When my grandmother died, she didn’t want a funeral. She did have thoughts about what we should do with her ashes.
“Oh my god,” I heard my mother say from behind the closed door of the stall. “I almost dropped mom in the toilet.”
At this, she cackled, as did my aunt, who was examining her face in the smudged sink mirror. Their laughter reverberated around the bathroom, filling it with echoed exuberance that lingered a few beats after they’d quieted.
We’d had coffee in the adjoining cafe not long before, sipping slowly and skimming the contents of the stained English-language newspaper I’d grabbed off another table. As we chatted, I fingered the small sandwich baggie of ashes my mother had handed me earlier. I kept them stuffed in the pocket of my jacket, which seemed like a better option than putting them in my purse. Suppose the jostling of my wallet caused the bag to open? Suppose it got ripped by my keys or an errant pen? Yes, my pocket was better. Safer. Still, every few seconds I’d unzip my pocket and pat them protectively, just to make sure.
My grandmother had died two years prior, at ninety-four. Though an enormously social person in life, she’d insisted, strangely, that no fanfare be made over her death. She instructed my family not to hold a service; nor did she want her photo placed on the piano in the nursing home where she lived, as was custom when one of its residents died. “People just talk about you,” she grumbled.
She was, however, proactive about having arrangements made for her body: Before she died, she called around to every crematorium in the East Bay to find the best price, eventually settling on a drab stucco building in a strip mall near an In-N-Out Burger.
Her remains were handed to my mother in a plain black bag, placed in a plain cardboard box. As for what would be done with her ashes, she had thoughts on that, too. “Just toss me to the wind,” she’d ordered. “You know I love to travel. The wind will carry me!”
Despite her stubborn commitment to thriftiness, she did, eventually, make a concession. After spending much of her life poor, a combination of parsimony and hard work eventually led my grandmother to some means, which, in turn, allowed her to see the world. Her travels took her everywhere—from her homeland, Germany, to my grandfather’s, Italy; to countries even farther afield, like Japan and Morocco. But there was one place she’d always wanted to visit but never did: Austria.
Why Austria? No one in my family is precisely sure. Some hazy explanation about her father’s side of the family having roots there—though really, it didn’t matter why. My mother promised we’d get her there.
The ritualization of death in America is a relatively new concept, and prior to the 1920s, interment occurred with little ceremony. Dying generally took place at home, and the body would be prepared for burial by the women in the family. Coffins were built by the same people who made cabinets, and you’d be lowered into the ground not more than a few feet from where you were born.
This changed in the early 20th century, due to a shift toward urbanization and a growing emphasis on science and medicine. Embalming became de rigueur, and the complexity of the process meant that burying loved ones at home was no longer an option. Undertakers, once regarded as tradespeople, professionalized their operations and rebranded themselves as funeral directors. Death, once simply a fact of life, was now a booming industry.
What became known as the “traditional” funeral—a cosmeticized, embalmed body laid out for mourners before being interred—became a distinctly American practice, and perhaps even an invention of the increasingly powerful funeral industry. (Alfred Fellows, an English judge, wrote in 1940 that “A public exhibition of an embalmed body, as that of Lenin in Moscow, would presumably be dealt with as a revolting spectacle and therefore a public nuisance.”)
Though cremation was the norm in several other countries, funeral directors were known to push the narrative that embalming was a matter of health and safety. In her 1963 book The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford asked the chief of pathology at San Francisco General Hospital about whether embalmers were, as they claimed, guardians of public health, to which he replied: “They are not guardians of anything except their pocketbooks.” She also went a step further, calling up several California funeral homes to inquire whether she could arrange for a simple cremation for her fictional dying aunt—no service, no coffin, just the cremation. In each case, she was told that state law prohibited that option. It did not.
Mitford’s work landed like a bomb. Realizing they’d been scammed, Americans began to explore alternative means of disposing their dead. And that’s when things started to get weird.
Vienna, we decided, would be too crowded. The last thing we needed was to be arrested by over-vigilant police for littering in a public park, or risk the shifting winds blowing the ashes into the cheese plates of a picnicking family.
At a fraction of Vienna’s population, Salzburg seemed to fit the bill. Framed on three sides by the mighty Eastern Alps, the city is known for its postcard-perfect beauty—crisply preserved castles and cathedrals and lush green spaces, all bisected by the lazy Salzach River. Beyond its baroque architecture and scenery, it’s famous for exactly two other things: the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the setting for the 1965 smash hit The Sound of Music. If all of this sounds like a geriatric fever dream, well, you’re not wrong. Even the city’s official tourism site describes it as a “wealthy, conservative, exclusive and religious place,” which “serves rather for the needs of its senior population than for its junior one.”
After several overnight flights, I arrived in Salzburg from Mexico, where I’d been for a bachelorette party. My skin was glowing with sunburn, and my hair was stiffening into a waxen mass held together by sea water and tequila. The look was topped off by a yellow sunburst radiating directly from the center of my shirt, the unfortunate result of a hungover attempt at squirting mustard onto one of the wet hot dogs offered for free at the Frankfurt airport lounge.
I threw my backpack into a cab idling outside the terminal, and the driver, an elderly man with a mane of white hair, eyed me with unbridled disgust in the rearview mirror. He spent the duration of the short ride berating me half in English, half in German for my appearance, warning me that if I couldn’t pay the fare, our next stop would be the police station. I pretended to listen and stared at the Alps through the window, their soaring peaks still topped with snow.
Yes. My grandmother would have liked it here.
In the US, cremation surpassed traditional burial for the first time in 2016, accounting for 50.2 percent of funerals. In addition to the revelations reported by Mitford, increased transience and the waning importance of religion have also been responsible for the shift.
In an effort to stay relevant, funeral directors have started offering fully customizable “experiences,” making their jobs more akin to those of wedding planners. “I think that we have become very experience-focused forward,” said Matt Baskerville, who runs Reeves & Baskerville Funeral Homes in Coal City, Illinois. For example, a funeral planned with Baskerville means the air at the service can be infused with any scent its clients desire.
“If dad was into motorcycles, we can fill the funeral home with the smell of fresh leather,” he explained. “If grandma liked baked homemade chocolate chip cookies, we can get inserts in our little built-in scent air machines to make the whole facility smell like fresh-baked cookies.”
The options for disposition are all but endless, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting cheaper: In 2014, the median cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial was $8,508; in 2017, it was $8,755. By 2023, the US death care market is expected to be worth $68 billion.
And the flexibility of cremation has spawned an entire cornucopia of offerings by vendors outside of funeral homes.
A post by the Cremation Institute offers fifty-two creative ways of scattering remains, from making them into coral reef balls and placing them in the ocean ($7,495), to shooting your loved one’s ashes into deep space ($12,500). Perhaps you want your remains grown into a tree? Or pressed into a record? Or made into a painting? All of these choices are available to you—for a price. The site’s founder, Adam Binstock, told me that the page gets up to fifteen thousand hits per month.
“People are realizing, ‘I don’t need to do something because everybody else does it. I don’t need to wear black. I don’t need to have a traditional funeral service with an expensive casket and a wake after,’” he said.
But what happens when you have a highly personalized, individualistic culture that also largely shies away from discussions of death? Dr. Virginia Beard, who has co-authored several papers on the changing funeral industry, said that the freedom can be overwhelming.
When embalming was the norm, grieving families could fall back on what Beard calls a “plug and play” funeral, choosing from among a small collection of verses and songs, the format more or less uniform. “It’s like McDonald’s—you just pick from the menu,” she said.
Now, things have become more complicated, particularly since cremation means that without the need for prompt burial, mourners can take as much time as they want to decide what to do with remains.
“I think families might see themselves at a loss if somebody hasn’t been very clear about their wishes, and then are sort of left on their own devices to figure out what exactly to do,” she said.
I think my family would agree.
My first morning in Salzburg, I awoke on the rollaway bed in the luxurious but cramped room I was sharing with my mother and aunt. Already, there’d been some drama with the ashes, my mother having spent several days convinced they’d been snatched away by TSA until she found them tucked safely in an inner-compartment of her suitcase.
I hauled myself, crushed with jetlag, to brush my teeth while my family busied themselves finding a suitable location to deposit their mother. They settled on a serene wooded path that ran through the Mönchsberg, a mountain that shapes the city’s west side. It’s named for the monks of St. Peter’s Abbey, which was built from the mountain’s rocks in the 7th century and is still a sight to behold today.
It was only after we drank our coffee that it occurred to us that no one had come up with anything to actually say. By this time, we’d worked out that we’d take turns sprinkling remains from our baggies whenever we came upon a scene we felt my grandmother would enjoy, or, at least, whenever our mourning wouldn’t interfere with a young German couple taking a selfie.
For much of her life, my grandmother had been a devout Catholic, and even served as a Eucharistic minister at her local parish. But a series of events—some to do with the larger machinations of the Catholic church, some personal—led her to eschew her faith in her later years. Despite being raised Catholic, neither my mother nor my aunt remained religious. While my grandmother would have loved the foreboding, ancient cathedrals whose spires punctured the clear Salzburg air, none of us felt particularly inclined toward prayer.
“What if we take turns sharing a memory?” I offered.
And so we were off, baggies in hand, depositing remains everywhere from church cornerstones to the edges of especially appealing vistas. It was a glorious April afternoon, and the sun fell through the trees along the path, creating splashes of light among the shadows.
I remembered my childhood, feeding the ducks on the lagoon outside my grandparents’ Foster City home. The way my grandmother said “wahtuh” instead of “water,” which I spent my life thinking was peculiar to her until I moved to Brooklyn and suddenly heard her voice everywhere.
Happy memories flowed easily for a while, but eventually, the tone began to shift. My mother and aunt recalled their own childhoods, which they spent moving in and out of different homes and neighborhoods throughout the South Bay. The night their father lost his job, and the way he cried at the kitchen table. My grandparents’ separating in the ’70s, long before divorce was common; my grandmother peppering her daughters with questions about whether their father was seeing someone else. How when she met my grandfather, she thought he’d become a lawyer, and how her anger and disappointment lingered for the rest of her life when he didn’t. Her generosity with her family, with causes she cared about, and often, with total strangers. How she left New York for California in her early 20s, in search of a new life after a love affair went sour.
Perhaps a formal service—a “plug and play”—would have spared us from considering this messy reality. “We’re supposed to be sharing nice memories,” my mother said at one point.
In the absence of careful, pre-composed tributes delivered to a sea of acquaintances, our memories were scattershot—but they were also honest. I learned things about my grandmother I otherwise never would have under the pressure of more formal mourning.
Still, it was hard to feel like we weren’t doing it wrong. Our piles of ashes became larger, less sparing. As the path gave way to a small street, my aunt saw a purse shop. “Let’s go in,” she said, and for the next thirty minutes, thoughts of my grandmother were put aside, replaced with talk about the durability of hand-woven cloth.
The freedom that comes with cremation can be a mixed blessing for a culture that has grown squeamish toward death. After all, dying in modern America tends to take place in the anaesthetized setting of a hospital. Our avoidance of the topic, often decried as morbid, means that when the time does come along, we’re at a loss for what to do.
When my grandmother entered hospice, my family and I gathered in her living room with the chaplain and social worker appointed to answer our questions. While neither my aunt nor mother are inclined toward philosophizing, I’d expected the discussion to at least touch on the route my grandmother would be taking as she departed this world for the next.
Instead, they peppered the hospice workers with dispassionate questions read from a binder, queries about fluid levels and pharmaceutical interactions. They struck me less like two people preparing to say goodbye to their mother than attorneys readying themselves for court. I was the only one who cried.
This clinical remove is precisely the problem with modern death in the US, said Caitlin Doughty, creator of the YouTube series “Ask a Mortician” and co-founder of The Order of the Good Death, a coalition of industry professionals, academics and artists “exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.”
While there might be nothing more quintessentially American than paying someone else to deal with a situation for you, Doughty’s mission is to reacquaint mourners with death, the way our forebears were before embalming took over. These days, she wrote in an email, the most people feel they can do is make a casserole or donate to the GoFundMe.
“Not that those things aren’t helpful, but turning over the body to a corporation creates a distance from the death that wasn’t there when the community built the coffin and cared for the body and helped dig the grave,” she wrote.
In order to reclaim our relationship with death, Doughty said it’s important to make room to grieve on our own terms, not society’s.
“Especially right now, when it seems that the whole nation is grieving, for so many reasons, there needs to be endless space granted for grieving,” she wrote. “We’ve moved out of the ‘you get to grieve for a week and then we’d like to see you smiling and hopeful for the future’ phase.
“That’s cruel and we’re no longer going to stand for it.”
It was late afternoon by the time the last of my grandmother’s remains had been emptied from our baggies. Now burdened by afternoon shopping, none of us were disappointed to see that our route terminated at the Museum der Moderne, a modish concrete rectangle teetering at the Monschberg’s edge, with a lovely outdoor restaurant that jutted into the air like a pouting lip.
We ordered a bottle of wine, then another. The sun, now high in the sky, sparkled off the Salzach River snaking below.
Our goodbye to my grandmother wasn’t polished, but it felt authentic. Bible passages delivered from a priest I’d never met would have been grounded in institutional structure, yes, but it would also have been unbearably clinical; a natural extension of the rigidity we strive to apply to death. But why? What about life is ever so formal? That day, we didn’t celebrate the orderly, medicalized way my grandmother died; we celebrated the way that she lived, in all of its ebullience, imperfection and grace.
I pulled the baggie, now empty, from my pocket, and put it on the table next to my wine glass. When the breeze suddenly picked up, I managed to catch it, just barely, before it was carried away.
Lauren is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Jezebel, Vice, Atlas Obscura and others.