It Could Be Your Funeral by Jon F. Allen
for the exhibit It's Your Funeral held at Pterodactyl Philadelphia
        “Embalming is the best known method of presenting a deceased person throughout the memorial event. It is incumbent not to overstate the purpose and results of embalming as longer terms of preservation. Artistic value coupled with preservation is primary. In time, nature consumes all who die back unto itself.� – Ron Hast, publisher of Mortuary Management Magazine and Funeral Monitor.

        “The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably become a cropper, is a cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance. A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death-a flat encephalograph, for instance-I would understand, react, and accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit-cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything.� – Julia Kristeva, “Powers of Horror�

        Since 2008 I’ve had the unpleasant circumstance of viewing two family members just after they died. My Father in January ’08. My Grandmother in August ’11. Dad’s death was shocking and overwhelming. An incorrectly prescribed drug caused a sudden, rapid onset of leukemia. He was dead in a week. I was at the hospital when he passed. The waiting room was a grief stricken immersion into a black miasma. We knew the worst was at hand. My Mother, an Aunt, and myself eventually were told, after much professional lying that Dad had a chance of recovering, by a Doctor “it’s over� and brought into a room to see him. Dad wasn’t there anymore, just a grotesque object that resembled him. A tooth had been knocked out from their useless efforts to keep him alive. Cheeks were sunken after hopeless and last breaths. I exploded with rage and began punching the wall. A nurse tried to calm me down. Eventually, I sat in the chair by the bed, but just couldn’t stay there. Any crumb of a sense of spirituality had been vanquished by cold stabbing reality.

        The funeral happened a few days later. He was on display with the bottom half of the casket closed because of severely swollen ankles. All the grief I was experiencing was unbearable. Solace was found in chatting with friends and family about trivialities in the funeral home hallway. When it was time to leave, the Funeral director gave us a bag of swag with his corporate identity on each item: two coffee mugs, pens, a rubber jar opener, and some other Dollar store style items. All that was missing was apparel with the screen printed words “I went to my Dad’s funeral and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.� This crass distraction on the part of the funeral director did not allay my feelings of dissonance at my Dad’s passing. It just didn’t seem like “it was his time� as would-be consolers are often wont to say.

        As far as the question of one’s time is concerned, Grandmother was a different story. She died at 85. I did not want her to go, but was well aware of the fact that it was inevitable; just a matter of when. The elderly seem beset by a number of baffling medical issues that degrade their health. For her, it was a massive coronary event that dealt the final card. Just before she passed she called my Mother to say, “I don’t feel right. Get over here now.� I called 911. Gramma was face down on the coffee table, her face squishing against the glass of the table, her hands on the floor. A bottle of Tums had slipped from the right hand. Some of the multi-colored tablets were scattered about the carpet. I shook her to see if she could respond. Nothing. I stared at her face as I helped the Cop lift her onto the floor and move the coffee table away for the oncoming paramedics. But I knew she was gone. Her face was blue. Lips had turned black purple. Eyes rolled up in the back of her head. Paramedics confirmed what we already knew. Gramma was gone before we had even gotten to the house. They placed a white sheet over her. Her left hand, venous, and liver spotted, with a taut clutching expression, protruded from under the sheet. As hard as I tried not to, my mind automatically rummaged through pop-cultural images of morbidity such as those rendered by “Ghastly� Graham Ingels in the E.C. comic books series Vault of Horror. (In fact, during such bad times my mental storage of pop-cultural imagery always takes on a starker appearance.) We sat nearby in the kitchen waiting for what seemed like a very long time for clearance from the medical examiner via phone. Finally, we were able to get in touch with a local Funeral Home. Two old guys showed up. My brother and I had to help them carry her out of the house. A stretcher awaited her on the street, next to the curb. There was a sense of ritual procession as we somberly lumbered along the walk from front porch to street with her shrouded corpse. This was death in the American suburbs, but perhaps the scene of Gramma covered with sheet, carried on a stretcher harkened back to more primitive times before burial was mediated by self-described professionals who’ve turned death into a product for your well-earned dollars. We loaded her into the open back door of the black hearse, and the geezers drove her to a place where she’d be drained of blood, embalmed via the arteries, manipulated with various tissue injections to the face and hands, dressed, and cosmeticized. The next time I saw her would be almost a week later.

        As extremely upsetting as all that was, one had to look at the plusses. She was 85, never had Alzheimer’s, never had to live in a nursing home, could still walk (albeit painfully), and had no major debilitating disease, except for old age. She was pretty much yucking it up on the phone and enjoying her usual hobbies that day. This really contrasted sharply with Dad’s death which still causes me to well up with anger, and anxiety because it was unexpected like a sudden car wreck.

        That having been said, in spite of my heartbreaking grief—because her death was not altogether unexpected, and because getting through the shock of Dad’s death had me a bit prepared—Gramma’s funeral gave me pause to think about the strangeness of the Funeral Home environment. That strangeness was something that awed me early on as an altar boy at many Catholic funerals, yet I was too young to have examined all the layers with their implications: Why did society hide the true visuals of death? Why did prepared, dead bodies look so odd? I didn’t even know, nor could I detect some of the cosmetic manipulations that occur behind the Wizard’s curtain, so to speak. For instance, if an ear is missing, or part of the nose has been eaten by cancer, products are used to sculpt and fill where needed. As for the strangeness of the dead in a funeral home, there was this teetering of feeling that I had encountered something unreal like a mannequin. However, this person or other had been real. To use a term coined by Freud, I had experienced a sense of the Uncanny, that which should be familiar but has entered into a state of the unfamiliar. Historian Hillel Schwarts has stated: “Unlike plaster life casts set in tableaux by George Segal since 1962, and unlike the life casts in polyester resin painted with verist detail by Duane Hanson since 1965, the embalmed body makes no allusions. It does not impress ‘the living as the appearance of the appearance of the original never perceived until now,’ as Philosopher Maurice Blanchot wrote in the 1950’s, meditating upon the cadaver as our mortal but estranged remains.� Yet, the presence of the deceased as who-what-once-was gloomily hangs about the funeral home like a strange guest. On the other hand, the prepared dead look like bizarro doubles or doppelgangers of the original, as in a wax museum. As I got older, and had been to more funerals my insight into the prepared corpse became more sophisticated. I embarked on mental comparisons of store dummies and dead bodies, ventriloquist dummies and dead bodies, action figures and dead bodies—not only does ventriloquism have its origins in necromantic divination, but the first televised image (television being a seemingly perpetual zone/dimension of the dead and dead incidents) was that of a ventriloquist’s dummy. What is inanimate and humanoid resembles or at least shares a kinship with dead human beings. Included in my mental meanderings were curious reflections upon those who’ve manipulated the dead as if they were ventriloquist’s dummies or automatons. One immediately thinks of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s zombie-making experiments in his Milwaukee apartment. He had drilled holes in his victim’s heads and poured corrosives in there with the idea that he was creating malleable slaves. Quite a hap-hazard, psychotic venture into Frankensteinian experimentation, but perhaps that was the same creative gusto infused in the early experimenters of embalming in early 19th century America, or even Ancient Egypt! Then there was the well-known case of Ed Gein who dug up the graves of women, or outright murdered them. He not only had conversations with these dead women, but used their body parts to make furniture and decorations. He would also skin their faces for mask making so ghoulish that had the painter James Ensor seen them he may have thrown in the towel. Judge Robert H. Gollmar, who tried Gein, wrote in unintentional, but almost glowing praise that Gein was “…America’s most bizarre murderer, grave robber, maker of exotic household items, wearing apparel and possessor of undoubtedly the finest collection of female heads, vaginas, vulvas and unquestionably the most notorious character to stand before me in court.� Perhaps it is the special, little touches that really stand out like a rotten cherry on a queasy desert sundae as Judge Gollmar recounted one Captain Schoephoerster’s observation of a female sex organ “gilded in gold� with a red ribbon “tied on it.�

        That would bring into question the shaky tightrope walk between mortician, fine artist, and ghoul. For some, an artist such as Joel-Peter Witkin blurs the distinction. He surreptitiously collected dead parts of human beings and photographed them in still-lifes. Judging from documentary footage, the genteel Witkin, a 20th century art world phenom, has all the professionalism and demeanor of a mortician in a gallery setting; he maintains an eerie joie de vivre and gallows humor while manipulating parts of an animal carcass to catch the light a certain way. Witkin sees beauty in a dead baby with Y-incision or a severed foot near a bowl of fruit.

        Also, there is the long history of anatomists observing and preserving the dead. In Suspended Animation Dr. F. Gonzalez-Cruzzi tells of “legendary accounts of early anatomists slinking behind gibbets to study the body of the hanged…� However, it is more relevant to note his mentioning of “the strange tastes of anatomist-curators of yore.� Further, “Skeletons were often arrayed in dramatic poses, like those of orators declaiming or actors performing on the stage.�

        Then there are the works of the 17th century wax artists of Florence Italy (many of which are housed in La Specola-Museum of Natural History). These were copied from actual corpses. I can only imagine the clinical detachment one would have to will in one’s self while realistically translating into art a dead pregnant woman with her belly sliced open and baby exposed. But all in the name of progress! We would not have the medical knowledge we have today without it!

        However, as concerns morticians, I have yet to discover any scientific studies into their collective and individual psyches. It is an abominable art they practice, and one that does not seem to have any scientific benefits. They are morbid magicians who seek to artificially invoke the spiritual for a paying audience.

        Perhaps there is an innate impulse in humans to ponder on how to bring life from that which has ceased to live, or that which is merely inanimate to begin with. The mere fact of our mortality is more likely than not the root of religious and spiritual thought which contends that there is a second life after this one. In Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice Robert G. Mayer states: “What we call the ethical or reverential care of the dead has been discovered to exist as far back in our history as Neanderthal Man. Anthropological study shows that the burial of a human body is the oldest of all religious customs, and was practiced as far back as 60, 000 BC by Homo Sapiens neanderthalensis. In the Shandiar cave in Northern Iraq, researchers discovered corpses adorned with elk antlers and shoulder blades. Also found were pollen fragments from flowers probably used as gifts to the dead and to mask unpleasant odors during the burial ritual.� The spiritual desire to believe that a loved one is in an afterlife, and the burning need to keep them alive (or bring them back) seems confused, especially in the for-profit funeral biz. From reverence to art piece and product, I offer Hillel Schwartz’s recounting of the morbid popularity of memorial photography in the 1800s: “Undertakers too arranged the deceased as still lifes in tableaux nearly vivants: the child on it’s sick bed; an old man fallen asleep while reading; Ophelia on the stream with ‘floating roses.’ [Other tableaux common to memorial photographs – a dead daughter upright in a chair, a wreath of flowers in her hair or a rose in her hands; a boy sharing a bed with his dead baby brother – were improper to the funeral parlor, where death, no matter how healthy its aspect, should make no claims to ongoing life.� In his surrealist film The Holy Mountain, Alejandro Jodorowsky depicts the funeral of the future in which the dead are fitted with electronics where clergy can perform their own last rites, or strippers may put on a live sex show with twirlies emanating from the dead woman’s nipples. These irreverent artistic excursions aside, the American funeral industry has always been considered the pinnacle of reverence. (This in spite of the fact that rigid adherence to reverence would have thwarted medical progress. Yes, even the English criminal gravediggers for anatomy students Burke and Hare were as necessary to modern medicine as Berlin Doctor Werner Forsmann’s forbidden 1929 experiment of inserting a catheter into himself, and using an x-ray machine to see that it made it to the right ventricle of his heart.)

       Reverence was our only goal as far as Gramma was concerned. With family I used my artist’s eye to help pick out a casket. The director brought us down to a basement room that had zero access to any cadaver prep labs. A good thing for the funeral directors, because seeing the product before it’s finished is bad for business. Entering the space had the vibe of shopping for a car in the late 70s. Outdated, but pristine wood paneling adorned the walls and beams that connected floor to ceiling. The shag rug was a psychotropic bright green. Because the room was small there were only about a dozen full-sized coffins. They compensated by including a wall display of small rat-sized caskets that could possibly look good as a centerpiece for your kitchen table to serve sliced ham in. I quipped to the Director that they’d make for good candy jars. It was business as usual for him. He replied, “Ha. We get all kinds of festive requests.� In other words, if you have the dough they’ll do everything short of turning your dearly deceased loved one into piñata. Though, based on my YouTube excursions which yielded a dead teenager propped up to stand at his funeral in order to show off his gangsta fashion, another fellow propped on his motorcycle, and yet another on view sitting in his truck with a zany resemblance to that dead guy in Weekend at Bernie’s, there seems to be a contemporary return to the still-life amusements described by Schwarts. Gramma would have been aghast at the notion of such blasphemous presentations for her self, but may have indulged in some chuckling over the other flamboyant stiffs anyway.

       In any case, I picked out an attractive eternal slumber box that had bright lining on the inner lid of which the folds created the radial semblance of a golden sunset. Gramma would’ve loved that. Though, had we allowed the Funeral Director to really go into sales pitch mode, he would have shown us a catalogue of caskets brimming over with special features, such as the memorysafe drawer that, to quote an online casket corporation commercial, “encourages family to participate and place photos, letters, or other memorabilia inside.� For extra charges you can have keepsakes affixed to the exterior of superior quality, well-crafted caskets, and have personalized embroidery sewn on the inner lining of the lid. The casket corporation also wants you to know that the material, design, and construction of the casket are "also a major consideration in your selections……a particular species of wood may invoke a personal memory or remind one of a significant personal possession.� From wood the faux solemn sales woman goes on to describe caskets of semi-precious metals such as bronze and copper. She then promotes the rust resistant qualities of stainless steel, and drives her point home by explaining that all of her caskets have features that help to resist “air, water, and other gravesite substances.� The implication is that your loved one will be safe from harm underground, which is sheer absurdity when consideration is given to the fact that, unlike Ancient Egyptian embalming, contemporary embalming is only a quick fix for short-lived presentation purposes. Just enough solution is used to give the cadaver the illusion of life at rest; otherwise it would look like a leathery husk. Your loved one is going to rot and depreciate in advanced degrees. Chemical and bodily fluids will leak all over that pricey casket lining. Think an air-tight box will resolve that? The late Jessica Mitford, an esteemed journalist known for muckraking of commonly accepted, corrupt industries and institutions scandalized the funeral biz in her book The American Way of Death (originally written in the early sixties, but revised before her death in the mid-90s). In a chapter dealing with the validity of ghoulish restorative art she quoted from an interview Dr. Jesse Carr, Chief of Pathology at San Francisco General Hospital and Professor of Pathology at California Medical School: “If you seal up a casket so it is more or less airtight, you seal in the anaerobic bacteria-the kind that thrive in an airless atmosphere, you see. These are the putrefactive bacteria, and the results of their growth are pretty horrible. You’re a lot better off to be buried in an aerobic atmosphere; otherwise the putrefactive bacteria take over. In fact, you’re really better off with a shroud, and no casket at all.� I’m sure the funeral home folk in my locale would turn red with anger, or laugh off such a suggestion as natural burial (which utilizes GPS to locate an unmarked grave). That would certainly hurt casket sales which range from the $110.00 cardboard cremation box, to the $800.00 or so unvarnished plain wood casket (although you can get one of the higher quality pieces in the same price range as a low-priced casket on Amazon.com or Wal-Mart) to the $13, 265 Montrachet Mahogany with Champagne velvet interior and solid mahogany. (I always took it for granted that there are no store front casket retailers in my locale. Rather, one has to get them directly from the specific funeral establishment that one is using. Mitford narrates the origin of unseemly competitive and protectionist practices; the funeral homes began to charge a ridiculous handling fee if your casket was not purchased directly through them. The store fronts went out of business. There are many such predatory practices between funeral homes, cemeteries, monument makers, et al. too numerous to mention here. I recommend you read her book.)

        Dr. Carr also had some thoughts on the plausible sham of embalming for Mitford. Mitford tells of how the funeral industry would like you to think otherwise as they cull up excuses such as public sanitation, and “grief therapy.� Her interview with Dr. Carr reveals that ‘�city planning, engineering, and sanitation’� are necessary instead of embalming, and that “’the organisms which cause disease live in the organs, the blood, and the bowel, and cannot be killed by the embalming processes.’� Dr. Carr’s stance is that many infectious diseases of the past such as cholera and the plague were spread by “’rodents and seepage from graves into the city water supply.’� Mitford quoting Dr. Carr again: ‘�There are several advantages to being dead,’ he said cheerfully. ‘You don’t excrete, inhale, exhale, or perspire.’� Embalming, a craft that can be learned at a two year Community College, can run in the thousand dollar range in my locale. There may be an extra charge if your loved one has been autopsied prior to funeral home pick-up.

       Insofar as “grief therapy� is concerned, Mitford points to it as a “second line of defense for embalmers,� but she also makes note that viewing the cadaver as a form of therapy has never been legitimized by the psychotherapeutic industry. My guess is that it might depend on the individual. Some may need the ritual experience of catharsis and closure provided by such services. Others may not, yet the craftsman would not want to discontinue his craft, nor cease to revel at the money he rakes in. And what a craft it is!


        “And like every other salesman, the funeral salesman must first and foremost believe in his product. He is in any case not just a funeral salesman. There is also the creative aspect of his work, the aesthetically rewarding task of transforming the corpse into a Beautiful Memory Picture. Pride of craftsmanship, fascination with technique, and continuous striving for improvement shine through all that he writes on the subject.
        The sort of passionate devotion it is possible to develop for embalming, the true Art for Art’s sake approach, is captured in a testimonial letter published as part of an advertisement for Cosmetic Tru-Lanol Arterial Fluid. Like any other craftsman, the embalmer gets satisfaction from rising to the challenge and often hates to part with his finished product. The letter describes an unusually difficult case: ‘The subject…was a 69 year old lady, 5’2� tall with 48� bust and 48� hips. Death was a sudden heart attack. She lay 40 hours in heated apartment prior to being moved.’ The writer goes on to mention other inauspicious circumstances surrounding the case, such as a series of punctures made in the center of circulation by some bungler in the Medical Examiner’s office. However, Tru-Lanol comes to the rescue: ‘Surface penetration was slow and even, with excellent cosmetic results…By the fourth day, the swelling in the features was receding in a very uniform manner, and the cosmetic was still excellent. Honestly, I don’t know of another fluid that would have done as good a job in this case, all things considered.’ He adds wistfully, ‘I wish I could have kept her for four more days.’ How poignant those last words!� – Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited

        We had gotten to Gramma’s slumber room a bit early. We mentioned to the director that her eyebrows had not been penciled in. He promptly closed a large vinyl or plastic curtain to obscure our view as we waited. After the curtain was re-opened I noticed what looked like a hydraulic lift not far from the casket. Was that how they transferred the body from the embalming lab to the first floor or was it for something else entirely? Sometimes the lab is on an upper floor. Even in my decrepit and painful grief my mind wandered toward the imagery of the film The Abominable Doctor Phibes. In one of the scenes Phibes plays an organ which lowers him into a funerary chamber where he lay next to his already dead wife. He then proceeded to drain his own blood and replace it with embalming fluid. Funerals do seem to be a kind of theater of the absurd, the absurd being that which takes us out of the everyday and plants us in a kind of fun house mirror, one that offers misery in lieu of fun.

        Then there was Gramma at center stage. Who or what was she at that point. The week previous, I saw her to be her, even in death. The signs of extreme malfunction that were stamped on her face were alike to disease. She had still felt warm. At what point is she not she anymore? A week later she was definitely something else. Her arm felt almost as hard as a store window mannequin. Her immobile face looked contrived and worked upon. Indeed, with such discoloration she had gone through, the Funeral establishment had to make sure the product was ready for viewing. Gramma looked like Gramma, but more like Gramma represented as sculptural art object.

        It dawned on me how the slumber room was very much a type of proscenium where music was continually pumped in through speakers as mourners, though they weren’t acting per se, followed suit in the roles of ritual expected of them: reverence, tears, offering of condolences, kneeling at the casket and silently praying. It has been noted by writers such as Alice Fort in her Minute History of the Drama that theater may have its roots in death rituals as exemplified by Egyptian passion plays in which the Pharaoh was ushered into the underworld. The experiences I report can only be relative to Christian funerals. This is by default as the majority of my family (except myself) is either Roman Catholic or some other Christian denomination. In spite of the fact that we do not inter our dead in a cave with a boulder in front of it as the mythology of Christ depicts, (we bury them underground, a kind of underworld that haunts my subconscious and imaginings) the underlying theme of the passion play of said Jesus Christ is regurgitated at every Catholic funeral. The tired old symbolism that one has carried the cross, and/or maintained exemplary servitude permeates the service like an unshakeable case of the hives. Fortunately, the decedent’s hobbies and favorite Television shows can be thrown in for good measure.

        After the “thingness� of what was once your loved one has been made over, the body is placed in the lavish coffin. Rows of seats have been neatly arranged as if a film or seminar were to take place. The mourners mill in. The main family members sit in the front row and are also performers in this production. Ritual viewing of the corpse while praying or reflecting is followed by visitors acknowledging the front row family members with condolences, handshakes, hugs, and/or kisses. The need for catharsis, to overflow with crying is overwhelming. Some hang out back stage i.e., the porch to smoke cigarettes and maybe talk if they’re not withdrawn and silent. Meanwhile, if it has not been planned to be done at a church, a priest, minister, nun or lay person takes over the proceedings. There might be hymns, and recitation of Biblical verse. At some point in the proceedings the minister talks about the life of the deceased that he or she has gleaned from discussions with family members. Such a performance must be emphatic, enthusiastic, and sincere. The Funeral Director directs everything from lighting and seating to instructions that delineate to the pall bearers their procedure for moving the casket to the hearse and from hearse to grave. All of this pomp is highly conservative in contrast to an example from old Rome. A well-to-do citizen died and much to do was made about hiring a Greek actor to portray him in voice, “personal foibles� and mannerisms. Other actors were to wear the death masks of his other deceased relatives, in a type of theater that seems also to be an attempt at necromancy (William S. Davis, A Day in Old Rome.) However, it should be mentioned that only a few years ago an actress and comedienne notably left behind a DVD of herself wearing angel wings in front of chroma keyed clouds in which she told irreverent jokes and comforted her mourners with assurances that she was okay and in a better place. I’m not sure how I would feel about having something like that from a family member on display near their casket, but I was contented to have, like many funerals in my locale, photographs of Gramma from various years throughout her life.

        The casket had a fine sleek finish. The dead body as theater prop lay in it like a substrate that had been worked over meticulously; found sculpture that required arterial injection and noxious chemicals. A trocar had been stabbed into the abdomen to suck out contents from the lungs and intestines, but used again to inject cavity fluid into them. Make up, and hair style are essential, as is the proper clothing. The face had to be made free of all bloating and unpleasantness we experienced upon initially finding Gramma dead. While Gramma only needed the basics, others present the mortician with a variety of problems.

        Restorative Arts and Science by Ralph L. Klicker, PhD. describes harrowing fixes such as tumor excision: “1. Tumor is visible on the neck. The light beige material is mortuary mastic that was used to form the mouth. It has leaked down into the tumor. 2. The tumor is being incised. 3. Tumorous tissue. 4. Tumor is removed and underlying neck tissue is visible. 5. Cotton soaked in a cauderent is placed over the wound to dry exposed tissue. 6. Cauderent pack close up. 7. Basket weave suture is used to act as an anchor for the mastic or wax. 8. Mortuary mastic or wax is applied over sutures. 9. The application of mastic is completed. All that remains to be done is to reproduce pores and facial lines as necessary and apply cosmetics.�

        There seems to be a fix for just about every possibility. Restorative treatment for decapitation of the head reads like fine arts school instructions for a progressive found sculpture class: “After the head and trunk have each been embalmed, they must be rejoined in a manner that keeps them securely attached and properly aligned.� The restorer is then required to make or purchase (from A.C. Moore?) “three wood splits (dowels) or metal rods� to insert in the “spinal canal of the vertebrae.� The head is then “placed on the rod protruding from the vertebral column so that the end passes through the foramen magnum.� Two more rods are inserted into the “muscles on both sides of the esophagus and trachea. This sheath can be further secured by wrapping wire around it.� Following all this is the usual suturing and application of mastic or cotton and sealer. “Wax can be applied to the exposed area. Pores and markings can be reproduced, and cosmetics applied.�

        The thing that once was alive has become a kind of patchwork, or jerry-rigged doll. Missing ears or hands can be molded, cast in wax, and painted to look like your Uncle Louie died with his parts pristinely intact. I am reminded of the quick fix solutions I come up with to make my custom action figures more presentable for diorama photographs. What the viewer doesn’t know or see can’t hurt them.

        Often, reasons for cosmetic restoration are discoloration and slackening of the face and tissue. Chemicals are injected near the eyes, on the sides of the mouth, and other choice spots. This process is known as tissue building. That plus the cosmetic sprays that obscure ghastly bluish, but sometimes jaundiced discoloration, are supposed to make the person look more natural and life like. I’ve only been to one funeral that I can think of in which the deceased looked like they could wake up at any moment and start talking. There was also this residual almost hallucinatory effect of breathing from looking at such an alive like face. That was a great Aunt, and her death artists were gifted overachievers.

        Is there a positive side to all of this? In the spirit of homage, Peter Metcalf and Richard Huntington write of “American Deathways� in Celebrations of Death, The Anthropology of Mortuary: “The attitudes toward death frame a view of the proper life that confounds the medieval view of a proper death. The key notion is fulfillment. The life of the individual should rise in an arc through brassy youth to fruitful middle years, and then decline gently toward a death that is acceptable as well as inevitable. The practices of embalming and viewing express these collective representations. The point is to reveal the dead at peace. Because the last hours or days preceding death may have been marred with pain, which is inadmissible, the restored body provides a truer image of death. Because heavy sedation may have been necessary to alleviate pain, deathbed scenes are precluded. Controversy has revolved around whether the viewing of the embalmed corpse helps the bereaved to recover from their grief by providing them with a pleasant ‘memory picture,’ as the Funeral Directors Association would have us believe. Psychiatric opinion is divided. What is clear is why the main actor in the rituals is dramaturgically passive (our ‘puppet death’), because peace and fulfillment are conceived of as passive conditions.�

        Jessica Mitford describes the American funeral industry from its earlier inceptions to the highly competitive market it is today. The era of old exhibited a no-nonsense D.I.Y. ethic as funerals were often held in one’s home, caskets may have been built from scratch by family members, and burial could occur on one’s private property or the dirt cheap, egalitarian, tax free, sites such as the old Churchyard cemetery, and the municipal cemetery on the outskirts of town. Today, we Americans more often than not pay unreasonable prices to shyster undertakers who themselves are gradually being bought out by billion dollar multi-national funeral corporations such as SCI (Service Corporation International) who seek to consolidate all services—funeral home, cemetery, florist, monument maker—into one exorbitantly priced package. The SCI model does not seem to have invaded my locale. Cemeteries are run by the Roman Catholic Diocese, individual Churches of various denominations, or cemetery associations. The funeral homes all seem to be family run, but there is at least one ambitious family establishment that is buying out other local funeral homes whenever the opportunity arises.

        After all was said and done, Gramma did appear to be at rest and in peace. While she did seem to be a passive puppet for us to project our memories, thoughts, fears, and expectations upon, it was part and parcel of the grief. At the end of the day, it had been a beautiful, dignified homage to a strong and caring woman who had lived a full life. As with Dad’s funeral we were fortunate and thankful to have friends of the family act as ministers. It was comforting to hear first hand accounts from both their lives expressed with sensitivity.

        Of course, all funerary accoutrements, including embalming should be a personal choice without being legislated to the hilt. (For instance, in New Jersey it is only legal to have immediate relatives at a close casketed service for the non-embalmed.) If one prefers a ritual in their home or to be non-embalmed and shrouded upon a stone altar in the forest than so be it. God or no God, on the cheap or lavishly expensive, all options should be available. In fact, I demand that any funeral home or cemetery go so far as to hold even, say, a Satanic funeral. They would probably lose much of their customer base, and their time honored relationships with the mainstream Churches. But why not offer such a choice? After all, this is America the land of liberty where the ashes of James Doohan (Scotty on Star Trek) were shot into space via a private spacecraft company that offers such services. Yet, freedom isn’t only for money making. One should have freedom from asinine, protectionist laws and penalties created to squash our freedom to bury our dead on our own terms, without the mediation of an industry or institution.


        “Ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative religion: you will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest dignity-gods of civilized peoples-worshipped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead.� – H.L. Mencken, “Memorial Service�

        We all ponder the notion of God, don’t we? Or what happens after death. In his book The God Part of the Brain, Matthew Alpert posits that our tendency toward a belief in the afterlife is a type of evolutionary defense mechanism. He cites Sigmund Freud who thought of God as human being’s projection of their own fathers/caregivers into a celestial non-existent realm. In addition, he suggests science can reveal that the life-after-death experience is merely a physiological reaction, and that religiosity is genetically determined.

        There are researchers and spiritualists who look to the pineal gland of the brain as either a salve that lets loose an hallucinatory experience of alternate reality while we are dying or something more real: the gateway that brings the soul to the baby in the womb as well as the gateway that opens us to another realm when we die. There are those who would like to hasten the experience while still living. They merely ingest the drug DMT (Dimethyltryptamine, said to be naturally occurring in the human brain, albeit in small amounts) in one form or another and return from their hallucination believing the entire cosmic plan had been mapped out for them, or that they spoke with their ancestors.

        As for me, I’ve heard tell that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Often, I contemplate what happens to such energies that may be released as dying takes place. Days after Gramma’s passing, I went over to her house to bring the mail in. I wondered if I’d sense or hear her spirit, or at least echoes of her. My Grandfather had died in the same house back in 1982. Whenever I went over there, I’d be very afraid of a visitation at night. No such thing ever happened. Didn’t happen with Gramma either. Certainly, the smells of the house, the knick-knacks, and the memories gave me the illusion that she was around, but as we threw things out and cleaned up the place the more it became like a silent tomb interrupted by random noises outside. Like walking through an old mausoleum, the great presence of absence could be felt in every room. I, the self-aware thinking creature, felt awe at my own mortality and the plausibility of nothingness.

        Harry Houdini, the world’s greatest escape artist and magician, desired to speak with those beyond. He took a visiting tour of spiritual mediums throughout the country, only to find out they were all fakes. Today, ghost hunters meet at cemeteries and houses with sensitive recording equipment. It seems they are able to pick up the sounds of the deceased as broadcast transmissions. Some conjecture that we leave behind an energy imprint or that sounds made during life continue to echo about at harder to hear frequencies.

        From my own experiences, I have had only two incidences that may or may not have been phenomena related to a deceased friend and my deceased father. On both occasions, separated by several years my car radio turned on spontaneously only a few days after the funerals. The friend was a fellow employee at a job. The first radio event happened in the job parking lot. The song that came on was by his favorite singer. The second happened in the parking garage across the street from Hahnemann Hospital where my father died. There was no particular song that I remember, just jarring radio disturbance. I have been told by an anonymous expert that were there to be a third occurrence with proximity to a recent death, I might want to consider the plausibility of communication from the beyond.

        If we as a species are hell bent on survival, and if the after-life does not seem as readily available or plausible as we’d like, there may be other ways of dealing. Are we who have progressed scientifically in healthcare, mass communications, and space travel merely going to accept the notion that dead is dead? Inventor, futurist, and health supplement entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil doesn’t think so. (He was a child prodigy who went on to develop innovative computer programs as well as the Kurzweil KR250 synthesizer, and a reader for the blind.) He has saved everything related to his late father from store receipts to essays and clothing in a large storage space. Kurzweil believes that one day he will be able to take all the information, the trace elements of his father’s existence and bring him back in the form of a computer simulacrum. Kurzweil looks forward to a future in which computers are able to upload all the information stored in our brains to a computer and possibly a clone.

        One known as RAEL (his former name is Claude Vorilhon) claims to have been contacted by the Elohim, the extraterrestrials who scientifically engineered the human race in their laboratories in the early 70s. He and his followers, the Raelians, mix religious ideas and UFO cultism with scientific libertarianism. While human cloning is illegal in the United States, the Raelians would like it to be as available on a free market as they would better tasting genetically modified foods.

        RAEL states that “Human cloning is just in its infancy. For the moment, the cloned cell has to be carried by a host mother, go through the usual nine months of pregnancy to produce a baby, and then must grow up in the usual way.� He further illustrates that “The next step, Stage Two, will use a technology called accelerated growth process (agp) to clone people directly into adulthood. They will immediately become the equivalent of 15 to 17 physical years old when their physical capabilities are at their maximum…Stage Three will require technology already in progress in Japan which will allow us to download human memory and personality into a computer.�

        Likewise, but sans religious and E.T. overtones, Ray Kurzweil also sees science as the path to a type of human mortality. A February 15, 2011 article in Scientific American on the documentary about Kurzweil, The Transcendent Man, described the film as being “about Kurzweil’s belief that within a few decades technology will allow human beings to transcend the physical and intellectual limitations of their body.�

        No more funerals? RAEL doesn’t think so as he opines that there will always be those who wish to die no matter what. In the meantime, the human beings lucky enough still achieve immortality the old fashioned way: through riches and fame. Recall the Roman Pageant that was the Michael Jackson funeral with Giant Television monitors playing out his life’s works (in lieu of a Greek actor who would have impersonated him were he to have actually passed on in ancient Rome) while paid wailers, i.e. those among his fans with winning lottery numbers thronged an auditorium to catch a glimpse of his 14-karat gold plated solid bronze casket. There were performances by Lionel Richie, Mariah Carey, and others. All of this was broadcast on the various infotainment channels and is more than likely available on DVD. Jackson’s godhood is sealed. For how long? Only time will tell. Perhaps those of us among the living fair a better chance than the rotting MJ as technology improves in our lifetimes. Perhaps our destiny is to evolve away from the funeral and sadness that goes with it. While Immortality, after all, seems to be a luxury for the elite, the rest of us get YouTube.