On the Disposal of Human Remains

Here lies an atheist, all dressed up and no place to go.
Humorous tombstone
Today’s cheery topic treats what to do with your carcass when you are dead. Like it or not, one day you will have to be disposed of. Animals don’t make a fuss of this fact; they go off and die. Humans, believing they are better than animals, invent religions. The prime motive of most religions is to create a myth about some kind of individual continuance after all electrical activity in the brain stops and the organism starts to rot. As the old preacher put it, “Brothers and sisters, this is only the shell; the poor nut has gone.” Where the nut has gone is a matter of much debate, as is the problem of what to do with the shell. Some religions believe the body must be buried, others hold it must be burned. Take your choice.

Traditional Christian human remains disposal involves burying the corpse in a box in the ground. Bodies were to be laid East to West, so the dead flesh could rise to great Christ who is coming from the East. No kidding. Christianity teaches a bodily resurrection and an ascent of the reanimated cadaver to heaven. The Bible says nothing about humans possessing an “immortal soul.” You can win bets with believers on this point. Them bones are to rise again. The ghoulish, and those who have witnessed autopsies, may wonder how those who slept in the graves will get by with the brain, heart, lungs, intestines and other really important stuff removed and thrown away. And mystical indeed will be the rebirth of the decapitated — say a saint like Sir Thomas More whose body is in one place and whose head was stuck on Traitor’s Gate. Ah, the mysteries of faith. What of those who died in Christ in explosions or carnage that converted living flesh to mangled roadkill? What of the woman whose murderer husband ran her dismembered body through the wood chipper? Will those whose bodies are cremated to ashes in a fiery furnace yet in the flesh see God? So goes the belief. The Book of “Job” says yes, even if the carcass is eaten up by worms, you will see God in your bodily form. The age you will be isn’t revealed. Maybe you get to choose.

Persons planning to be buried should understand that no grave on earth is anything other than a present or future crime scene or archaeological site. Eventually, someone will dig you up for saleable goodies or for information your burial stuff and postmortem analysis can reveal about your time. Or your grave can be scooped away to make room for a subdivision to house the children of the “life what a beautiful choice” movement. The greatest tombs of the greatest kings, designed to be secure for eternity, were magnets for thieves who weren’t fooled by myths of
curses. You can stroll through the burial chamber of a pharaoh, stripped by tomb robbers centuries before archaeologists put the living god’s remains in a glass case in a museum. Native American sacred burial grounds, and even Civil War graves, are being plundered by the irreverent, who sell the honored dead’s tools and belt buckles at flea markets. More people are alive right now than have ever been alive at any one time in the history of the planet. If everyone is buried, eventually there will not be space available for both the living and the dead. Guess who wins that argument.

You could donate your body to a medical school for dissection by students, but there are usually more than enough dead incompetents to satisfy this need. The best way to get rid of your burdensome dead body is to burn it up. Crematorium ashes are sterile and far easier to dispose of than decaying meat and bone. The ashes can be scattered somewhere, cast into a bust of yourself (to be sold at some future garage sale), put in a decorative vase, or used to plaster the wall or provide variety in the cat box. Your then heirs can be creative. It doesn’t matter — for you won’t be there. The Bible says, “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” Ecclesiastes 9:4-5, by God. How the foregoing can be reconciled with the notion of life after death is another of those mysteries of faith.

If you have lived in such a manner that anyone will miss you or lament your absence, there are rational ways for them to celebrate your existence, share and purge grief, and then get on with their lives. Those tending to your disposal should cremate your corpse privately and quickly, after permitting family, if they wish, to see how your dead body looks. It may help them appreciate you are really not going to be seen or heard from again. After a suitable number of days or weeks, depending on how your survivors feel, they can have a party in your memory. Photos and videos could accompany anecdotes of your presence on earth, and artifacts of your life’s journey could be displayed as, amid feasting and merriment, you, in your diversities (if any), are remembered.

Before you return to wherever you were before you were born, it might be a good idea to so live that people remember you fondly. This is not a dress rehearsal. Life ends / Tao flows.

Don’t take life too seriously; you won’t get out of it alive anyway.


(c) Edwin Kagin
April, 1994


  1. Toasted Rye says

    I plan to donate my body to the body farm in Knoxville, TN. There it will decay in any number of unsualy ways to aid the most recent technology in forensic investigations and by bones will experience an undetermined amount of time in highly categorized limbo at the school. There was no other option that allowed me to decay so easily. The added bonus of contributing to a science I love so much was the clincher.

    • Kate from Iowa says

      I like that, and it’s something I tend to forget about. I’ve always said “burn me and then flush the ashes down the toilet” (you can imagine the range of rolling eyes to horrified looks from my family there) but I think that the body farm might be a better idea. Particularly as some states still make you embalm a body going into a crematorium oven, for some silly reason.

  2. Hank Fox says

    Nice piece, Ed. I’m grappling with attempting to understand the feelings and impulses attending the death of a loved one. Some of the stuff that bubbles up seems decidedly religious, but as I’m an absolute atheist, I’m having to dig deeper than the simplistic religious explanations to know where it’s coming from and what it means.

    For instance: I’m taking my Dad’s ashes into the John Muir Wilderness next summer, to one of his favorite places. A Christian would probably ask “Why? If you don’t think he exists anymore, why do this?”

    Honoring a promise made to him while he was alive is a part of it, but there’s also something more complex about justifying myself as his true son, the inheritor of his values. I haven’t worked it all out yet, but I’m getting some good stuff just from thinking about it.

    There might be a book in it. I’m still thinking about that part.

  3. Nomen Nescio says

    the idea of bodily resurrection gets trickier when one ponders the carbon cycle. most of those old corpses aren’t just dismembered and decayed, they may be other bodies by now. (no, it’s not too pleasant to ponder how much of our individual bodies at some point may have constituted dinosaur dung, but it’s no less true for being gross. for all we know, any one of us may be some small part decayed and rotted Capuchin friar, and how’ll them poor buggers get resurrected, eh?)

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    One third of all the people who ever lived on earth are alive today.


    Off by at least one order of magnitude…

  5. barbrykost says

    There is a better alternative to cremation, but I don’t think it is available in the US: composting. Check out the website at http://www.promessa.org.uk/index.php
    The reason iT is better is that cremation uses a lot of energy, but crematoriums aren’t usually subject to anti pollutions standards. Plus, the sterile ashes are pretty useless. With composting, your remains can quickly become fertile soil.
    And then you can become a tree which is cut down to make paper and gets turned into a bible. (Not my joke, but some xtians think that is a hilarious idea)

  6. F says

    I really wish there were better options for disposal. Given the human population size, direct interment wouldn’t be such a good idea. Promession as mentioned by barbrykost sounds interesting, but still seems rather intensive. There is also no mention of price at the site, not even an estimated figure, which I nearly always find terribly annoying and manipulative.

  7. piglet says

    After suffering a brain aneurysm rupture last year the discussion was had as to what i wanted if I was to die. 1st option, but not available is OZ, was a sky burial, 2nd was donate body to science/medicine, 3rd was stuff me and mount me in a child care centre to terrify the young’uns. Truly, I couldn’t care less what happens to me, I’ll be dead, but I would like for my hubby to be the one content with what happens to my remains. Here’s hoping for at least another 40 years thou – not quite ready to end my short but eventful life here.

  8. kraut says

    “Plus, the sterile ashes are pretty useless.”

    I guess you missed a couple of lessons in gardening.
    Ashes contains minerals. And you know, plants…they sorta need them minerals, you know like phosphorous, potassium, calcium…it sorta helps with building cells, in case of you haven’t heard, thats what them plants is made out of…and them animals that eat them plants.

    I would wager that composting humans is an environmental threat – how to protect the rotting corpses from spreading diseases through animals?

    Naah, it is combustion for me, and the ashes…whatever tree needs it. Or it goes into my favourite river.
    I will set aside some money for a small party to celebrate this buggers demise, and then it is up to whoever thinks I am worth remembering. No grave or markers. There are a few exceptions of those that should be remembered by the masses for advancing humanity scientfically, socially, emotionally, I am not one of them. A guy has to know his limits.

    I love that scene in the Big Lebowski. That’s how a dude should go.

  9. Blondin says

    I’ve left my remains to medical science for dissection with one proviso: they have to promise not to laugh. This will hopefully get a laugh. There’s something kind of appealing about getting a last laugh from the grave.

  10. davidct says

    “More people are alive right now than have ever been alive at any one time in the history of the planet.”

    Best check your facts on that one! Not that it really matters to your argument.

    , “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” Ecclesiastes 9:4-5,

    The best advice in the Bible seems to come from the one book written by an atheist.

    As the son of a pathologist and frequent helper, there is nothing like looking at a dead person to truly feel the emptiness. There is “nobody home”. My cremation is prepaid and all that is required to take care of the dead meat is to call an 800 number. If my friends and family remember me kindly it will be for them to decide for I will never know. This world is for the living and on one else.

  11. peterh says

    @ #10:

    Consider the CO2 emitted by the funeral procession; the diesel tractor digging the grave, lowering the casket, and filling in the hole; the manufacture, transport & merchandising of the casket itself; the maintaining of gaudy facilities for “visiting;” and the myriad other aspects of today’s “conventional” funeral. Consider the often fertile ground lost to agriculture more or less forever by the burial. A stout pasteboard box & a short while in an overheated oven is far less energy and resource dependent and far less of an ecological burden. And the ashes (actually cremains) can be put to some biochemically sound purpose if one so wishes.

  12. says

    I would like to make one correction…

    There aren’t enough cadavers available to medical students for dissection. I was lucky enough to receive more than one cadaver for dissection but majority of students rarely even get to see one if they are out in places like the UK and the USA where models have taken over since they are cheaper. The reliable supply of cadavers is not there since most people are terrified of being treated like a prank by medical students.

    I actually was interested in Cadaver Stories. The phenomenon of cadaver stories involves telling stories about silly things done with cadavers. Turns out? Most of these stories are really old and are passed down. They are urban legends. The only real story was that once a skull fell out of a dissection hall window scaring people passing by and that occurred when someone tripped and fell near a window rather than due to hijinks.

    But people have heard of atleast one such legend which scares them out of donation. Majority of such bodies actually go to organ donation and pro-section rather than dissection.

  13. freemage says

    See, I’d WANT my body to end up in one of those Cadaver Stories, because I’m a cantankerous bastard. Among various speculations I’ve made about my mortal remains, I’ve asked:

    1: To be placed in a seated position in the casket while it’s in the hearse, with a bit of animatronics to make me wave.

    2: To be spring-loaded into the casket, to pop out at some random moment during the ceremony. Bonus points if they can rig up some sort of rude or silly noise to occur at the same time. A recording of “Hello, My Baby!” would also be acceptable.

    3: Taxidermy, followed by pranking local prostitutes. (I should get this changed–I’ve since come to realize sex-workers are, generally, dealt a hard enough shot in life. I’ll suggest I should be used to prank politicians, instead.)

    4: Cremation, with the ashes then put to any number of humorous, but probably illegal purposes. In particular, I would like my bowels to be burned separately, and the ashes snuck into the kitchen of a GOP fund-raiser banquet, to be added to the pepper-grinders. Just once, I’d like them to have to eat MY shit.

    5: Of course, the above all assumes that I don’t die in a Presidential election year. If that should happen, then my naked corpse should be injected with heroin and surreptitiously deposited in the motel bed of the most conservative candidate who has a chance of actually winning, along with a suitable anonymous call to both the press and the police. If a sex toy or other object can be arranged to have their fingerprints, then inserted somewhere creative, that’s also a bonus.

    Hey, what do I care? I won’t be around to see it, but the thought of it will make my last moments happier.

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