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Things to Do in Vancouver When You’re Dead

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A Saturday morning, the first in my 40th year, I’m at the Mountain View Cemetery for ‘The Final Disposition Forum: De-Mystifying Death, Funerals, Cemeteries and Ceremonies’. I’ve come to face my fear of being buried in Vancouver, where I’ve lived for the past decade. I arrive late, the film A Family Undertaking has already started. On screen a set of cold-looking turned-out feet. The acoustics are terrible. But the feet are a good set, the ubiquitous final set. I am reassured, when my moment comes, I too will have a set of absolutely dead feet.

As the home burial movement film continues we watch a man make his father’s coffin and together they brand his initials on it. The father wears an eyepatch. They eat eggs and salad. When he dies we see them lovingly plonking him in the coffin. Another woman will go out in cardboard and her dog’s paint-dipped paw is decorating it. When she dies, her husband vacuums the room and they have a merry old gathering around her. I’m already feeling brighter about dying, if it spawns a bit of hoovering.

Another man says he has no intention of being ‘bled and pickled by a funeral home’ (I agree with him, strike off embalming). Cut to a funeral conference in Florida. Excitable sales pitching of death as a product, exploitation of the vulnerable, tips along the lines of ‘don’t even think of putting mama into the ground in a cheap casket.’ The only useful thing on offer: a candle that burns for eleven and a half years.

Film ends: a break for mingling. I ask the woman behind why she’s here. She replies sensibly about dealing with parents. I can’t help scanning faces to see whether anyone is a bit blue about the lips. There’s one very well made-up woman who nods off intermittently. The funeral industry people – all pleasant males – are wearing suits and carrying folders. Except one who’s gone for more of a gravedigger look in baseball cap and T-shirt branded with the name of his crematorium. The eco-burial man wears a pink shirt. There’s no coffee, only tea. I tell a few people I am here because I want to write a book about what it is to die in Vancouver. No one says this is a good idea. One funeral industry type runs off saying nice to meet me but he’s got to get something from his car.

After the break it’s the palliative care presentation. A doctor from the health authority talks us through some slides. She’s bright, engaging, practical. She’s a great advert for dying. I want her to bury me. I want to go tomorrow morning and have a rest in this place she describes. I am struck by the similarities between birth and death, how critical the right level of pain medication is.

Between slides that explain ‘Death is a process not a moment, what tells us death is near? Decreased appetite and thirst are normal, feeding artificially does not change the course of decline,’ I stare out the strip of window. Beyond a cherry tree in blossom, three backs are bent, weeding and attending a grave. It might not be so bad to be buried here. It’s a beautiful day. The woman beside me makes distracting snorty noises, while laboured breathing from a man further back smoothes them out.

Things tense up with our next speaker: a funeral director with a funeral-tuned voice. Barry says he liked the film and then systematically disputes much of what was in it. He’s particularly aggrieved at the presence of a trolley at each home burial, which he says cost three to five grand. How would a family get this trolley? He goes through the costs and the practicalities, how much more complicated it is for families to deal with the logistics than the film suggests. He backs this up with descriptions of the process of dealing with a body, permits and paperwork until… empowered by the film, the war on Barry erupts.

A woman disputes something legal outright. I say the people in the film may have borrowed the trolley. And then up he rises: a man with heart failure and months to live, who has written down his grievances against the regulated business of burial in the back of a blue diary. He lets Barry have them. The woman hosting the forum tries to get the microphone back from him, but he won’t give it up (‘I’m not finished’) and clutches it tighter, readjusts the diary and continues. ‘You’re not permitted to do what you could do when you’d no money in the 1920s and 1930s.’ He says he has been trying to ‘sort out his marker’, he’s been ‘given the runaround’, I think he talks about his wife thirty years ago, at this point he could announce the tennis scores because I just love him for standing up there and giving out because dying is an unfair business and someone should shout about it.

Except poor Barry is really taking it now. To the head, to the ears, to the stomach, like a hockey goalie stripped of his helmet, gloves and blocker. He looks kind of stunned, after all he came to explain how willing he is to work with families. And he is, he’s willing to facilitate whatever, however much involvement they want. I don’t think he planned for burial uprising. The cemetery director has had enough. Up he stands, holding his hands out. ‘I have to interrupt,’ he says. ‘We do not make the regulations, your government do.’

Things calm down once it’s established that it’s all the government’s fault. Barry is released and the amiable cemetery director takes over. ‘It’s not about you, you’re dead, it’s about those left behind.’ He talks about memorialisation, perpetual care (think lawn-mowing), vaults, liners, multiple and additional interments, scattering cremated remains, the need for a bit more effort and thought in the area of headstones.

After his talk, I have to bail, missing, alas, green burial. I ask the artist in residence who’s speaking last and was the person I mainly came to hear if she’ll email me her notes. The best thing I learn is that the cemetery is full so I can’t be buried in a casket in Vancouver. Urns only need apply.

Comments on “Things to Do in Vancouver When You’re Dead”

  1. loxhore says:

    Here’s a place to settle something. Is a local more likely to say:

    VANcuver

    or

    vanKUVer?

    I recall hearing both when there.

    Also, and offtopic:who would I really like to read on this week’s political japes? Perry Anderson — in light especially of his dismissiveness about Britain’s recent political history. Is the Larbie on the case? I know it’s reader requests day.

    • What a fine question! Just surveyed 7 people in a caff. 5 say emphasis on first VANcouver. 1 from Ontario emphasis on second. One bloke says emphasize all three. The French say vancouVER. I think the first VANcuver, but it’s VANcoover.

      And now to settle thatnaphobia or thanaphobia: fear of dying, which is it?

      • Thomas Jones says:

        thanatophobia is fear of death. Fear of dying would have to be something like thneskomenophobia (but don’t use that: I’ve just made it up).

      • Bob Beck says:

        Odd: I’ve heard VANcuver/VANcoover rarely, if at all, in about 20 years here. But then it’s debatable how many born-and-raised locals I’ve met. Like me, many (most? no idea, really) came from elsewhere. There are other resemblences to California.

        On topic, sort of: many years ago I read that when overcrowding in New York cemeteries became a problem, it was proposed that coffins be buried vertically — but that so many people protested, finding this idea creepy, that it was dropped. But I’ve never been able to confirm the truth or otherwise of this story.

        • I guess most people who live here might simply call it here or refer to their neighbourhood.

          What have you heard it called in past 20 years Bob I am curious?

          I shall survey my two local born males at supper for pronunciations. AK

          • Bob Beck says:

            Mostly vanCOOver, or — from a West Van friend — vanCYOUver.

            I can’t recall how my late father-in-law said it, though he maintained pronunciations — capiLYno, for example, instead of the more common capiLAno — that otherwise seem to have gone out of usage.

            Though I hesitate to ask: is a fear of being buried, or a fear of being buried in Vancouver particularly, that you’ve been confronting?

          • The verdict is in. Tall male born, bred and barely budged from here says VANcoover, but there’s no big VAN on the VAN more of a gentle exhale.
            Small male will only say the words Green Day.

            Bob Beck re: your question below…

            In contrast to Becker’s Denial of Death I am indefatigably preoccupied with it! But specifically burial here sends me into a conniption, so decided to uncover what it is die here.

  2. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I want to be buried sitting in a chair. I’m not going to spend eternity strap-hanging, but sitting takes up less space than lying down does. Ideally, if I can resolve the condensation problem, I’ll have my head above the surface in a glass dome.

    • An active challenge to ALCAR!

      What about the double-wide glass dome, then you’d have someone to look at and have an eyebrow twitching chat to?

      • ALCOR even. I think ALCAR may be an aluminium smelting facility.

        • A.J.P. Crown says:

          I’m no expert, but I believe burial is unexplored territory for conceptual artists. It’s a perfect way for someone who wants to extend his/her career past death but can’t afford ALCOR.

          If you don’t like the idea of being buried in Vancouver, have you considered the advantages of being stuffed, like Jeremy Bentham? It makes your remains more portable; there are some really lightweight materials these days, I don’t think they use straw anymore. Otherwise, you could be put in a planter on the roof of a skyscraper with a view out to sea.

          I quite fancy having Keats’s inscription on my gravestone, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”, there’s a chance it might egg people on to research biographies.

  3. itsnotpunk says:

    My father for years has said that he wish’s to have his ash’s spread on the street that he grew up on. Now he’s thinking some with his mother and some with his father.

    I want to be buried in a cask. Or perhaps mummified. As long as it’s not on a Sunday.

    Then I’m all good.

    • Tuesday is a better day for being deposited.

      What was the street like that your father grew up on? Am trying to visualize the distribution of ashes on standard council paving slabs. It’s not inviting. I keep seeing the soles of trainers and bike tyres.

  4. Phil says:

    How would I like to be buried? Tidily, unobtrusively, appropriately. None of my business hanging around after I’m dead.

    One of those ubiquitous newspaper questionnaires used to ask people “How would you like to die?” This always struck me as a silly question, and it got a lot of silly (or staringly obvious) answers – quickly, peacefully, at a great age, surrounded by my family, etc. I used to wish I was eminent enough to be questionnaired; I would have said, I should like to be executed by drowning. This was on the logic that I wouldn’t actually like to die at all, but better an important and dramatic unthinkable thing than a ordinary everyday unthinkable thing.

    • Bob Beck says:

      I had a friend who’d occasionally say — sometimes a propos of nothing in particular — that he expected to die by lighting his cigarette on the third rail of the Moscow subway. *That* was a conversation-stopper.

      In retrospect, perhaps he was a closet surrealist.

  5. The patron (living) Saint of not dying or putting up the fists against mortality lives, I believe, in Cambridge. The bearded punting bloke. On boat, not bike, note.

  6. Aubrey de Grey is the dude I am talking about.

  7. Jenny Diski says:

    Could be worse:

    W. C. Fields epitaph: All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia

    • I am kinda astonished nobody buried in Vancouver has come out to defend the experience.

      You are right. It is actively worse. I have made a complete balls of planting beans and truly deserve stuffing for this offence. Who screws up planting beans?

  8. Penny says:

    I’m not buried in Vancouver, but my father, who’s buried in Toronto, was very pleased that the cemetery he paid for in advance was very close to Tim Horton’s (he had a friendly relationship with their donuts) and also to the grocery store who used to deliver to his apartment. I always stop for a coffee and a donut when I go to visit his grave, and do look around for signs of grocery wrappers.

    • Mike says:

      I’m not buried in Vancouver either but my father was cremated on Vancouver Island. His ashes were then flown back to the UK and interred in a churchyard in the Lake District (he’d been churchwarden there before he emigrated). He had an unexpected bath last year when the Derwent burst its banks; the Church authorities assure me he’s still there. However a post mortem trip to the coast (as though he were some sort of salmon) would’ve appealed to his sense of humour.

  9. marinaroy says:

    AK, I think Mountainview is the cemetery where Jeff Wall shot his photograph Flooded Grave. Well, one of the places. He shot part of it in one cemetery and then stitched it with another, and then shots in the studio: http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/jeffwall/infocus/section5/img2.shtm
    Thanks for sharing this experience. I especially like the guy with the blue diary–I was cheering him on as i read your piece. We’re completely at the mercy of a market that preys on grief and guilty consciences. Real estate for the dead in Vancouver. To match the insanity of real estate for the living in Vancouver.

  10. Pam Nixon says:

    Regarding Jeremy Bentham – His stuffed body is somewhere in University College London – once known as ‘The godless institution on Gower Street. My daughter was a student there back in the 80s but she never found out where he was kept

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