James Hawkins, III liked to sit in the lobby drinking tea and watching the passersby. At 93, he spoke about his well-traveled childhood, his Ivy League education, and a lost love and penchant for liquor that had led to the life of a bachelor. He confessed his virginity, and then later on, another confession:
“I’m not worried about dying itself. When you’re done, you’re done. That’s it.” He scratched his head. “But all that family money is gone and I’ve got nothing to bury myself with.” He threw up his empty hands.
I marveled silently at this. The man had been a banker. “What about your cousin? Can he help you out?” I’d met him once during his monthly visits, which had declined in frequency since his car broke down. I realized as soon as I asked it the futility of the question.
“He’s from my mother’s side of the family and he’s broke. I’ve got a few cousins on my father’s side, but I don’t feel comfortable asking them.”
We sat in silence for a moment.
“It’s not that I care so much for me if I go to Potter’s Field, but it’s not the way we Hawkins’ are buried.”
“No. There’s a certain decorum. It wouldn’t look right.”
He hesitated. “I’m thinking of donating my body to science.”
I stared at him, surprised. “Really? That’s brilliant!”
“That’s what I thought,” he replied, pleased at my reaction. “I’d be doing some good, and then I wouldn’t have to worry about burial expenses. I hear they cremate you and give the ashes to your family.”
“That’s a great idea. I can’t believe nobody’s talked to me about this before.”
He smiled. “Can you look it up for me on your thingy?”
“My iphone? Sure.” I Googled it, and registered him to get an information packet from a site I found online.
“Well, I got the papers we sent away for,” James informed me a couple of weeks later.
“Yes?” I prompted, eager to hear the details.
“I’m too old.” He gave an ironic laugh. “The cut-off is 90.”
“What! I can’t believe that — too old to donate your body,” I grumbled. “You want me to try another one? There have got to be more places.”
“No, not right now.” He waved away the notion. “Maybe later.”
I dropped the subject. James hadn’t been feeling well lately and I guessed the issue was too close for comfort.
A month after that, James had a visit from his cousin. “We had a good talk and worked things out. I’m going to be cremated. It costs $1700 and he said he’d help me out. I don’t know what they’re going to do about the service, but at least that part’s taken care of.” His voice had lost the tension it had held during our previous conversations.
“That’s great, James.”
“I feel a lot better. I’m going to start saving up my Personal Needs Allowance to put toward the expenses. It won’t be much, though, after I get my monthly haircut.”
Nursing home residents in New York State get $50/month for their personal needs. Haircuts at the home cost $10.
He laughed. “I figured it out. If I don’t buy anything but haircuts for the rest of my life, I can pay for the cremation myself — I just have to live to 97!”