Before Kate died at age 67, but when she realized it was coming, she knew she didn’t want any of the standard funeral packages most Americans buy. She did not want to be embalmed and placed in a casket underground, or to be cremated, or to have anything to do with a funeral home. She wanted to die in her house, to be laid out there, and to have everyone come and spend as much time as they wished with her body. She wanted an atmosphere of celebration, because, as she told me once, “if it’s my funeral we’re talking about, I’m dead and gone, so have a party, for goodness' sake.”
This is an unusual request in 2017. From colonial America through most of the 1800s, when the dead were cared for by their families and communities, we had no choice but to be intimate with corpses. Embalming was popularized during the Civil War, when all of those dead soldiers needed to get home, and then became a service of funeral homes, creating a class of professionals to take on tasks that Americans no longer wanted to perform themselves. Now when most modern Americans die—typically in a hospital or some other institution—a great routinized process grinds into gear. The doctor pronounces; the funeral home is called; the body is carried away by professionals.
But in recent years, Americans have become increasingly interested in alternative death practices, like home funerals, environmentally friendly burials, and liquid cremation, which dissolves human remains through a process called alkaline hydrolysis. A Seattle entity has been working on a plan to compost corpses and perhaps one day use the nutritive remains on trees and in gardens. These efforts are about a lot of things: environmental concerns, the right to keep commerce and strangers out of a sacred rite, and a long-standing Boomer interest in customizing everything, including their exits. But they're also part of a growing death positive movement that sees death as the natural order of things rather than a violation of that order.
Summer heat means it's time to haul out the big pot to boil some peanuts. Yes, boiled peanuts have a season, though boiled peanuts have become such an iconic, year-round Southern food, most wouldn't know.
They're so iconic, in fact, that they've acquired the power to ascribe a shorthand Southernness to almost anything they touch. Just as countless airport concessionaires transform any run-of-the-mill fast food—burritos, pizza, ham-n-cheese sandwiches—into a breakfast item by simply adding scrambled eggs, chefs have figured out that you can Southernize any fine-dining dish by tossing in a handful of boiled peanuts. Combine them with another Southern ingredient or two, and the effect is even better.
Complicating the issue further, citizens emotionally undeterred by billions and trillions are nonetheless likely to be ill-equipped for meaningful analysis because most people don’t correctly intuit large numbers.
Happily, anyone who can understand tens, hundreds, and thousands can develop habits and skills to accurately navigate millions, billions, and trillions. Stay with me, especially if you’re math-averse: I’ll show you how to use school arithmetic, common knowledge, and a little imagination to train your emotional sense for the large numbers shaping our daily lives.
In the 1930s, populists like the Wilders were a minority voice in America; it was rather the characters in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath who reflected the mood of the country. They resembled the people who, in their millions, greeted Roosevelt as a savior, convinced that his was the view required for national survival. Today, the balance of power has reversed. The Wilders among us now occupy a position so influential they have been able to elect someone of their own persuasion to the American presidency. The frontier mentality they still embody is less likely to shore up a potentially failing democracy than to wreck it altogether.