Legal Quandary

Monday, March 13, 2006

Fun Funeral Facts*

I've come to the conclusion that I am just bad at attending funerals.

I think there are several reasons for this. First, I'm not especially outgoing to begin with - especially in groups. Second, it's been a long time since I've been around this many of my relatives at one time. Third, I think it's really strange that somehow I've become my dad's representative at these things. As anti-social as he was in general, he LOVED family gatherings. Well, to be accurate, he loved HIS family gatherings - my mom's family gatherings drove him completely nuts. BUT he had traced our family history back to the late 1600's, and LOVED telling family history stories. He also had the advantage of having actually known some of our more colorful family members. With the exception of my aunt & uncle, the rest of the family always seemed to enjoy his stories. I can't offer that.

But the main reason I hate going to funerals is that people aren't satisfied with just expressing their sympathy, but feel it necessary to add things like "She's in a better place," "He's not suffering anymore," or some similar platitude. No one would ever claim that my father or either of my grandmothers were "purely" good. Something I love and respect about all of them (now), since they were all deliciously human in that regard. All of them had strong personalities - sometimes to the point of being abrasive. In light of that, I guess I come by it honestly.

Part of me wants to capitalize on common conceptions of heaven and hell (ie - if you're bad, you're going to hell, if not, you're going to heaven - and even if you were mostly good, you've probably got a thing or two to atone for), and respond accordingly. There were at least a couple of times when someone told me "She's in a better place now," where I was sorely tempted to respond, "Not according to my calculations." Although, at least with my grandmother, you could make the argument that her Alzheimers WAS her hell, and any of her sins have been more than atoned for through her illness. Bottom line is that I didn't say anything to that effect, since I know people don't really know what to say, but think they should probably say something. And most of them are genuinely nice people who are just trying to comfort the family.

But my uneasiness with the whole funeral thing means I tend to either stand in the corner by myself or hang out with the morticians. I mentioned to one of them that I'd recently had the opportunity to see a funeral in Germany, and that it was very different. So, we sort of traded notes, and I got to ask him a bunch of questions. Those of you who've been reading for awhile will recall that interviewed the last Indiana funeral director about how one becomes a mortician.

Things I learned at my Grandma's funeral:

- The U.S. is the outlier as far as funeral practices. My personal theory is that Americans are pretty freaked out by death, and that's why we're willing to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for a box to protect our (dead) bodies from the elements and then seal them up in a concrete vault. Though I know at least some of that is due to environmental concerns, most countries are a lot simpler, with either direct cremation (Japan), or the proverbial wooden box (most of Europe). Other countries tend to have some variation of those two, and in at least one culture, the tradition is to place the body in the coffin and fill the rest with sand, which would solve the problem of the earth shifting as things decompose. (When we spoke with the stonemason in Germany, he assured us that most German coffins (they're only called that if they are octagonal - otherwise they're caskets) are designed to deteriorate and cave-in within 8-15 years. Which means that the stonework will inevitably have to be redone at some point.)
- Though a lot of the initial research into "modern" embalming was performed in Europe, for the most part, Europeans don't embalm.
- The ancient Egyptian embalming process is not the same as what we use here. There were also different "grades" of embalming depending on what station you held in life. According to the mortician, the high grade preservation process took up to a year to complete, and involved the various organs being removed and placed into 4 separate urns for what amounts to brining. The body was also basically brined, but we didn't get into how exactly that was accomplished. I'm sure it's on the internet somewhere. (It is - the body was packed in a local salt called Natrol.) Once the body was completely cured, the organs were replaced. The urns were then left in the tomb near the mummified body. (I haven't been able to find anything to corroborate this version - most of what I've found suggests that the organs were left in the urns - called canopic jars - and then just placed in the tomb.)
- Americans started embalming their dead in the Civil War. It was the first time people really went away from home and died, and so they had to figure out a way to preserve the bodies long enough to get them home for burial.
- There are LOTS of different types of embalming fluid. Mainly because certain medical conditions and medications can interact with the "standard" embalming fluid. If a body comes in, say, jaundiced, and they use the wrong fluid, it can tint the body green. Once that happens, all you can do is cover it with make-up.
- A typical embalming is a "one-pointer." A needle is inserted into the carotid artery and a mechanical pump is used to force it through the body. Fluid goes in & blood comes out the jugular. Apparently at that point it is safe to just let the blood run down the drain. If there are blood clots or other reasons the blood can' flow unrestricted, they may need to make more than one injection.

* This post and the one before last brought to you by the letter "F"

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