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. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

What to do with big people?

In case you were wondering, "big" is a euphemism for "fat" - very fat. There are more very fat people than ever these days, and when they die, that can cause problems.

Years ago, I knew someone who'd worked as a post-war hospital porter. He worked nights, when there weren't enough staff, and was asked to move a corpse from one of the floors above ground level when the lift wasn't working. There was no one to help him, it was a large body, so he stood at the top of a flight of stairs (concrete, with dark tiles on the walls on one side) and pondered. Reasoning that the guy was dead, so he wouldn't know anything about it, he rolled the body to the ground floor. I don't remember how he got him off the floor at the bottom. If it had been a lightweight corpse, he'd have been able to sling it over his shoulder in a fireman's lift, but it weighed at least 20 stone.

Nowadays, mortuaries, funeral directors, crematorium staff and others have to deal with corpses weighing much more than that - in some cases, over twice as heavy. In our area, none of the cremators are big enough to take very big bodies, so they have to be taken to a crematorium miles away. There are plans to build a new, privately-owned crematorium in our area, that will have an extra-large cremator. I don't suppose many people have thought about the extra cost involved with having to do this.

You read about the fire brigade being called to move hugely obese patients to hospital, but you don't hear much about what happens when they're dead.

You can't have a lovely environmentally-friendly cardboard or wicker coffin if you're hugely fat; you'd just spill out of it, like a badly wrapped parcel.

You can't be carried by pall-bearers if you're more than 20 stone; you have to be pushed on a trolley.

It's difficult to bury a fat person; you need a very big hole, and a way to lower the coffin so it doesn't just thump to the bottom.

They've had this problem in the US for longer than us, so they've been manufacturing 44" wide cremators for a while, and now we're having to import them.

Fat people cost everyone money - not just because of their healthcare problems, the difficulty of moving them from A to B when they're ill and can't walk, but because it's very expensive to dispose of their corpses when they die.

The moral? Do everyone a favour, and don't die fat.

Illustration: 18th watercolour of a fat man by G H Beaumont


Charles Cowling said...

You have wagged your finger, and I have sat up and taken notice. Like all good middle class boys I was brought up not to 'give trouble'. I think that's a lesson more honoured in the breach, these days.

We lose weight for our wedding, and we lose weight so that we can look good on the beach. Yes, we should do it for death, too - and render ourselves considerately portable.

I shall embark on my death diet at once.

Margaret said...

Charles, it's hard to tell from your profile picture, but as your face is lean I assumed the rest of you is as well. No need to diet before you die.

Charles Cowling said...

I've got to try and get into my dinner suit on Friday. It's going to take some wrestling. I may have begun to let myself go. Your admonition is timelier than you think, Margaret.

MrsDanvers said...

A friend of my mother was obese in the 60s and 70s when it was something to be remarked upon. She was frequently taken into hospital to be "starved" and even mortal illness failed to reduce her size; her weight increased as her cancer progressed. Id estimate she was about 25 stone at her heaviest.

When she planned her funeral she stipulated that her husband and son were to be coffin bearers on the grounds that she's carried them both for years and it was their turn to carry her.

in the Catholic tradition her body was returned to the family home the night before the funeral and my mother recalled that the funeral procession had to wait while her son re-attached the front door which had been taken off its hinges to get the coffin in and out.

Lynne said...

I am of the larger persuasion and I have already given great consderation to this subject. I have insisted that everyone who, in my lifetime, has been rude enough to draw attention to my size (because I clearly need to be told - ergo fat = stupid) will have the privilege of carrying my coffin - and no more than four at a time. I have chosen a plot at the top of a hill in a woodland burial site just for the sheer cussedness of it. The fat police, just like the smoking police and the exercise police will still die - although they will of course die fit and healthy (!) I take your point about having to change the size of cremators,but it is not beyond the wit of man. Crems are businesses and if they need bigger cremators then they'll just have to get them. It is no big deal - after all - our doorways are no longer 5'5'' in height are they? Give me a Mars Bar cheesecake on my deathbead.

Margaret said...

"Crems are businesses and if they need bigger cremators then they'll just have to get them."

They're not all businesses. All but one in my area are run by local authorities, which means that they have to answer to local council tax payers if they need extra funds. Will the extra cost of very expensive cremators be met by the minority of very large people, or their estates? No. We'll all have to pay more.

The UK is fast catching up with the US in international obesity tables, while countries like Japan, where most people were slim or average build, have an increasing problem related to the popularity of fast junk food and a sedentary life style. It's more about what you eat than how much you eat, though I find a smaller plate helps.

I've had trouble with my weight since I became ill and disabled and developed mobility problems. I'm about 5'9" (used to be taller), and I've been 15 stone for the past year or three. I'm determined to reduce my weight, which won't be easy as I can't exercise, because it will mean less strain on my dicky heart, my bad back, my varicose veins, and just about everything else. It might even stop my cancer from coming back. I know how difficult it can be.

The debate about self-inflicted health problems, such as those caused by alcohol and cigarettes, always tends to become personalised. The same is true of weight-related problems. But I don't blame skinny, healthy people who take care of themselves for feeling resentful that they're expected to pay more, through taxes and insurance, because a minority run up higher bills that go on our collective tab.

During and immediately after the war, when we had rationing, most people ate a healthy diet and obesity was relatively unusual. The difference now is that we have more choice, more tempting options, and more excuses not to walk or cycle anywhere. It's not about being stupid, but it does take a lot of willpower to resist cheesecake.

Did you ever watch the TV series 'The Golden Girls'? Whenever they needed to talk things over in the kitchen, often late at night when they couldn't sleep, they always brought the cheesecake out of the fridge. Yet they were all slim! I think they talked so much, they hardly had time to put any into their mouths.

I just don't keep cheesecake in my fridge.

No, our doorways are higher than 5'5" because most people are taller. It was during the 1st World War that they realised how poorly fed and unhealthy most conscripts were, because they were small in stature. Improvements in diet, public health and medicine meant that people like me, born in the 1940s, grew stronger and taller, but not necessarily a lot wider.

Lynne, I hope you live a long and happy life. Please don't leave your pall bearers with a negative memory of being punished for their rudeness.

Margaret said...

Mrs D, I hope it wasn't a very cold and wet night, with the door off its hinges.

Lynne said...

Oh dear Margaret, such a serious reply. I am fully aware that crems are generall council run, but I am a ratepayer too and crems have to be run on business models in this modern age.

Irony is my favourite form of humour which seems to have been wasted on this occasion. WIll you feel better if I say I promise I will no longer eat cheesecake all day long off enormous plates - and will move my final resting place nearer to the hearse access just in case my pre death diet fails? I could say it but I don't mean it.

I too hope that the extended life you wish me is a pleasurable and healthy one - but as I am in borrowed time already, I intend to live just as I wish - causing no harm to anyone and continuing to pay my rates just like everyone else.

After all, if I shorten my life by obesity, smoking and the like, then it leaves much more money in the NHS pot for those of you who are denying yourselves quality of life for the 'promise'of quantity in years. May you all live for ever and when your time comes, that you die fit and healthy and leave me in peace to depart when I am done for - or I expire from banging my head on whichever wall faces me at any given time. I feel a head banging session coming on right now....

Margaret said...

Sorry, missed the irony.

Still can't agree about the references to crematoriums being businesses. Business has nothing to do with it. Not very long ago, very large people would have to be buried because there was no alternative. Now, because of the increase in obesity, crematoria are forced to install larger cremators, just as hospitals have been forced to buy extra-large beds and so on. That's not business. In business, you make a profit.

Thank you for making me think about the social history of obesity. It occurred to me that the 18th century fat man in the illustration must have been a wealthy man, since only the idle rich got fat in those days. Gluttony was one way to impress people with your social status, while the poor, who worked hard on poor diets, were skinny. Nowadays the rich, who can afford a good diet and a spell in a health club now and then, are less likely to be fat than poor people, who eat cheap junk food, high in saturated fat and sugar, and not enough fresh fruit and vegetables.

Maybe that's for another blog post, elsewhere.

outside-jane said...

I am afraid (and I say this knowing that I will get heartily abused by many!) that I think fat people should pay a 'fat tax'.

Smokers, who are the other big drain on the NHS do at least pay for their treatment via very high taxes on Cigarettes. I have no problem with people living their lives however they like - but I do object to paying for it.

Great Blog Margaret - you've just picked up a new reader! Thanks

Margaret said...

Thank you Jane.

I was watching TV while having my morning coffee yesterday when two very large ladies were being interviewed. They wanted abusing fat people to be classed as a hate crime. During the interview it emerged that in one US state (I forget which) there are all sorts of allowances made for the obese, including extra-wide seats on public transport, and doctors are not allowed to suggest that their patients might lose weight because that is a "hate crime"! It seems that a lot of fat people are very sensitive about criticism, and will drag you into court at the slightest hint.

One of the large ladies worked as a fitness instructor for big people, I kid you not.

I'm very impressed by your traveller's tales. My son only did a year - I travel vicariously.

dhedwards said...

I'm 11st, 6ft and 56. When people ask me "How do you stay so slim?" I reply "Because I shit more than I eat."
I know, it's not big or clever.

Margaret Nelson said...

Since writing this blog post a private consortium has built a new crematorium in my area, with an extra large cremator. I vaguely remember a hoist to enable the staff to move big bodies from trolley to furnace. I imagine that the firing temperature might have to be adjusted to allow for the fact that fat us more flammable.

Another crematorium with a smaller furnace could take some big bodies, but not too big. A large man was being carried in by six bearers, all visibly struggling, when one of the sons, walking behind, the worse for some Dutch courage, shot off into the loo. I asked the funeral director if we should wait. "No," he hissed, "they can't stand here any longer, nodding in the bearers' direction. Their knees were beginning to sag. They made it to the catafalque with barely concealed sighs of relief as the drunken son emerged, adjusting his trousers.

Margaret Nelson said...

Fat is, not us...