The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Exit strategy

And you thought there was only one way to leave this life

When Michelle Cromer’s son, Sam, struggled for life after his premature birth, she had her first serious confrontation with death.

Everything turned out well for Sam—and for his mother. Cromer’s exploration into dying and what to do with remains resulted in Exit Strategies: Thinking Outside the Box (2006, Tarcher/Penguin). In her cross-country interviews, she discovered “visionary businesspeople and artists who will shoot my cremated remains into space, pack me into a golf club, mummify me, or turn me into a one-caret diamond (a choice so irresistible I have decided to make my husband, Barry, into a fabulous bracelet... someday),” she writes in the book’s introduction.

It’s Greg Herro, the CEO of LifeGem, Elk Grove Village, Ill., who will convert your loved one into bling. Cromer asked him the obvious: “How does a guy who graduated summa cum laude from Illinois State University with degrees in industrial technology and graphic communication end up turning dead people into diamonds?”

“The overwhelming desire to do something phenomenal to change the way people look at death,” he told her. “It’s not my personality to want to do normal, humdrum things.”
There’s nothing humdrum about any of the folks Cromer meets, or the tidbits that follow each chapter, such as:

Did you know?

• On average, right-handed people live nine years longer than the left-handed.

• People fear spiders more than they do dying. However, statistically you are more likely to be killed by a flying champagne cork than by the bite of a poisonous spider.

• Cockroaches can live for nine days without their heads, at which point they die of starvation.

• About 100 people choke to death on ballpoint pens each year.

• The word morgue comes from the name of the building in Paris where bodies were laid out for identification. In the 1800s, the Paris morgue drew huge crowds of tourists—as many as 40,000 a day—for whom viewing dead bodies was a popular pastime. It was closed to the public in 1907.

• Caskets are not the same as coffins. Caskets are simple rectangles, whereas traditional coffins are wider at the shoulders and narrow at the feet. Today, caskets have almost entirely replaced coffins in use.

The driving force behind all this creativity is that folks want a say in what becomes of them. As Cromer herself admits in her book, “I would like it to be something socially beneficial; I don’t want to waste land, money or other resources.”
The funeral industry, she says, is scrambling to keep up with the changes. “But more important, I think, death itself is changing,” Cromer writes in her conclusion. “Death is becoming less the impersonal, terrifying stranger who knocks on our door in the middle of the night and carts us away into the darkness. Now it’s a ride in a balloon. Or a fireworks display. Or a trip to the moon. Or being turned into a lovely diamond. Or a chance to give something back to Mother Nature and participate in the great cycle of being.”

A Q&A with Michelle Cromer:

What has the reaction been to your book?

I have been pleasantly taken aback by the positive feedback. I have gotten e-mails through my Web site sharing with me that my book has become a dialogue-opener for families who otherwise would not speak about this difficult subject. One woman shared with me that she showed the book to her mother and said, “Look, some people want to be mummified! Mom. What do you want?” and this woman was finally able to get her mother to discuss her wishes.

What’s the driving force in either someone inventing a new “exit strategy” or choosing one of the particular exit strategies that you write about—for themselves or a loved one?

In almost every case, the people in my book developed their company after a personal experience, like Nick who developed the idea about mixing ashes with fireworks after his mother died and he knew she wanted to go out with a bang!

We baby boomers are living life on our own terms and now we are taking this attitude and planning our exits, not leaving that decision to grief-stricken relatives. I think planning ahead is the most considerate thing we can do for our families AND we are a generation that is thinking about the global village we share. The green burial movement or considering what we are doing to the environment is at the forefront of our choices. And, if we can plan ahead, think green AND have a unique celebration that reflects the lives we have lead, why not?

Is there one option that just made you think, “Oh my, and I thought I’d heard of everything...”?

Almost ever chapter! One of my personal favorites is mummification. It brings the ancient tradition into today’s terms and it is the only company that I interviewed that also was concerned about getting the soul into the afterlife. Corky Ra will not only mummify your body, but sit with your body and navigate your soul thru the 49 days of the Tibetan bardo. That may not be an afterlife that I can get on board with, but I thought it was wonderful that someone was recognizing that we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

What option are you leaning toward? (for yourself or your husband?)

My husband who is 45, alive and well thank God, is going to be turned into a one carat diamond bracelet link; 52 diamonds can be made out of one person’s ashes so I might make myself some earrings as well!

As for me, there are so many choices. Maybe a ride in a balloon, or a fireworks display or a trip to the moon. I do know that I will give something back to Mother Nature and participate in the great cycle of being.


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