When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

How to meet people when your job's about death

If I was younger and fitter, I might try this out.
Dead Meet is a dating and networking site to enable people in the death industry to meet like-minded individuals.
Whether you have a background in pathology, organise funerals for a living or are a medical historian looking for a research collaboration then feel free to join Dead Meet.
Taxidermists, SOCOs, Crematorium Techs, anatomists and APTs should all feel at home here.
If you’ve been dying to meet someone who shares you’re interests, you’ve come to the right place!
And I love their logo!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Framed for posterity

Fancy a bit of Granny's bum on your wall?
There are all sorts of ways to preserve bits of your dear departed; turning their ashes into paperweights or incorporating them into a 3D artwork, for example.

I've toyed with the idea of having a zip tattooed on my mastectomy scar, after seeing some rather elaborate flowery ones, but it seemed a bit of a waste when no one else was likely to see it and appreciate the joke. I've met a man who was covered with tattoos, including his scalp, and wondered what he'd look like when he got old and saggy. Like soggy wrinkled wrapping paper, probably.

If you have spent a fortune on tattoos and don't like the idea of all that creative effort going up in smoke at the crematorium, you can have the best bits preserved for your next of kin, to remind them of when they were soft and warm to the touch. The Foundation of the Art and Science of Tattooing offer this service, so that your tattoos won't just last a lifetime; they'll last much longer.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

John Hunter's legacy

My '60s art college course included anatomy. Our lecturer was a retired surgeon who wore a green operating gown, for no apparent reason. He drew the body parts with a felt-tipped pen on the naked flesh of life models. One new male model arrived in a pair of shorts, the sort worn by boxers, with an elasticated waistband and shiny fabric. It hid a substantial part of his body from above the waist to mid-thigh. When our lecturer wanted to talk about the gluteus maximus he hooked a finger around the model's waistband and hoicked it down, around his buttocks. The poor man blushed from the neck up. After the lecture was over, we never saw him again.

I enjoyed those lectures. Our lecturer brought pickled body parts in jars to show us. I remember a slice of a human brain. When we were invited to go on a trip to the Hunter collection at the Royal College of Surgeons, I leapt at the chance. I'd already done some pickling myself, preserving stuff with formaldehyde, which stank. My poor flatmate didn't complain.

One of these days I'd like to go and visit the collection again, now displayed in the refurbished Hunterian Museum. Meanwhile, I'm glad to have found a short film called 'Narrative Remains' on the Wellcome Collection website, described as follows:
'Narrative Remains' is a collaboration between artist and writer Karen Ingham and the Hunterian Museum. This film accompanied a site-specific installation at the Hunterian, which contains a large number of 'wet specimens', preserved elements of human anatomy,  collected by the anatomist John Hunter.

Ingham's work brings the dead back to life through their displayed organs, giving the patients a voice and a narrative that connects to the preserved specimen. One such is the throat of Marianne Harland, a musically talented young woman who lost first her famed voice, and then her life, to tuberculosis.
Click here to see it - I recommend full screen.

I used to have a copy of a paperback book by Garet Rogers called 'Brother Surgeons', about John Hunter and his brother William, who revolutionised surgery in the 18th century. I wish I knew what's happened to the book, which is now out of print. Copies fetch between £50 and £70. I remember reading about the 18th century "treatment" for syphilis, which was mercury; a highly toxic substance. They used to say, "After Venus comes Mercury".

18th century surgeons obtained cadavers from the so-called "resurrectionists" or body-snatchers. It wasn't until 1832 that the Anatomy Act outlawed the practice. Nowadays the medical schools obtain cadavers through bequests, such as the one I've planned. Click here to find out how.

Portrait of John Hunter (13 Feb 1728 - 16 Oct 1793) by John Jackson.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Grief and mourning rituals are two different things

A Telegraph sub-editor has headed an article about grieving by Clover Stroud, "Have the British Forgotten how to grieve?" I've commented:
Generalised statements, like "Have the British forgotten how to grieve?", are meaningless. There is no collectively British way to grieve, and never was, though there have been socially acceptable rituals surrounding death for millennia. The two shouldn't be confused. Clover seems to be going through a list of options, in search of some sort of structured grieving process. There isn't one, though some people may find comfort in sharing rituals because they don't need to think about them; you just follow a prescribed formula, which is an easy option when you're emotionally fragile.

As someone who's been bereaved several times, in different ways, and as a humanist celebrant for over 20 years, my experience has been that grief is personal and everyone grieves according to their own personality and the relationship that they had with the person (or pet) who died. A mother who'd lost her baby once asked me, "How long will I feel like this?", as though there should be a time limit to it, or desperately hoping that the pain would end soon. Some self-styled grief counsellors used to tell clients that there are stages to grieving, to be followed in order. This is nonsense. Months, years after a loss, something may remind you of the one you loved and the feelings may return, perhaps less acutely, but still in a wave of emotion. No one has forgotten how to grieve; we just can't help ourselves.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

To rot, or not?

The worms crawl in
And the worms crawl out
They crawl in thin
And they crawl out stout

Your eyes fall in
And your teeth fall out
Your brains come trickling
Down your snout ...
The Worm Song has been attributed to British soldiers serving in the Crimea in the 19th century. I learned it as a Girl Guide; it was one of the scary songs we sang around the campfire in the dark. Essentially, it's about what happens to buried bodies; a gradual process of decomposition. Horrible as it may sound, if this didn't happen, we'd have a problem; bodies piling up, refusing to rot. This is what's happening in Norway, according to Ashley Feinberg:
Norway's got a major corpse problem that isn't going away anytime soon. Literally—they won't rot. What's the culprit behind this profusion of bodies that refuse to take their place in the circle of life? The same thing that's also working to keep your sandwich fresh: plastic wrap.
The Norwegians answer to the problem is to poke a long tube into the grave, puncturing the plastic, and injecting lime into the space, to hasten decomposition. If you imagine that rotting bodies are horrible, how horrible are corpses that won't rot?

I sometimes wonder about American corpses. The Americans embalm a lot more bodies than we do and like to display them looking as fresh as the day they died in open coffins. Many of their coffins are great heavy things, made from metal, so they seal a corpse in and prevent it from decaying naturally. Instead, the action of anaerobic bacteria will cause the corpse to putrefy, turning it into a disgusting semi-liquid soup. If you've ever watched an episode of CSI where they tip a corpse out of a sealed plastic or metal container, you'll know that the smell it produces is indescribable - far worse than the smell of a naturally decomposed corpse. The dear departed's relatives might go to the grave to pay their respects, imagining him or her as he or she was when last seen. What's happening in the grave or crypt is nothing like that; it's the real stuff of horror stories.

Face it; death means decomposition. Trying to prevent it may only make matters worse, and as we're running out of burial space, the sooner we rot, the better - but not until after we're dead, of course.

Photo © M Nelson - a newly dug grave immediately after a burial, Greenwood Burial Ground, Farnham, Suffolk.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Making room for the dead

The news that most British cemeteries are either full, or nearly full, shouldn't be a surprise. The population continues to grow, and so does the demand for burial space. Cemeteries can be fascinating places, with historically interesting headstones and thriving wildlife, but it makes no sense to expect to stake your claim to a burial plot and expect it to remain yours in perpetuity. Many graves are neglected, forgotten or ignored by the descendents of those who occupy them, while the newly dead must be buried wherever there's room.

Maybe it's time to coax the squeamish into considering burying people long enough for full decomposition, before exhuming the bones and storing them in an ossuary? Neatly stacked bones take up far less space than bodies.

Of course there's cremation, which is popular here and in Japan, but even with efficient new cremators, it's not an environmentally-friendly option. Other new methods of disposal include bio-cremation and freeze-drying, but they still use energy, which is also is increasingly short supply.

Dealing with the problem of burial space shortages means dealing with death and with the population problem; two subjects that most people would rather not know about. It's not going to be easy.
Here lies father and mother and sister and I,
We all died within the space of one short year;
They all be buried at Wimble, except I,
And I be buried here.
Headstone in a Staffordshire churchyard.

Photo of headstone fragments by the wall of St. Peter's Church, Elmsett, Suffolk © M Nelson.
Photo of bones in an ossuary in Sedlec near Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic from the Czech Tourism website.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Dressing for dusty death

Silk, hemp and cotton fabrics used by Pia Interlandi
I've heard that, before the law was changed to prevent pollution, the dead could be cremated in all sorts of unsuitable outfits. One example was a farmer who was cremated wearing his wellies; the burning rubber smell must have drifted around the area and probably didn't do the cremator much good. Similarly unsuitable outfits were worn by those being buried; man-made fibres don't biodegrade. Now there are rules about the materials that can be used to line a coffin and dress a corpse, but some clothes may still make it tricky. Fiddling about with buttons on a body isn't easy. If you're not expecting to view the body, what does it matter what it's wearing? The funeral director will take their usual shroud off a shelf, and you'll never see it. But if you do want to be seen by your dearly beloved, you might want to look as good as possible, bearing in mind you won't be at your best. I wouldn't want to be embalmed, which is far more popular in the US than here; that's about creating an illusion. So Pia Interlandi's clothes for the dead are a good idea. They're made from fabrics that will rot as the body rots after burial; they've all been tested on pig corpses.
“The body is a gift,” Interlandi says. “It’s a big bag of nutrients and water and protein. When you place it back into the earth, I think the garment is almost like wrapping paper.”
This story reminded me of Mr Bun. I was visiting a funeral director after interviewing Mrs Bun about her husband's funeral. My undertaker friend was keen to show me around the premises. Standing over an open coffin in the morgue, she patted the skinny corpse's knee and said, "This is Mr Bun." His face was veiled by white lace, as though partially gift wrapped. Knowing what I did about Mr Bun, having just heard his life story, it seemed bizarre to cover him in the sort of lace you'd see in a bridal veil. He wouldn't have been seen dead in it.

HT to @megatonlove for the link.