FeaturesBurial Rights: What Happens After We Die?

Burial Rights: What Happens After We Die?

WORDS Leroy Wallace

ILLUSTRATION Jaimie Leigh O’Neill

Have you given much thought to what will to happen to you after you die? It’s a question you’d expect to be asked by an old lady carrying a stack of photocopied leaflets, but I can assure you that I’m a committed atheist and have no visions of the afterlife which I intend to share. I’m not interested in your immortal soul but the meat that gets left behind, either buried under the soil or dispersed above St Helier in a cloud of smoke. It bothers me that for most of us those are the only two options.

If you tend towards the morbid, but love a good party, you might even have considered planning your own funeral. I’ve already picked out music and a seating plan – I believe it helps to think of it like a wedding, except you don’t receive gifts or get to enjoy any of the cake. Like the bride you do have absolute control over flowers, coal-black horses and/or sombre pallbearers for your “special day”, but when it comes to the decision as to what will actually happen to your corpse the choice is far more limited. This seems particularly unfair as unlike a wedding you really do only get to be buried once. I have some quite specific ideas about what I’d like to happen to my remains and, although I won’t be here to object, I want more than death currently has to offer.


In our society we have two main ways of disposing of the dead: either buried in a wooden box, or cremated and turned into ash. Despite what “Weekend at Bernie’s” told us in the 1980s, leaving dead bodies lying around is unhygienic, as the process of decomposition is unsavoury long before the mould and wildlife starts to have its way with you. The two methods we use are undoubtedly the safest from this point of view, although my first objection is that even for those two we could stand to have a little more variety, perhaps even some spectacle. Let’s take traditional burial first.

If you want to be buried in the soil, you may be surprised to learn that your ability to put a personal stamp on the occasion is narrowly restricted to a few patches of ground, a limited range of boxes to be buried in, and what kind of marker will alert future vampire hunters to your final resting place. In Jersey you can’t choose to be buried on private land, even if you own it, and negotiating an eco-burial is more difficult than it needs to be because not every burial site is okay with cardboard coffins. I was raised to recycle and feel quite strongly that my personal nutrients should be returned to the earth, ideally by the means of the things that live and grow in it, so I think it’s inappropriate to get buried in a heavy box that will hide all that good eating from the creatures of the soil. I aspire to be an eco-friendly banquet, not the equivalent of a wrinkly carrot stuck in the back of the fridge.


Burial at sea is unusual but technically permissible, although you have to arrange it with the Harbourmaster and it’s a lot more complex than just being shunted into the deep channel off Alderney to provide a picnic for the crabs. I briefly imagined myself like one of those dead whales from Blue Planet, serenely decomposing at the bottom of a trench, but no. I’ve also enquired about whether it would be possible to arrange a Tibetan sky burial but they tell me there’s a big difference between being slowly consumed by vultures atop a freezing mountain in the Himalayas, miles from human civilisation, and simply leaving my remains out for the seagulls on top of the Fort Dome.

The point about my bodily nutrients is also why I object to cremation. Again, it’s hygienic and efficient from the perspective of needing to dispose of my corpse, but I feel it’s wasteful to put me to the torch and increase my carbon footprint unnecessarily. The way we do it is also depressingly uncool – if I’m going to be burned I’d prefer it to be a bit heavy metal, either a Viking funeral pyre or a recreation of The Wicker Man on the Plemont headland.


There is a third option, which is to leave your body to the interests of science. I’m not talking about organ donation – anybody without religious objections should treat that as a given – but of committing your whole mortal remains to the advancement of human knowledge. I’m not 100% sure this is allowed in Jersey, so don’t assume your family can just drop you off at Hautlieu’s biology lab with a note to stuff you in the deep-freeze, but it’s certainly possible in other places. You can donate your body for anatomical and surgical practice at medical college, immortalise your skeleton as a teaching aid, or go all-in and allow Professor Gunther von Hagens to transform you into a creepy museum exhibit via the process of plastination. At this point you are definitely crossing the line from science into science fiction, so if Jersey were to follow the lead of certain parts of America you could pay a lot of money to have your entire body cryogenically preserved in case the technology to revive you is ever developed. This is about as far from an eco-burial as you can get, and whilst I have always dreamed of becoming an animated skeleton or a talking brain in a jar there are some questions over whether the preservation technology is up to the job. Science has yet to master a way of reliably preventing freezer burn on a leg of lamb, so even the high-tech freezers that reputedly hold the bodies of Walt Disney and Michael Jackson might cause us to be revived as the human equivalent of a chewy sausage. If eternal life is your thing you may wish to talk to the religious people instead.


As in all areas of life, there are some new and exciting developments in the field of death. One of the upsides of our rapid progress towards a world jointly ruled by the Chinese/Russian governments and amoral technology billionaires is that both parties are highly interested in allowing some people to cheat death whilst ensuring that the rest of us don’t take up too much space, either living or otherwise. On one end of the scale are fantasies of cryogenic preservation, uploading your consciousness to one of Amazon’s servers and/or being put into suspended animation before being transported to a space colony. For the rest of us, on the more practical end of things, we’ll probably be looking at eco-burials and technology that efficiently recycles our nutrients back into the food supply. I recently enjoyed a TED talk where the presenter was wearing a suit seeded with fungus spores that would colonise her body after her death, and greatly speed the process of decomposition. It’s an intriguing idea, and I believe I have an old dressing gown that will produce much the same effect. I hope to see you all at my funeral, please RSVP and let the caterers know if you’re allergic to mushrooms.

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