It’s what they would have wanted

The woman who had died was young, her end sudden and tragic. She had fallen from a yacht and drowned. The funeral was big, loud and emotional. In the days following, many came on their own to lay flowers quietly on her grave. One weekday lunchtime a man was depositing a cellophane-wrapped bunch when he was joined by a woman with an elaborate circular arrangement. As she lowered it, he saw that it depicted a life ring.

“That’s… quite something.”

“It’s what she would have wanted.”

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Richard III’s reinterment remains unresolved

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Will Richard III’s DNA-approved descendants scupper this May’s planned reinterment of his remains during a televised, Anglican ceremony at Leicester Cathedral? Having objected to Leicester’s claim to the last Plantagenet monarch, there’s now to be a judicial review in March aiming to annul Leicester’s license. Will the case merely postpone reinterment, or result in a new venue: Westminster Abbey, perhaps, where the king’s wife, Anne, is buried? Or Richard of York’s beloved York Minster?  

In the event of victory for the relatives, will they even call for a Catholic reinterment for a Catholic king? The reason why he was discovered under a car park in Leicester in 2012 is because the newly Anglican Tudors destroyed his original resting place, Greyfriars Church, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  

Several other Plantagenet monarchs have also been rudely disturbed in their resting places, resulting in their remains being lost. Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their son Richard I, were all buried at France’s Abbaye de Fontevraud in Anjou, which was sacked and pillaged by the Protestant Huguenots in 1562. Richard’s heart was buried separately at Rouen Cathedral, which survived vandalism.

Wives have, on the whole, fared far worse than their regal husbands. While Henry III lies in Westminster Abbey, his Queen Consort, Eleanor of Provence, was buried at Amesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, destroyed in 1539. There was a similar fate for the remains of Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Castile, when her viscera tomb at Lincoln Cathedral was smashed by Roundheads during the English Civil War, but since rebuilt during the Victorian era.

The tomb of Edward II’s wife, Isabella of France, was at the Franciscan Church at Newgate, London, which didn’t survive the Dissolution. The remains of Henry IV’s wife, Mary, were also lost when the Church of St Mary of the Annunciation in Leicester was destroyed. And the remains of Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, were scattered when Saint-Maurice Cathedral in Angers was destroyed in the French Revolution in 1794.

Back to Richard III via the murdered Princes in the Tower. The bodies of two children were discovered during repair work in the Tower of London in 1674. Assumed to be those of Richard’s nephews, Edward and Richard, Charles II had them interred at Westminster Abbey, where they remain. If Uncle Richard ends up at the Abbey, let’s hope his tomb isn’t next door to those of the young princes. 

Validating the unverifiable

Last year’s TV documentaries revealed shocking scenes in funeral home mortuaries which horrified undertakers as much as they did the public. But just as the documentaries did not rouse the public to descend in angry mobs on their nearest funeral home, so they failed, also, to rouse good undertakers to fight back by demonstrating convincingly to their clients that Mum will be safe with us, we’ll treat her as if she were one of ours.

On the contrary, there was even a fair amount of defence of Co-op hub practice on the grounds that it was very similar to the way hospitals store their dead patients. All well and good – but sorry, if the punters don’t like it, don’t do it, end of.

People who make telly-shockers haven’t time to explore the nuanced complexities of truth; what they want is dirt and viewing figures. There is value in this work. It does no harm to unmask villains. 

Would that the programme makers had instead smuggled a hidden camera into the mortuary of C Waterhouse & Sons, in Sussex. There, everything is spotless and the dead are cared for with immense care and respect by incredibly nice people. They needn’t have stopped there. They could have gone on and fearlessly exposed and held up to public scrutiny wonderfully good practice in a great many funeral homes throughout the country. Great stories, never told. Their clients, with their eyes tight shut to the care of their dead, never get to know how wonderfully well served they are.  

Why on earth did the good undertakers not fight back by showing the word how different they are from the sleazebags?

I suppose they would shrug and say yes, nice idea, but how are you to do that if your clients refuse all invitations to visit your mortuary or play any part in caring for their dead? It’s a good point. People today are as conflicted about their dead as they have been throughout human history. On the one hand, they recoil from them; on the other, they require them to be cared for with reverence — by other people.

If blind trust is to be the basis for a family’s faith in the good offices of a funeral home, it is hardly surprising if mortuary practice sometimes falls short of the highest standards. The professionalization of ‘death care’ can have a distancing and even a de-sensitising effect on an undertaker, however dedicated. Is it okay to play Radio 2 while laying someone out? Never really thought about it, mate. Was it appropriate that you took that call on your phone, swapped that joke with the delivery person? Given the unexamined nature of mortuary routines, it is staggering how much excellent practice goes on.

How, then, is an undertaker to show the world what the world averts its gaze from?

One way might be to establish the care of the body as a ritual – as the Jews do with their tahara, the ritual cleansing and dressing of the dead. You can see how they do it in the video clip above. Respect for the dead is demonstrated by a chevra kadisha in a number of ways, for example, by never passing anything over a dead person but always walking round them. There’s some very fussy water-pouring and knot-tying. At the end of the process, all present ask forgiveness for any offence they might have caused.

A ritual institutionalises respect and is a constant reminder of the importance of the task. A ritual does not, of course, need a spiritual or religious rationale as its basis; it is simply a customary, heightened, elaborate and excellent way of doing something; it’s a five-star, gold-plated routine — it’s a good habit. 

Up in Macclesfield, undertaker Andrew Smith believes that the ethos of a funeral home is established in the mortuary and pervades everything everyone does. A lot of undertakers would agree with this, and there is much power in the idea.

But to get back to the big question: how can good undertakers demonstrate the high standards of their mortuary practice?

One way might be to describe and embed it in their contract. Think how reassuring that would be to clients. You could start with something like this:

During the laying out and dressing of (name of the person who has died) the mood in the mortuary will be one of serenity, reverence and deep concentration. You have asked for silence/you have asked for the following music to be played: _________________ and/or the following text to be read: __________________________

No one present will engage in any activity (such as eating, drinking or answering the telephone) which would constitute a distraction from the task.

There will be no talk except that which is necessary for the accomplishment of the task. No voice will be raised, there will be no levity, nor the expression of any strong emotion.

No interruption of the laying out and dressing of the body will be permitted unless personal safety is at risk.

When ______________________ lays out and dresses the body of (name of the person who has died) he/she may talk to him/her. You, the client, assent to this on the understanding that their tone will always be respectful.

Now, there’s every possibility that if people could see that this is the way things are going to be done for their Mum… they’ll want to be there, too. Not everyone, of course. But a lot more than now. How very empowering that would be.

And, as we never tire of saying, no undertaker ever went wrong who sought to empower the bereaved. 

They’re not patients. they’re dead

We have this kind of conflict with doctors sometimes when coming ringing on doors and kind of going like,

“Hello, I’m a doctor.”

“That’s lovely, what do you want?”

“I’ve come to see a body.”

“Will mine do? What do you mean by that? Oh, have you come to see a patient?”

“They’re not patients, they’re dead.”

“No no no, until they leave the doors of this hospital they are deceased patients. They may be a different classification, but they’re our patients, and that’s how we see them and that’s how we look after them.”

Ruby, mortuary technologist, St Thomas’s Hospital, London.

Watch here

Hat-tip: Mary Robson

Habeas corpse

An email flies in from a consumer advocacy org in the US. It’s about a British funeral consumer, let’s call him Jim, who has asked them for help. Jim has been told by his funeral director that there will be no funeral until he pays most of the bill upfront. Jim can manage much of the bill now, and can pay the balance very soon, but his funeral director won’t budge and the funeral is just days away. So Jim appoints another, more reasonable, funeral director, who rings up FD1 and says he’s coming to collect the body. FD1 refuses to release it.

What, the consumer advocacy org wanted to know, is Jim’s legal position?

I responded with the standard spiel. The executor/administrator is the legal ‘possessor’ and ‘controller’ of the body and it is an offence for anyone except the coroner to withhold the body from that person. Further, there being no property in a corpse, it is illegal to arrest one for debt. What’s more, it is almost certainly lawful to exercise reasonable force to gain (or regain) lawful possession of the corpse.

This applies, of course, whether or not the consumer has entered into a contract with the funeral home. A dead person cannot be used as a bargaining chip, and the executor can take their dead person home whenever, within reason, and as often as they want. I’m almost certain that’s right. 

And then my mind wandered sideways. For a long time I have wondered what it is legal and what it is illegal to do to a dead body. What constitutes what Americans classify ‘abuse of a corpse’?

And I wondered also about something else that’s been bugging me for a while: what status does routine embalming confer upon a body?

Having more pressing, urgent and duller things to do, I went a-googling. This time, I put in my thumb and pulled out a plum. Actually, two plums.

Plum One

The law case that altered the legal maxim that ‘the only lawful possessor of a corpse is the earth’ was the Anthony-Noel Kelly case. He is an artist. In 1998 he exhibited casts of body parts which had been smuggled out to him by lab technician Niel Lyndsay from the Royal College of Surgeons. Both were arrested and charged with stealing human body parts.  At the trial, the defence submitted at the close of the prosecution case that (i) parts of bodies were not in law capable of being property and therefore could not be stolen, and (ii) that the specimens were not in the lawful possession of the college at the time they were taken because they had been retained beyond the period of two years before burial stipulated in the Anatomy Act 1832, and so did not belong to it. The trial judge rejected those submissions, ruling that there was an exception to the traditional common law rule that there was no property in a corpse, namely that once a human body or body part had undergone a process of skill by a person authorised to perform it, with the object of preserving it for the purpose of medical or scientific examination, or for the benefit of medical science, it became something quite different from an interred corpse and it thereby acquired a usefulness or value and it was capable of becoming property in the usual way, and could be stolen. The same applies to body parts “if they have acquired different attributes by virtue of the application of skill of dissection and preservation techniques for exhibition and teaching purposes“.

There we have it. “Preservation techniques for exhibition … purposes.” Does this apply to bodies embalmed for viewing? After all, they have undergone a process of skill.  If Jim’s detained dead person has been embalmed, can his dead person now be classed as property?

Plum Two

The second discovery comes from a case before the European Court of Human Rights in 2007. Briefly, two men were killed in a firefight with Turkish security forces. When things had died down, members of the security forces cut the ears off the corpses.  The applicants complained of violations under Article 3 of the Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture, and “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The court’s judgement was that it appeared that the deceased’s ears had been cut off after they had died. Article 3 had never been applied in the context of respect for a dead body. Human quality was extinguished on death and, therefore, the prohibition on ill-treatment was no longer applicable to corpses; notwithstanding the cruelty of the acts concerned in the instant case. It followed that there had been no violation of art 3 on that account.

I don’t want to speculate on the implications of that.

Information source here.