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.