How I Embraced My Inner Corpse
My time had finally come.
I laid in my coffin and watched as the cover rapidly descended, cutting off all light in the room along with any sense of human connection. My heart and mind, both racing from the moment I had entered the box, slammed on the accelerator as darkness enveloped me.
But, as soon as the light disappeared completely, the coffin cover only inches from my nose and the sides pressing into my shoulders, something strange happened: I felt calm.
Cozy, even. It was much warmer with the lid on.
The exercise was part of The Ultimate Shavasana, a workshop I attended during the Reimagine End of Life festival in New York City, a weeklong gathering meant to foster cultural, philosophical, and health care conversations about death, life, and our interrelated approaches to both. Shavasana, also known as “the corpse pose” in yoga practice, is typically done at the end of a class to relax both body and mind. In the workshop, we took this mortal-remains mimicking posture a bit more literally and practiced Shavasana inside of cardboard coffins and cotton burial shrouds.
Lessons from inside and outside the box
As I settled into my new digs, with my eyes closed and hands folded on my stomach, I relaxed enough to reach a near-meditative state. My thoughts unsurprisingly drifted to my mortality and its meaning, and I found myself mouthing the mantra I repeat to myself every morning during my meditation or shower:
“I will die, and I could become severely ill and/or disabled. One or more of these state changes could happen or start happening right now, 60 or more years from now, or at any moment in between. So I will make the most of whatever time I have left while I’m still healthy and breathing.”
(Why do I see “60 or more years from now” as the high end of my potential age range? Based on my general lifelong healthiness and family history, I think I have an above-average chance of becoming a centenarian: I’m a healthy 42, my grandmother is 102, and I had a great-grandmother who lived until 101. If I end up dying tomorrow or anytime soon, however, feel free to LOL in the comments.)
On this particular day, making “the most of whatever time I have left while I’m still healthy and breathing” meant acting like an interred corpse in a roomful of strangers.
The other workshop participants and I had a selection of makeshift cardboard coffins, whose sides were punctured for airflow, and cotton burial shrouds from which to choose. Art therapy students had painted most of them the day before. I picked a coffin displaying a stellar scene composed of a large red sun surrounded by smaller white and coral stars and swirling plumes of gas and dust, all of which was set against a black background.
I was drawn to that imagery because it reminded me of something retired astronaut Story Musgrave, whose numerous NASA missions included fixing the Hubble Space Telescope, said during my brother’s graduation from physical therapy school: “We are all star stuff.” That’s a paraphrased quote from Carl Sagan, whose seminal book Cosmos is one of my favorite reads, speaking to the fact that most naturally occurring elements, including the ones comprising our bodies, were created in burning and exploding stars.
Other coffin-cover designs included a woodsy abstraction with a camouflage vibe, a shirtless corpse with an open bible on his stomach and handprints strewn across his legs, and a stream of endless bacon and eggs floating through a deep blue sky. The artist who made the breakfast-themed cover said she was inspired by her mother’s revelation to her as a child that “you can eat as much bacon as you want in heaven,” presumably as a reward for not overindulging in the tasty carcinogenic strips on earth.
Such everyday concerns had dissolved during my repose, partially due to the melodic nature of our guides’ voices as they intermittently chimed in with support. After what seemed like only a couple of minutes but was probably closer to 10, Colombatto and Hays opened the coffins and removed the shrouds. Bursts of harsh light and cold air slapped me back into the room, breaking the spell, as if the universe was saying, “Wake up, you sorry sack of flesh and bones, you’re not dead yet!”
Indignation and relief simultaneously washed over me. I wanted back in the box, but it was good to be among the living again.
In a way, it almost felt as if I’d experienced a hint of what it must have been like to be born. We can assume that birth was one of the most, if not the most, intense and transformative (and disgusting) moments of our lives: “Wake up, you slimy sack of flesh and bones, you’re alive!”
Yet, my guided resurrection also felt like an injustice of sorts. While my pseudo-death-and-rebirth was a borderline transcendent experience, it was an unfair metaphysical tease since I don’t believe I’ll be reborn after I die. Of course, I could be wrong, and what I experienced was a preview of the real thing. I’ll have to get back to you on that one — or not.
Before finally rising from my ersatz corpse container, I took a selfie to ensure that, if nothing else, my existential exploration was social media friendly.
Priorities when you only have half a day left
Prior to our gravest of Shavasanas, we sat in a circle and discussed various topics related to mortality, dying, and living meaningfully.
One of my fellow participants was Shatzi Weisberger, a retired nurse who told us about her 2018 “FUNeral” party, which was featured in a New York Times article on the burgeoning death-positive movement. At one point, Colombatto and Hays, both of whom brought great compassion, curiosity, and humor to the day, directed Weisberger, myself, and the rest of us to pair up and interview our partners on how they’d spend their time if they only had 12 hours left to live.
I partnered with an ICU nurse whose thinking about this hypothetical situation went from lullaby to death metal during the course of our short conversation.
Initially, she said she liked the idea of spending her last moments at home surrounded by family. Then, realizing she wouldn’t want her parents and siblings exposed to her death and corpse, she decided she’d rather die elsewhere and have her remains brought to a hospital. But, after I brought up sky burials — a Tibetan Buddhist tradition in which corpses are placed in open fields to allow vultures and other birds of prey to consume them — she changed her mind one final time. Inspired by talk of travel and animals with a taste for human flesh, she decided she wanted to die in the Everglades (a doable trip given the 12-hour time frame), have her corpse fed to alligators (the perfect green burial, yes?) and have her mother notified of her death after the swampy buffet (bonus: honoring alligator feces doesn’t seem particularly feasible or appropriate so the funeral would be inexpensive without any corporeal remnants to bury or burn).
I was conflicted too. Should I spend those last fleeting hours eating, crying, and laughing with loved ones? Or lost in a blissful haze of psychedelic mushrooms and indiscriminate fornication followed by a grand finale of either skydiving into an active volcano (all-natural cremation!) or lying on a Caribbean beach while basking in the shining warmth of my final sunrise?
Sorry, close family and friends. I’ll group text you from the plane or the beach.