Tim Matson had written on Earth Ponds and Pilobolus, but in middle age, he began to suffer anxiety about the end of his existence. The first thing that offered relief was a photograph of George “Ginseng” Willard standing shoulder to shoulder with his own coffin, recycled from a rosewood piano. Matson set out to find out more about “Ginseng” Willard while he researched building his own coffin.
Matson’s quest led him to a cast of characters that he refers to as “icons in an eternal drama played by interchangeable actors.” He envisioned the undertaker, the cremationist, the florist, the organist, the stone carver, et al., as the Major Arcana of a Tarot deck. At first, the refusal to name his sources struck me as cutesy, but it does allow them to speak freely without worrying about the impact of their personal beliefs on future business.
Peppered amongst the discussions are fascinating tidbits—cocktail conversation for the right sort of parties. Did you know that after Napoleon’s defeat, the British yanked teeth from dead soldiers to make dentures popularly called Waterloo teeth? Stealing corpses from graves for anatomy classes was legal initially, because a body wasn’t considered property. Matson likens grave robbing to stealing dirt. Throwing rosemary into the grave (as for Ophelia in Hamlet) raises the pH in soil and might have been the earliest experiment in composting. The organ first appeared in Greece, where it summoned people to weddings and funerals. In the circuses of Rome, the organ signaled execution for Christians. For many years, the Catholic Church banned all other instruments.
The central insight of Matson’s journey is that no one owns his or her body. Your flesh, once uninhabited, becomes the responsibility of your kin. There’s no legal incentive for them to heed your last wishes. They can bury you, even though you were a lifelong claustrophobe. They can rescind your intention to donate your corpse to science. To underscore this, Matson eventually tracks down “Ginseng” Willard’s grandson, who confesses that the old man was not buried in the coffin he built.
Matson quotes the FTC as saying the average person arranges a single funeral. Shouldn’t we follow Matson’s lead and research our own?
This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #6.
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