Let's Be Practical


"Fridge" Coffin Wins Design Title

I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.

- Mark Twain

An inventor has designed a refrigerated coffin in an attempt to cope with South Africa's Aids death rate of about 600 every day.  Pieter van Rensburg's mobile mortuary can preserve bodies for up to a month, long enough for families to arrange traditional funerals and mourners to travel from all over the country.  The "porta-morgue" looks like a normal coffin but with a cooling unit at one end.  Mr van Rensburg said it could keep a corpse fresh for a month at 4° Centigrade.  The design so impressed the South African Bureau of Standards that it won its annual award for prototypes.

Adrienne Viljoen, the bureau's design institute manager, said the device "demonstrates the down-to-earth practicality of how to preserve your loved one until burial".

Source: smh.com.au from The Telegraph, London 26 January 2004

With a refrigerated coffin, the need for embalming (along with its associated very nasty chemicals and gross and intrusive equipment) would be eliminated.  After the body was displayed in the refrigerated unit for the funeral (if that's your thing), then it could be interred in an inexpensive fibreboard or cardboard box.  The greatest expense would be paying for a backhoe to dig a deep hole.  The coffin could then be re-used.

Collapsible Coffin

The biggest problem with this coffin is that the manufacturer apparently requires the purchase of a case of 250.  Maybe a group could get together?

Source: world-trader.com

Caskets for Less at Costco

Supplier says warehouse retailer is testing six styles at two of its Chicago-area locations

New York - Warehouse retailer Costco Wholesale, bulk seller of products to help save you money in life, is offering a way to save money in death, too.  The Issaquah, Washington-based wholesale club operator is testing six models of steel caskets at two of its locations in the Chicago area.  "We're trying to offer value to our customers like with everything else that we sell," said Gary Ojendyk, Costco's general manager of merchandising.  Ojendyk said the retailer has set up a special order program in which customers can select a casket in either of the two locations and have it shipped to their mortuary of choice within 48 hours.  Ojendyk declined to comment on the duration of the test phase or whether Costco would offer the service to more stores.

The caskets, manufactured by Cassopolis, Michigan-based Universal Casket Company, are 84 inches in length and 28 inches in width and come in a variety of colours.  The suggested retail price for each casket is $799.99, said Edward Jones, Universal's general manager.  According to Jones, the price range of caskets can vary greatly from a few hundred dollars to even thousands of dollars.  "The price is typically predicated by the cost of doing business in an area," said Jones.  "However, there usually is a significant price difference between buying a casket at a funeral home and buying one at Costco."  While most caskets are still typically purchased at funeral homes, Jones said sales of caskets over the Internet have also picked up over the last few years.

David Walkinshaw, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said he doesn't think Costco's entry into the casket market will significantly impact the funeral home business.  "Third-party suppliers have been around for a while now," said Walkinshaw.  "Costco is pricing caskets at $800, but many funeral homes offer caskets for much less than that amount.  I don't think this will change the landscape of the market.  In moments of death, people are looking for peace of mind and comfort.  They don't want to be running around to different stores.  With a funeral home, they can be guaranteed that the condition and delivery of the casket will meet their requirements.  With a retail store, those issues are no longer the funeral director's problem."

Source: money.cnn.com  17 August 2004

Several comments: According to the 19 August edition of The Economist, death does not come cheap in America.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reckons that the cost of a no-frills burial is $6,000.  Extras such as flowers and a limousine can add thousands of dollars to the bill.  The biggest expense is the casket which, in fancy mahogany or copper, can cost as much as a family car.  The main reason I can see for buying a casket at Costco is convenience - if someone dies unexpectedly and, having made no plans, one is faced with decisions which must be made at once and expenses higher than one ever imagined, going to the neighbourhood retailer may seem like a good idea at the time.  Might.  Costco has received a lot of flack over their decision to sell coffins from customers who say they don't want to be shopping and, rounding a corner, come upon something that reminds them of death.  (Ignoring death, sadly, doesn't make it go away.)

Unfortunately, these caskets aren't all that cheap.  I have since seen inexpensive willow caskets that look like baskets.  Or body bags that serve the purpose just as well.  Unfortunately, Oklahoma has a law that permits only licensed funeral directors to sell caskets.  I hope other states don't follow suit.

Using Imagination

Coca Cola Coffin: Young carpenters open a coffin shaped
like a Coca Cola bottle in the Ghanaian capital of Accra.

Ghana has earned a special reputation for the world's most colourful and imaginative coffins.  Sometimes fatalities are kept in the fridge of the morgue for almost 3 weeks until the carpenters have finished their shaped coffins to show mourners the profession or the individuality of the deceased.

Source: stuff.co.nz from Reuters

Composting the Dead?

by Lone Frank

If public opinion proves favourable, Sweden may soon have a more environmentally friendly way of disposing of dead bodies - freezing and composting them.  A scientist has come up with a method for turning corpses into humus in a matter of weeks.  "We have to face that there are problems related to conventional burial and cremation," says Susanne Wiigh-Masak, a biologist educated at Gothenburg University and a freelance environmental consultant in Lyrö.  Cemeteries sometimes pose a threat to metropolitan water supplies, she notes, and cremation emits toxic gasses.

Her method involves freezing the body, then immersing it in liquid nitrogen to remove water, causing the body to crumble into dust.  The 20 to 30 kilograms of fine organic powder that remain are "completely odorless and hygienic," says Wiigh-Masak, who has tested the method on pig and cow carcasses.  The remains can be placed in a biodegradable container that disintegrates within 6 months.  She says the results make good potting soil: she has planted roses over test coffins with excellent results.

Ecologist Steen Ebbersteen of Uppsala University says the method may be a practical way to stem pollution while enriching the soil.  "Ecologically speaking, it is highly desirable to replace a decomposing process that takes decades with fast, clean composting," he says.

Cost-effectiveness remains to be seen - liquid nitrogen is expensive - but there don't seem to be any serious political obstacles to Wiigh-Masak's scheme.  She says The Church of Sweden is not offended by it, and government officials have told her that with public support, the relevant laws could be easily changed.  She hopes to see her first green burial next year.

Source: bric.postech.ac.kr 13 June 2001 © American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A New Twist on Composting

Our NaturTech containerized composters with aerated floors, temperature control, and EPA based pathogen destruction documentation have been used to successfully compost mortalities from chickens, turkeys and pigs up to 900 pounds without grinding.  There is no reason to believe that a 200-pound human could not also be composted.  I don't see the need for the chemical stage of liquid nitrogen prior to composting as used in Sweden, except as it may reduce the volume of material to be decomposed.  The process takes about 20 days with an additional 60 days of curing.  The only signs of the corpse in the compost are some hair and teeth.  Flesh decomposes within 7 days, bones within 14.  I guess that humans at 200 pounds would need a minimum of 20,000 pounds per batch to ensure full decomposition, although as little as 2,000 is theoretical.  50,000 is a typical size batch in our composting containers.

Composting produces more than an urn of final remains.  With 10 to 25 tons per batch with 50% weight reduction, that means 5-13 tons of finished compost.  This requires up to one acre at annual loading rates or intensive incorporation of 10,000 square feet up to 25,000.  Perhaps a smaller batch is feasible if the end-use land availability or transportation issue is a concern.  The 65 pounds of matter from freeze drying could reduce the composting mass by 75%, but this could also be achieved by grinding, which would evenly incorporate the flesh into the bulking matter.  I think a 2,000-pound batch is feasible with 1,000 pounds of finished compost resulting.  This could be incorporated into 108 square feet of a flower garden or one large tree with a 3" layer tilled in.

I know this is all very grisly, but so is cremation and so is burial.  Draining blood and pumping the body full of toxic formaldehyde or even more toxic chemicals for embalming is not very exciting either.  The bereaved do not need to know or care about the details.  We are talking about an important public service that is far superior to the ancient and arcane death rituals that pollute our air, ground and water.  I too want my remains composted after organs are donated, so it may be up to me to help start the business.  Dealing with human mortalities may be the last great social taboo to be addressed by an enlightened populace.  Most of our burial practices have not changed in over 4,000 years, largely derived from the Egyptian concept of preservation of the flesh for reuse in the afterlife.  My belief system tells me that the body is dead meat requiring waste management technology prior to beneficial reuse as plant nutrients.

The bottom line is that composting dead human bodies is feasible technically and safe regarding public health and environmental quality.  The composting industry can supply the equipment, but starting the business of composting human mortalities is not for the faint of heart.  I don't know if composting would work in conjunction with or in competition with the cremators.  How about a new term, the biotorium, to describe where the bodies are sent?

I am open to suggestions, including to forget the idea.

Jim McNelly
The Compost Man

Source: mailman.cloudnet.com

Natural Burial

[Friedensreich] Hundertwasser, [best known for his first building, Hundertwasser House, in Vienna, which attracts more than a million visitors each year,] chose to be buried at his Kawakawa residence [about a four-hour drive from Auckland in the Bay of Islands], straight in the ground, without a coffin.

I think it’s an enormous honour that this man, who had been just about everywhere in the world, elected New Zealand as his final resting place.  He was well aware of the skepticism with which he was regarded here, but although we, embroiled in our local quest for identity, turned our back on this flamboyant adoptive son, he never turned his back on us.  He’s become the literal apotheosis of everything he ever stood for: fertilizer.  What more practical help can one give to the growth of a nation?

Source: fusionanomaly.net/tessa/hundertwasser.html originally from the Taschen monograph, by Harry Rand, (1991)

See also:

bullet100 Drops of Water: Enlivening the Planet (in the section on Society and Culture) - An obituary of Friedrich Stowasser, better known as Friedensreich Hundertwasser...

A Wake and A Sleep: Pub Offers Pints and Burial Plots

A game of darts or a packet of peanuts are what most pubs sell customers to go with their beer, but one landlord is offering them something rather more lasting - a final resting place.  Regulars at the Church Inn need not leave their favourite drinking spot even when their time on earth is up, because landlord Julian Taylor has turned a field next door into a cemetery.

"The idea came about when my dad was ill," said Taylor, who bought the country pub near Manchester 11 years ago.  "We are in a beautiful spot at the top of a hill and he said he'd like to be buried looking down into the valley."  Locals liked the idea and have started buying plots themselves, he said on Friday.

"One regular has even asked his friends to take their pints out into the cemetery on Friday nights after he dies - in memory of his happy nights in the pub," Taylor said.

Source: stuff.co.nz 31 January 2004

Dead Wrong: Co-op Use Human Ashes to Grit Path

by Steve Dinneen

Undertakers have been accused of using human ashes to grit the path outside their funeral home.  Workers at a co-op parlour claimed their boss laughed about the grotesque practice, which they said has been going on for years.  Staff told how ashes left over from cremations were mixed with grit and scattered on a disabled ramp outside.  One said: "Sometimes when families ask to get relatives' ashes back, the plastic container for them is too small.  This wasn't every time but every now and then there were too many remains.  Instead of getting a bigger container, the spare ashes were tipped into an emptied-out bottle of embalming fluid which also contained grit."  The worker, a funeral director for 8 years, added: "In winter when it was frosty, the boss would tell one of the staff to go and salt the road outside the office so that people wouldn't slip on ice - and the remains from the bottle were used."  The disgusted former staff at Co-op Funeralcare in Dunfermline, Fife, claimed operations manager Bob Aitchison knew of the practice and failed to stop it.

It was also alleged that used coffins were sold as new and one family were given the wrong ashes after they turned up at the parlour to collect their loved ones' remains.

Last night Co-op bosses ordered an immediate investigation and suspended a member of staff.  Two former workers and a current employee told the Sunday Mail that they had seen ashes scattered outside the funeral parlour in the town's Dewar Street.  One worker said: "All the lads knew it was wrong but it's just one of those things you do without really thinking about it.  The ashes had to go somewhere but to scatter them on the pavement is just awful.  There's every chance people living nearby will have walked through the remains - some of them have probably even inhaled them.  The excess ashes that weren't put in the grit box were just binned."

A second man, who served in the branch for 4 years before quitting in February, said: "I did see people putting human remains on the disabled ramp and Bob Aitchison was aware of this.  The matter was raised by at least one member of staff but nothing was ever done.  I managed to avoid gritting the ramp but I witnessed it first-hand.  I went into that line of work to help people in their grief - not to do things like that.  On more than one occasion people complained to the management and they did nothing.  It is absolutely shocking - it's part of the reason I moved on."

A third whistleblower, who still works at the branch, said: "The last time I saw this happen was in winter last year but other workers say it happened this winter too.  I saw with my own eyes the remains being put down on to the disabled ramp.  Bob Aitchison found out that some of these ashes had been stuck to shoes and treaded back into the office but he just laughed."

It is also claimed staff disposed of ashes which were later to be claimed by a bereaved family by accident.  One worker said that, when the family arrived, their urn was filled with ashes which had lain unclaimed in the office for 50 years.

All three workers said some families were sold dirty coffins that had been used to transport dozens of bodies as "new".  The "removal coffins" were not cleaned but sprayed with air-freshener and any marks covered up with a felt-tip pen, it is claimed.  It is also alleged members of staff were awarded national diplomas in funeral directing even though they had not completed the course.  A Co-op Funeralcare spokesman said: "These serious allegations relating to our Dunfermline branch are being fully investigated. Co-operative Funeralcare operates a strict code of conduct for employees.  We will not hesitate to take appropriate action against anyone shown to have breached that code.  To make our investigation as effective as possible, we would urge the employee and former employees making the allegations to come forward so we can consider their evidence."

The Co-op Funeralcare parlour handles more than 1,000 funerals a year from Cowdenbeath, Lochgelly and Dunfermline.  A funeral provided by the Co-op can cost up to £3,000.  Six funeral directors work at the branch as well as the management team.  In 2003 we revealed that the Dunfermline Co-op had buried squaddie Jamie Henderson, 22, in the wrong grave by mistake.  They offered to correct their mistake - for an extra £3,000.  The firm also delivered flowers from Jamie's young nephews with the message "from the dogs" instead of "from the boys".  Andrew Beveridge, Co-op Funeralcare's regional director, admitted in a letter: "We have fallen short of your expectations while dealing with the funeral arrangements for your son.  The lack of attention with the flowers and cards is unacceptable.  I can assure you actions have been taken against the funeral director concerned, and procedures put in place to prevent this happening again."

Source: sundaymail.co.uk 9 April 2007

Case of Stolen Cadavers Roils UCLA Med School

by Miriam Jordan

Los Angeles - A seller's market in human body parts has claimed its latest casualty: the reputation of the University of California, Los Angeles.  Apparently unseen - and for a period of several years - Ernest Nelson, who isn't a university employee, allegedly entered the body freezer on the 7th floor at the medical center of UCLA.  Hours later, he would leave with hands, knees or other body parts for his clients, believed to be biomedical companies who need them for research and tissue transplants, officials say.  Over the weekend, Mr Nelson, 46 years old, and Henry Reid, 54, the director of UCLA's Willed Body Program, were arrested on charges connected to illegally selling human remains.  Both men have been released from jail after posting bail.  Another UCLA employee, also believed to have accepted money for body parts, has been placed on leave.  That employee hasn't been charged.

It isn't clear how much money was involved.  Police allege that Messrs Nelson and Reid were profiting from booming demand for body parts from the private sector.  That demand is being driven by biomedical research and the popularity of cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, which sometimes requires tissue implants.  "There is, in fact, a market for every body part," says Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  "There are more than 100 human-tissue specimens you can sell, from heads and limbs down to glands and slices of things," Ms Roach said.  "Nothing is ever wasted."  She said body parts range in price from a few hundred dollars to as much as several thousand.

UCLA's donated-body program, the oldest in the country, receives about 175 bodies every year from people who have agreed to donate their bodies for use by researchers and medical students.  Many of the families of the individuals who donated their bodies thought the bodies were being used to train medical students or to enable scientists to perform life- saving research at the acclaimed institution.  Outcry among relatives of donors prompted UCLA Monday to set up a toll-free phone line to help assuage their concerns.

UCLA uncovered the transactions after Mr Nelson tried to extract payment from the university for body parts he said he had bought and then been ordered to return, said UCLA attorney Louis Marlin.  In the letter, Mr Nelson's lawyer threatened to sue Mr Reid and UCLA.  A university internal audit then raised questions about the accuracy of documentation in its Willed Body Program.  A police investigation continues.  Messrs Nelson and Reid couldn't be reached to comment.

It is illegal to sell body parts for profit, but middlemen are allowed to charge "reasonable" fees to cover their expenses.  "The price is based on processing, shipping and handling," said Ms Roach, the author.  A multitude of websites of organisations offer body parts to medical companies, such as pharmaceutical firms and medical-instrument makers.  Often, the organisations get the tissue samples and body samples from hospitals and universities.  But a shortage has created a black market and other scandals.  For instance, in 1999 the director of the willed-body program at the University of California, Irvine, was fired in a scandal over spines sold for profit.

UCLA's Willed Body Program has come under fire before.  In 1996, lawyers representing the families of about 18,000 participants in the program sued the university for improperly disposing of remains.  The lawsuit, which is still pending, accused the university of cremating cadavers in groups and dumping them in a landfill.  Over the weekend, UCLA posted a security guard on the 7th floor of the medical center near the freezer.

Write to Miriam Jordan at miriam.jordan@wsj.com

Source: online.wsj.com 9 March 2004

Funeral Directors Face Trial for Selling Corpses for Spare Parts

Three American funeral directors sold 244 corpses at £500 a time to a New York businessman who trafficked in the resale of often-diseased body parts, a court has heard.  Stolen bones, skin and tissue - almost impossible to trace from donor to recipient due to forged documents - were transplanted in unsuspecting medical patients worldwide, the grand jury in Philadelphia found.  The case will now go to trial.

Families of the dead had no idea the bodies were being ransacked.  Michael Mastromarino, a businessman and former dentist, ran the scheme with the help of a team of "cutters" who stole the body parts, authorities said. Mastromarino, who ran a company called Biomedical Tissue Services, is already facing charges in New York for allegedly plundering 1077 bodies.  "No penalty is too harsh for these guys, for the just unbelievably craven nature of what they did," district attorney Lynne Abraham said.

Funeral directors Louis Garzone, 65, Gerald Garzone, 47, and James McCafferty, 37, were arrested yesterday on thousands of counts, ranging from running a corrupt organisation to forgery and theft of body parts.

Source: news.scotsman.com 5 October 2007

See also:

bulletInside India's Underground in Human Remains (the previous page in this section) - for a different country's solution to the same problem

Related Book Reviews

Cemetery Stories : Haunted Graveyards, Embalming Secrets, and the Life of a Corpse After Death
by Katherine Ramsland

This rambling, anecdotal account traces burial traditions such as embalming, cremation (30% of all funerals), corpse preparation, restorative techniques, cadaver cosmetics and unconventional funerals like the one attended by a deceased's fellow nudists.  At Houston's National Museum of Funeral History and the annual National Funeral Directors Association's convention, Ramsland, a Rutgers professor, learned about mortuary schools and entrepreneurial schemes like hologram tombstones, the $65,000 mummification procedure and cemetery kiosks with touch-screen biographies of the deceased.  Along with instructions on gravestone rubbing, artistic grave markers and unusual epitaphs, the book introduces "taphophiles," those who visit cemeteries as a hobby.

The American Way of Death Revisited
by Jessica Mitford and Ziegler (1998)

American funerals are barbaric.  This book is not only an apt social commentary, it is an important study of a morally corrupt industry whose exploitation of the emotionally devastated, the ignorant, and even those otherwise very savvy is enabled by effective use of political lobbying.  The descriptions of embalming, and cosmetic "restoration" of the dead are macabre and nauseating and leave a sense of shame over this primitive, barbaric, and entirely unnecessary process (largely confined to the US).  Grieving relatives are cynically manipulated and obscenely economically exploited.  The funeral industry effectively lobbies government officials in order to confuse families by obscuring their rights with arcane legal codes.  This is an important but depressing book.  The author has a sardonic wit and "dead pan" presentation of the many vulgar, tacky, and sadly absurd aspects of the funeral industry.  A sort of "consumer reports" for those who will deal with the final effects of lost ones, it is essential reading in order to protect yourself...

Source: Compiled from Amazon

For articles related to ageing, including feats that can be accomplished, and a non-spiritual look at what happens after death - funerals, jerky, popsicles, fertiliser, ashes, orbit or dust - click the "Up" button below to take you to the Index page for this Older and Under section.

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