It was the golf balls that did it.
I was interviewing a man who sold coffins for a living when he delivered the news that the bases of the simple wood coffins used to inter the Jewish dead are perforated with holes the size of golf balls. The purpose of the holes, I’m guessing, is to accelerate the ‘dust to dust’ procedure by allowing liquids to drain quickly and easily from the body. Given that 55-to-60 per cent of the human body is water, that’s a fair quantity of liquid. But it doesn’t make for a pretty visual, does it?
Like most of us, I’ve long been fearful of death. As a child I’d scare myself witless late at night about that final journey, lying in bed and trying over and over to imagine where I’d be going. As years have passed I like to think I’ve grown into a more comfortable acceptance of the inevitability of death. I comfort myself that if there is a final journey, there’s a good chance I’ll run into less-newly-deceased people I very much want to see again. That’s the silver lining I’m hoping for.
But if there isn’t, I worry: will I have any awareness of the pitch blackness of that simple casket? Will I feel the thud of soil on wood as my friends and family say goodbye? Will I feel those fluids drain out of the golf-ball-sized holes in the bottom of my casket, and will I know it as a series of bugs invades my limbs and gnaws on my tissues? That’s the part that torments me. Maybe the dead have an element of consciousness we living just don’t know about. Maybe the pitch black and the bugs are the final journey to dust.
In a CBC radio documentary, I learned recently that forensic entomologists can tell exactly how long a body has been decomposing by which bug species inhabit it. It starts with flies – they begin the process of consuming the body and laying larvae inside it. After the blowflies, flesh flies and black soldier flies are done, beetles come in and feed on the body and the fly larvae, and do the last cleanup.
Since I’m not a bug-friendly person – I’m the one squishing them with a large book – I don’t relish the thought of being bug food. When I consider the possibilities, cremation sounds a whole lot more appealing – a whoosh of flames, an instant evaporation and a few minutes later, a new me: compacted ashes in a small jar. No lengthy decomposition, no pitch blackness. Just a gentle scattering of what’s left of me so the breeze can drift it away. Cremation seems a whole lot cleaner, really, and I like clean. But being Jewish, of course, it’s not an option.
In western society today we’re superb when it comes to pushing death to the sidelines. It’s considered morbid to discuss one’s fears until just before the end arrives, at which point there’s really little time left to go into much detail. Maybe that’s why death hits us so hard when it takes people we love, whether it’s suddenly or gradually. It’s so final, so unknown and so taboo that we never get comfortable with what it represents. We attend a funeral, help fill a grave and then turn our thoughts to those suffering the deepest bereavement as the role of comforters. We don’t like to think about the final journey and what happens next to the newly departed.
But of course, it’s coming, for each one of us. We’re just passing through, and time will fly by, and sooner or later we will all be forgotten because those left alive won’t know or remember us. All that’s left will be faded tombstones in large cemeteries that will likely someday be carved up for residential or commercial development, because so much land just for bones will seem like a waste of space when it could be better used for the living.
That’s the way it goes. So I remind myself, each day is a gift. Treasure the moment. Live each day to the fullest. When I start to worry about death and golf-ball holes, I recite epigrams like these and remind myself to celebrate life in the time I have left. After all, we have no control over what’s to come.