When my story ends, I can probably do without a plot
Let's talk cremation.
I'm for it, though the subject is not among my favorites. In general, I would rather discuss almost anything but death and attendant issues -- the Mets lineup, colonoscopies, even "Duck Dynasty."
But time to get real. The family plot at Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn is overbooked, and if I'm tapping the 401(k), it's for a condo in Key West, not a sliver of turf that, my bet, the kids will visit only on Father's Day and never bother to weed.
Also, I sort of like the notion of ending up in powder form. I will be compact, lightweight, convenient and -- depending on scientific advances -- perhaps one day reconstituted like a shiitake mushroom. Remember cryonics -- freezing the remains until researchers hit upon the secret of eternal life? Same idea.
On the other hand, maybe Wink, my wife, will find me useful as organic fertilizer -- she's worried about the hydrangeas -- or spread my remains in a suitable setting. Meaningful sites might be Coney Island in honor of my one ride on the Cyclone -- blowing a lifetime's supply of courage on a single summer afternoon -- or the courtyard just outside my grandmother's kitchen on 69th Street in Bay Ridge, where, chubby and resolute, I one day came home from PS 170 and ate five hamburgers for lunch.
The importance of venue cannot be overstated.
A reporter pal tells of going aloft years ago with a crew of old Pan Am pilots intending to toss the ashes of a departed colleague -- secure in a cigar box -- out the cockpit window. "Problem was," recalled my friend, "the box was rectangular and the window a triangle." Undeterred, someone opened the window and lifted the cigar box lid. A cloud of eternal soot filled the cabin and my pal returned to the city room with the deceased flyboy still in his trouser cuffs.
I read that bad-boy journalist Hunter Thompson, author of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," had his ashes packed into skyrockets for a 2005 memorial event. Ed Headrick, who helped perfect the Frisbee flying disc, added something special -- himself! -- to a limited edition of the toy. Mixed with ink, a Marvel Comics editor rolled off the presses. "He has truly become one with the story," said his wife.
Cremation is becoming as trendy as face tattoos and pomegranate mojitos.
Industry groups say more than 40 percent of Americans go out in a blaze of glory -- up from something like 20 percent in 1995.
Numbers soared during the recession. Finances were tight, funerals expensive, and, hey, dear, old dad was in no position to complain. Polish up the urn.
Cremation is especially big on the West Coast and Northwest -- 60 percent, according to one study -- and least popular in the South.
This makes sense. The Pacific Coast crowd, ever mellow, likely sees cremation as just a day at Malibu without sunblock. In the South, radio preachers warn of fiery comeuppance for the unrepentant. Anticipating the worst, Southerners may wonder: Why rush?
In New York -- cremation rates near 25 percent, according to data -- the Department of State's Division of Cemeteries provides a convenient website for those seeking guidance at dos.ny.gov/cmty/faq-cremation.html. Basic questions are addressed.
Can keepsakes be placed in a casket before cremation? Nope, sorry, no baseball gloves, Elvis posters, or anything else.
Is a casket necessary? Good news for cost-cutters: Required only is a "leakproof, rigid, combustible container."
What do ashes look like? Granular, grayish-white and, as the state says, without fragments that "can be identified as skeletal remains."
Why did I begin thinking about such stuff?
Aside from ordinary indicators of advancing age -- knuckles the size of Brussels sprouts, more wrinkles than an unmade bed, ear hair growing like some genetically modified crop -- I learned that three famous people I've admired through the years somehow have become . . . old.
Gloria Steinem, the author and activist who, in 1963, went undercover as a Playboy bunny, is 80 and likewise neurologist Oliver Sacks. I loved Sacks' 1970 book, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" about people with perceptual disorders. A kind and civilized man.
The other estimable geezer is sports writer Roger Angell. In a New Yorker piece published when he was 93, Angell reviewed his health history with good humor (macular degeneration, arthritis, nerve damage, arterial stents, and that wasn't all) but concluded that, despite everything, he's glad to be around and isn't about to budge.
Sacks said the same thing and Steinem, still looking swell, celebrated her birthday with a trip to Botswana. All of that is encouraging, but the subtext was unavoidable: Surprise! These folks are still alive!
Not everyone is.
I have the usual list of lost friends -- John, Gordon, good old, Charlie, to name a few -- and, pardon if this sounds too glum, I just started thinking about the family plot there at Green-Wood. When I was little, we gathered in summertime to trim the ivy -- my mother and aunts in floral prints, Dad in open neck shirt. I ran around in white shorts and a sailor top. Except for me, they're all gone now. Wow, you can't help but saying to yourself.
A serious discussion was in order.
"I've been thinking about cremation," I told Wink.
"That's nice, dear," she said.
"I'm serious. Cemeteries aren't my style. Too quiet. Spooky."
"It's settled then."
Wink said she'd like to change the subject -- fine by me -- but I'm pretty sure she was eyeing the hydrangeas.