Heavenly Bodies

October 8, 2006 | By | 6 Replies More

For a short time, I watched a few of the “forensic science” shows like CSI, mostly for a laugh at the junk science.  I was particularly amused at the tool used to analyze metal.  The actor put a hub cap in a plexiglass box, the box was filled with smoke or mist, and the printer spewed out paper.  On that paper were the exact components of the metal, so much of this, so much of that.  Then the formulation was compared to their list of hub cap manufacturers, and lo and behold, there were two retail distributors of that brand hub cap in the city.  It was hilarious, like Lucy stuffing her shirt with chocolates from the speeding assembly line and about as likely.

I’ve stopped watching those shows, partly because they can only create so many magic plexiglass boxes, and because they’re so gory (regurgitated by a large snake was the end for me).  I also read a (true) story of a lawsuit involving lost ashes of a loved one (cremains) and the two got me thinking about our funeral customs.

There are really some odd customs, and chief among them for me, since I have to face them repeatedly (one bad thing about getting old is that your friends and family are old, too, and you lose a lot of them), is our ‘dress up’ custom.  That is where we take a body, dress it up in special clothes (sometimes bought new for the occasion, sometimes picked out by the deceased before his/her demise), paint it up with LOTS of makeup (men and women both, you’d be amazed at how pale your complexion gets when you die), shave the men and style the hair.  Then we put it in a silk lined box with a pillow (?), so we can all file by, remarking on the wonderful appearance of the deceased.  They even put glasses on the corpse.  If you wear contacts, why not put those in, they would serve the same purpose.  And the dressed up body in the box is just the part we see.

Before we see the body all dressed up for ‘viewing’, there is the embalming.  Embalming is basically the replacement of blood with formaldehyde.  For more details, see here.   According to this site (Wyoming funeral directors), there are three purposes for embalming:  disinfection, preservation and restoration.  My paragraph above is apparently, according to these funeral directors, relating to restoration which is “a practice of proven psychological worth.”  They don’t say how that was proved.

Disinfection could be quite important.  If someone has died of some horrible, contagious disease, it makes sense to try to insure the dead do not infect the living.  But how can replacement of blood with chemicals really disinfect?  I’m not a doctor, or even a person well versed in science, so it may, in fact, act as a thorough disinfectant.  But since the chemical is not pumped through and absorbed by living organs and tissue, would that truly disinfect the body?  I would want scientific proof of that to believe it.

How about preservation?  This is done in order to delay disposal of the body (or shall I say disposition, which somehow seems more polite).  Without this treatment, the corpse in the box would cease to look so “lifelike” very quickly, necessitating quick burials and insufficient time for loved ones to travel hundreds if not thousands of miles, to see the corpse and get their “psychological worth.”

But back to the restoration, which seems to be the most important cultural aspect.  The funeral directors say:

“The modern embalming process is designed to retard tissue decomposition for the period of time necessary for disposition as arranged for by the family of the deceased. Under favorable conditions however, modern embalming has been shown to be able to keep a body intact for decades.

Rather than prevent the body from returning to its natural elements, embalming allows the body to decompose by oxidation and dissolution rather than by putrefaction or rotting.”

Why is it so important to prevent the body from returning to its natural elements?

It doesn’t stop with embalming.  In addition to the hideously expensive silk lined box, we spend thousands of dollars on steel vaults, that can withstand the earth and the elements.  The wood, after all, is a natural product and will itself decay with time, which would mean the box would collapse and dirt and microbes, and heaven help us, worms, would get to the body we’ve so carefully preserved.  So we put the wood box inside a heavy steel box and comfort ourselves with the fact our loved one’s body will be intact for decades.

Why do we do this?  Some say (now I sound like Fox news, offering the opinion of unidentified sources) we do it to distinguish ourselves from animals.  We set ourselves apart from animals.  After all, they don’t care for their dead.  When we hear stories about elephant grave yards, we discuss how ‘human’ the elephants are acting.  I think we do it from superstition.

I cannot speak to other religions and their belief in the soul or spirit, or whatever they call what they believe exists after death, only for Protestant Christianity, which is the religion of my parents and what I tried to follow for years (and have since left).  I was taught that after I died, Jesus would come back for me and raise my body from the grave.  I was also taught that when I died, I would immediately go ‘up’ to heaven.   When I asked why I had to be raised from the dead when I was already in heaven, I was told it was to reunite my body with my soul.  I was appalled to think, even back then, that I was going to have to get this body back.  “But I don’t want THIS body” I would say.  After years of use and misuse, I am more emphatic than ever: I don’t want this body for eternity.  One human lifetime was enough, it is pretty used up.

If I believed that Jesus is going to come for this body, wouldn’t I want it to be in as good a shape as possible?  Setting aside the obvious issue of treating my body a little better in this life, if I am going to have to live with this for all eternity, then it better be embalmed with the most preservative chemicals possible and stuck in the mightiest titanium steel vault ever built. Some Christians have even told me that they won’t donate their organs after death because they need them for when Jesus comes back for their body.  I have heard that comment often enough in enough different churches to know it isn’t a really unusual belief.  I have never gotten a good answer when I ask about people that have had body parts surgically removed or lost them due to accident, or even were missing the part at birth.

Cremation has many of the same superstitions. Cremation is the process of burning the body at extremely high heat into bone fragments that are then crushed.  The industry speaks of the crushing as “fragments reduced in size through a mechanical process.” Again, we are to be polite when talking about dead flesh.  I did learn from this web site that it is not true that a body must be embalmed before cremation.  Some people consider this to be a much more ecologically sound choice.  But it does require high energy for the extreme heat, and burning does cause some pollution.  And generally there is still a coffin of some type (most state require them), and many times disposal of the ashes takes place in a cemetary.  Save the need to dress the body up, it does not seem to be wonderfully ecologically sound.

Then there are “green burials.”  Green burials refer to the location and manner in which the body is ‘laid to rest.’  Many of the customs are exactly the same:  the bodies may be embalmed, but with non-toxic substances, and they are buried in biodegradable coffins without steel vaults.  The goal is to permit the body to return to the dust from which it came.  One location in South Carolina touts the green burials and boasts they can bury 1200 bodies per acre rather than the normal cemetery population of 900 per acre.  I do not think that sounds terribly ‘green’, especially if there is no such burial site close and the body must be shipped across country.  And a price tag of $2300 still sounds like a lot of money.

I’ve decided on the greenest death I can think of:  I’m donating my body and organs.  Whatever is useful to preserve life for someone else, I hope they use, and the rest can be used for anatomy lessons or medical research.  At first I joked that I wanted my head separated from the rest and each sent to different places, so I could not be identified while lying as a naked corpse on a dissection table. But I won’t be there, so it doesn’t matter.  I don’t know what happens after death.  I know that the spark that is me will no longer inhabit my body.   Maybe that spark goes (back) to the Creator, maybe it will inhabit another body in another time.  I do not know.  I know enough about the laws of physics to know that energy cannot just disappear.   I am not arrogant enough to believe I have the capability to understand life and death and I know there is not another human who does (although many claim to).     

I hope that I am mourned upon my death.  I don’t want a suttee (where someone chooses to be burned alive in my funeral pyre), but a few tears would be warranted, I hope.  But most of all, I want to be celebrated.  I want my life to have meant something good, that my existence had a good effect on the people whose paths I crossed, and with any luck, on some that have never met me or ever heard my name.  I hope my friends and family have a little party to celebrate my life, tell a few funny stories about me, about the occasional trouble I found myself in, (like lost in France without a single word of French in my vocabulary) and  about some of the nice things I did.  I hope they celebrate with some great food and drink and know my life was well lived.  But don’t cry over the shell that I once inhabited.

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Category: American Culture, Friendships/relationships, Meaning of Life

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My life's goal is to make a difference; to help those stuck in the mire of poverty and ignorance. I am an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves, whether from ignorance, from lack of eloquence or simple lack of opportunity.

Comments (6)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    Fascinating post, Deb, on a topic I find particularly interesting. I believe George Carlin called burial a ridiculously superstitious, medival practice, though I can't find the exact quote.

    The rituals surrounding death certainly involve a great deal of denial- denial of the finality of death, denial in our biology, denial in our existance as animals. From a detached point of view, death customs all seem wasteful- of an individual's money and in natural resources- and absurd.

    Mary Roach's now infamous book Stiff outlines a variety of uses for donated cadavers, past and present. Journalist Hunter S. Thompson had his ashes shot out of a cannon, complete with fireworks. Then of course you have those select few wealthy people who have their bodily carbon converted into a diamond. We have endless options at our disposal, practical and ostentatious alike.

    Last summer, I went to a traveling display by Body Worlds, an exhibition of plastinated cadavers in various states of life. I thought having a body converted into a long-lasting educational exhibit seemed like a decent post-death fate, so I signed up.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    A good post, but to pick a nit:

    I've heard that argument about "energy cannot be destroyed" misapplied in varied ways, including to argue for the necessity of an eternal spirit. The error here is in assuming that the metaphorical "spark" that is the Human Spirit contains energy.

    Experiences and learning, those things that build up into and shape a personality, a spirit, are functions of information. Not of energy.

    Memories are stores of information, not of energy.

    L. Ron Hubbard's "engrams" (a term he invented for a memory in the lexicons of Dianetics and Scientology) are believed to posess mass, because they are defined (only in the works of and to the followers of Hubbard) as energy. And energy is directly related to mass (E=MC^2).

    Nope. Information is not energy. Although the tranfer of data requires a small conversion of energy, the information itself does not posess any particular energy level. (Note: Data is a pile of facts, information is the sense or meaning made from them, and/or the method to convert them into meaning).

    It has been proven that energy and matter does exist without any informational value (theoretical limit, not just observational).

    It's been demonstrated that there is no inherent minimum amount of energy necessary to posess or transfer any arbitrary amount of information.

    I believe that whatever the spirit is, it is a function of pure information, stored solely in the memories of the living. Therefore it is inappropriate to try to use the laws of thermodynamics to prove that it is eternal.

    Be sure to get back to me when you have an argument from information theory, though.

  3. Ricky Koppel says:

    George Carlin also offers a couple alternatives to standard death rites:

    (taken from Napalm and Silly Putty)

    "When I die, I don't want to be buried, but I don't want to be cremated either. I want to be blown up. Put me on a pile of explosives and blow me up. Or throw my body from a helicopter. That would be fun. One stipulation: wherever I land, you have to leave me there. Even if it's on the mayor's lawn. Just let me lie there. But keep the dogs away."

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    I'm going to limit myself in this comment to the magic plexiglass box. That box isn't as ridiculous as one might think.

    One of my former employers was a company that made spectrometers — devices that determine the chemical components of unknown substances. Without going into the technical details, let me just say that it really is possible to put a sample into a box, flip a switch, and in a very short time receive a printout of the chemical components of the sample. And, yes, there are also computerized spectra libraries that contain the spectra of a wide range of materials, so it is often possible to identify unknown samples directly back to the manufacturer.

    One of the most amazing spectrometers is the mass spectrometer which, as its name suggests, calculates the mass of the molecules in a sample. What's amazing about them is that the samples can be very, very small. Some mass spectrometers can identify an unknown sample with as few as a few dozen *molecules* of the sample.

    And, yes, all of these devices are used in criminal forensics. They are often used for identifying illegal drugs, but can also be used for things like matching paint chips taken from auto accidents (a paint chip the size of a pinhead can potentially identify the make, model and year of a hit-and-run vehicle).

    In sum, while television programs like CSI undoubtedly do embellish the science for the sake of their story, they might not be doing it as much you might think. Science in the 21st century can do many amazing things.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika beat me to the punch. I also visited Bodyworlds and I am contemplating donating my corpse. Deb, if you will join me in signing up, we could spend lots of time hanging around with each other still trying to make our selves useful. Perhaps you could be the cadaver playing chess and I could be the one dancing. Or vice versa. It doesn’t really matter to me. The exhibitor, Gunther von Hagens, removes the faces from his specimens, so people won’t know who is who.

    We could thus inspire and teach others who want to walk up and peer at our innards. I say this with all sincerity. I went to Bodyworlds twice (while it was in Chicago). It was an incredibly professional and inspirational display of human anatomy. I found those displays that focussed on the blood system especially interesting. I’d highly recommend Bodyworlds to anyone with any sense of curiosity, young or old. I even took my kids, aged 6 and 8, and we learned a lot of things together. 

    Plan B: If Bodyworlds doesn't want me, free free to use my body for worm food in one of those green cemeteries.  I really don't have a problem with worms eating my body, as long as you carefully make sure that I'm really dead first.

  6. Deb says:

    As to Dan's observation about information vs. energy. I had originally included a paragraph about that, but decided I was going off on a tangent and removed it before publishing. Apparently not, since Dan brings it up.

    Dan has a point about the 'information' aspect of a human life. That is why I suspect that "I" will not exist after my death because the data that makes up my current consciousness isn't energy. But I think he's wrong about the spark of life. I think it is energy. Something makes my nerves to fire. Given what we think we know about the universe (and we could be wrong, so in admitting I don't have all the answers, I'm sure to be correct about that), it has to be energy. I have no idea what form that energy will take once it leaves my body. I don't think it just disappears, and it doesn't have mass, or at least we have no reason to believe it does. If it enters another body, unlike the common belief in reincarnation, it would not be 'me' in another body, because, as Dan said, my life experiences are just information.

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