By Beth Tillman
I had an estate client who wanted to be cremated and have their ashes dropped from a helicopter over a UNC football game and another who wanted to be buried on top of his father and a client who wanted to be tossed in the ocean while his friends smoked cigars and drank fine bourbon paid for by the estate and a client who directed she be sent to a body farm to be set outside to decompose while wild animals and insects ate her so that the police could learn more about the way a body disappears and how long that takes and a client who requested he be mixed with the ashes of his dog Coco and sprinkled over a lake in Wisconsin only we couldn’t find Coco’s ashes until the neighbor found them and brought them to the firm where my confused assistant thought she could mix them with water and drink them until we stopped her and a client who wanted his brain removed and preserved so that he could be brought back later though he couldn’t tell me if he thought life would be the same after he was reinstalled and another who said to divide up her ashes among her friends and have the estate pay for each of them to go somewhere they went together and to sprinkle their allotment in that place and a client who preferred cremation but not right now, she said, not right now, only after I die of course and I agreed we wouldn’t do anything prematurely and another who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory on a floating funeral pyre with his archer friend from the shore shooting a flaming arrow at his body, and I want to say keep it simple, but I am the one who pressed this question, warning you don’t want to end up in an unlabeled box in someone’s closet, and each time as they answer, I can’t help but imagine myself dead, imagine myself buried or barbequed, parceled out to the mountains and beaches and streams, and I don’t want my children standing over me wondering what do we do with her, so I’ve left these instructions in an envelope on which I’ve written “Read First”: Take what is left of me, don’t drain me, dig a hole deep enough to keep the animals away, gather the people I loved, wrap me in the rose quilt my mother made, let everyone hold onto the soft edges, lower me gently, have each throw in a handful of dirt, then fill in the cracks, mound up the soil, and finally, read something that reminds you of what truly remains, not my dead body, not me, but your life and all that is yet to come.
Beth Tillman is an estate attorney in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is enrolled in the M.F.A. program with Fairfield University, and is writing a memoir about her daily dances with death and incapacity.
Art by Amie Souza Reilly