Through my eye

A sometimes caustic view of things.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The cost of dying

It’s tough to separate the flesh from the spirit. People get very confused over the issue, primarily because they are very fond of the person they see in the mirror and they think that visage has something to do with their immortality.

It’s something we’ve been doing since we looked in still water and saw a reflection that we realized was us. Yeah, I know that’s an awkward construction, but you get the point. From that time forward, some of us figured out a way to make a living off the vanity of ourselves.

Burial rites evolved from the simple to the very complex early on in man’s history and nothing has changed in several millennia. In some places the phrase, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” really holds true. In other places a belief in the resurrection of the flesh leads to complex and elaborate procedures and practices to preserve the dead.

If I say, Ted Williams, you might think of cryogenics rather than batting averages. Freezing the body or a head is just an extension of the resurrection theory. As a confirmed science fiction fan, I see the idea of rejuvenation of the body as attractive and theoretically possible, but only if a body is in some sort of stasis prior to death. Poor Ted is just flash-frozen meat.

But that’s not my main subject today. It’s the funeral industry here in the United States that I’m going to tackle.

First off, because people don’t like dealing with death as a part of life, we eagerly hand off the chore of preparing a body for disposal to a willing technician. We let our myths and our need to match the neighbors in cars or coffins (and, sometimes, our guilt at neglecting the deceased while they were still alive) determine the amount of preservation, the kind of storage container and the location of the final disposition of the remains. The fancier the coffin, the greater the efforts to preserve, the costlier the service – the greater our pride in our grief.

Don’t think I haven’t been through this.

I live in Florida. If you took the average body, dead of anything short of anthrax poisoning, and dump it into a hole at least four feet deep (so small animals don’t get at it); in about six weeks you’ll have a body well on its way to reintegration with the elements of life. In a year or so, it’ll mostly be gone and the green life around the site will be a little richer.

But you can’t do that with a body in Florida. The funeral industry is protected by laws requiring that dead bodies be handled just so, by people qualified by the funeral industry to protect you from the disease and corruption of the unprepared body.

From personal experience: My mother died of natural causes. She was old and in poor health. Likely her heart gave out. She died in a supervised senior citizens housing apartment. The manager called the rescue squad. The rescue people determined she was dead, her physician was called and he concurred that she was dead without seeing her or examining her. No need, after all the rescue people are competent to note the details – body temperature, lack of respiration, no pulse, etc.

Prior to her death (and part of the paperwork for moving into the apartment) she had to select a funeral home for the disposition of her remains. That funeral company sent a pair of employees to remove the body and bring it to the business.

There was a charge for that, as there was for every single action thereafter. It is a business, after all. And that business depends on the survivors of the deceased being so grief-stricken that they will want to honor the dead by embalming, by having a fine casket, by having a funeral service, by having a graveside service and entombing the casket in a crypt or, at the least, a concrete vault.

My mother had some ideas of her own about death. One, she wanted it to be certain that she was dead but she didn’t want to be embalmed. She wanted to leave a good-looking corpse, but she lived too long and decided that being fancied up for viewing wasn’t feasible. Two, she vaguely believed in the possibility of resurrection and wanted her remains to be kept from dissolution in the earth. To that end, a concrete vault would work as well as a fancy coffin.

Here’s the real deal. If you make a lead box, put a body in it, fill it up with olive oil or the like and seal it shut, that body will stay more or less preserved until someone comes along and opens it. In a concrete vault, in a simple casket – Mother Nature is still going to do her work.

One of our family wanted to see the body before it was put in a casket. OK, that’s a $125 charge. Regular humans have to be protected from the dead, so they have to put on disposable garb and a mask to view an unembalmed body. From a distance, pulled out of a cooler, for crying out loud. You can’t let those chilled germs leap over to the living, can you.

We opted not to pay to see the body, we bought the least expensive casket, the kind used for cremations, we paid for a concrete vault and that was it. The funeral home tried to charge us for a graveside service when all we wanted was to let whoever was there say a few words before the dirt went over the vault. They put up a canopy even though we told them not to do so. (“It might rain,” the funeral ghoul said, “we can’t have our reputation hurt by having people at the funeral rained on.”)

It didn’t rain. We spent about $2300 for (A) transportation from site of death to mortuary, (B) cleaning and storage of body, (C) casket and vault, (D) transportation to cemetery and (E) digging and filling in the grave. We were nagged every step of the way by the funeral director to spend more money and we were bad-mouthed by the same man at the grave site. I overheard him tell a minister that a relative had invited, “some people just don’t care about their old folks.”

Some relatives were dismayed as well. One uncle compared the funeral to burying a dog. That’s was OK. I didn’t have much use for him, either.

The real concern is, based on revelations about the funeral industry, whether or not there is even a body in the grave. Unless the casket is open at the graveside before burial, you have no way of knowing if your loved one is cheerfully rotting away in a cemetery in Florida or being dissected at the medical school in Grenada.

Because we don’t insist on onsite and immediate cremation, bodies are shipped to regional crematoriums where bodies have been lost, stacked up to rot in the woods, mixed up in the process, delivered to the wrong families – based on recent reported abuses. Once again you have no way of knowing what is in the urn or box because you are not allowed to observe the process.

Yet we don’t call for reforms. We don’t take these ghouls who make a living off grief to task for their encouragement of lavish spending for foolish sentiments. Neither do we charge the clergy who reinforce the myths and customs evolving around the American way of death.

Today there was an article about a trend in California, dismaying to the funeral profession. A simple wooden box, a washed but unembalmed body, buried in a open area with a young tree planted over the body.

Simple and environmentally sound, like having your ashes spread in a park or thrown into a river or the sea.

The thing is, we all are going to die. That body is going to rot unless we take drastic and expensive steps. Embalming is only temporary despite what funeral directors tell you. If you do pay for a more certain preservation, you are almost sure to be dug up in some distant future and subjected to examination, possibly dissection for the sake of science or anthropology.

That’s what happened to the mummies of ancient Egyptians, Incan sacrifices, bogged north Europeans and a Civil War soldier who was sealed in a lead casket and covered in oil just a century and a half ago.


Post a Comment

<< Home