***Note: This is a paper I wrote for a class called Writing and the Body at the University of Utah. I posted a survey and many wanted to read what I come up with, so that's why its here. It's super long, so if you have nothing else going, knock yourself out!
The Body is Dead, Now What?
The trouble with bodies is that you have to do something with them. When a body is born you have to make sure it doesn’t die, and when it does dies, you have to figure out what to do with it. Two important decisions must be made when a body kicks the bucket: what and where. Meaning What are we going to do with it? and Where are we going to put it? These decisions are not trivial; they are permanent and ultimately lead to the final rhetorical statement made by the deceased and their loved ones. When it comes to disposal of the dead, the living have many options: casket, cemetery, cremation, natural or “green”, sea burial, organ donation, Viking burial, tissue dissemination, space burial, donation to science, Tibetan sky burial, mummification, and finally, plastination, There are so many. The sky is literally the limit for those who are managing the departing affairs of a loved one, yet why do many choose six-feet-under? The answer is place. In this paper I suggest that funeral practices are all about place and that what happens to the body is not as important as where you put it.
When it comes to matters of burial, people tend to follow what is popular within their culture or adhere to religious guidelines. In 2013, the National Funeral Directors Association reported that 48.7% of U.S. deaths were disposed of by burial, while 45.4% chose cremation. This shows a considerable change from 2005 where burials accounted for 61.45% and cremation was 32.3% (NFDA.org). In the state of Utah, the most popular form of disposal is the traditional burial in a cemetery complete with the expensive casket and all of its associated bells and whistles. In Utah, the cremation trend hasn’t followed the national trend, and most folks could tell you that without supporting data. Due to lack of official data on the subject, I decided to create my own using a fabricated survey of sorts which I propagated through that scientifically sound strategy called Facebook. Surprisingly, I received well over 170 valid responses. The survey asked for opinions regarding various funeral practices and where they lived. Of the responses received 74% were from Utah. Within the last year, Utahns in the survey reported that 35.2% attended one funeral, 39.3% attended two to five funerals, and 7.4% had been to more than five funerals. Together, that’s 84% of Utah folks who participated in at least one funeral, and of the Utahns who had attended a funeral, 65% indicated that the funeral involved a casket and burial in a cemetery. The cremation rate was 24%. The natural or “green” burial was represented, but only with 3.3%. Contrast this super scientific data with the national trend and you’ll see Utah is 10 years behind. What’s interesting about these findings, is that recipients were also asked how they’d like to be disposed. Only 54.5% wanted the casket situation for themselves, but 65% would choose to bury their loved one with a casket. It seems we hold on to the casket and cemetery burial more for loved ones than we do for ourselves.
A Tisket a Casket, A Green and Yellow Basket
Our modern-day funeral practices are a result of the industrial revolution of the 1900s, a time which “represents a transition from an overwhelmingly agrarian, pre-modern world to an industrial and modern one” (Gonzales 2). Before the industrial revolution, the care and disposal of loved ones was a matter of family and community. People held private viewings within their homes or churches. Funerals were small and quiet. The industrial transition of that era, however, had a significant impact on all practices of the day, including the disposition of the dead. As a result, care of the deceased was removed from the family and community and given to a professional or “undertaker” (Gonzales 2). A new industry is born, and in the process, death would become “overwhelmingly facilitated by the medical field, where the dying are removed from the public sphere and into specialized institutions” (Gonzales 10). The removal of the body from personalized care meant the funeral industry could “protect the public from the disorder of death and create the 'magic' of a funeral” (Gonzales 2). This “magic” means seeing a dead body in an open casket – a body that has been prepared to look as alive as possible.
The open casket tradition is a recent development of the last 150 years (Roach 58). After reviewing the details and procedures required for this reviving magic, it’s rather amazing that so many choose this option. First, the body is prepped. A spurred eye cap is installed beneath each eyelid to make sure the eyes don’t open, and the corpse is washed thoroughly and sealed shut where needed. The mouth and eyes are swabbed with a disinfected and rinsed. The mouth is checked for "material" because the contents in the stomach have a way of moving their way up after death. The face is shaved, which can be a delicate matter because the skin no longer heals – if the razor nicks the surface, it could be problematic. The mouth is sewn closed, as it has a propensity to disturb viewers when it falls open, and the anus is also sewn shut to prevent leakage. The body is then ready for embalming (Roach 57).
To embalm a body, a cannula is inserted into the carotid artery, a pump is started and embalming fluid is circulated to provide immediate rejuvenation and color to the corpse (Roach). "Modern embalming makes use of the circulatory system to deliver a liquid preservative to the body's cells to halt autolysis and put decay on hold. Just as blood in the vessels and capillaries once delivered oxygen and nutrients to the cells, now those same vessels, emptied of blood, are delivering embalming fluid” (Roach 59). This preservation method was invented by the Dutch in the 1600s but did not become mainstream until the American Civil War. Before the war, soldiers were buried where they fell. If a corpse was wanted by the family, the body could be disinterred and shipped in a "hermetically sealed" coffin. The problem with this, however, is due to lax regulations, the coffins were not hermetically sealed and the decaying bodies would leak and stink. To appease this situation, a fellow by the name of Thomas Holmes reinstated the embalming practice to allow more time for the body to reach loved ones. Additional popularity was added to the practice when Lincoln was killed and his embalmed body was paraded about the country. This gave the whole embalming business a boost as people noticed "he looked a whole lot better in his casket than Grandmama had looked in hers" (Roach 60). With that, the practice of embalming took on like mad.
There is one problem with the business of embalming, however, and that is the preconceived notion that embalming preserves the body indefinitely. In reality, it is meant only to get the body through the funeral service: "The body may contain bacteria spores, hardy suspended-animation DNA pods, able to withstand extremes of temperature, dryness, and chemical abuse, including that of embalming. Eventually the formaldehyde breaks down, and the coast is clear for spores to bring forth bacteria" (Roach 63). If the casket were to get wet or be subjected to any sort of humidity, the body would decompose as if it had not been embalmed at all. Concrete vaults help deter moisture some, but there is no chance that the corpse will survive the natural decomposition process. The point here is that all bodies will decompose. When you choose to embalm a body, place it in a casket and bury it in a vault, the process is slowed considerably, but in the end, the body will take a dirt nap in its own ashes and dust. One can, however, take comfort in the fact that this nap will take place in a pretty box.
"Who Will Put Flowers on My Grave?" ~ Tom Waits
Cemeteries as dedicated, sacred resting places have been used by general populations since the 15th century, however, the concept of burying the dead in groups has been around since the Paleolithic era. In ancient Middle East, members of the community were often buried around temples, and the Greeks of old buried their dead outside the walls of their cities. Once Christianity and its association resurrection beliefs become popular, the dead were buried in churchyards. But as the world’s population increased, and more urban cities were established, overcrowding became an issue and cities began to set aside various plots of land to accommodate the burial of the deceased (Columbia Cemetery). At cemeteries, loved ones are placed in a hole six-feet deep and covered with dirt. A marker of some sort – a headstone or rock as symbolic gesture – is placed atop the grave so that others may locate their loved one and pay respect. Due to the culturally accepted casket and burial method of body disposal, cemeteries have become popular, making it difficult to count the number of cemeteries that currently reside in the United States. This popularity is advantageous for those who chose this method, as it provides options and flexibility for those making the “where” decision for themselves and their deceased loved one.
In "Defining the Place of Burial: What Makes a Cemetery a Cemetery?" Julie Rugg presents several defining characteristics of a cemetery which include “obvious physical properties” of an “established perimeter” that protects “the dead from disturbance” and sequesters the “dead from the living” (260). The most important function for a cemetery, Rugg suggests, is that “the site carries the purpose of enshrining the identity of the deceased as an individual” (260). A grave must be a carefully marked in a sacred place, and it must be available for others to visit so that it might provide spiritual and physical connection to the deceased. Cemeteries are sacred and loving spaces where new meaning is made each time a family lays one to rest. Cemeteries do a great job of commemorating and memorializing. However, I would argue that their only symbolic association with death keeps them from becoming living spaces. Cemeteries as final resting places fail to celebrate life; rather, they celebrate death, as there is little else that a cemetery represents.
“It’s Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away” ~ Neil Young
Cremation is perhaps one of the oldest and most widespread methods of corpse disposal. Substantiated evidence shows it was used in Greece as early as 1000 B.C.E (Columbia) and continued as the predominant method until the rise of the Roman Empire and subsequent spread of Christianity. Early Christians rejected the custom because most adhered to the maxim that a cremated body could not return to heaven. So prolific was this belief that cremation was illegal in most of Europe until the beginning of the 19th century. A cremation revival fired up in Italy, around 1870 (Columbia), and in 1876, Dr. Julius LeMoyne opened the first United States crematorium in Washington, Pennsylvania. By 1900, the U.S. had around 20 crematories; today, there are more than 2,100 (CANA).
Popular culture contributes to the misconception that cremation involves only the burning of a corpse, but in reality, the process of cremation can be complicated. The Cremation Association of North America or CANA defines cremation as “The mechanical and/or thermal or other dissolution process that reduces human remains to bone fragments” (CANA). This definition includes a reference to “mechanical,” largely because bones do not burn and require a sort of mechanized reduction – a commercial-grade blender, perhaps. Regardless of detail, cremation leaves loved ones with a nice, neat collection of ashes – ashes that can be viewed often without the revolt of decay and can be spread about in memorial places. It’s a nice alternative to the image of a toes-up corpse, rotting slowly, unless you think too closely about that burning and blender bit.
In an anthropological study titled “Blowing in the wind: Identity, materiality, and the destinations of human ashes,” David Prendergast, Jenny Hocky and Leonie Kellaher discuss and contrast the sensory and imaginative differences between a traditional casket burial and cremation. "[S]ensory or imaginative awareness of decay and the social and emotional experience of transition raises questions as to how the fast-tracking of bodily deterioration via incineration might, for example, influence the passage from being a wife to becoming a widow" (884). To those left behind, this suggests a corpse is neither alive nor dead and that “fast-tracking” or cremation can, in many ways, help the bereaved move on.
Prendergast, Hocky and Kellaher refer to a corpse as being “wet” and in a state of decaying transition. A cremated corpse, on the other hand, is referred to as “dry” and without transition (884). Their research suggests that cremains and their “dry” attribution allow for greater connection between the living and the deceased. “Dry” ashes are still “a residue of the corpse” but become a “tangible substance” that “resists rotting and bears little resemblance to the flesh” (884). This makes a physical connection between the living and the deceased a possibility. Ashes “have the formlessness and flow of a liquid” but are still “bone dry.” Because of their ambiguous relationship with the deceased’s body, ashes “offer survivors a potential symbolic form" (884). As people choose locations and associated ceremonies for the scattering of ashes, “both the living and the dead are made to co-exist within a shared landscape” (891). This, essentially, creates new meaning for spatial locations or place, and becomes “a focus for repeated private and public ceremonies" (885).
New or renewed meaning for Place, then, becomes a significant part of the scattering of ashes and the bereavement process. Place becomes a way to establish and integrate the deceased with the every day world of those left behind. Evidence of this can be found in comments made by those who have participated in this custom. In my survey of funeral practices and opinions, one question asked survey-takers if they had ever attended an ash-scattering ceremony and requested details. Many revealed specific places and how the ritual established new and renewed meaning for those places. People chose places like the Sierra Mountains, a favorite hike, the Grand Canyon, the Atlantic sea, the family ranch, a favorite desert or momentous forest. Some chose to divide the ashes, bury some in a cemetery and keep the rest in an urn, while other chose an urn only. Many would discuss place vaguely, using references to a “safe” place or the fire “place” or a sacred “place,” but others would provide more insight: “As a family we gathered and to [sic] strew ashes in places that were important to them. For my grandparents, it was where they first met and fell in love. Along with their ashes we threw out wildflower seeds.” Another response said the ashes of family member were buried in a “sacred place that I cannot disclose here.” Several people also revealed that ashes were divided in small amounts and distributed amongst loved ones with instructions to scatter the ashes in a place that meant something to them and the deceased. These people did not just provide a standard “we scattered ashes” response; they included a place with their description, because place is what it’s all about.
“It’s Not Easy Being Green” ~ Kermit the Frog
Burial practices have a tendency to follow economic and social trends. As was mentioned earlier, the undertaker and funeral industry was sparked by the industrial revolution and that hip and edgy thing called “technology.” It’s no surprise, then, that exigencies surrounding recent save-the-world and recycling trends have wormed their way into funeral practices. Now, like Al Gore, Daryl Hannah, Robert Redford and the Toyota Prius, Corpse Disposal has Gone Green. Present day embalming and burial practices have a significant impact on our planet. Evidence shows that each year we bury our corpses with 827,060 gallons of formaldehyde, 30 million feet of hardwood, 90,272 tons of steel and 1,636,000 tons of concrete (Gonzales). That’s a lot of garbage, and it’s not the type that biodegrades quickly, or even at all. To those who care, cemeteries are no longer “quiet beacons of eternal rest.” Instead, they are “quasi landfills of chemically processed human remains” (Gonzales 44). This vision of loved ones as garbage, coupled with spouting concerns over limited burial space, has led to a full-on Go-Green uprising.
Now, if you so choose, you or a loved one can be laid to rest without chemicals in a natural place. Generally, the corpse is dressed in biodegradable clothing, wrapped or boxed in biodegradable material and buried without a vault or other materials (US Funerals Online). It’s a terrific idea. The problem, however, is that green funeral practices follow other green trends, and as a result, the procedures are muddled with rules, the biggest one being that you can’t just put your green body anywhere. The body must be buried in a designated Green Burial Ground. According to U.S. Funerals Online, the United States currently has “93 registered green burial cemeteries and memorial woodlands.” The state of Utah has one registered green burial ground and it resides in a city called Bountiful. Again, we revisit this idea of place. We choose a cemetery to commemorate and dedicate; we choose a place with meaning where we can visit and pay respect. Beacause of green ideologies, “close physical proximity to a green cemetery is especially imperative to those choosing burial alternative as a means of reducing negative impact on the environment” (Gonzales 40). If you’re a purist, that cemetery should be close enough to walk or ride a bike. Therefore, if a green burial ground is 200 miles away, the pollution you create while driving there might negate any points acquired on your Greenie’s environmentalist scorecard.
With so many environmentally conscious people in the United States, it’s surprising to see that the Green Burial movement has failed to catch on. I would argue, however, that the reason more don’t choose this custom comes back to this issue of place. As was discussed previously people need a physical place for their deceased, and that place must have meaning. Some will choose a cemetery within a certain city because that city has meaning, while others will spread ashes in a strategic location. To pick an arbitrary Green Ground only because it fits the green regulation does not provide the physical and emotional connection people need. In order to increase the popularity of green burial, we must find flexible ways in which people may lay their loved ones to rest in places that have meaning. A company in Sweden called Promessa Organic might have such a solution. At Promessa Organic, corpses are frozen to -18 degrees Celsius and dunked in liquid nitrogen. In its new brittle disposition, the body is placed into a tumbler of sorts and transformed into powder. Additional processes are applied to remove water and any inorganic additions to the body, such as surgical additions or dental fillings. Once the body is prepared in this way, it can be buried in a shallow grave as compost and the body is recycled back into earth. A tree or other plant can be planted with the body to mark and represent (Tufnell). This practice has not yet been approved in the United States, however, so until this or other viable green methods are allowed, those wishing to go green are stuck with existing green burial grounds.
“This is the End, Beautiful Friend” ~ The Doors
I began this paper with the intent to unearth the available means of corpse disposal, hoping to focus on the most odd and outrageous. I thought that would be interesting. The great thing about writing, however, is that while you might begin, fully committed to a certain idea, what you find always leads you somewhere else. In the beginning, I wanted to pore over the plastination process, sift through specifics of sea burial, groupthink the Green thing and show the sexiness of the space burial, complete with the far-out rhetoric of Timothy Leary and Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry who chose this as their final frontier. I also wanted discuss the dreadful tissue dissemination (complete with a Breaking Bad reference), memorialize mummification, siphon through the reasons people shun science donation, and finally, I wanted to talk about Tibetan Sky burials and ventilate the Viking tradition of setting the body on fire in a canoe (and how my survey-takers deemed this the best way to go). Ultimately, this writing adventure took me somewhere completely different, and the cool and outrageous received but a pithy explanation in the concluding remarks.
What happens to the body is not pretty. There are varying ways to speed or slow the decomposing process, and while some methods might seem less intrusive, they all are gross and the cycle of life will bring us all to same ashes and dust. I found some really cool facts on the various methods of corpse disposal. But what I wasn’t expecting, however, was the importance of place, or how much this concept would actually move me. People need a continued connection to their loved ones after they pass, and they do it through place. It’s the reason Green burials remain unpopular and it’s the reason people have trouble donating their bodies to science. It’s also one of the many reasons people just cannot throw their loved one’s body in a vat of chemicals for complete dissemination (Roach). The body does need a final resting place, but for those left behind, that resting place cannot be arbitrary. It must be a physical location that has meaning. Once the body is placed there, that meaning is renewed ten-fold.
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