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My parents bought our family burial plots years ago. But my plans might change.

I’ve learned the best we can do is have conversations with our loved ones about death rituals and end-of-life planning.

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I have plugged all manner of odd search terms into Google, but “human composting Massachusetts” ranks among my most unusual queries of late. And this search might seem a little weird — or even ungrateful — given that a grave was reserved for me decades ago.

My parents had specific ideas around death rituals. For the first 17 years of my life, the only kind of funerals I knew were open casket. We were always clad in black for cemetery processions. Yearly remembrance gatherings were scheduled around the date of death, not birth. The axis around which all of these events oriented was a family plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.


This plot includes a 5-by-2-by-2 burial matrix for 20 people — 13 known humans and seven anticipated, at the time it was purchased by my parents. The first row includes five spots, each two caskets deep, for my maternal grandparents, paternal grandparents, parents, and two brothers and their anticipated spouses. The second row was reserved for me and my four sisters, and our anticipated spouses.

Early last month, I visited this plot with my 18-year-old daughter to pay respects to my dad on the 18th anniversary of his death. On his gravestone, I laid flowers and a Ziploc bag containing a picture of my kids and dog (who my kids named after my dad). I took photos of the site to share with my mom, to assure her that the landscaping looked good. And I thought a lot about how life doesn’t often fit neatly into a 5-by-2-by-2 matrix.

On the car ride home, my daughter and I talked about how it was admirable and generous that my parents reserved this plot, and that the plan was patriarchal in orientation and didn’t account for personal circumstances such as those unwed, kids, estrangement, and wishes other than burial. We had a fascinating conversation about cremation, caskets, and the different ways I have seen people remembered.


It was a 10-minute conversation that didn’t feel at all morbid or awkward.

Later that day, my mind kept turning on end-of-life planning, so I took to Instagram Stories to learn what others thought. I posted a poll to ask whether people had inclinations toward cremation versus burial — I was thinking of the scattering of ashes versus a casket burial, but cremated remains also can be buried — noting my conundrum of having a grave already earmarked for me but different wishes for my last resting place.

Of the 515 respondents, 92 percent indicated a preference for cremation and 8 percent for burial, though I realized that I failed to include other options, such as donating your body to science and human composting, in which the human body is transformed to soil that can be scattered or planted. The former option is legal in Massachusetts; the latter is not (human composting is legal in seven states, with legislation introduced in six more).

My informal poll aside, I was struck by the slew of direct messages in which people shared their personal wishes, fears, struggles, and conflicted feelings based on their religious upbringing or family systems. My inbox was indicative of what happens any time I go on a destigmatizing bender and post about topics that seem awkward or difficult: People want and need to have these conversations.


The topic of end-of-life planning isn’t just limited to my DMs. Several of my friends are wrestling with the complexities of caregiving for aging parents, and after a recent call for topics for my Edit Your Life podcast, I received impassioned requests to cover sandwich generation issues spanning conversational awkwardness, burdens related to personal possessions, refusals to face the reality of health situations and home relocation, and fractured family relationships.

Yes, the issue of caring for one’s aging parents can be complicated, but for those of us in the sandwich generation, there is a silver lining: You can find agency in the present by normalizing conversations with kids and getting your affairs in order.

For tips on how to talk to kids about death and the afterlife, I turned to renowned child and teen development specialist Robyn Silverman — author of the forthcoming book How to Talk to Kids about Anything: Tips, Scripts, Stories, and Steps to Make Even the Toughest Conversations Easier. First and foremost, Silverman encourages parents and caregivers to use everyday teachable moments — for example, a dead bug on the sidewalk or a dying plant — as an opportunity to engage in life-cycle conversations free of emotional, personal connections.

Though I’m comfortable talking about death with my kids, I was less certain about how to handle afterlife conversations. It wasn’t a topic I ever discussed with my parents and I haven’t developed specific beliefs as an adult. Silverman recommends reverting the question back to the child. “You could say, ‘Growing up, I believed this happened, but we don’t really know. What do you think?’” Silverman notes that this approach opens the conversation instead of feeding kids a specific agenda. “[A kid’s answer] may be far-fetched, but it doesn’t need to be correct, because who knows what is correct and that uncertainty is OK,” Silverman says.


How and when we will die is uncertain, but our ability to prepare for it with love and care is not. I still have some things to figure out — for example, where I want my final resting spot to be, how my plans might change if Massachusetts passes human composting legislation, and whether there is anything official I need to do to relinquish my two reserved grave spaces. But I do know that compassionately articulating my nonspecific plans to my mom and the rest of my family of origin, continuing to have open conversations with my kids, updating my will to ensure that my wishes are current, and regularly decluttering (with a long view inspired by “Swedish death cleaning,” the concept of decluttering so loved ones won’t be burdened with your possessions after you die) are acts that matter both in the present and long term.

After all, ensuring that your loved ones aren’t burdened with logistics, and can instead focus on remembering a life well lived, does seem like a gift you can give from the afterlife, wherever that may be.


Christine Koh is a former music and brain scientist turned writer, podcaster, and creative strategist. Find her work at and on social media at @drchristinekoh. Send comments to