Dum Dum Da Dum: The Story Behind Chopin’s Funeral March

Recently, Caleb Wilde (of Confessions of a Funeral Director fame) featured the Top 20 Pop Songs Requested at Funerals list based on requests made at 30,000 services during 2012. Compiled by The Co-operative Funeralcare of England, the list has a decided British bent to it. Here it is:

1. Frank Sinatra – ‘My Way’
2. Sarah Brightman/Andrea Bocelli – ‘Time To Say Goodbye’
3. Bette Midler – ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’
4. Eva Cassidy – ‘Over The Rainbow’
5. Robbie Williams – ‘Angels’
6. Westlife – ‘You Raise Me Up’
7. Gerry & The Pacemakers – ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’
8. Vera Lynn – ‘We’ll Meet Again’
9. Celine Dion – ‘My Heart Will Go On’
10. Nat King Cole – ‘Unforgettable’
11. Tina Turner – ‘The Best’
12. Whitney Houston/Dolly Parton – ‘I Will Always Love You’
13. Monty Python – ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ (Caleb didn’t think this song would make America’s top 20).
14. Luther Vandross – ‘Dance With My Father’
15. Louis Armstrong – ‘Wonderful World’
16. Daniel O’Donnell – ‘Danny Boy’
17. Eva Cassidy – ‘Fields Of Gold’
18. Righteous Brothers (and various) – ‘Unchained Melody’
19. Westlife – ‘Flying Without Wings’
20. Eva Cassidy – ‘Songbird’

A lot of people like having Ole Blue Eyes' song, "My Way" played at their funeral. I think I'd prefer "The Best is Yet to Come" instead.

Many people want to have Ol’ Blue Eyes’ song “My Way” played at their funeral. I think I’d prefer “The Best is Yet to Come” myself.

The list got me to thinking about how funerals and music have always been intertwined. One of the most famous pieces of funeral music isn’t even on this list. That would be Chopin’s Funeral March.

You know the one. DUM DUM Da DUM, DUM da DUM DUM DUM DUM DUM.

Polish composer Federick Chopin's Funeral March has been parodied a lot but it remains a powerful piece of music. This is a drawing of Chopin on his deathbed. Courtesy of Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Polish composer Frederic Chopin’s Funeral March gets parodied a lot but it remains a powerful piece of music. This is a drawing of Chopin on his deathbed. Courtesy of Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

I love classical music. From the age of 12 or so, instead of buying pop records, I was browsing the classical music section at Record Bar at the mall. Those of you old enough to remember Record Bar probably remember it was back in the far corner most of the time.

You know when you ask your parents for an album of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 for Christmas (and they buy it), you’re a genuine geek.

Chopin has always been one of my favorites, mostly because he wrote some amazing piano work. His nocturnes are especially dear to me. But I don’t think I truly appreciated him until I saw Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, an autobiographical film about Polish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman. Chopin’s music is prominently used in the film.

Adrian Brody portrayed Polish composer amd musician Władysław Szpilman, who barely survived the Holocaust.

In The Pianist, Adrien Brody portrayed Polish composer and musician Władysław Szpilman, who barely survived the Holocaust. Chopin’s music is featured prominently in it. Brody won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal.

The story behind Chopin’s Funeral March is that he was moved to write it after the 1830 Polish uprising against the Russians. Then traveling through Western Europe, Chopin was worried about the fate of his friends and family he was forced to leave behind. He never returned to his homeland.

Clash between Polish insurgents and Russian cuirassiers on bridge in Warsaw's Łazienki Park. In the background is an equestrian statue of King John III Sobieski. Painiting by Wojciech Kossak, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Clash between Polish insurgents and Russian cuirassiers on a bridge in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park. In the background is an equestrian statue of King John III Sobieski. Painting by Wojciech Kossak, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The piece is actually the third movement in Chopin’s Sonata #2 in B-flat minor. It was apparently a very emotional expression of his angst because he found it difficult to play in public.

According to Chopin scholar Jeffrey Kallberg (in a 2010 NPR piece), “His colleagues said that he often played in salons, and the only way to get him to stop playing was to ask him to play the March,” Kallberg says. “He was so caught up in the emotions of it.”

When Chopin died in 1849, Mozart’s Requiem was played at his funeral service. But Chopin’s Funeral March was played later at his burial service in Paris at Pere Lachaise Cemetery. If I ever get to Paris, that’s going to be my second stop (after the Eiffel Tower).

Chopin's tombstone, featuring the muse of music, Euterpe, weeping over a broken lyre, was designed and sculpted by French sculptor/artist Auguste Clésinger.

Chopin’s tombstone features the muse of music, Euterpe, weeping over a broken lyre. It was designed and sculpted by French sculptor/artist Auguste Clésinger.

Chopin was only 39 when he died of tuberculosis. Chopin's death mask , courtesy of the Jack Gibbons Collection.

Chopin was only 39 when he died of tuberculosis. Chopin’s death mask, courtesy of the Jack Gibbons Collection.

Since that time, Chopin’s Funeral March holds a prominent place in history. It was used at the state funerals of President John F. Kennedy, Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. It’s been played at the funerals of Soviet leaders, including Leonid Brezhnev.

Chopin’s Funeral March has also been parodied often over the years. According to Kallberg, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

“Chopin’s march is modeled after a Rossini opera, La Gazza Ladra, and that served as the basis for parodies,” says Kallberg, who points to one such parody written by Charles Gounod. It’s also notable that one of Chopin’s friends, Charles Valentin-Alkan, wrote a piece called “Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot”.

Monty Python would have been proud.

Charles-Valentin Alkan was a friend of Chopin's. Was he parodying Chopin's Funeral March when he penned "Funeral for a Dead Parrot"?

French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan was a friend of Chopin’s. Was he parodying Chopin’s Funeral March when he penned “Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot”?

Beetlejuice, Loony Tunes and even comic duo Abbot and Costello have parodied the famous dirge. A 2002 TV ad for Pilot Pen’s erasable ink pen featured it. You can even download it to use it as your ringtone.

I’ve always wondered if any funeral directors have done that. Probably not a wise PR move.

I’m not sure yet what music I want played at my funeral. Definitely “I’ll Fly Away” and “Old Rugged Cross” because they’re close to my heart. I have a running list that I add to from time to time.

And while I do like Led Zeppelin a lot, “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t on it.

StairwayToHeaven

Locks of Love: Victorian Mourning Jewelry

This is a repost of an article I wrote in November 2013. Enjoy!

In 1947, a woman named Frances Gerety coined the phrase “A Diamond is Forever” for DeBeers. She may have been right but for the Victorians, hair was more eternal (and affordable) than glittering gems.

Mourning jewelry, or jewelry worn when one is mourning the loss of a loved one, has been around for centuries. But the Victorians truly embraced it when Queen Victoria took mourning to a new level in the 1800s. Last year, I wrote about how the death of her beloved Prince Albert initiated a very detailed code of dress for ladies. The Queen was partial to mourning jewelry, especially if it was made out of jet (which is not a true mineral but actually a very old form of decayed wood).

In the third season of PBS' popular "Downton Abbey", Lady Mary follows the dictates of society by wearing jet jewelry in her time of mourning.

In the third season of PBS’ popular Downton Abbey, Lady Mary follows the dictates of society by wearing jet jewelry in her time of mourning for her late husband. Photo courtesy of PBS.

The curious practice of making mourning jewelry from human hair became very popular. In other words, jewelry that literally contains hair from the deceased. This might seem incredibly bizarre (and to some, downright creepy), but the act of keeping someone’s hair as a memento of them was quite normal. The hair could be placed in a locket or even in an elaborate piece of jewelry.

It may seem like a strange way to remember someone but it’s actually quite practical since photography was not affordable for most people. Hair has chemical qualities that enable it to last for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. (Contrary to popular belief, hair does NOT continue to grow after someone has died.)

This 18th-century locket contains the hair of George and Martha Washington. It was sold at James D. Julia Auctions in August 5, 2009 for $7,475.00.

This 18th-century locket contains the hair of George and Martha Washington. It was sold at James D. Julia Auctions in August 5, 2009 for $7,475.00.

Of course, not everyone could afford jewel-encrusted lockets like the one pictured above. More often, it was simply a lock of hair stashed behind a painted miniature or inside of a ring. The jewelry’s owner knew it was there but didn’t necessarily flaunt it.

Since photography wasn't fully utilized at that time, Victorians took to incorporating the hair of the deceased into their mourning jewelry.

Since photography wasn’t fully utilized at that time, Victorians took to incorporating the hair of the deceased into their mourning jewelry.

However, the Victorians took hair out of the darkness and into the light. Rings, pendants, pictures, wreaths, you name it and they did it.

Located in Independence, Mo. (not far from Kansas City), Leila Cohoon operates the only hair museum in the U.S. to truly feature this art form. She says that often, a family member would collect hair from several generations of relatives and weave the hair into a wreath. More often than not, the wreath included intricate hair-woven flowers and were shaped like a horseshoe, always pointed up to keep luck in the family. Her museum features hundreds of examples of hair art. You can find them up for bid on eBay from time to time as well.

This framed wreath is made out of hair from the ladies listed inside of it. Photo courtesy of Leila' Hair Museum.

This framed wreath is made out of hair from the ladies listed inside of it. Photo courtesy of Leila’s Hair Museum.

The Northampton Historic Museum and Education Center in Massachusetts has a fantastic virtual exhibit of Victorian hair art. They do a better job at explaining the history behind it than I can.

For mourning accessories, jewelry items made from the hair of a deceased friend or loved one became hugely popular. Pamphlets featuring hairworking patterns assisted Victorians with creating their own hair jewelry, if they so desired. The jewelry designs are surprisingly complex and varied for consisting of such humble material as human hair. The pieces could incorporate jet, gold and diamonds for later stages of mourning or lockets for hair or photographs.

There was also a large market for mass-produced gold fittings that could be personalized with engraving or monograms, so the jewelry items could be commissioned as well. There was some distrust, however, of professional hairworkers; there was a widespread problem of hairworkers neglecting to use the deceased person’s hair. Instead, they would sell “custom-made” pieces actually made from purchased bulk hair.

This is a gentleman's watch chain made out of human hair. I can't imagine how many hours it took.

This is a gentleman’s watch chain made out of human hair. I can’t imagine how many hours it took.

Looking at some of these examples, I have to wonder how on earth this was done. And how long it must have taken. Then it occurred to me that during the Victorian era especially, most gently bred women did not work. And if their children were grown or away at school, they had ample time on their hands. If they truly were in early mourning, they weren’t allowed to go out except to attend church services.

This brooch features four hair acorn shapes. The acorns are tightly woven and incorporate gold components to support the acorn shape. Even though this piece has gold elements, it is understated enough for the middle stages of mourning. Photo courtesy of the Historic Northampton Museum and Education Center.

The acorn probably originated as an English hairwork motif since oak is England’s national wood. This brooch features four hair acorn shapes, which are tightly woven and incorporate gold components to support the acorn shape. Photo courtesy of the Historic Northampton Museum and Education Center.

No doubt someone spent several hours creating this intricate brooch. Photo courtesy of Leila's Hair Museum.

No doubt someone spent several hours creating this intricate brooch. Photo courtesy of Leila’s Hair Museum.

According to artist Sandra Johnson (who uses hair to make jewelry and other items), there are four main techniques involved. They are:

Palette
Palette work is the most versatile of the techniques. It can make pictures and designs both large and small. The hair is used in a “cut and paste” manner to create designs. The third picture on this page is an example of palette work.

Sepia Painting
Sepia painting uses the hair as a painting medium and spread thinly on the background. The sixth picture on this page is an example of palette work.

Tablework
Tablework is created using a table and bobbins with weights. The hair is woven around a form in order to make the shape desired. The fifth picture on the page is an eye-catching example of this style.

Hair Flowers
Hair flowers are created using much longer hair than is needed for the palette or sepia technique. The hair is wound around a rod and secured with a wire making long lengths of looped hair. The hair is then shaped into petals or leaves. When several are wired together a flower can be formed and many very large wreaths were made using the hair of many people. Sometimes a church would make one of all their members, or a family would make one of all the members of the family, these could get very large and ornate. The fourth picture on this page is an example.

Then there are those works of art that aren’t jewelry and defy explanation.

Photo courtesy of Leila's Hair Museum.

Photo courtesy of Leila’s Hair Museum.

There are actually dozens of Pinterest pages devoted to the art form. Many artists like Sandra have revived the tradition and are selling their pieces online.

In the end, while it does seem a tad freaky, the sentiment behind using hair for mourning jewelry makes sense. If you couldn’t have a photo of your loved one to put in your wallet or purse, wearing one of these pieces of jewelry could make you feel close to your deceased loved one in an intimate way. It would never fade or be destroyed by the ravages of time. As seen in the pictures featured here, many examples survive today.

So maybe the Victorians were onto something after all.

This shadow box with a picture of a girl in mourning is lined with material usually reserved for a coffin. The wreath is made with hair from the girl and the girl's mother, who had died. Photo by Richard Gwinn.

This shadow box with a picture of a girl in mourning is lined with material usually reserved for a coffin. The wreath is made with hair from the girl and the girl’s mother, who had died. Photo by Richard Gwinn.

Portland Calling: A Walk Through Lone Fir Cemetery

When my husband told me we’d been invited to his childhood best friend’s wedding in Portland, Oregon, my first thought was about what cemeteries I’d visit. It’s a cemetery hopper’s first instinct.

We only had a weekend so I quickly settled on Lone Fir Cemetery, the jewel in the crown of the 14 cemeteries managed by Metro (the regional governmental agency for the Portland metro area).

I can safely say that Lone Fir is just as quirky as the town it’s located in. And in a good way.

Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery is one of 14 historic Portland cemeteries managed by Metro.

Lone Fir Cemetery is one of 14 historic Portland cemeteries managed by Metro.

Located in Southeast Portland, the 30 acres that make up Lone Fir are well tended. Much of that is due to the Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery, a group dedicated to education, preservation and restoration efforts. They not only give monthly tours but hold special events such as headstone cleaning workshops and a Halloween Tour of Untimely Departures.

Every Halloween, the Friends of Lone Fir host their Halloween Tour of Untimely Departures. Photo courtesy of Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery.

Every Halloween, the Friends of Lone Fir host their Halloween Tour of Untimely Departures. Photo courtesy of Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery.

According to Friends of Lone Fir’s web site, the cemetery’s first human occupant was Emmor Stephens. His burial was in 1846 in what was then privately owned land, which was later platted as Mount Crawford Cemetery in 1855. Then, Portland existed only on the west side of the Willamette River. Because of the marshy ground, several city graveyards were closed and many bodies were then re-interred at Mount Crawford.

This is the monument for James and Elizabeth Stephens. James was the son of Emmor Simmons, who is noted for being the first person buried in Lone Fir Cemetery when it was known as Mount Crawford Cemetery.

This is the monument for James and Elizabeth Stephens. James was the son of Emmor Stephens, noted for being the first person buried in Lone Fir Cemetery when it was known as Mount Crawford Cemetery.

Mount Crawford was renamed Lone Fir in 1866, for the once solitary tree in its northwest corner. Lone Fir is Portland’s oldest continuously used cemetery and is now a de facto arboretum, with 500 trees representing 67 species. More than 25,000 people are buried there.

Lone Fir definitely has some varieties of trees that I had never seen before.

Lone Fir definitely has some varieties of trees that I had never seen before.

Did you spot the squirrel on the side of the one on the far right?

Did you spot the squirrel on the side of the tree on the far right?

Photo courtesy of Chris Rylands.

Photo courtesy of Chris Rylands.

Reflective of the real trees is the large number of Woodman of the World tree-shaped monuments sprinkled throughout the cemetery. You’ve probably seen them before but never knew what they were. The symbol of the cut tree signifies a life cut short.

Woodmen of the World is a fraternal benefit society based in Omaha, Neb. that operates a large privately held insurance company for members. Many years ago, if you had a policy, the WOW provided a monument upon your demise.

Woodman of the World is a fraternal benefit society based in Omaha, Nebraska that operates a large privately-held insurance company for members. Many years ago, if you had a policy, the WOW provided a monument upon your demise.

In its early days, Woodman of the World insurance policies provided a death and monument benefit. That means they provided gravestones to members for free and later for those who bought a $100 rider.

In the 1920s, the Society stopped doing this when the costs got to be too great and some cemeteries began to not allow above-ground markers for maintenance reasons. But for several years after that, members and lodges arranged for markers and monuments on their own.

Another elaborate example of a Woodmen of the World monument.

Another elaborate example of a Woodman of the World monument.

Lone Fir also has many examples of one of my favorite type of monument, white bronze. In reality, white bronze is actually zinc. If you tap one, you can hear a hollow metallic sound. I could do an entire blog piece on this style of monument alone but for now, visit A Grave Interest to learn more about these hardy markers.

A common decorative motif on white bronze monuments is the sheaf of wheat. It can be a symbol of the Body of Christ. It  can also represent a long life, usually more than 70 years.

A common decorative motif on white bronze monuments is the sheaf of wheat. It can be a symbol of the Body of Christ. It can also represent a long life, usually more than 70 years. This gentlemen was 73 when he died.

A native of Germany, Lorenz Bonhert arrived in  the U.S. in April 1847 and soon after became a member of the Fourth Regiment of the Ohio Volunteers. who fought in the Mexican War.

A native of Germany, Lorenz Bonhert arrived in the U.S. in April 1847 and soon after became a member of the Fourth Regiment of the Ohio Volunteers, which fought in the Mexican War. It is unknown what brought him all the way to Oregon.

George Mutschler, a native of Germany, was a saloon keeper in Portland.

George Mutschler, a native of Germany, was a saloon keeper in Portland.

Later, I had the pleasure of encountering a fellow Find a Grave volunteer who also happens to be a Friends of Lone Fir member. She was washing a gravestone to get a better idea of the woman’s name. I rarely meet fellow Find a Grave members in person so it was a treat to do so that far away from home!

Linda was very helpful in explaining the history of the cemetery since she’s also a tour guide. She talked about the large open corner of the cemetery that is devoid of trees or markers, known as Block 14.

This unassuming plot has a great deal of history. At one time, it was not only where the Chinese workers who had come East to work on the railroad and in the mines were once buried but also patients of the former Oregon Hospital for the Insane.

This empty lot once held the graves of Chinese immigrants and mental hospital patients. Plans are in the works for a memorial garden to be constructed to remember them.

This empty lot once held the graves of Chinese immigrants and mental hospital patients. Plans are in the works for a memorial garden to be constructed to remember them.

According to Chinese custom, immigrants were buried here for a short time, with their remains later dug up and returned to China, to be reunited with their ancestors. This went on until Multnomah County (the land’s owner) wanted to use it as a maintenance building/yard for the highway department. In 1948, this block was excavated with a bulldozer. All remains found were packed off to China and the building was built shortly thereafter.

In 2004, Multnomah County made plans to raze the maintenance building on the land and sell the property to the highest bidder (mostly likely for condos). Many locals who knew the history of that space fought the move.

Ground-penetrating radar showed that two graves were still buried on the property, which meant it was still very much a cemetery. While the building was razed as planned, the land was deeded to Metro to be part of Lone Fir as a historic landmark. Plans are now in the works to turn it into a memorial garden to remember those who were originally buried here.

Scattered throughout the cemetery are these recent graves of Russian immigrants. The laser etched markers seem at home among the much older markers.

Scattered throughout the cemetery are these recent graves of Russian immigrants. The laser-etched markers seem at home among the much older markers.

Linda also told us about the striking black monuments with recent dates on them. Portland is home to a large Russian immigrant population. Some years ago, a few of the local Russian churches bought up a number of cemetery spaces at Lone Fir for their congregants to purchase.

When I saw these very life-like faces staring back at me, I almost felt as if I were in a different country. The Cyrillic print made it even more vivid. Most of the expressions are rather solemn. The one of an infant grave was incredibly poignant.

IMG_5344

At the same time, some of the modern markers I encountered were inventive and more lighthearted. The best example of this would have to be Joel Weinstein’s grave. A long-time publisher of a Portland magazine called Mississippi Mud, Joel was a huge fan of Puerto Rican art. His marker reflects his colorful life perfectly.

Joel Weinstein's gravestone was as unique as he was.

Joel Weinstein’s gravestone was as unique as he was.

Another eye-catching monument is the one for Dr. Minh Van Tran. I’m not sure if EJ and PJ Dragonhorn are the artists who created it.

I don't know anything about Dr. Tran but his gravestone is definitely different.

I don’t know anything about Dr. Tran but his gravestone is definitely different.

The last example I will share is a sad story in that what was once a beautiful monument has been vandalized to the point is it a shadow of what it was once intended to be.

I had seen Paul Lind's amazing monument online a few years ago. This photo was taken by someone else and shows how vibrant it was.

I had seen Paul Lind’s amazing monument online a few years ago. This photo was taken by someone else and shows how vibrant it was.

Paul Lind loved to play Scrabble. He died at the young age of 31. His fiance, Heather, wanted to create a monument that reflected his personality. Along with Paul’s father, she came up with this. She said, “He was a big time scrabble fanatic. I never was able to beat him on one-on-one.”

Unfortunately, by the time I was able to see it, vandals had torn the colorful tiles off to leave the shell behind. I read an article that said a Scrabble tournament was held in 2013 to raise funds to help restore it to its former glory but that hasn’t happened yet.

This is what remains of Paul Lind's once stunning marker.

This is what remains of Paul Lind’s once stunning marker.

One thing I noticed while we were there is that Lone Fir, in some ways like Oakland in Atlanta, is regarded as a valuable greenspace that many locals use. We saw several joggers. Linda said that the nearby high school’s track team uses the cemetery for running practice during the week.

IMG_5222Another bit of information she passed along to me is that in some cases, when students are given detention at the high school, they must draw from a jar containing the names of selected people buried at Lone Fir. The student then researches that person and write up a report about them. That’s certainly different!

As always, visiting cemeteries in a different state opens my eyes to the variety of grave stones, wildlife, and flora/fauna that exists outside my small world of Atlanta, Ga. Lone Fir provides that in spades, probably more than most cemeteries do.

I’d like to come back and see it again some day.

IMG_5315LoneFirbird

 

 

Where’s Quincy?: Why Autopsies Are Incresingly Rare

I grew up watching a lot of TV. Dad was in charge of the remote, so what he wanted to watch, we all watched.

As a result, I spent many evenings watching Jack Klugman (best known for playing Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple) on Quincy, ME. Quincy’s job as a medical examiner in Los Angeles always drew him into fascinating whodunnits that were neatly wrapped up in an hour. He always solved the mystery just as his naysayers were about to lower the boom.

Quincy always worked hard to get to the bottom of every mysterious case. But he always had time for the ladies. Photo courtesy of The Classic TV Archive.

Quincy (with his trusty assistant Sam) worked hard to get to the bottom of every mysterious case. But Quincy always had time for the ladies. His houseboat was a chick magnet. Photo courtesy of The Classic TV Archive.

Television in the 70s and early 80s was often an exercise in suspended reality (Remember The Six Million Dollar Man?). Quincy is one example because all the ladies he met seemed to think ‘ole Quince was a real catch. Frankly, I think they were just after his houseboat.

Watching Quincy gave me the impression that autopsies were a common procedure. With current TV shows like CSI and Law and Order, this impression has not only been upheld but encouraged. In reality, that’s not the case at all.

The word autopsy comes from the Greek “autopsia” for the act of seeing with one’s own eyes. It’s an examination of a body after death to determine the cause of death or the character and extent of changes produced by disease.

Autopsies are not done only on murder victims but to determine what disease or health factors led to a person’s demise. They often turn up nothing unusual at all. Or they can discover something major.

North Georgia 911 operator Lynn Turner poisoned both her husband and later a boyfriend with ethylene glycol (antifreeze). But initial autopsies on both men said they died from an irregular heartbeat.  Photo courtesy of Calvin Cruce/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

North Georgia 911 operator Lynn Turner poisoned both her husband and later a boyfriend with ethylene glycol (antifreeze). But initial autopsies on both men said they died from an irregular heartbeat. Photo courtesy of Calvin Cruce/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Laws vary from state to state but in most cases, with consent from a patient’s next of kin, a doctor can order a clinical autopsy to determine the disease process in the body and determine cause of death. That was the norm 50 years ago and in Quincy’s era.

“Much of what we know about medicine comes from the autopsy,” said Dr. Stephen Cina, chairman of the forensic pathology committee for the College of American Pathologists, in a 2011 article. “You really can’t say for sure what went on or didn’t go on without the autopsy as a quality assurance tool.”

So why are fewer autopsies being performed?

In 1971 The Joint Commission, which accredits health-care facilities, told hospitals they were no longer required to conduct autopsies to keep in good standing. Before, mandated autopsy rates of 20 percent were in place for community hospitals and 25 percent for teaching facilities. Now, some hospital autopsy rates are down to zero.

Hospitals also have considerable financial incentives to avoid autopsies. An autopsy can cost anywhere from about $1,500 (performed by the hospital at the medical examiner’s request) or if it’s done privately at a family’s request, $2,000 to $5,000. Medicare and private insurers don’t pay for them directly, typically limiting reimbursement to procedures used to diagnose and treat the living.

In addition, autopsies can be difficult to perform, physically demanding and time consuming. Many hospitals would rather their time and money be spent elsewhere.

As a result, it can be difficult for a family to get an autopsy performed on a loved one if the medical examiner won’t do it. The cost then falls to them to have it done privately.

Jessie Tolly died suddenly at the age of 28 but the medical examiner refused to perform an autopsy. Her family, however, paid for a private pathologist to do on. Photo courtesy of The Daily Courier.

Jessie Tolly died suddenly at the age of 28. The medical examiner refused to perform an autopsy, blaming her death on her obesity. Her family, however, paid for a private pathologist to do one. Photo courtesy of The Daily Courier.

Such was the case in 2013 when the family of Arizona woman Jessie Tolly demanded answers after her sudden death. The medical examiner blamed Jessie’s death on her obesity and refused to authorize an autopsy.

Tolly’s family hired a private pathologist to perform the autopsy at the cost of $2,000, which revealed the cause of death to be a defective heart artery. Tolly’s mother was furious when she later discovered the medical examiner’s office contacted that pathologist for a copy of the report, bypassing the family entirely.

“We’re not rich, we don’t have a lot of money and we’re just middle income, you know, I felt in many respects that, in their minds, she just didn’t rate,” said Tolly.

Another reason doctors are requesting fewer autopsies is because of their reliance on today’s diagnostic tools like CT scans and MRIs, which can identify ailments while patients are still alive.

But according to the previously mentioned 2013 article, studies of autopsies have revealed that doctors can still make a number of diagnostic errors even with increasingly sophisticated imaging equipment.

Doctors say that modern tools such as this MRI machine can help them detect disease.

Doctors say modern tools such as this MRI machine can help them detect disease when patients are still alive. But studies involving autopsies show that doctors can still make diagnostic errors.

A 2002 review by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality showed that when patients were autopsied, major errors related to the principle diagnosis or underlying cause of death were found in one of four cases. In one of 10 cases, the error appeared severe enough to have led to the patient’s death.

The importance of autopsies goes beyond determining cause of death. They can also be a critical tool for evaluating and improving medical care.

Dr. Elizabeth Burton, deputy director of the pathology department at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said performing autopsies on patients who have died of hospital-acquired infections helps save others. Doctors have used her research as a basis for changing antibiotic regimens.

Finally, autopsies can help family members learn whether a relative died from an undiagnosed or misdiagnosed illness or disease that may be hereditary.

Dr. Davis is professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and State Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

Dr. Gregory J. Davis is professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. He’s also the State Medical Examiner. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

Dr. Gregory J. Davis at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine (according to a recent Frontline documentary) said 40 percent of autopsies performed in the U.S. reveal disease states previously unknown to physicians, largely because the autopsy involves techniques that can’t be used on the living.

There continue to be a variety of opinions on the value of autopsies today. Because I am nothing close to a medical expert, I can only share what I’ve learned. But I hope it gives you a clearer picture of why autopsies are now increasingly rare but can still be incredibly helpful when they are performed.

I hope Quincy would be proud.

One of my favorite intro scenes on Quincy was when the young police recruits pass out as he begins an autopsy. Photo courtesy of TVRage.

One of my favorite scenes on Quincy is when the young police academy recruits start to pass out one at a time as he begins an autopsy. Photo courtesy of TVRage.

Ashes to Ashes: What You Can Do With Cremains

“I wish to be cremated. One tenth of my ashes shall be given to my agent, as written in our contract.” 

– Groucho Marx

Someone in your family chose to be cremated after they died and you now have their ashes. It raises the inevitable question.

What do you do with them now?

Some people purchase a wooden box, metal urn or some other container to hold their love one’s ashes in, which they keep in a special place in their home. Or you can have the ashes (in a cineary urn) interred in a columbarium at a cemetery.

Tom Caflisch of River Falls, Wisc. holds a wooden urn his remains will be placed in someday. A Navy veteran, he etched the dates of his military service on the lid. In his part-time urn business, he personalizes cremation urns for customers who want their military service or other identification noted on their burial urns. Photo courtesy of Meg Jones/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Tom Caflisch of River Falls, Wisc. holds a wooden urn his remains will be placed in someday. A Navy veteran, he etched the dates of his military service on the lid. He personalizes cremation urns for customers who want their military service or other identification noted on their burial urns. Photo courtesy of Meg Jones/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Another option is scattering the ashes at a place special to the deceased, perhaps a lake or mountaintop. Some cemeteries have “scatter gardens” for that purpose. Afterward, the loved one’s name is engraved on a memorial tablet in the garden. Maybe you’d prefer to scatter the ashes at sea, a popular choice.

But what if you really want to do things differently? The possibilities are many but here are a handful to think about.

Like Sands Through The Hourglass

Long ago, I watched NBC’s Days of Our Lives (I quit when Marlena supposedly became possessed by the Devil). The show always starts with long-time cast member McDonald Carey intoning, “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” So when I found out you can have cremation ashes placed in an hourglass, I was intrigued.

In the Light offers three different hourglasses that you can place a small about of ashes in to remember your loved one. Photo courtesy of In the Light Urns.

In the Light Urns offers three different hourglasses that you can place a small about of ashes in to remember your loved one. Photo courtesy of In the Light Urns.

California-based In the Light Urns has been providing hourglasses and other items like jewelry (even rosaries) to put cremation ashes in since 2001. Their hourglasses enable you to put a small portion of ashes in it so you can keep them your home (or wherever you choose). The deceased’s name and birth/death dates are engraved on it.

They even suggest how to incorporate putting the ashes into the hourglass during a special ceremony remembering the deceased. The cost for an hourglass is $399.95.

Tattoo You

Maybe you want to truly make your loved one’s ashes a part of you. You can go much further than tattooing “Mother” on your bicep by having a tiny amount of ashes added to the tattoo ink used. “Ashes are essentially carbon and carbon is the main ingredient in black ink,” said Trish Rodgers, then artist/manager of Toronto’s Body of Art tattoo parlor, in a 2013 article.

Tattoo artist Kystal Borsa shows a tribute tattoo on her shoulder made from ink mixed with the ashes of her late mother Rose Borsa, who died when Krystal was 11 years old. Photo courtesy of Peter J. Thompson/National Post.

Tattoo artist Kystal Borsa shows a tribute tattoo on her shoulder made from ink mixed with the ashes of her late mother. Photo courtesy of Peter J. Thompson/National Post.

While the process has been around for close to 30 years, it’s not widely done and some tattoo artists won’t do it. Some health officials question the safety of it because a foreign substance is being introduced into the body. But several people who’ve gotten a “Morbid Tattoo” (as one American academic called it) have said they suffered no ill affects in the years after they had it done.

Portrait of a Life

Perhaps you like the artistic notion of a tattoo but prefer a less invasive (and physically permanent) approach. Missouri artist Adam Brown uses cremains sent to him by relatives and mixes them with paint pigment to create a “lasting memory” composition.

In a recent ABC News piece, he said “Having ashes in an urn on a mantle somewhere is a good way to constantly remind yourself that person died, but when you use them in an artwork it’s a good way to remember someone lived,”

Sending cremains via the U.S. Postal Service is legal, Brown said. The ashes are mixed in with paints, craft glues and resins to incorporate into the design of a memorial portrait, landscape or abstract piece (depending on the deceased’s favorite colors and interests).

A pleased client shows off the portrait of his late partner painted with traces of his ashes. Photo courtesy of Adam Brown's website Adam Brown's Gallery.

A pleased client shows off the portrait of his late partner painted with traces of his ashes. Photo courtesy of Adam Brown’s Gallery.

“Out of respect, I still wear gloves when handling the ashes. Whatever is left over, I am careful to return,” Brown said. “I only need about four to six ounces, depending on the canvas.”

The paintings range in size and price from $300 to $700, depending on the use of color.

The Rockets’ Red Glare

Want to send your loved one off with a bang like late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson? You can have cremation ashes made into fireworks for a spectacular show family and friends will never forget. British company Heavens Above Fireworks can arrange the display for you, or you can order your own rockets for self-firing kits, which come with instructions on how to incorporate ashes into the rockets.

Detailed tips on how to create interesting displays are included. There’s a Youtube of video with an example of one of their shows.

Heavens Above Firework sells self-fired rocked kits that you can add some of the deceased's ashes to before sending them skyward. The cost for a set of four is around $125. Note the goggle provided in the kit. Photo courtesy of Heavens Above Fireworks.

Heavens Above Fireworks sells self-fired rocked kits that you can add some of the deceased’s ashes to before sending them skyward. The cost for a set of four is around $125. Note the goggles provided. Photo courtesy of Heavens Above Fireworks.

Prices vary according to how grand and how lengthy you want the show to be, but it can cost from around $125 for a kit into the thousands of dollars for a lengthy fireworks show.

A few companies here in America will do it, too, but Heavens Above has one of the most detailed websites I’ve seen.

A Diamond is Forever

A diamond can be your best friend (not just a girl’s), if you want. Illinois-based LifeGem will turn your loved one’s ashes into an actual diamond.

According to their website, “LifeGem diamonds are molecularly identical to natural diamonds found at any high-end jeweler. They have the exact same brilliance, fire, luster, and hardness (the hardest substance known) as diamonds from the earth.”

Basically, you send them a small portion of your loved one’s cremation ashes (or even a lock of their hair) and they take it from there. Or you can work with one of their certified funeral home/mortuary partners, they have several (including one in Atlanta). LifeGem can even create a diamond out of your pet’s ashes if you wish.

This is Blue LifeGem Diamond - Option IV (.50 - .59 ct). The base price is listed at $7,899.00 Photo courtesy of LifeGem.

This is Blue LifeGem Diamond – Option IV (.50 – .59 ct). The base price is listed at $7,899.00 Photo courtesy of LifeGem.

LifeGem offers a long list of carat sizes, cuts and colors so prices vary widely. The smallest LifeGem diamonds (the red .10 – .19 carat) are just under $3,000 while the largest ones (1.5 carat or larger) can run you $19,000 and higher.

According to their website,  they expect to be creating diamonds of up to 3.0 carats in the very near future.

What About You?

As you can see, if you’re not content to put your loved one’s ashes in an urn on the mantle, there are countless other options. Too many to talk about in just one post. But these can get you started.

Maybe the process will get you thinking about your own funeral plans. What do you want done with your ashes if you choose cremation?

 

Want to haunt your loved one's for years to come? Cremation Solution's president Jeff Staab started offering head-shaped urns that resemble the deceased about four years ago. He says on the website, "They are not for everybody but most people do find them fascinating to say the least. Photo courtesy of Cremation Solutions.

Want to haunt your loved ones for years to come? Cremation Solutions offers head-shaped urns that resemble the deceased. President Jeff Staab says on their website, “They are not for everybody but most people do find them fascinating to say the least.” Photo courtesy of Cremation Solutions.

Finding Grave #153: The Athens Asylum Cemeteries

When I signed up for Ancestry.com, I was excited about the adventure I was about to start. Maybe I’d find out I was related to a king. Or discover that one of my ancestors invented something cool like the swizzle stick (I did not).

Instead, I found out that one of my ancestors is buried in a large cemetery behind what is now Ohio University’s Kennedy Museum of Art.

I was able to contact someone who lives near the Athens area who promised she would stop by and locate his grave. True to her word, she did so and took several pictures. My heart caught in my chest when I saw the cemetery. So many numbers to represent lives lived and lost. So many who died alone, unmourned and misunderstood.

That’s because the cemetery is on the grounds of what used to be the Athens Lunatic Asylum. His name is not on his grave marker. Just a number.

Grave #153 contains the remains of Levi Martin Mercer, a great-grand uncle of mine who died in 1888 at the Athens Lunatic Asylum in Ohio.

Grave #153 contains the remains of Levi Martin Mercer, a great-grand uncle of mine who died in 1888 at the Athens Lunatic Asylum in Athens, Ohio. My thanks to the Athens County Historical Society and Museum for their assistance. Photo courtesy of Teresa Lemons.

Levi Martin Mercer was born in Mason, Va. in 1808 and grew up in Jackson County, Ohio. In 1828, he married Belinda Melissa Cantwell. The justice of the peace who married them was Michael McCoy, my great-great-great-great grandfather. He was also Levi’s brother-in-law. By 1850, Levi was farming in Hamilton Township, on the South side of Jackson County.

After 1850, something happened. The 1860 U.S. Census lists Levi as living as an inmate in Ward 1 of the Ohio Lunatic Asylum in Columbus, Ohio. He is listed as insane. The same Census lists Belinda as still living in Hamilton Township with their two youngest children (Levi D. and Andrew), farming 200 acres of land.

The Ohio Lunatic Asylum, sometimes called the Central Ohio Asylum, opened in 1838. It covered 30 acres and was purported to be where residents could actually be “cured” of their mental condition. In 1843, the Asylum’s director Dr. William Awl claimed a 100 percent cure rate of his patients.

He didn’t mention that the “cure” often meant the patient’s demise.

The first Ohio Lunatic Asylum in Columbus opened in 1838. It burned to the ground 30 years later.

The first Ohio Lunatic Asylum in Columbus opened in 1838. It burned to the ground 30 years later. The cause of the fire remains a mystery.

The Ohio Asylum burned to the ground in 1868. Only seven people did not survive. I don’t know if Levi was still living there at the time of the fire but reports say patients were routed to surrounding facilities during the years that the Asylum was rebuilt. A new, much larger building opened in 1877 with much fanfare.

The newly built Ohio Lunatic Asylum opened in 1877, a much larger facility on 100 acres of land in a different part of the city.

The newly built Ohio Lunatic Asylum opened in 1877, a much larger facility on 100 acres of land in a different part of the city. On this postcard it is called Institution for the Feeble Minded.

The 1870 Census reports Levi as living in Jackson County again, now as a member of the household of “sheriff and jailer” Jonathan Wade. He is still listed as insane.

What many people don’t know about the asylums of this era is that they were not used just for the mentally ill. It was common for families to drop elderly relatives off at the hospital when they could no longer afford to care for them. Parents committed teens for minor acts of rebellion. The homeless used it for temporary shelter. As a result, the Athens Asylum’s population went from about 200 to nearly 2,000 by the early 1900s.

Truthfully, I don’t know what kind of “insane” Levi was. But it was enough to separate him from his wife and children. Belinda died in 1874 and is buried in Glendale Cemetery in Scioto County, Ohio, not far from Jackson County. Daughter Mahala (and her husband) are buried nearby.

Levi's wife, Belinda, is buried in Glendale Cemetery in Scioto County, Ohio. She may have been living with her daughter, Mahala, when she died.

Levi’s wife, Belinda, is buried in Glendale Cemetery in Scioto County, Ohio. She may have been living with her daughter, Mahala, when she died.

In 1880, Levi appears on the U.S. Census for the final time. Still listed as insane, he lived in the household of J.M. Lynch along with his family. Lynch’s occupation is listed as jailer. Also listed is a 13-year-old servant named Elizabeth Spriggs, whose surname crops up frequently in my family tree.

This picture can give you an idea of just how vast the Athens Lunatic Asylum (now called The Ridges) was when it was in full operation. It opened in 1874 and closed in 1993, now owned by Ohio University.

This picture can give you an idea of just how vast the Athens Lunatic Asylum (now called The Ridges) was when it was in full operation. The facility had eight different names over the years. It opened in 1874 and closed in 1993, now owned by Ohio University.

Sometime after 1880, Levi moved into the Asylum in Athens and eventually died on Nov. 8, 1888 from some sort of heart ailment.

I can’t help wondering if Levi was one of those elderly relatives that was no longer convenient to have in the home.

In 2001 renovation work was completed on the main building, which today is known as Lin Hall and houses music, geology, and biotechnology offices, as well as the Kennedy Museum of Art. Nearly all of the dozens of hospital buildings have been remodeled and put to use by the University.  Photo courtesy of Theresa Lemons.

In 2001, renovation work was completed on the main building, which today is known as Lin Hall. It houses music, geology, and biotechnology offices, as well as the Kennedy Museum of Art. Nearly all of the dozens of hospital buildings have been remodeled and put to use by the University. Photo courtesy of Theresa Lemons.

The cemeteries at the Ridges (as it is now called) contain about 1,700 graves of patients who died there. There are mostly numbers. They didn’t start putting names on the graves until the 1940s. So most, like Levi’s marker, only have a number.

The Asylum was closed in 1993, its remaining patients bused to other more modern facilities before Ohio University purchased it.

Some say the place is abuzz with paranormal activity, haunted by the souls who lived there.

The Athens Lunatic Asylum is now known as the Ridges. There are three different cemeteries on the campus and more is being discovered about the people who lived there.

The Athens Lunatic Asylum is now known as the Ridges. There are three different cemeteries on the campus and more is being discovered about the people who lived there. Photo courtesy of Teresa Lemons.

This is the hillside where Levi is buried. A few of the descendants of patients who died here have purchased new markers with names and dates of the deceased on them.

This is the hillside where Levi is buried. A few of the descendants of patients who died here have purchased new markers with names and dates of the deceased on them. Photo courtesy of Teresa Lemons.

The Ridges is a rarity among former asylums that have come and gone. Many fell into decay after closing and had to be torn down. Some had cemeteries that time and the elements destroyed. Many remain a mystery because the shame that went with mental illness was so great in decades past. In some ways, it still is.

The Athens branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has spent the last several years cleaning up and repairing the cemeteries, which had fallen into a sad state by the 1990s. There’s also a walking trail.

A group called the Friends of Athens Asylum Cemeteries was formed to help connect the descendants of those buried at the Ridges to their loved ones. They are working to raise funds to put new markers with names and dates on them. To give an identity to those numbers. As it turns out, a number of men buried at the Ridges were military veterans. So far, 43 of the 89 known veterans have received a stone.

Over 80 veterans from various wars are buried at the Ridges. About half now have markers with their names and dates on them. Photo courtesy of The Post.

Over 80 veterans from various wars are buried at the Ridges. About half now have markers with their names and dates on them. Photo courtesy of The Post.

I’ve never been to the Ridges but someday I will. I’d like to give Levi a proper marker after all of these years. To give his number a name, an identity. As someone who has struggled with chronic clinical depression since my 20s, I know what it’s like to have the label of mental illness attached to me. Maybe not the way he did. But I understand what that means.

I owe him that much.

 

 

Alkaline Hydrolysis: Water Cremation and the “Ick Factor”

Note: Today’s post is a little graphic in describing how cremation works.

I recently wrote about the history of cremation in America and how it’s becoming more popular every year. However, an alternative form of cremation is gaining attention that’s truly different. Resomation, bio-cremation and flameless cremation are a few of the buzzwords used, but the scientific name for the procedure is alkaline hydrolysis (AH).

So how do you cremate a body without a fire?

This graphic from Resomation, Ltd. explains the alkaline hydrolysis process. It does not address the less pleasant issues attached to it.

This graphic from Resomation, Ltd. explains the alkaline hydrolysis process. The company was founded in 2007 in Glasgow, Scotland by Sandy Sullivan. Ironically, AH is still not legal in the U.K. at this time.

Alkaline hydrolysis is a water-based chemical resolving process using strong alkali in water at temperatures of up to 350F (180C), which quickly reduces the body to bone fragments. Experts say it’s basically a very accelerated version of natural decomposition that occurs to the body over many years after it is buried in the soil.

AH was originally developed in Europe in the 1990s as a method of disposing of cows infected with mad cow disease. In England, AH for humans is not fully legalized yet. It’s usually referred to as resomation there because the commercial process was first introduced and trademarked by Resomation, Ltd. They received the Jupiter Big Idea Award (from actor Colin Firth, no less) at the 2010 Observer Ethical Awards.

Yes, that's Colin Firth (aka Mr. Darcy) on the end. He presented the 2010 Jupiter Big Idea Award to Resomation, Ltd. at the Observer Ethics Awards. The firm's founds, Sandy Sullivan, is standing to his left.

Yes, that’s Colin Firth (aka Mr. Darcy) on the end. He presented the Jupiter Big Idea Award to Resomation, Ltd. at the 2010 The Observer Ethical Awards. The firm’s founder, Sandy Sullivan, is standing to his left. Photo courtesy of The Observer.

The University of Florida and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota already use AH to dispose of cadavers. It’s not surprising that both states were among the first to legalize its use. The other states are Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, Kansas, Maine and Maryland.

But why would someone want to do what amounts to liquifying the body with lye instead of traditional cremation? Some people worry about the carbon footprint left behind by traditional cremation. AH is supposed to remove that problem.

In the traditional process that uses fire, cremating one corpse requires two to three hours and more than 1,800 degrees of heat. That’s enough energy to release 573 lbs. of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to environmental analysts. In many cases, dental compounds such as fillings also go up in smoke, sending mercury vapors into the air unless the crematorium has a chimney filter.

Made of solid pine, this cremation casket is sold by the ABC Caskets Factory in Los Angeles, Calif. At $475, the "Highland Pine" is the least expensive casket they sell. Some people simply opt for a cardboard box to save the expense. Picture courtesy of ABC Caskets Factory.

Made of solid pine, this cremation casket is sold by the ABC Caskets Factory in Los Angeles, Calif. At $475, the “Highland Pine” is the least expensive casket they sell. Some people simply opt for a cardboard box to save the expense. Photo courtesy of ABC Caskets Factory.

During AH, a body is placed in a steel chamber along with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide. Air pressure inside the vessel is increased to about 145 pounds per square inch, and the temperature is raised to about 355F. After two to three hours, the corpse is reduced to bones that are then crushed into a fine, white powder. That dust can be scattered by families or placed in an urn. Dental fillings are separated out for safe disposal.

Anthony A. Lombardi, division manager for Matthews Cremation, demonstrates a bio-cremation (AH) machine. Photo courtesy of Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel.

Anthony A. Lombardi, division manager for Matthews Cremation, demonstrates a bio-cremation (AH) machine. Photo courtesy of Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/The Orlando Sentinel.

AH is purported to use about one-seventh of the energy required for traditional cremation. Some studies indicate that AH could save 30-million board feet of hardwood each year from cremation coffins. That’s very attractive to some people. However, one question remains. What happens to what’s leftover from the process (besides the ashes)?

That’s when the “Ick Factor” comes in.

Leftover liquids – including acids and soaps from body fat – plus the added water and chemicals, are disposed of through a waste water treatment process, according to John Ross, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.

In other words, it goes down the drain like everything else.

“It’s very similar to the treatment of excess water from any (industrial) facility. In fact, it probably has less of a chemical signature than would you find (in liquids) coming out of most (industrial) plants,” Ross said.

Ryan Cattoni, funeral director at AquaGreen Dispositions LLC, offers the first "flameless cremation" in Illinois. Photo courtesy of  Brian Jackson/The Sun-Times.

Ryan Cattoni, funeral director at AquaGreen Dispositions LLC, offers the first “flameless cremation” (AH) in Illinois. “[The manufacturer] said they can put a 500-pound person in the machine,” Cattoni says. Photo courtesy of Brian Jackson/The Chicago Sun-Times.

Still, the visual picture that creates is not very attractive. In fact, a 2008 article about AH said the thick coffee-colored liquid left behind resembles motor oil and has a strong ammonia smell. Not exactly something you want to put on a colorful marketing brochure.

AH became legal in Colorado in 2011. Steffani Blackstone, executive director of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association, spoke frankly about the “Ick Factor” when legislation to approve AH was being crafted.

“People seem to have objections when they actually think about that too long. They ask: ‘Well what happens? Does (the body) turn to sludge?’ And the thought of grandma being sludge is kind of disgusting to them.”

Some have compared the remaining processed liquid after AH to motor oil. That's not an image most people want to have in their head when remembering a loved on. Photo courtesy of Alf van Beem/Museum terug in de tijd, the Netherlands.

Some have described the remaining processed liquid after AH as having the color and consistency of motor oil. That’s not an image most people want to have in their head when remembering a loved one. Photo courtesy of Alf van Beem/Museum terug in de tijd, the Netherlands.

While currently legal in only eight states, the movement to make it so in others is real. In New York, the legislation became known as “Hannibal Lechter’s Bill.” New Hampshire legalized AH in 2006 but banned it a year later. In Ohio, the Catholic Church is a vocal opponent to AH and it has yet to be fully approved there.

Jeff Edwards, an Ohio funeral director who performed several AH procedures before being told to stop, filed a lawsuit in March 2011 against the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors after ODH quit issuing permits for AH body disposals. A judge ruled that ODH and the board had the authority to determine what is an acceptable form of disposition of a human body, as set forth in the Ohio Revised Code.

The cost of an AH machine can range from $200,000 to $400,000, depending on its size and capacity. That hefty price tag did not stop Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home in St. Petersburg, Fla., from becoming the first in the state to purchase one to provide AH to their clients. They refer to AH as “flameless cremation”.

Funeral home president and owner John McQueen said in a 2011 article that he planned to charge clients the same prices for AH cremations as the traditional ones, which can cost from $1,000 to $2,000.

Anderson McQueen became the first funeral home in Florida to offer alkaline hydrolysis to its clients. They call it "flameless cremation".

Anderson-McQueen became the first funeral home in Florida to offer alkaline hydrolysis to its clients. They call it “flameless cremation”.

So what do I think? In the end, traditional cremation sends its byproducts up into the air. AH sends them into the water for treatment. Which is better for the environment? I don’t know. I’m not fond of the idea of being burned up or liquified, especially the latter. The “Ick Factor” does give me pause.

A pine box in the cemetery still sounds better to me.

pineboxwithflowers

Highway to Heaven: The Death of Respect and Funeral Processions

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility.

Truth be told, people still don’t like stopping for death. Emily Dickinson knew what she was talking about.

In past posts, I’ve mentioned how my life in the South has shaped my views on death and funerals. If one thing has stayed with me, it’s the level of respect most Southerners show for the dead.

This is a picture of the funeral procession for seven children in Pennsylvania who died in a house first. The purple and white flags marked "funeral" are typically used by most funeral homes or they ask drivers to simply turn on their headlights. Photo courtesy of The Patriot News.

This is a picture of the funeral procession for seven children in Pennsylvania who died in a house fire. The purple and white flags marked “funeral” are typically used by most funeral homes or they ask drivers to simply turn on their headlights or hazard lights. Photo courtesy of The Patriot News.

Funeral processions (meaning the line of vehicles that follow the hearse when it leaves the church with the deceased to go to a cemetery) were not an everyday event in the small town where I grew up. But I do remember them. What stood out in my mind is that in every case, unless it was impossible to do so, almost every driver pulled over to the side of the road as the line of cars slowly went by. I remember asking my father why the first time I saw it.

He simply said, “It’s out of respect for the person who died.”

Fast forward to this week as I was doing some Internet research on this topic. I found an etiquette discussion board where people were hashing out the issue of funeral procession manners. One person described how her “DH” (dear husband) was forced by the police to pull over due to a lengthy funeral procession for a local boy who had been killed in a high-profile shooting. A tragic event, to be sure.

Apparently, having to do this was a major affront to her husband. She wrote:

DH was appalled. He was perfectly willing to give them space and be respectful but what about the rest of the public? Are they truly supposed to just shut down because someone they don’t know died?

Yes, ma’am, they are. It’s called respect.

Community Motorized Escort Service of Memphis escorts a funeral procession  for Harrison's Funeral Home Inc. Owner Marcus Eddins said drivers often are distracted and don't notice the man on the motorcycle waving a procession of cars through. Photo courtesy of The Commercial Appeal.

Community Motorized Escort Service of Memphis escorts a funeral procession for Harrison’s Funeral Home, Inc. Notice the drivers on the right who have pulled over out of respect. That’s becoming hard to find these days. Photo courtesy of The Commercial Appeal.

Life is a lot more hectic in this modern age. The pace is faster and people have places to go, things to do. Even in the South, the practice of pulling over (especially here in Atlanta) is something I sadly see less often. The city “too busy to hate” can often be the city too busy to care.

But how often, really, do we encounter funeral processions these days? I see maybe two to three a year, tops. Is it that hard to give a life that has passed a few minutes of respect? Does it matter that you don’t know them?

No, it isn’t always possible to pull over. Maybe you’re in a congested highway and there’s no way you can safely do so. I understand that. Nobody should risk their life or that of their family for a funeral procession. That’s crazy.

But if you can, you should.

One issue I won’t quibble on concerns drivers cutting through a funeral procession to save time. It’s just plain wrong.

States have various laws concerning funeral processions. Some states say it’s okay for the drivers to follow the hearse through a red light, others forbid it. Some states have no formal laws about it at all. But almost all have something on the books forbidding anyone to cut into a funeral procession except for emergency vehicles like an ambulance.

This van, which was traveling in a funeral procession in Milwaukee, Wisc., was overturned when a pickup truck slammed into it. Photo courtesy of Tom Held/Journal-Sentinel.

This van, which was traveling in a funeral procession in Milwaukee, Wisc., was overturned when a pickup truck slammed into it. Photo courtesy of Tom Held/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

In the past, most police departments provided their escort services to funeral homes free of charge. Some small towns still do. But with many police departments underfunded and understaffed, this is becoming a thing of the past.

Cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, Charlotte, Las Vegas and Minneapolis no longer provide funeral escorts unless it is for a fellow fallen officer, fireman or military personnel killed in action. So now funeral homes have to hire off-duty cops or privately owned security firms to do it. This cost is ultimately passed on to the family.

Liability concerns are another reason police departments aren’t providing their escort services. Courts in Tennessee and Florida have found that police and funeral homes that provide escorts for funeral processions can be held liable for crashes that occur during the processions.

In Memphis, Marcus Eddins owns Community Motorized Escort Service. In a 2011 news article, he said drivers are often distracted and don’t notice the man on the motorcycle in the middle of an intersection waving a procession of cars through. “I’ve seen them (drivers) texting, putting on makeup, eating cereal, reading a book — you name it,” Eddins said.

In addition, police officers acting as funeral escorts have been injured in Memphis by drivers attempting to cut through processions. In 2011, five police officers were killed while acting as funeral escorts.

A 2012 article in The Washington Post quoted funeral director Archer Harmon when he said, “We have cellphones in one hand, Starbucks in the other and what is in front of you doesn’t matter at that point. They just don’t care, in this society we live in now.”

It frustrates me that people cannot pause for a few minutes to recognize and honor the life of a fellow human being. Maybe deep down, some people are so scared of Death coming to stop for them that it’s easier to close their eyes and ignore it.

In the same 2012 article, funeral director P.A. Wilson said he thought respect for the dead hadn’t totally evaporated yet. “If you go to the South, they show respect. In the eastern part of North Carolina, the people pull to the side of the road on both sides, regardless of what race is being buried, black or white. They still show some respect.”

Maybe respect isn’t totally dead after all.

An elderly gentleman stops to show his respect during the funeral procession of a Beaumont, Texas police officer killed in the line of duty. Photo courtesy of Guiseppe Barranco/The Enterprise.

An elderly gentleman stops to show his respect during the funeral procession of a Beaumont, Texas police officer killed in the line of duty. Photo courtesy of Guiseppe Barranco/The Enterprise.

Causes of Death

In 2013, the winner of the infamous Darwin Award was Lee Halpin, a British journalist who pretended to be homeless for a few days in an effort to produce a documentary about the problem. He was found dead on April 3 in a boarded up youth hostel in his hometown of Newscastle. Initially, people thought it was due to hypothermia since the recent weather had been so bitterly cold.

British journalist Lee Halpin died while trying to get an understanding of what it was truly like to live homeless on the streets. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

British journalist Lee Halpin died while trying to get an understanding of what it was truly like to live homeless on the streets. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

Months later, however, a report came out stating this was not the case. Halpin died of something I had never heard of before: Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. Apparently, this is the term British pathologists use when they’ve ruled out everything else (including hypothermia).

In other words, they don’t what the cause of death was.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list heart disease as the top cause of death in America, with cancer coming in second. Not surprising. But in my experience as a cemetery hopper, I’ve found that there are many ways to die. Some of them are surprising. Like walking into what you think is an elevator car and falling to your death, as Riley Owen Medlock found out. I wrote about him last year. I’ve seen many causes of death, from “apoplexy” to cholera to diabetes miletus.

I recently visited Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, S.C. While there, I photographed several rows of graves to post later on Find a Grave. Most of the graves had been documented with memorial pages already, but many of them had not been photographed.

When I do this, I look to see if the deceased is related to anyone else buried at that cemetery so I can “link” the two memorials. The research I do on Ancestry.com often results in some interesting surprises. South Carolina has many of their death records on Ancestry so it’s often possible to see a person’s cause of death.

Matilda Barber's grave is not unusual. It simply lists her and that of her two husbands. But one died in a surprising way.

Matilda Barber’s grave is not unusual. It simply lists her and that of her two husbands. But one died in a surprising way.

For example, there’s the grave of Matilda Barber Hutson Easterling. It’s a small stone inscribed with her maiden name, her birth/death dates, and the names of her two husbands. Neither is buried beside her but her first husband, Joseph Hutson, is buried somewhere at Magnolia. He died in 1908.

In looking up Joseph’s records, I learned he was an engineer who died at the age of 33. Cause of death?

Suicide by ingestion of rat poison.

I don't often see "suicide rat poison" on a death record.

I don’t often see “suicide rat poison” on a death record.

Now I don’t know about you, but that’s not something you see on a death record every day. Even in my work. Back then, people used potent toxic chemicals for many reasons. I can’t say for sure what type of poison Hutson took but it could have been anything from arsenic to cyanide to yellow phosphorous. Not a painless way to die at all. I don’t know what drove him to take such a drastic step but he did.

Matilda, who was in her mid-30s at the time, was a widow for several years after Joseph’s death. She married Harold Easterling sometime in her 60s and died when she was almost 80. Some have suggested to me that Matilda might have had something to do with her first husband’s demise. But nothing indicates she was ever investigated or charged with any crime. They didn’t have the forensic tools we have today to explore the possibilities.

When I visited Decatur Cemetery earlier this year, I took a picture of the grave of a young father named Grier Almand. He worked for the railroad, was married and had two young children. I knew he had died young but I didn’t know why until I did some research.

On Oct. 29, 1901, Grier had just coupled two railroad cars and walked between two other cars when he was struck by a switch engine. The engineer did not see him. Unfortunately, Grier’s legs were almost entirely severed from his body. They took him to Grady Hospital but after an operation, he died.

Grier Almand's gravestone indicates nothing about the horrible cause of his death.

Grier Almand’s gravestone indicates nothing about the horrible cause of his death.

I was able to determine that Grier’s widow, Clifford, filed suit against the railroad for damages. I don’t know if she won the suit or not. She is buried with Grier, a simple marker inscribed “Wife” beside his much more ornate stone. I have a guess that the railroad may have paid for Grier’s marker as it most likely cost far more than a railroad worker’s salary could cover.

Deaths caused by accidents in railroad yards did occur with some frequency years ago. Another man I researched (buried in Magnolia Cemetery) died as the result of his work in a railroad yard. More recently, I once worked for a man whose wife died while attempting to step onto a passenger train in Germany. This probably happened in the mid-90s.

More often than not, people die from very ordinary causes. But every now and then, one will really stand out. And sometimes, we never do find out why, as in Lee Halpin’s case.

Perhaps some mysteries are meant to remain unsolved.

A Girl and Her Dog: Modern Remembrance at Magnolia Cemetery

Discovering old, unique gravestones always excites me. Even the bizarre ones with skeletons reclining against hourglasses, like the one below.

I featured this photo of a Charleston grave marker in a past blog post.

I featured this photo of a Charleston grave marker in a past blog post.

I admit, I am not a very enthusiastic fan of most modern markers, be they flat bronze plates that enable cemetery grounds crews to mow the grass more easily, or row after row of the same mid-century marble gravestones.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that most people cannot afford the elaborate statuary that I come across in older cemeteries. Some of it is so grand and ornate, it boggles the mind that someone had the money to pay for it. The type of craftsmen who spent months sculpting such works of art no longer exist. The creativity that so detailed those old stones seems to have faded into the sunset.

My viewpoint was challenged when I recently returned to Charleston and visited Magnolia Cemetery again. I came across a modern gravestone that even a traditionalist like me could stop and appreciate. From the moment I saw it, I realized that the person it was made for was very special. My apologies for the darkness of some of the photos.

The memorial stone for Mackenzie Addison Gardner is stunning in its heartfelt simplicity. A girl with her beloved dog.

The memorial stone for Mackenzie Addison Gardner tugs at the heartstrings.

A little girl and her beloved canine companion.

A little girl and her beloved canine companion.

Mackenzie Addison Gardner was only 11 when she died in 2007. A short life, to be sure. But the words engraved in the stone describe a child who lit up the world around her.

"Love Beyond Words"

“Love Beyond Words”

I don’t know much about Mackenzie. The obituary on her Find a Grave memorial page says the following:

…[she] was a member of the Jazz Dance Group of the Mount Pleasant School of Performing Arts and the Pinckney Players and enjoyed horseback riding, playing violin, going to the beach and lake, and making her parents proud. Mackenzie will be remembered by her close friends and family for being the bravest girl they will ever know.

The obituary also requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. I can only surmise that Mackenzie had CF and that her cause of death may have been tied to it.

I also don’t know anything about the protective, loving canine she is embracing on the monument. But it appears they were dear friends and companions. The emotion this carving evokes in those who see it is palpable.

I was actually driving away from this part of the cemetery when I saw it and had to stop, get out and look at it. The shaded vista it’s located in is quiet and perfect for meditating. Just what she would have wanted, I think.

Mackenzie’s memorial changed my mind about modern gravestones. I’m happy to say I now look at them with a less jaded eye and am more open to the possibilities. I will always love the old, unique stones. But there’s room for the appreciation of new ones, too.

Rest in peace, Mackenzie.

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