Thursday, 11 September 2008

In and Out of the Box...

I am reminded about how difficult it can be to explain coherently what you do, if you do something that is margianalised or hidden from the norm.

I have just been reading a book by three very erudite scholars - entitled:

Beyond the Body: Death and Social Identity

A book authored by Elizabeth Hallam, Jenny Hockey and Glennys Howarth; all women that I have huge respect for. I passed my previous degree with many references to their past works.

Now while it's entirely reasonable for people (including them) to hold opinions against embalming practice, even to describe the treatment in terms of "...violence...", I get really 'thingy' when the description is patently wrong.

I am nit picking - you think!

I have never sewn lips.......we don't sew lips.

We do oral sutures - or mandibular sutures, but the stitch doesn't go through the lips. For one thing, the tissue isn't strong enough to hold the suture and another thing the damage caused would cause fluid to 'weep' constantly.

Even you can understand the concept of wet lips being not one we would encourage...surely?

Then - if that wasn't bad enough, they got the whole embalming technique back to front so that whoever was embalming in the description, was injecting preservative into nowhere in particular.

Eh? you may ask.....

Well, the whole point is that you have to have an intact system to take advantage of the natural circulation. Poke holes in it and what do you get? A 'sieve'...with no way of transporting anything fluid that isn't going to escape.

It is of course possible - but it gets more complicated and having been accused in the same book of being "...pseudo medical...", I won't bore you with the anatomy lesson.

Which gets me to the point of this little rant.

Yesterday I went up to university to see my tutor and have a bit of a look round and chat to folk.
I met a charming young man who is a recent graduate - who having done the education thing at the correct end of his life, hopes to follow in his fathers footsteps into the Church of England. He was suitably earnest and enthusiastic a model 'Anglican'.

We had this chat about coffins, which I decided, suddenly as I was driving home later, might have been one of those parallel communications where you are each talking about the same issue - but from totally different points of knowledge.

Compared to him, a novitiate in 'boxes', I think I might be termed coffin expert - this latter position naturally only complicated things.

So, when he said words to the effect of 'I have heard that it is illegal to re-use a coffin after you have taken the body out of it....'

I naturally said - "rubbish - who told you that, of course you can re-use a coffin - mind you, you might not if it had been contaminated in some way.....!"

My answer was based on the knowledge that there ARE indeed certain circumstances where the coffin may be changed or re-used. I give you three such examples that I have experienced:

1. You go to remove a person who has died in certain private hospitals who only allow you to use a coffin and hearse.....not the usual stretcher and ambulance/van/estate-car.

This is the first-call and you have not yet been told by the relatives which coffin to use for the funeral - not only that, you may not be able to get an accurate size for the person. So you use a nicely lined coffin that is large enough to accommodate the nurses 'guesstimate'. You find out later that not only is it the wrong size - but the wrong colour.

You put the person in another coffin and are clearly not going to throw the first one away!

2. You do the funeral of a VERY large man.

To lay him out in comfort - the coffin (which has to be specially made) is 4" wider that the crematorium maximum you explain to the family that the option may be to get another identical but slightly smaller coffin (at no extra cost to them)- that will go into the cremator - and ask if they are happy for you to transfer him on the morning of the funeral. Otherwise - burial is the only option.

In the slightly smaller coffin, which was indeed a very snug fit (meaning that the gentleman's hands stuck up a bit - due to his arms being tight against the coffin and his elbows up on his body, instead of by his sides)...he was safe enough. However, not quite as dignified looking as he was in the previous coffin.

Termed 'the boat' as it took up considerable space in the coffin store, this giant box was eventually acquired, by another funeral director who used it to bury one of his own clients.

3. A coffin comes over from abroad carrying a person who had died on holiday. The family don't like it at all - they hate it in fact - and so they ask for another one.

So we re-cycle the Zinc lining and put the coffin in the coffin store.

Sometime later we give it (at no charge) to a family who have limited funds and who love it, in all it's European glossy finary, while knowing perfectly well where it came from.

Going back to my prospective young priest........the coffin novice. What he was really implying was (I think), that once the coffin is on the catafalque in the crematorium, it is indeed illegal to tamper with it in any way, externally or internally. At that point, removing the body and re-using the coffin would incur a lengthy visit to one of HMQ's penal institutions.

Moreover it would be very bad form to try to tamper similarly with a burial coffin after the funeral. However, being a "...coffin expert...", I do know of a company supplying coffins that have a cardboard coffin liner (that remains - with the person inside - to be buried or cremated) and a legally removable posh wooden exterior that can be used for burial or cremation - and used and used and used again ad-infinitum!

Simple, in the end, wasn't it!


Fi said...

That made very interesting reading at 5 am on a dark morning....and is on a topic that I can honestly say had not occurred to me as possible, or happening.... but your arguments did make sense, and I had to smile at the mental images from it all..The darker side of death.
I am wondering if I have the strength to google embalming and cope with what images would come up. To be honest, doing post mortems has never worried me (and for the benefit of anyone else reading this I should qualify that I am a vet, so they were on animals, not humans), but somewhere I learned that embalmers use 1 Gauge needles for the process, and I have never had a problem remembering gauge sizes of needles since. Hose pipes for humans - 1, Eye injections - 27 gauge.

Totally irrelevant but your post did trigger some thoughts!

Charles Cowling said...

Just as embalmers thrive on a joined-up arterial system (as opposed to one which has been hacked about by a pathologist), academics would thrive better if they spent more time getting down and dirty with the folk who handle wet death, thereby joining up their theorising to the needs of those who mourn. I would bet good money that any academic who loathes embalming conceptually would, if he or she spent a week in a funeral home with rubber gloves on, find their disapproval subverted by, at least, ambivalence. It's time academics joined up cogitation to a bit of actual practice.

As the great Tom Lynch has said, "the dead don't mind, but the dead do matter". Anyone who supposes that most deadcare professionals think the dead don't matter are wrong.

Public understanding of after-death practices is not being well served by some of those who write about them. Academics need to research where it's all happening, not just where it's being talked about.

Great post, Ange. You really get people thinking -- and get them real, too.