A great favourite, this, here at the GFG Batesville Tower. Older readers will experience deja vu; newer ones are in for a treat.
Click the bottom right of the screen to bring it up full size.
The Natural Death Handbook, Fifth Edition
A thoroughly updated and revised edition of the Natural Death Centre‘s celebrated handbook. Now presented alongside a new collection of essays on death, dying and funeral practices by doctors, historians, authors, poets, theologians and artists including Richard Barnett, David Jay Brown, Dr Sheila Cassidy, Charles Cowling, Bill Drummond, Stephen Grasso, Maggi Hambling, Graham Harvey, Gary Lachman, Nick Reynolds, and Dignity in Dying.
It’s out in May 2012!
In the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s funeral in North Korea, we learn that those of his subjects who didn’t cry hard enough or convincingly enough, together with those who did not attend official mourning events, are being rounded up and herded into labour camps. Sentences start at six months. More in the Daily Mail here.
Meanwhile, the dead dictator is, we hear, to be disembowelled and embalmed for the lasting enjoyment of his people. It is rumoured that the work will be carried out by the Russian corpse-preservation team which looks after Lenin.
In order to keep him in mid-season form, Lenin, whose afterlife now numbers 87 years, has to have a month-long restorative formaldehyde bath every eighteen months. While being gazed at by his adoring public a little pump in his chest cavity maintains the correct humidity in his insides.
Woe betide any dead dictator who doesn’t get the Russians in to do it. The Chinese did it their way for Chairman Mao and, working from text books, cocked it up. They pumped in so much formaldehyde ‘n’ stuff that Mao swelled up most remarkably and embalming fluid was seen to seep through his pores.
A worse fate awaited Klement Gottwald, president of Czechoslovakia, who died in 1953. They didn’t get the experts in for him, either. First his legs rotted and had to be replaced with prostheses. By 1962 the whole of him was in a dreadful state, so they cremated him.
Moral of the story: don’t try this at home.
If you can bear to look, there’s a picture of Lenin having a bath below. If you can’t, look away now.
Embalmer Glenn Bergeron holds a booklet of the names of those he has worked on at the Thibodaux Funeral Home in Thibodaux, La.
Say what you like about embalming, a lot of the people who do it feel like this about it.
Bergeron had been in seminary four years when he lost his calling, drawn more to the prospect of marriage and having a family. He was 32, an aspiring poet and essayist as versed in the music of Mississippi John Hurt as in the writings of St. Augustine.
After visiting an embalming room, he had found in death a way to stay close to God. The room’s tiled space seemed to him no less sacred than a church. The embalmers, dressed in aprons, sleeves rolled up, attended to corpses laid out on tables that looked like altars. Their work reminded him of the preparation of the Eucharist during Mass, something profound and holy.
Entire article in the Los Angeles Times here.
Enterprising US undertaker Cecil Gilmore is set to offer an enhanced embalming service. He wants to go beyond the casketed look and display his dead doing what they always did — very much in the spirit of the Puerto Rican embalmer who, in July 2010, displayed a miraculously embalmed David Morales Colon on his motorbike (above).
If a father or husband was an avid fisherman, pose him in his waders and favorite shirt, his cap festooned with lures, holding his lucky fishing rod.
If mother is most remembered for relaxing while watching TV, pose her on a bed with the remote in her hands.
Or, if the deceased was known for his love of motorcycles, pose him in his jeans, vest, bandana – even sunglasses – on his bike of choice.
“The idea is to make people look like they are living, or just sleeping,” Gilmore said. [Source]
This may strike you as being exactly what taxidermists do with stuffed animals. Alternatively, you may think it is the way to go.
Here at the GFG we preserve our notorious stance of ambivalence in all things.
More marvellous embalming from the Marin Funeral Home here:
Posted by Vale
That’s the headline on a Mail online story about tonight’s Channel 4 documentary about mummification.
In it a Devon taxi driver – Alan Bills – is mummified following, as closely as possible, ancient Egyptian practices. Alan died in January after suffering from lung cancer and wanted to take part in the experiment in part at least because of his grandchildren. He said
“Perhaps this would give them an insight into what their granddad was like, I don’t know.
“They’ll most probably tell somebody at school that my granddad’s a pharaoh. That’s my legacy I suppose.”
There’s a good preview on the BBC website. The show isn’t simply prurient interest or sensationalism either. Scientists are hoping to study the mummification and the effect on the decomposition of the body as part of research into alternatives to formaldehyde.
The Mail’s, always keen to find fresh sticks to beat Channel 4 and the BBC with, states:
“The broadcaster looks set to find itself at the centre of another taste row after agreeing to air the macabre documentary”.
But will it? Is death or the treatment of dead bodies such a taboo subject for broadcasters these days? Or is it only violence that justifies publicity. The Mail – with its article and photographs of Gadhafi’s corpse seems to think so.
The documentary’s on at 9.00 tonight if you are interested.
Posted by Vale
Wikipedia – that glorious monument to collaboration and, sometimes, hearsay – has some marvellously strange pages.
One of my favourites is the Mellified man. This is claimed to be an ancient process of preserving bodies through use of honey.Li, a Chinese pharmacologist reports that,
“some elderly men in Arabia, nearing the end of their lives, would submit themselves to a process of mummification in honey to create a healing confection. This process differed from a simple body donation because of the aspect of self-sacrifice; the mellification process would ideally start before death. The donor would stop eating any food other than honey, going as far as to bathe in the substance. Shortly, his feces (and even his sweat, according to legend) would consist of honey. When this diet finally proved fatal, the donor’s body would be placed in a stone coffin filled with honey. After a century or so, the contents would have turned into a sort of confection reputedly capable of healing broken limbs and other ailments. This confection would then be carefully sold in street markets as a hard to find item with a hefty price.”
Who knows, in this age of innovation in the disposal of dead bodies, (and a cash strapped NHS) it might catch on again.
It’s clear though, from other articles, that we have become a good deal less imaginative about death and dying. There’s another page that simply lists unusual deaths.
It’s worth a look for the sheer variety of deaths listed. There’s more roasting than you might imagine including being roasted alive in brazen bulls. A disturbing image, I would have thought, for stock marketeers in these troubled times. Then there’s the politician Draco who, in 620 BC, was smothered to death by gifts of cloaks showered upon him by appreciative citizens. There’s got to be a metaphor there for the risks all politicians face if they of accept too many gifts.
My favourite though is the Stoic philosopher, Chryssipus, who died of laughter after giving his donkey wine then seeing it attempt to eat figs.
They really knew how to live – and die – in those days.
Posted by Rupert Callender of the Green Funeral Company
Claire and I spent the last day of August At Torre Abbey on the seafront at Torquay, seeing an exhibition called Death and the Maiden, featuring the work of the painter Robert Lenkiewicz.
To the uninitiated, Robert was a flamboyant Plymouth based artist, instantly recognisable by his clichéd, spattered smock and leonine mane of hair and beard, a look it has to be said he could carry off well.
A chronic self-mythologiser and an equally chronic womaniser – Plymouth is populated by swathes of his ethereal, largely unacknowledged children – Robert died in 2002, penniless due to his refusal to ever actually sell any of his work, but somehow managing to accumulate one of the finest if darkest libraries in the world. Whole shelves were devoted to suicide or masturbation, volumes bound with human skin, medieval grimoires, which he obtained through all sorts of nefarious means. Needless to say, death dominated.
He operated from a series of warehouses that he rented for next to nothing, right on the harbour front in the Barbican, the only part of Plymouth to escape the Nazi bombers, and it was here he could reliably be found, bathed in a hanging pool of light with a beauty draped across his lap not quite swathed in scarlet, always seemingly his own muse, the model as mere accessory. Frequently pretentious, endlessly priapic, sometimes fascinating, but often deeply predictable and annoying. An artist in other words. His main talent was for survival through infamy.
Having been raised in what amounted to a hostel for survivors of the holocaust, Robert was always drawn to the disenfranchised, and during the seventies, turned one of the warehouses he rented into a functioning doss house, offering the homeless and mad of Plymouth shelter in return for immortalisation by painting. He formed many deep friendships with these down and outs, mainly men, most of them professional post war gentlemen of the roads, seasonal, travelling alcoholics, not the teenage crack whore runaways that horrify our times. At times there were up to 200 in there. Places of simmering violence and laughter, drink and dance, skilfully lorded over by Lenkiewicz.
One of these, Edwin Mackenzie, whom Robert christened Diogenes due to finding him living in a concrete pipe at Plymouth dump, became a close friend and he painted him over and over again. When Edwin died in 1984 he bequeathed his body to Robert to do with as he saw fit. He had him thoroughly embalmed in the style of Lenin, and due to some typically slippery evasiveness on his part (when asked by the registrar whether he was due to be buried or cremated, he replied “He is not to be buried”) managed to keep him quietly for a while somewhere in his studio.
After a month or two, the authorities turned up asking why he had not been cremated. There followed a grand stand off involving the police, public health officials and of course the media, and a lengthy examination of some very interesting and pertinent questions, such as who owns a corpse, is it a ‘thing’ or a ‘possession’, and does a body actually have to be disposed of at all.
The answer was no, it just has to not cause any health issues, and yes, it is a possession, in this case belonging to Robert. He successfully argued that there are something in the region of 1,500 corpses of varying antiquity exhibited around the UK in various museums; was it the freshness of Edwin that made him a body and not a mummy? Good questions, art at its best, but it infuriated Plymouth City Council, whose history of dour puritanism had already had to deal with his louche image, not to mention the irritation caused by him faking his own death in 1981, and his highlighting of such uncomfortable civic issues with projects on things such as vagrancy, suicide and death.
Robert stubbornly hung onto Edwin’s body until his own untimely death aged 60 in 2002. It is a small irony that Edwin actually lived 11 years longer than Robert, seemingly on little more than air.
When Robert died in 2002, he had £12 in his possession, and owed his creditors over 2 million. 7 years later, lawyers valued his possessions at just over 7 million.
In the ensuing tidy up, literal and metaphorical, of his affairs, Edwin Mackenzie’s corpse was found in an artist’s drawer, still in remarkably good nick, and it was to see what the receptionist had described as ‘a pickled tramp’ that we had come for, rather than Robert’s somewhat predictable sexual paintings; skeletons humping girls from behind like dogs, bony fingers piercing amniotic bags of life, grinning skulls performing cunnilingus, wombs and breasts and ribcages.
What Robert himself said about Edwin’s body is what has struck anyone who has spent time with one: “ the total presence of the corpse and the total absence of the person,” the reason as undertakers we encourage people to return again and again to the body of those they love, to get it to sink in: they are not there. Somewhere, nowhere, everywhere maybe, but definitely not here.
He saw him as the ultimate memento mori, and now, here in a former monastery on The English Riviera as the rather low key centre piece to the exhibition, was the extremely rare chance to see the old boy.
He has been dead a while now but the embalming was done thoroughly. He was a small, undernourished withered tramp to begin with; Edwin said his life on the road began at three and a half, but his yellowing, emaciated hairy body still fascinates and provokes awe, even for people like us who spend our days with the dead.
We don’t embalm. Partly for environmental reasons, though I fear more for the embalmers than the water table, but really for psychological reasons. We think that the natural changes that a body goes through, the drawing back of the features, the sinking eyes, the thinning and discolouration of the fingertips, are things that the family can deal with, and if told honestly about what they are to see it not only fails to horrify, but actually helps.
People unfurl in the presence of the truth, and the truth of what happens to a body in the liminal time between death and disposal is not always what horror films have led us to believe. It is gentler, perhaps even in Walt Whitman’s words, “and luckier.” Refrigeration between visits is of course essential, but the unstoppable, inevitable series of small changes that accompany most bodies’ early move from life to dead, are slight but profound, and are what can take the living to the brink of the furnace or the grave. It is a chance to say, again and again, “Okay, I get it. They really are gone. Let’s do what needs to be done.”
So, despite the fact that he was embalmed, Edwin to us was a familiar if exaggerated sight; withered, crackled almost like canvas, each hair standing erect. And as he has now been dead well over twenty years, the absence of the personality was more pronounced than I have ever seen, but the thought that struck me as I gazed at his naked body was how much of his humanity still clung to him in a way which Gunther Von Hagens’s ‘plastinated’ mannequins don’t.
But why? Both have been chemically preserved in a way I instinctively reject, yet one was filled with a fragile beauty which made me feel part of a bigger picture, and the other made me feel afraid for the road we have taken in the name of infotainment.
Von Hagens’ plastinated people are undoubtedly educating, titillating and clever too, there of their own free will and most definitely art, but are they still in anyway remotely human?
Something, perhaps not even in the technique but in the intention, has stripped them of more than their skin. They are Ridley Scott’s replicants awaiting animation, viscera bizarrely frozen in time, whereas Edwin, all creases and stitching and patina, is absolutely human. He is our future, what our outside bodies will look like when what was once within has gone.
Age continues to wither him, as it should, as it does us all, but he strangely lives on, not posed as an athlete, or jauntily holding his entrails, or stripping off his muscles like body armour, but dead, dignified, still.