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Why bury your loved ones?

March 13, 2011

by Joseph Debro

Joseph Debro, a distinguished civic leader, was interviewed Feb. 12, 2010, on CBS5 TV.
My wife, Anita, and I attended an end of life party a few weeks ago. Each time we attend such services, I am reminded of what matters.

What matters is how the value of your days will be measured. Those days will be measured by what you gave to others, not by what you accumulated. They will be measured by how you encouraged or empowered others, not by the opulence of your living.

Your character was more important than how competent you were at what you did. The memories you instilled in others, your inspiration to others and how you enrich their lives is how you will be measured.

Robert Abbott was a world-renowned scientist. He was the father of computer security. Much like other achievements, this title will be bestowed upon some other scientist who writes and publishes a book on the subject. Bob was a Black man who worked his way through college by shining shoes.

Bob’s death inspired me to think of and anticipate some end of life decisions, which we too often leave to our loved ones. Bob signed a do not resuscitate (DNR) agreement when he entered the hospital. While this does not solve the problem, it makes it easier to reach a decision if your quality of life approaches zero.

Perhaps the most important decision he made when he was a young scientist was to donate his body to science. On his death, his wife made a phone call to the University of California in San Francisco and they took care of all of the details without charge.

When my parents died, my siblings and I had to fund a process that we found very distasteful. At the end of this very expensive process, we were given a key to the coffins and a guarantee that the coffins were waterproof. I found this process very offensive. What will I do with a key to my parents’ coffins? How will I know or why will I care if their coffins leak?

Prior to Bob’s death, my wife and I had decided on cremation. After observing the seamless experience of his family in this process, Anita and I have decided to make the same kind of donation. We called UCSF, described our wishes, they sent us forms, which we filled out, signed and returned. This process will work with any medical school near you.

This donation is not just about the money you save. The savings are considerable. It is about restoring some sanity to the end of life process. The cost of a burial is inflated and it is unfairly tied to religion and to vanity. The business people who ply this trade know how to exploit your vulnerability.

I know that this process will not work for everyone. For those who must borrow to bury a loved one and for those who, like us, resent the exploitation, this is indeed an option that is worth your consideration.

I did point out to the university that I plan to use my body for several more years and I asked them to wait until it is completely worn out before they come for it.

Joseph Debro is president of Bay Area Black Builders, co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors, a general engineering contractor and a bio-chemical engineer. He can be reached at

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