Bedtime For Bone-zo

This is not a mass grave, not a common grave

There was recently some speculation about President Reagan’s body.

As last month’s wildfires raged through Southern California’s Simi Valley, they began to burn dangerously close to the Reagan Presidential Library, which was not great news for Ronnie because that’s where they keep his bones. There were some rumors that Reagan’s corpse was being hurriedly exhumed as the fires closed in, but it turned out the truth was simply that emergency crews had concentrated their helicopters, ground crews, and “super scooper” water-dumping planes on the ridges surrounding the property. You know, just the boring ol’ garden variety reality of resources being diverted and prioritized for the wealthier neighborhoods. Rory Kaplan talked to the LA Times about his experience as a nearby homeowner, and I can’t sum it up much better than he does:

“One thing is sure, they aren’t going to let Reagan’s Library burn — and that protects us,” he said.

It’s difficult to know whether Rory shared this thought in a spirit of grim disgusted pragmatism or grinning nationalistic pride, but I guess he’s right either way. Still, I imagine it’s tough to read that quote if you owned one of the 11,000 homes destroyed in last year’s Camp wildfires. It’s probably not particularly helpful to hear that you’d maybe still have a house if you’d been smart enough to live closer to the Gipper’s skeleton.

It’s tempting to point out that Reagan’s politics were deeply at odds with the taxpayer-funded state and federal emergency management measures that protected his remains, but honestly I just read this Washington Post editorial that does exactly that and it served solely to deeply depress me. Reagan only said all that “small government” bullshit because until 2016, American politicians thought they had to use euphemisms to express philosophies of predatory financial Darwinism. Up until then, no one knew you could just come out and say “rich people shouldn’t have to pay taxes and poor people can get fucked and die” and still be President. To pretend otherwise now in order to score hypocrisy points is a waste of time. It’s like arguing with Buffalo Bill as he’s removing your skin, “Now, wait just a minute. You said you only needed help moving that couch into your van, and I have done that. Where is your honor, sir?” The couch was never the point.

In New Hampshire last month, a grieving mother named Christina Wohle told CBS Boston that a local cemetery repeatedly removed Halloween decorations she had been displaying at her late son Cole’s grave. Evidently, the cemetery didn’t think the display - a plastic skeleton wearing a cowboy hat, arranged to look as if it was popping out of the ground - was a particularly appropriate addition to the environment of quiet, humorless reflection they were looking to maintain.

Christina Wohle’s 18-year-old son, Cole, died from a heart attack shortly after a rodeo competition in 2016.

She said Cole had a sense of humor so she is annoyed that the cemetery keeps removing the skeleton wearing a cowboy hat she placed at his plot.

“He’s dead. He’s not here with us anymore. But his humor was big and it could live beyond the grave and it could brighten people’s lives just walking by and seeing it and chuckling. Cole would have loved that,” Wohle said.

In the video embedded in that article, Wohle mentions that she and her husband decorate Cole’s grave for every holiday, not just Halloween, and I am really enjoying myself thinking about that same wacky skeleton still popping out of the grave year-round, but with like a Pilgrim hat or a Santa hat on it instead, depending on the month. Happy Fourth of July, check it out the skeleton’s got sparklers and a hot dog now. This probably isn’t how they decorate the grave for the other holidays, but then again the article never specifically says it isn’t, either.

Part of me wants to give the cemetery the benefit of the doubt. If I were a groundskeeper there, I can imagine seeing this and assuming it was some teenage vandal’s prank or inscrutable sexual fetish and just throwing the whole thing away before the family could see it and complain. It’s a potentially honest mistake, except that the guy’s gravestone literally has a picture of him wearing the same cowboy hat chiseled into it, and the grave is constantly decorated for every other holiday, and also this happened three times and none of these hypothetically well-meaning groundskeepers and administrators ever thought to contact the family. 

The cemetery presumably removed these decorations to avoid potentially upsetting anyone, but in doing so they actually upset two actual grieving parents. “His humor was big and it could live beyond the grave,” Wohle said about her son. If I died and a cemetery was doing this to my parents, I’d want to live beyond the grave, too. But not to tell any fucking jokes.

If you love the idea of Uber Pool but don’t think the experience of being trapped in a cramped space with strangers to save yourself a little bit of money lasts anywhere near long enough, well, you just hold on to your cowboy hat, buddy. The Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver recently announced that starting next year, it will offer shared occupancy graves at a reduced cost. Here’s Mountain View manager Glen Hodges explaining it in this CBC article:

"This is not a mass grave, not a common grave," said cemetery manager Glen Hodges.

"This is an environmentally friendly, shared occupancy among people who are choosing and authorizing to do that on behalf of themselves or their loved one."

According to Hodges, the cemetery can't tell people which grave they will be assigned to.

"But we can at least assign you to a cluster of four or five so you have some assurance that when you make that selection, you'll be reasonably close to those you choose," he said.

Maybe this is just me, but if I were about to drop thousands of dollars to reserve a permanent resting place for my earthly remains, I think I’d probably want more control over the specific location than if I were picking my seat for a red eye flight on Spirit Airlines. What happens when you make the arrangements and then years later, after you’re dead and buried in what is expressly, absolutely not a “mass grave,” your family realizes you’ve been randomly interred next to a Klan member? Or a Nazi? Or a Funko Pop collector?

Later in that CBC article they also talk to Erik Lees, a landscape architect who specializes in cemetery planning. Lees thinks Mountain View’s new approach is a great idea, and he’d take it even further.

Vancouver is not the only city struggling with limited cemetery space. Toronto, too, is at a "crisis point,"" said Lees.

He would like Canadians to abandon the dust-to-dust idea of burial and adopt a more European approach of "leasing" a grave space for two or three decades. Unless the lease is renewed, the remains are removed and the space is made available for another person or family.

Lees never elaborates on what would happen to people’s remains once they’ve been exhumed because their families refuse to pay graveyard rent in perpetuity. Maybe this is why that cemetery manager was so insistent on not calling these “mass graves,” as he probably wants to draw a clear distinction between these new quadruple-occupancy rideshare graves and the actual mass graves where you’ll end up if you can’t or won’t pay your endless bill for the former. It makes you wonder whether Hodges and Lees have their own death plans, and if they believe in this sales pitch enough that they themselves will be buried in these same rent-a-graves when they die. For some really strange unexplainable reason, the CBC never bothers to ask them.

In fairness to these two bold entrepreneurs currently disrupting the cemetery industry, the environmental issues that they’re using as a smokescreen while they invent new ways to squeeze even more money out of you really are genuine issues. Cemetery real estate, especially in and around bigger cities, is extremely limited, and although cremation grows in popularity every year, it carries its own set of environmental drawbacks. As with many other industries and aspects of life, we’re going to have to make some significant and potentially uncomfortable changes to the way we do things if we’re serious about making environmental improvements.

But these specific changes sound a lot like that article that gets shared on social media every few months to unanimous derision, the one about how scientists have figured out how to curb the impact of factory farming by making food from cockroaches. And maybe that’s true. Maybe that really is a better alternative than our current system of cramped animal cages leaking pollutants into the air and ground. Maybe in time we’d all be able to get past the ick factor and eat without throwing up. Maybe there’s even a way to make cockroach filets taste good. But the one thing I do know with absolute certainty, no maybes about it, is that the people who own the roach farms and the patents on the roach food technology and the media companies pushing articles that leverage your environmental guilt to manipulate you into eating the roaches, those people are never going to eat roaches. They’re going to continue to eat the same food they’ve always eaten, and while they do they’re going to laugh at you for allowing them to talk you into eating bugs.

In a previous newsletter I wrote about Stephen Gore, a former “body broker” whose Arizona warehouse full of poorly maintained severed body parts was raided by the FBI in 2014. Gore pleaded guilty to illegally conducting an enterprise at his criminal trial, and was sentenced to four years probation and a suspended jail sentence of one year. Last month, his civil trial finally began. From the New York Times:

The relatives of 23 people whose remains were donated to the Biological Resource Center contend in a lawsuit that the facility mishandled their deceased loved ones and misled them about how the remains would be used.

The suit alleges the facility committed fraud by claiming the donated bodies would be used for medical research, when in at least two cases it knew the human remains would be sold for use in destructive military testing.

According to the article, the jurors in the civil trial began deliberations yesterday. The attorneys representing the families argue that their clients should be awarded $13.2 million each. It remains to be seen whether the jury will agree or the judge will uphold the verdict, but it should feel heartening that the families are setting such a significant value for their loved ones’ remains after Gore’s facility treated them with so little. It should, but it doesn’t really. 

$13.2 million is a lot of money, and I hope it brings these families some feeling of justice, but it’s only enough to buy the nicest mansion in Simi Valley. When the fires are approaching they’ll still be a distant priority for the rescue teams, compared to an old pile of bones that used to be a President, buried just up the hill.