Sunday 8 November 2009

DEATH: Our last rights

The fact that funerals are for the living and not the deceased, is infinite proof that we often cared more for the deceased when they were gone, then we ever did when they were still with us. A monument of great beauty has often been placed at the grave site as a testament to a survivor's anguish over his or her inability to make amends with the deceased while there was still time left to do so.

Death is with us from the moment of our births until the final beat of our hearts and although we are constantly aware of its presence, we think of it subliminally and carry on with the rest of our lives as if death is merely an inconvenience we will have to face, sooner or later, and preferably later, in fact, much later.

It is for this reason that everyone over fifty should plan ahead for their inevitable deaths. I don't mean plan in the same sense that we do for weddings. But to ignore the idea of planning for one's demise is to show a lack of concern for family and friends who will ultimately be faced with arranging for the funeral of the procrastinator. If you really care for your loved ones and don't want to saddle them with the costs of a funeral, cemetery and monument and you have the money; pay all the expenses ahead of time. I have done this so that my family won't be burdened with the expenses after I pass on.

It has been repeatedly said that of all the traumatic events we must face in our lifetimes, the loss of a loved one, especially one's spouse or a child is a loss that is the hardest to bear.

The loss of a husband may mean the loss of a sexual partner, a companion and friend, wage earner, a confident, a disciplinarian for the children, and the loss of a wife means the loss of a sexual partner, a companion and friend, a cook, an audience, a baby-sitter, and a house keeper. The loss of a child means the loss of a friend when you grow older and one who will carry your line beyond your grave. Both partners in a marriage share responsibilities so when one predeceases the other, the survivor must not only cope with his or her own burdens in life, he or she must now take on the added burdens of the loved one who has passed on. To the surviving husband, this means cooking the meals, getting the children ready for school; to the surviving wife, this means looking for a source of income, paying off the bills, etc.

The death of a loved one causes stress in the body of the survivor which in turn brings about chemical changes. Stress can cause changes in the blood pressure and heart rate, in the flow of blood through the coronary arteries and in the chemical constituents of the blood. Any of these changes could play a part in precipitating clotting within a diseased coronary artery and therefore bring about a coronary thrombosis upon the survivor. Hence, it's not unusual for a survivor to shortly thereafter follow a spouse to the grave. I lived with an old couple when I was fourteen and after the old man died, ten days later, his wife died.

Some spouses depend so much upon each other that when one dies, the other goes into a psychological death; that is, that person's personality deteriorates until he or she can no longer function in a normal society.

This characteristic feature of grief is a prolonged depression, such as was experienced by Queen Victoria when she lost her husband and consort Albert in 1861. She mourned for him for the rest of her life, and for many years after his death, she refused to perform her duties as a Queen of a vast empire. She completely isolated herself from her subjects and all her friends except her closest confidants.

But the main characteristic feature of grief is acute and episodic pangs of severe anxiety and psychological pain. Such grief begins almost immediately after the death of a loved one and can reach a peak of severity in about fourteen days. Add to these features, aimless hyperactivity, confusion, concentration on anything but the loss of the loved one and when all this is mixed about in the survivor's mind, a mind already numbed by shock, a mind that still expects the loved one to enter the room, the survivor must now face the next most traumatic experience in his or her life; what to do with the remains of his or her loved one. A great many people die while they are asleep and this is the main reason why you should not go to bed angry. First of all, it weakens your heart and equally important, if you speak angry words to your spouse and he or she dies, you will carry that burden of guilt for the rest of your life.

A great many survivors haven't the slightest idea of what they are to do next. Often what they actually do sometimes depends on factors that are clearly out of their own control.

For example, a great many people die in hospitals so the hospitals initiate the next step for the survivor, especially if the death has been more or less sudden. The hospital will suggest the name of a funeral home (Sometimes such establishments are called funeral parlours, funeral chapels, mortuaries) and the survivors will accept the hospital's suggestion simply because she or he has no one else's advice to turn to.

A phone call to the funeral home by the hospital administrator, doctor, nurse or even the orderly, will bring the black limousine to the hospital to pick up the body of the loved one (called the 'remains' by those in the funeral industry) The remains are taken into the funeral home through a back or side door (and placed in a refrigerator room, (if there is one in the funeral home) to await the instructions from the family.

Naturally, many bereaved survivors are emotionally overwrought and therefore are not in a proper emotional state to make that important decision in their lives in which they must deal with the disposition of their loved one's remains in a decent but not too expensive manner.

Walking into the office of a funeral home today to do business with the firm is not like walking into the office of a real estate firm. In the latter instance, home buyers may more or less take their time browsing through the pictures of the homes on display. In funeral homes, speed is all important because the deceased's body is already undergoing the process of deteriorating and the funeral home only has so much time to prepare the body before it's too late.

The casket is the most important commodity the funeral home has to sell. So before you are assessed your worth, (asked questions to determine what you can afford) you are invited to the 'selection room' where the caskets (they're not called coffins anymore) are appropriately placed.

Caskets are generally placed in one large room and the experts state that there should be a minimum of forty square feet allotted for the location of each casket. (The top of the line rates 60 square feet) As you enter the selection room, there before you is the top of the line. If you are a sailor, it would be your Chay Blythe sailing yacht, if cars are your thing, it would be your Mercedes Benz. But since most of us can afford neither, we will just take a peek into these caskets later but before doing so, let's look at the less expensive ones.

Those caskets line the room with the better caskets situated like ships of the line in the center of the room. There are three main types of caskets. First, is the 'full couch' in which the entire body can be seen. Second, is the 'half couch' in which the body from the waist up can be seen, and finally there is the 'quarter couch' or 'hinge cap' in which the head and shoulders can be seen. Most people purchase the 'half couch' but it should be kept in mind that the entire lid is hinged and can be lifted in all caskets for the obvious reason of placing the remains into the casket.

The body rests on one of a variety of fabrics that ranges from muslim, to transparent velvet, to a satin sheet, each which is fitted over a thin mattress which in turn, rests on a bed of springs and the head (slightly turned to face the mourners) rests on a ruffled pillow made of soft material.

A considerable range of materials are used in the construction of caskets. For example, there are about twenty kinds and grades of woods used, ranging from the cheaper woods, such as pine, chestnut, cypress, and red cedar, which are generally covered with a grey cloth made from inexpensive doeskin or broadcloth to brocade or all-silk velvets. Then there are the more expensive hard-woods such as oak, birch, maple, cherry, mahogany and various imported woods. The hardwoods are treated with clear natural finishes....applied in the same manner as highly polished fine furniture. Metal is another kind of material used in the construction of caskets and is very popular. The metals consist of iron, stainless steel, zinc, aluminum, copper and bronze and range in thicknesses from 20-guage to 16-guage. (the latter being thicker for the same reason that a 12-guage shotgun is thicker than a 20-guage shotgun)

The copper casket is very popular and is produced by an electrolytic process that deposits a layer of copper upon a casket-shaped form. The copper is about one-quarter inch thick.

The bronze casket is the eye catcher that grabs you as you enter the selection room. You're looking at $13,000. You're looking at the casket that has everything but the kitchen sink. You're looking at a casket that has your name written on a piece of paper that will be inserted into a glass vial which in turn is screwed into the lid of the casket so then should your casket and your bronze name plate be unreadable and someone in the far future is building a super skyway over that cemetery that was long forgotten a thousand years ago, some five-hundred ton super scooper will lift up your casket with its glass vial with your name intact--and your previous existence will be there for all to see---if the super scooper hasn't smashed the glass vial into a million pieces while crushing its way across your gravesite.

Now comes the best part of the sales pitch. It takes place in the selection room and the salesman's pitch would make the finest Churchillian speech in the British House of Commons seem like a stammered resuscitation from a kid reading a grade one primary. This, according to the silver-tongued, golden-lips orator, is what makes the casket par excellence. It transcends the style, the colour, the polish, the glitter, the magnificence. The casket is airtight. None of those nasty, smelly, crawlies and maggots are going to eat their way through those rubber gaskets to get inside your loved one's casket, to feast upon the deceased like the invited courtiers at the banquets of Nero. These unmentionables will be banned from your loved one's cadaver forever. If a car salesman could come up with a pitch like that, he could sell cars to Eskimos living on melting southbound icebergs. Being airtight however isn't going to stop the attack of little beasties. Why? Because like members of the fifth column in a war; they are already in our bodies.

It's true nevertheless that the funeral homes do make an effort to kill off as many of the amoebas and microbes in the body of the deceased. A tube is inserted into the belly of the cadaver and the body fluids and wastes are pumped out. A strong chemical solution is pumped back into the just previously vacated body cavities, a solution that is so strong, an unprotected nose wouldn't just twitch, it would convulse, not to mention the rest of your body. This solution goes after the amoebas and microbes in a manner not unlike the German gas attack on Ypres during the First World War.

However, what the silver-tongued, golden-lips orator hasn't told the bereaved, is that both before and after the casket is sealed, all the amoebas and microbes in the deceased's body that have survived the formaldehyde and the chemical attack (and millions will) are lying in wait in the hermetically sealed banquet hall, to have the deceased all to themselves till the end of time or the source of the banquet--- whichever comes first. And, yes, they can and do live in an airless environment.

The body will remain intact as far as contours are concerned for many months, and perhaps for years but the silk lining of the casket will be stained with body fluids and the body will be covered with a greenish black, whisker-like penicillin mold which ironically, will do more to preserve the body than the diluted formaldehyde would have ever done. The fleshy part of the body will soften to the point where its own weight will cause it to pull away from the bones and fall to the mattress. Inside the body, the material will turn into a gray mushy mucosa material, the product of the passage of time. The bones will remain intact however for a great many centuries but the cartilage that holds them together will release its grip eventually, and the bones will be forever separated.

So in reality, all those phrases that flow from the septic mouths of the orators in the selection rooms, phrases such as, 'forever, for all eternity, till the end of time, security through the ages, protection for peace of mind'; they are meaningless to the realities of death and to the amoebic and microbe banqueters inside the hermetically sealed casket. But it is with such ease that those phrases do flow past those shiny pearlies of the orator---not unlike a beautifully fresh and clear cool summer stream meandering through the New York Sewer System. Somewhere in the back of your mind, the thought of a fresh clear cool summer stream meandering through the sewer system of death seems to relax you to some extent and it does prevent your nose from going into some form of an involuntary twitch.

Mind you, I don't wish to give the impression to my readers that the casket of today is the dust of tomorrow. Almost 70 percent of caskets sold nowadays are made of metal and the casket manufacturers place fifty-year warranty's on their products and will replace the caskets should the originals be deemed faulty. Believe me, if the original was faulty, the last thing you would want dug up is the remains of your beloved one. In any case, such a warranty is meaningless because you would have to get a court order to exhume your loved one's body, and even if you were of such a mind just to test the warranty, the authorities wouldn't grant you permission to exhume your loved one for that purpose alone in any case.

Caskets will last forever if they are encased in a concrete vault which is lowered in the ground first. Once the casket in lowered into the vault, and the latter is sealed, nothing can get at the casket. The weight of the earth above it along with people constantly walking across the grave will not crush the casket. If you are in a cemetery and you see depressions where the caskets were lowered, you know that the caskets were crushed because they weren’t laced in a concrete vault. Nowadays, many cemeteries insist that caskets be placed in a vault.

There is a difficult issue that must be decided by the survivors of a loved one if the body is to be cremated. What kind of casket should the loved one be placed in? Some funeral homes (fortunately very few) remove the body from an expensive casket and place the body in a cheap wooden one before placing the body and casket into the funereal furnace. Then they resell the expensive casket. This is of course highly Illegal and inappropriate. Most people use common sense and purchase a wooden one made of pine and have the loved one placed in it. Unless someone is extremely rich, it doesn't make much sense to place a loved one who is about to be cremated, into a $13,000 casket that is going to be destroyed in the furnace.

A question that comes to the fore is; how long will the body of your loved one remains as you last saw it in the casket? That question is not an easy one to answer since there are limited opportunities to inspect the cadaver. In fact, unless the authorities suspect that you have poisoned your spouse and therefore they wish to exhume the body to conduct an autopsy on it, the condition of your loved one's body, shall remain a secret from you and the rest of Mankind forever.

But the funeral industry does have some idea of just how effective the preservative (called embalming fluid) is so I will share with you their secrets in this area. Embalming is the process in which a fluid (about seven gallons--31.8 litres) that is both a preservative and a disinfectant (the most common being a mixture of formaldehyde as the preservative and carbolic acid as the disinfectant) is injected through an incision in the groin of the cadaver which then flows through the arteries of the cadaver by gravity alone through the arterial system which is the system that carries the blood away from the heart to the tissues. The blood (the average adult male has 10 pints--5.1 litres and the average adult female has 8.5 pints--3.8 litres) meanwhile flows out of the cadaver ahead of the embalming fluid and when the blood is completely drained, the body ends up with more embalming fluid in its system than there was original blood.

If you have any fears about coming back to life while interred in your casket or coming back to life while being cremated in your casket after being embalmed, you may rest assured that will never ever happen. No longer is there a need for a bell to hang above the grave for the person inside who just happens to be alive in order to pull on a rope that will ring the bell. In any case, even If anyone heard the bell, by the time the casket was lifted out of the grave, the person inside would definitely be deceased by then. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that centuries ago, many persons who were buried were in actual fact, still live. That doesn't happen anymore but there have been instances in the last century where persons declared dead were actually alive but they weren't buried while they were alive. If the medical authorities thought they were dead and the body was taken to a funeral home and still appeared as if dead; believe me, they would be dead after they were processed in the embalming room. Do not fear being buried alive. When you are lowered in your grave or about to be cremated, you will definitely be dead before that happens.

According to some religious customs, deceased persons have to be buried or cremated almost immediately after death. If bodies are not stored in a refrigerator room, they will begin to decompose almost within hours, depending on the warmth and humidity of the surrounding air of course. Generally eight hours is the maximum time that can elapse if embalming is to arrest the decomposition process although in cold weather, bodies can maintained their normal appearance for many days. Anything after that is academic and an immediate burial or cremation is most appropriate but if you insist on having a funeral nevertheless, a closed hermetically sealed casket is the only alternative to instant burial or cremation. I would hate to be the persons in the War Graves detachments in the armed services who have to remove the bodies from the temporary containers since the bodies of the soldiers are removed without having been embalmed when placed in them.

If it is your intention to have your loved one buried or cremated within a day of death and no one will be viewing the body, then embalming the body is pointless and an unwarranted expense since the purpose of embalming the body is primarily done in order that the body doesn't decompose right there in the viewing room in the presence of all the mourners.

I should point out to my readers that the Orthodox Jewish faith expressly forbids embalming as it is considered repugnant to Jewish teachings, and besides, it's really unnecessary for them because the deceased are generally buried on the same day as their deaths.

Let me clear up one myth for you right now so that you won't get stuck paying for embalming if it isn't necessary. I haven't heard anyone in the funeral industry state this but I have read of it so I will bring it to your attention. Some funeral directors have stated that embalming is necessary and required by law because a non-embalmed body is a health risk to those of us still walking above ground. That is pure bunk and billions upon billions of people have been buried non-embalmed and you don't see scenes from Poltergeist or diseases creeping out of the ground to attack the living. If a funeral director tells you that the body should be embalmed for health reasons before being buried, go elsewhere because this guy is the same one who sold that bridge in Brooklyn to all those suckers.

Embalming does serve one very useful purpose of course and that is, it prevents the body from putrefying in a way that will turn away all your friends, not to mention yourself, when you are viewing him or her while in the viewing room. Some funeral directors (all licenced undertakers who work in a funeral home and are in charge of a funeral are called funeral directors even though they may not necessarily own the funeral home) genuinely believe that embalming is the key to long-term preservation. But the gist of such a belief hinges on the concept of what really constitutes long-term preservation. It is recognized in the industry that if a body is preserved properly and put into a moisture-proof and air-tight casket, the body will last up to about thirty years before it begins to disintegrate.

That is why no reputable funeral director will tell you that there is a universal everlasting preservative that will preserve the body for all eternity. I know that you are thinking about the mummies in Egypt but that involved an entirely different process that undertook months of work and as such, was very time consuming and isn't practicable in this day and age.

Embalmed bodies can be preserved intact for a long time if a very heavy concentration of formaldehyde is used but unfortunately, some funeral homes have been known to dilute the embalming fluid and that dilution becomes obvious to the mourners when the olfactory nerves in their noses begin telling them that something is not holding its own in the immediate area of the casket.

In fact, it is a common practice in funeral homes to sprinkle a deodorant powder at the base of the casket in order to mask the odours that come from the fluids that have somehow slipped out of the body and have settled onto the mattress in the casket. It's a necessary precaution and saves embarrassment for everyone should things not go according to plan.

The funeral homes will tell you that their services are the same no matter what casket you purchase. That means that if you purchase a soft wood cloth covered casket for $1,000, their services will be no different than if you purchased the $13,000 bronze casket with your loved one's name enclosed in the glass vial that is screwed into the casket's lid. They are telling you the truth.

The fact that funerals are for the living and not the deceased, is definite proof that we often cared more for the deceased when they were gone, then we ever did when they were still with us. A monument of great beauty has often been placed at the grave site as a testament to a survivor's anguish over his or her inability to make amends with the deceased while there was still time left to do so.

A case in point. When my mother suffered a stroke years ago, she couldn't speak or remember who anyone was. One day, I made a long distance call to the hospital where she was being cared for and asked a nurse to remain with her during my telephone call to her. I didn't know if my mother even knew who was on the phone when I told her of my family, my work and told her how much we all loved her. After I finished with the call, I immediately called back and spoke to the nurse who had been standing beside her when I was talking to my mother on the phone. She told me that my mother had smiled most of the time I was on the phone with her. I believe that she understood what I was saying to her and knew who I was but simply couldn't communicate her feelings to me. Three weeks later, she died. Her death was easier for me to deal with after that.

The knowledge of our pending deaths is with us from the moment we can think rationally until the final beat of our hearts and although we are constantly aware of its eventuality, we think of it subliminally and carry on with the rest of our lives as if death is merely an inconvenience we will have to face, sooner or later, and preferably later; actually much later.

But to anyone over fifty, death frequently raises its ugly head and we who have survived childhood diseases, cancer, famine, car accidents, wars, pestilence, earthquakes and outright stupidity on our own part, have come to recognize death for what it is----a constant companion----a nagging awareness of our own human frailty and mortality and possibly, and hopefully, an entry into an afterlife.

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