Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

When the Dead Wake Up

Some of my childhood nightmares involved zombies rising from the dead at night searching for brains. We’ve all heard the folklore of people being buried alive, of graves being dug up with claw marks on the inside of the coffin. We’ve heard of Irish wakes permeating the rest of culture, and about how they sat with the body to be sure of the death of it. When I was researching death, I did some fact checking to see just how common a thing burying someone alive was, and discovered the details of a dozen documented cases in history.
In the late 1500s, Matthew Wall of Braughing, England was being taken to his grave when one of the pall bearers tripped and the coffin fell. Matthew was revived by the blow and celebrated his ‘resurrection’ every year until his actual death in 1595.
In 1587, Stowe’s Annals tells of a man who was hung for a felony on February 20th. His body was supposed to be taken to Chirugeons Hall after his death, to be used for anatomy lessons. When they opened his chest, they found he was still alive, kept so by the cold temperatures. He lived for three more days before dying from the complications of his chest being opened.
In the 1600s, Marjorie Elphinstone was buried in Ardtannies, Scotland. When grave robbers tried to relieve her corpse of its jewelry during the night, she startled them by groaning. They fled in terror as she got up and walked home, where she later outlived her husband by six years.
On February 14, 1650, Anne Greene was hung for a felony charge, after which her body was sent to the anatomy hall to be used for dissection. She woke up before they could cut her open and lived for many more years.
In 1674, Marjorie Halcrow Erskine of Chirnside, Scotland was buried in a shallow grave by a sexton who intended on returning later to dig her up and steal her jewelry. She woke when he tried to cut off her finger in order to remove the ring. She lived to give birth to, and raise, two children.
A rapist-murderer named William Duell was hung at Tyburn in November 1740. His body was also taken for dissection but was found to have a faint pulse. He was breathing shallow. He was in great pain but was sitting and drinking wine two hours later. He was sent back to prison and, when he got out, was later exiled for life.
In the middle of the 1700s, Professor Junkur of Halle University received a bag with a hanged criminal for his use in dissection. During the night the professor woke to find the naked man shivering in his doorway, the body bag in his hand. The professor helped him escape and many years later, chanced to encounter him on the street. The man had become a wealthy merchant with a wife and two children.
It is written in records from the early to mid 1800s, that surgeons working on an anatomy body in Germany, had reason to consider whether or not the body brought to them was still alive. One surgeon suggested that they should not take measures to save the life of a murderer who would then be alive to kill again, and the others concurred. They chose to proceed with the dissection.
A young girl visited Edisto Island, South Carolina in 1850 and died of diphtheria. She was interred in the family’s mausoleum for fear that the disease would spread. When they opened the mausoleum to bury a son during the Civil War, approximately thirteen years later, they found a small skeleton on the floor behind the door.
From a British Medical Journal in 1877, a case was brought to court against a doctor who signed a statement declaring a woman had died. Days after her formal burial, the family tomb was re-opened to admit a new body and the initial woman’s body was found, clothing torn and limbs broken, now dead for real, where she had tried to break her way out of the tomb. The doctor was sentenced to three months involuntary manslaughter.
T.M. Montgomery, overseeing the exhumation of bodies at Fort Randall Cemetery in 1896, stated that “nearly 2% of the bodies exhumed were no doubt victims of suspended animation” due to the number of claw marks discovered on the inside of the burial boxes.
Count Karnice-Karnicki, Belgian Chamberlain to the Czar and Doctor of the Law Faculty of the University of Louvain in 1897, was horrified at the screams of a young girl, believed dead, who awoke as the earth was being dumped onto her coffin. Due to this experience, he patented a coffin that had a 3.5 inch hermetically-sealed tube extending to a box up on the surface. At any movement of the chest, a spring-loaded ball would push the tube up, lifting the box lid to allow air and light into the coffin. A flag would rise from the box and a bell would sound for a half-hour. After dusk a lamp would burn. It was not the only “life saving” coffin that was patented during this time period. Others in this time period made a lot of money preying on people’s fears of being buried alive.
Over the centuries, there have been 219 documented cases of narrow escape from premature burial. There have been 149 cases of actual premature burial, 10 cases where a body was dissected before death naturally occurred, and 2 cases where the body was embalmed before (and caused subsequent) death. Most of these cases likely occurred because the advent of medical science had not yet caught up with obscure responses to illness and injury.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Your Options After Death

If anything has become clear to me while doing this research, it’s that we need to start rethinking what place death, grief, and the disposition of the dead have in our culture. I would hate to lose the solitude of cemetery parks. In some cities, they are among the last vestiges of undisturbed, though manicured, green left. But cemeteries have physical boundaries and eventually all the plots will fill. Only in America do we think that if we purchase a plot, it’s ours for life, death, and afterlife.
Our country is fairly new and other countries have been dealing with this issue for centuries. In many large cities, after a certain time period had passed, allowing for natural decay, graves were disinterred so that newly dead could take their place in consecrated ground, and the bones were placed in ossuaries or charnal houses. Ossuaries allow for bones to be placed and stored in smaller boxes. In catacombs and charnal houses, the bones would often be broken up, skulls stored together, long bones stored together, etc.
Maybe we need to move away from permanent monuments and resting places. How much time do we need after death? How many generations pass until no one remembers us? Why bury your loved ones in a cemetery if you never visit them there? As an amateur genealogist, I have spent many afternoons reading and searching for the tombstones of my ancestors. I have felt the joy and thrill of discovering their resting places. But there are too many of us, to each own a piece of land for life.
I will have no descendants. And I will have no gravestone. So I need to rethink what I need and what I want. As well as what to leave behind to best serve those who love me when I die.
Funerals serve many purposes. They confirm the reality of death for those left behind. In theory, they aim to provide a contained environment for the living to come together and process through grief and mourning. It is a time for the living to remember and pay their respects to the dead, bringing closure to that life. It is the end to a story.
Most people don’t think about the details of planning a funeral until they are thrust into the crisis of death. In that moment, we don’t think to shop around and we are easily talked into traditional standards. So think about it now. Choice of funerals and services are largely influenced by family preferences, religious beliefs, and traditions. If you start the dialogue now, you could pre-empt any squabbling between loved ones after the fact. So, what do you want for your body when you die?

A Smattering of Options
You could find a place that would allow you to put yourself in the ground in a simple box, or natural fiber blanket or shroud. The purpose of a green burial is to return to the way things used to be; returning the body to the ground in a manner that does not hinder decomposition. Natural burial is where the body is returned to the earth to decompose in the soil. It has been practiced in Islam for almost 1500 years. It was reintroduced to the UK in the 1990s by Ken West and has gained popularity in Australia, China, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and North America. Find more information at The Green Burial Council and The Natural Burial Movement 

You can try your hand at a home funeral, where states allow. You can care for your dead and tend to their body yourself, seeing the entire process through, reconnecting to the event as a rite of passage. All but eight states in the U.S. have won the right to home funerals if they want them. Check out the Home Funeral Directory and the Home Funeral Alliance

This is a good article about a family who took on a performing a natural burial in 2007. It chronicles the choices they made, how they went about it, and how the different family members responded to it. It’s very thought provoking. Click on this Smithsonian article to read a real-life story of people finding closure in tending their own dead.

Thinking Outside the Box
One of the options available is to send your loved ones’ cremains to be pressed and heated into jewelry. You can have them made into earrings or rings, big gems for yourself or smaller gems to divide up into separate pieces for you and children or other loved ones. I like this idea, because you can leave a legacy, an heirloom that can be passed down through the family. No need for a tombstone, you become a travelling wearable memorial. You can read more about it, including testimonials, at the lifegem website.

You could merge your ashes with the seed of a tree and find new symbiosis as you feed its growth. You can truly become one with nature in a way we couldn’t in our bodies. At least until the tree dies and becomes something else. But trees are good. There aren’t enough of them anymore and they feed off of our carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen. Do you want to Become a Tree After Death? If you want more of the metaphor, this other version, though pricey, allows you to see a visual shift as the tree grows, cracking the ceramic cover of the cremains, found at the Spiritree site.

You can simply scatter the ashes of your dead. Check out the laws here.

For something different, if you’re really invested in feeding the earth, you can have your body turned into liquid fertilizer. Not kidding.

You could gift your body to medical science. It’s important to note that most facilities have a weight cut-off limit. Some can’t accept a body more than 170 lbs max and others top out at 250 lbs. It’s something more people are looking into, as the facility will cremate the body for you, free of charge, when they are done, and send them to you, though you may have to pay for shipping or pick it up yourself. When used for medical science, your body must be embalmed and the formaldehyde adds a lot of weight. Many facilities don’t have the equipment or manpower to lift and shuffle around the bodies. They have to be easy to store and move. Check out the options at Life Legacy or Science Care or Bio Gift.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Death as an Industry

Death is a rite of passage that touches each of our lives, either through the death of a loved one or our own eventual demise. No one escapes. For that reason alone, we should talk about it more, but we don’t. We don’t value our emotional bodies in this society. Grieving is dirty and uncomfortable for everyone, and we have come to expect that it will happen behind closed doors. We prefer to leave it at the funeral home, as if we are pretending that death doesn’t happen to us all. That we don’t all grieve at some point in our lives.
We let the professionals handle death and it becomes something that happens to us, with little involvement from us but our grieving. Outside assistance with death will always be helpful, but the industry we’ve built around funerals allows for people to stay in denial. It allows for us as individuals to let our grief overwhelm and paralyze us, when the challenge is to claw our way through it. What closure can be found in viewing a corpse we have tried to make appear as lifelike as possible? How does that reinforce the reality of the death of the human body to our rational minds?
Why has it become its own industry? When did we allow outside parties to tell us how to handle the passing of our dead? I’m not dogging funeral home directors or morticians. I want to make that distinction clear. I have met some who were simply stepping into their family business and the legacy of caring for the dead. It is sacred to them. And others have felt a calling and a pull towards helping be in service in that way. We all try to find the place in this world where we best fit in. That’s not the concern for me. What I’m interested in is the way turning death into a third-party industry has affected the way we process it as a culture.

“Americans have lost the desire to be active participants in
funerals so we have very little exposure to the dead. I think that
if we were to witness the peaceful death of a loved one and play
a larger role in their funeral proceedings, Americans would be
less afraid of death and more at peace with themselves.”
 ~Loretta M. Alirangues,
“Funerary Practices in Early and Modern America”

In Judaism and Muslim deaths, when a body dies, it is buried as soon as possible. At death, the family stops to care for the dead before resuming their lives again. There is no need for embalming or refrigeration. They allow the clock of their worlds to stop. The way our culture works, we don’t allow for people to stop their lives at the death of a loved one. We are all part of a larger machine that we have given over power to and it infiltrates every aspect of our lives. When my Grandma died, I did not get bereavement time. I took it but I took the time off of work without pay. I informed my boss that I would be out for a week while I grieved with my family. It could have cost me my job if my boss had decided to be cruel. But I knew then that it was important to be part of it, to be there with my family through the transition. Our entire way of being a family shifted when she died. I knew that it would be a moment I could never reclaim. I chose my family first. We need to get back to putting people first.
I am not a fan of viewings. I do not appreciate the embalming process. I do not enjoy the lifelike tint of the corpse. When my Grandma died, I went to the funeral home to have some alone time with her because I had not gotten home in time to say goodbye. It actually threw me that she did not appear dead. The fact that she appeared to be sleeping made it harder for me to grasp. There was no death pallor, only an orange glow and too-much rouge.
It was putting my hands on her that brought reality home to me. It was feeling the cold of her body that made me understand. I touched her skin and I could not feel her vibrant energy. I could not feel the familiarity of her hugs. Whatever made her who she was, was gone. My Grandma was dead. I had to go to the funeral home to have that moment. I had to go to where her body was, in a strange place.
There are currently about 15,000 funeral homes in operation in the US. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a funeral in 2006 was $6,200, up twenty percent from $5,180 in 2000. I don’t know what costs are covered in their average, but it fits the prices people I know have been quoting me. For a minimal cremation, no frills, including obituaries, it cost a friend $1,600 in 2011. For a funeral with cemetery burial, as cheap as possible, it cost another friend $5,000 in 2012.
You know that death became in industry when they passed the Federal Rule of 1984. It was put in place by the Federal Trade Commission to require all funeral homes to provide consumers with price information over the phone, and, upon request, a written itemized list of their fees. This was done to insure that no funeral home could gouge the mourners in their time of grief. And with this rule came a way for people to learn how to navigate the industry that taking care of the dying had become.
For instance, funeral homes cannot embalm the deceased for a fee without permission from the family unless required by law. In history, homes would do an embalming and then pad the bill with the expense. Some funeral homes have a policy that if you want to hold a viewing, you have to embalm the body, but embalming isn’t legally required. That is the specific funeral home, and many directors and morticians have bought into the belief that embalming bodies saves the living from disease. If you need to delay, refrigeration is another option, where dry ice is used for the viewing. The trouble then may come in finding a place that has the ability to refrigerate.
Funeral homes cannot require you to purchase a casket for cremation. A cardboard box is all that is needed for the body to set in. Some crematoriums do not even require that much. And just because a funeral home doesn’t have any of its catalog’s cheaper caskets on hand does not mean they cannot get you one within 24 hours. You actually don’t have to buy a casket from the funeral home. You can acquire one on your own, and under the Federal Rule of 1984, the home is not allowed to charge you a handling fee for accepting one from an outside source.
Don’t be afraid to shop around and compare prices. Even better, do it now, before you need to. Obviously prices will increase, but you’ll get the feel for who you’d want to give your business to. Better still, not all states require the use of a funeral director or funeral homes for viewings. Unfortunately (for me) New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Louisiana, Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan are some of the ones that do. In other states, it’s legal to plan and organize your own funeral. Right now you’re thinking, why would I want to? But maybe death is supposed to be hard. Maybe preparing the way for others is the spiritual-yet-not-religious thing missing from our lives that would naturally help us greet our own end more peacefully.
Standard funeral costs are made up of the services of the funeral director, the use of the funeral home facilities, embalming, the casket including linings and pillows, burial vault, obituaries, the disposition of the body including the cost of the grave site, the opening and closing of the grave, the cremation, transportation of the body, flowers, clergy, grave markers or plaques, and various other incidentals. Often in our grief we worry about being seen as cheap, as if the amount of money we spend displays how we felt about them. That myth is a by-product of our death services becoming its own industry, like how Hallmark Cards make a mint off of perpetuating Hallmark as the brand that says you care the most.
In this current economy, it is foolish to fall into that trap. We should do for our dead to the best of our abilities, but the dead would not want the living to bankrupt themselves on memorialization. When a person dies, their spirit moves on and only the body remains. Do for that body, as it was the sacred vessel of your loved one, but remember them in your actions. Speak their names to the winds and tell their stories. Truly the best way to honor the loss is to remember them by living.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Funeral in 2004

I have attended a lot of funerals in my lifetime, which has not been nearly as long as should warrant that statement. But I tend to see that fact more as the result of all the people I have known whose lives have touched mine. Each funeral is double-edged. There is grief in the loss of a loved one and simultaneous gratitude for the friendship that created the grief.
My first experience with attending to the details of the dead came with my Grandparents, who died three years apart. I admit that the detail-planning was a lot to take in amidst the thickness of the grief. When my Grandma died I was more of a spectator, learning the process of death for the first time. With my Grandpa, I was more invested.
My Grandpa died in the hospital at 9:03 at night. The nurses told us to take all the time we needed, and asked who we wanted them to call. My mom gave them the name of the funeral home we were using. When we left, my Grandpa’s body remained at the hospital for the Funeral Director to pick up. My Grandpa and my mom had decided to use the same funeral home as we had used for my Grandma but other than that, little arrangements had been made ahead of time.
My Grandpa had been fighting his cancer. He thought he was winning. But when the doctor told him that the treatments weren’t working, and he was looking at weeks, not months, my Grandpa slipped into unconsciousness that same night. I will always believe it was a choice he made to be done. To stop fighting. He was in a lot of pain. By the next evening, surrounded by loved ones, he was gone. He never regained consciousness.
When we went to meet with the Funeral Director the next morning, he was kind, walking through the checklist of choices we needed to make and information he needed to retrieve. He took down the details for the obituary; names of living relatives, work history, local groups he belonged to, etc. He told us he would send the obituary into the local newspaper for printing.
When asked if we wanted to have a viewing, we said yes. The Funeral Director said that we’d have to have the embalming then, and added it to the sheet on his clipboard and we moved on. We walked into the show room and picked out a casket.
            When we picked out a casket for my Grandma, he said whichever one we wanted for her, and we picked one of Oak. It was pricey, but compared to the caskets in the showroom, not ridiculous. When we entered the same showroom for my Grandpa, money was an object. It’s something I’ve been hearing from a lot of people about the choices they’ve made for their own loved ones. Often finances have to come before what they would want to do for their loved one. Which speaks to the industry that death has become in our culture.
            For my Grandpa, we chose a Pine casket, which looked very much like every other wooden casket in the room. Not that any casket is less than another. All wood is sacred. And it only matters in the moment of purchasing it. No one is going to see it when it’s in the ground. It is kind of set up to make you feel like if-you-loved-them-more-you-would-show-it-by-picking-a-better-casket. It must be hard and overwhelming for those trying to make these choices from a place of extreme grief. We didn’t need the fancy linings or the fancy pillows, or the secret compartment in the casket for belongings and we were all in agreement on that. If you knew my Grandpa, he would have approved of the simple and classic choice we made.
Then we picked out a vault, which can be required when a body is embalmed in some states. I have also learned that some cemeteries will require the use of a vault whether the person is embalmed or not, and whether the state requires it or not. Using a vault assists with the ease of their ground maintenance, as vaults help keep the ground from shifting too much as the casket settles.
We planned the dates for the viewings with a simple service at the funeral home through the use of their retired minister. My Great-Grandparents were Roman Catholic but my Grandpa never claimed any religion as his own. What the funeral home could offer seemed the best option. The funeral home made arrangements with the cemetery for opening and closing the grave site for us, but only because we were using them for our service.
Then we waited until the viewings, sitting in quiet, sharing stories, cleaning to keep hands busy. We called family and friends and received them at my parent’s house. The viewings at the funeral home were a blur. Lots of reunions with people I hadn’t seen since childhood. It was an unfortunate circumstance and yet I thought my Grandpa, who enjoyed his alone time as much as he enjoyed socializing, would have approved at how much laughter filled that cold and somber room.
The morning of the service was a joke. I know the retired minister meant well, but he couldn’t remember my Grandpa’s name and he used the opportunity to throw every Bible story he had ever been fond of into his eulogy- and that is me being kind. I wish I had been a bit older. I wish I had anticipated the end was coming. I wish I could have stood up there and spoken to the awesomeness that my Grandpa had been made of. Still, the comical eulogy served as the source of much laughter during the afternoon.
We divvied up the flower arrangements, deciding what would go to the grave site. The plants we separated up for family to take home to grow and renew. It was touching to see the flowers come in from people we didn’t really know, whose lives my Grandpa had touched. The webs we weave in life are far larger than we can perceive.
It was a warm spring day, just after equinox in the cemetery. Standing graveside was the most natural part of the entire experience for me.  The sun was shining. Birds were singing. The ground sat open in wait. The strangest part of the morning was deciding who would ride in what vehicle with whom to get to the cemetery.
I don’t know how it is in large cities, but in my hometown we still ascribe to the funeral procession. The hearse takes the lead, with family cars behind it, and other cars behind them, safety lights flashing. It’s a slow crawl through red lights and stop signs. Life paused in breathes as we wound through town, picking back up in our wake.
Afterwards we gathered at a family member’s house for food and conversation. When my Grandma died, we gathered together in their house, filling the new void with friends and company. But with the second loss, we let someone else hold that part for us. I think it would have been too much, to see so many people populate a house whose future emptiness we were still coming to terms with. At the same time, I can see how it would have been healing, to bring life back into the house.
And then it was over. We stayed up late and talked. We shared stories and family secrets together at the kitchen table. A few days later my mom and I went back to his house. We walked through an emptiness that suddenly felt massive. The gravity of reality hit us, but now we had time.
We didn’t really know what Grandpa would have liked or would have wanted if he’d been able to choose, but we knew him well enough to make the best choices. And it prompted us to sit around the kitchen table and begin to discuss our own desires after our eventual deaths. It’s important to know what you want, what you don’t want, and what you don’t care about one way or the other. It’s important to share that with the friends and family that may be left to take care of those details. Both because it’s smart and because it’s kind.
What do you want done to best honor the temple that was your body? You might not care, and that’s all right. Don’t feed into the industrial machine death has become, simply because you think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Question everything. And then call around to your local funeral homes and see how close you can get to what you want. 
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