you’re buried and how is a big deal with the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (to be fair, the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe only 144000 people go to heaven, so it’s not like this is any screwier a belief than any others)(on the other hand, I used to think that the primary benefit of death is that one’s housing problems diminished — apparently, death is just the beginning of that particular problem).
I’m starting to realize that a weird obsession with one’s remains is one of those “normal” people things I’ll never understand. And, best of luck with the crawdads, but I already know what I want done with my innards — I am — or was (we’ll get to that shortly) an organ donor. I really hope those crawdads enjoy the heart and liver more than someone on the transplant list.
One of the weirdly more-vibrant memories of my youth was a blood drive in high school — good idea, right? Who has more blood to spare than teens, right? Right. Except, once you start reading the rules and exceptions about who can and can’t give blood, you immediately start seeing who’s a vulnerable minority in this country. If you’ve been tattooed, pierced, or had major surgery in the last several months, you’re not eligible. Sexually active gay people can’t give blood. Cancer survivors in active treatment can’t give blood for at least a year after treatment concludes.
I’ll admit that some of these items are probably fossilized public health policies that were well-thought-out when originally drafted — yes, in the 80’s, it still would have been prejudicial to exclude gay guys from giving blood, but, at the same time, that was the height of HIV phobia/spread, and I can’t blame lawmakers from preemptively trying to stop a situation like the one in China (in the 80s and 90s, a lot of blood recipients wound up with HIV due to poor screening procedures). And I get that, when I was on chemo, no one wants blood literally filled with toxins (and I’ll be ineligible until next February). But once you see yourself excluded from a fairly basic, much-needed societal contribution, you start looking around.
And, sure enough, cancer survivors aren’t allowed to donate organs. For some reason, this really pisses me off, because, if there was some sort of permanent, lasting damage to my organs, I would have noticed (I still have a limp and my balance is still somewhat off; if my liver wasn’t metabolizing stuff or my lungs weren’t working; I’d be in the ER). Apparently, this was based on a court ruling in which a rare form of cancer was transmitted to the recipient via organ donation, bringing to mind that old American adage about jurisprudence, “Reality will be sculpted by 12 people too dumb to get out of jury duty.”
When you hear the words “Stage 4,” your entire life is upended. And things that used to bug the hell out of you get muted. Meanwhile, some stuff you never even thought of comes to the fore (I now know more about health insurance law than most personal injury attorneys). And some stuff you haven’t thought of in years really, really bugs you. For some reason, the thought that someone else won’t get some use out of this miserable lump of flesh I’m currently trapped in bugs me more than I thought it would. I mean, I have kept this thing in mint condition (you have to, to survive cancer, ironically enough), and I’d like to imagine someone else could get a little more mileage out of it when I’ve been evicted.
My generation is among the worst when it comes to registered organ donors, but, apparently, we, as a society, are so flush with them that we can afford to exclude people from the list (author’s note: apparently, there’s a special exemption for brain tumor patients, which is kind of a cold comfort — You have the most horrible disease known to medicine, BUT you can still give up a kidney - but it still seems unfair to all of my leukemia and ovarian cancer friends). Wait, that’s wrong, according to the American Transplant Foundation, over 110000 Americans are waiting for a transplant. Because, y’know, you’re made of time when you’re in renal failure.
From one perspective, those Americans are a negligible force, since there’s only about as many people on that list as the population of Ventura, California (one recalls Reagan’s popular campaign promise in 1984; “Fuck Ventura”). And, if we ignore them long enough, that problem will solve itself. According to the UN, about 7400 Americans die every day. Admittedly, not all of us can — or should — be organ donors (if you die from cirrhosis, no one’s gonna want that live), but that seems like if just half of them were donors and only gave up a single, useable organ, we’d chisel away at those 100000 waiting for organs. I’ll admit that there are numerous other factors involved here, usually involving highly technical aspects of immunology and histology, but we have now arrived at the point where our veneration for death and lifeless bodies (everyone who knows me knows I am desperately avoiding the phrase “made of meat” here) is kind of detracting from life as we know it. In my aunt’s case, if you found yourself in sunny San Diego, there are numerous activities available (angrily waiting in traffic, the beach, the zoo, angrily honking in traffic, microbreweries, making excuses to avoid Orange County, fuming in traffic, etc.); she wanted to play Crypt Keeper. Likewise, if you die; best of luck with what dreams may come, but I’m pretty sure your organ usage will be minimal. And someone on that list might need a functioning kidney or pancreas. Hell, I’m certain that even if I’m totally barred from giving up my heart, there will be a fist-fight among various research faculty over my body (you’ve read it here, first — I want someone to receive my organs, ideally, and, whatever’s left goes to science)(donating one’s body to science is also the only documented way to become RoboCop, which is a major bucket-list item for most nerds).
I mean, best of luck with the crawdads or cremation or trebuchet (it was an episode of Northern Exposure) or whatever’s your preferred method of dispersal, but there are plenty of uses for your leavings. I realize a great many people might be offended or dismayed by me framing this in utilitarian terms, so, let’s look at this from a real estate view. If, God forbid, you die; what do you want done with your house? Most people wouldn’t say something like, “I want it to be boarded up and left alone until it rots from the inside out,” or, “I want it burned to the ground.” Most of us have a more sensible view of property than our unused organs. And most HOA’s have rules against leaving an abandoned dwelling until it becomes a raccoon motel or fire hazard (I mean, if you’re cooking in Arkansas, you might be able to combine those concepts).
So, why do we take those options after we’re no longer using our bodies?