In his seminal memoir Desert Solitaire, environmental activist, writer and iconoclast Edward Abbey describes his seasonal employment as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah. During one incident in the book, he joins a search and rescue party attempting to locate an overdue and presumably lost hiker in that magnificent redrock wilderness. Eventually they found the hiker, dead. He had apparently realized that in his dehydrated and disoriented state, there was little hope for survival in the desert heat -- so he found a tree perched at a natural overlook with a spectacular view, sat down leaning back against the tree, and there his spirit left this mortal coil.
I met Abbey a few times, and I share his sentiments on death -- if I knew I had a terminal illness or injury, with a finite time in which to live, I would not want to enrich the vulturine mortuary industry, nor impoverish my surviving family, with a conventional funeral. Rather, I would see that my possessions and financial assets (meager) went to the proper recipients as gifts, say farewell to those who love me, and set off into a secret wilderness. There I would find an inaccessible place of beauty where the components of my body could rejoin Mother Earth, to nourish her and complete my part of the cycle of life.
There are those who prolong their lives using extraordinary medical measures, at great financial and emotional expense to their families. Understandably so, for who would want to voluntarily leave the astonishing festival of life? Today's NYTimes online features an article on patients who carry that tenacity a step farther, living in a state of perpetual sedation. This I confess I don't comprehend. Where is the value of existing, if one is (in effect) in a drug-induced coma, unable to engage in life? Minimize pain, yes. Remove consciousness, never.
A footnote: Edward Abbey passed away in March of 1989 at age 62 (my current age). He had left precise instructions on what to do with his remains, as recorded by David Quammem in "Outside" magazine. To wit: "He wanted his body transported in the bed of a pickup truck. He wanted to be buried as soon as possible. He wanted no undertakers. No embalming, for godsake! No coffin. Just an old sleeping bag. Disregard all state laws with regard to burial. 'I want my body to fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree.' As for his funeral, he wanted gunfire, and a little music. 'No formal speeches desired, though the deceased will not interfere if someone feels the urge. But keep it all simple and brief.' And then a big happy raucous wake. He wanted more music, gay and lively music. He wanted bagpipes. 'And a flood of beer and booze! Lots of singing, dancing hollering, talking, laughing and lovemaking."
Ed's close friend Doug Peacock (the probably model for Abbey's character George Hayduke in his rousing ecosabotage novel The Monkey Wrench Gang), and a small group of friends saw that his wishes were carried out. Abbey is buried at an obscure location in the Agua Prieta Desert (rumors vary between Arizona and Sonora), where "you'll never find it." A marker carved on a nearby stone reads:
EDWARD PAUL ABBEY
While my own preferences might differ in some details from Abbey's, we absolutely share the wish for a spirit of celebration of life, unmarred by the trappings of "civilization". I value culture as I value wilderness, but if I had to choose one or the other to survive, wilderness would rule. Earth First!