DIY Death, or Living (Dying) Off the Escalator

Just a couple days after reading “Asexuality and the Relationship Escalator”, which brought to my consciousness once again the relationship escalator, I saw the documentary A Will for the Woods. For those who do not know, the ‘relationship escalator’ refers to the series of ‘steps’ which ‘serious (sexual/romantic) relationships’ are expected to automatically progress, and A Will for the Woods is the story of a man, Clark Wang, who literally planned his own funeral.

One issue which gets brought up in broader discussions about the relationship escalator is that … it’s not just about relationships. For example, in much of United States society, there are also expectations about completely college, moving out of one’s family’s home, getting certain types of jobs, and so forth, which often tie to the relationship escalator.

In the United States, we like to pretend that sex is a taboo, edgy, or forbidden topic. To some degree, it is in certain contexts, but a topic which people go to further lengths to avoid is death, particularly discussing death in any degree of detail. There is, in alternative culture, a backlash against this – for example, the “Death Positive” Movement. However, for the most part, death is not discussed, and when death does happen, most people in the United States are either filled with embalming fluid and buried in a cement vault, or they are cremated.

Clark Wang, the man featured in the documentary, did not decide how and when he was going to die, but once he had fair warning of both the cause (lymphoma) and timing (2011) of his death, he put serious thought into what would happen to his body in death – both in terms of environmental impact and the impact it was going to have on the people in his lives – and he figured out that he did not like any of the ‘conventional’ options. He persuaded a cemetery manager to create a different kind of cemetery just so he could have the kind of burial he wanted. This included preserving a patch of forest which had previously been destined for clear-cutting.

Through the documentary, I could not help but think that the way he stepped outside of the normal ‘track’ which United States society sets of for the dying and dead, thought about what he really wanted and what was best for his people, the environment, and himself, and then made it happen … is not unlike the people who get off the relationship escalator, think about what they really want and need, and build relationships around that rather than just ride the escalator.

As it so happens, I have not thought too much about my own funeral, or any wishes I may have related to that. Even though I’m still ‘young’, it may be something I should do … after all, one of my high school classmates, who I remember as being a lively and assertive person, died when she was just twenty years old. It’s also a conversation I should have with my parents, but knowing my mother – who will probably die first – it will not be an easy conversation to have, if we can have it at all.