Some of us, when it is time, might hear the odd murmur of vulgar mechanics or feel a seismic shift in our composition. Less fortunate numbers will experience the smack of collision or the bullseye point of criminality. Others may go to sleep and miss the end, which, though perhaps painless, seems like a shame. Amid the countdown from consciousness, speculation on the rolling credits can put a nervous twitch in the final curtain. But like the song says, death is not the end. The business of death, as in putting to rest the very bones of it, is a subjective art and its patrons vary according to culture, climate, religion or personal preference.
Upon a mile-long East Bronx island that sits within the western reach of the Long Island Sound, opposite abandoned factories, a women’s sanitorium and a delinquent boys’ reformatory, lie the remains of over a million people. In the warmer months, in parts, Hart Island is lush with greenery and home to the odd wandering deer, the species that may have given the island its name. Further afield, the vast trenches dug out by Rikers Island prisoners and overseen by New York City’s Department of Correction make up the world’s biggest tax-funded paupers’ grave. Among the poor and unclaimed are lives that have been lost, quite literally, through red tape cracks and archaic flaws in the municipal machine. Instructions from the residents of New York as to their intended legacies can become blurred in their bureaucratic handling along the departmental chain of command.
If unclaimed after two days, a body is fair game for medical and mortuary students to dissect. Eventually they are delivered to Hart Island aboard a special operations refrigerated truck that drives off the Michael Cosgrove ferry, the same ferry that on once-monthly visits, brings the curious to an isolated gazebo area, and registered mourners to the edge of a headstone-free expanse. The location of each name-scratched coffin is filed on a database for the purposes of the frequent disinterment that occurs when a loved one is either found or fundraised for in advance of a burial or cremation elsewhere.
The expired body can be used and reused, displayed, commemorated, or lost and forgotten. Some methods are red raw and unambiguous where the sky really is the limit.
Tremendous effort can go into retrieving the dead from paupers’ graves, battlegrounds, and deviant hiding places. Although burial and cremation make a dependable if bickering double-act, there are many culturally different send-offs that transcend the six feet under and ash models. The expired body can be used and reused, displayed, commemorated, or lost and forgotten. Some methods are red raw and unambiguous where the sky really is the limit. The Indian Parsi Towers of Silence are where the exposed deceased, attuned by rites to a spiritual cleanse, are left for carrion birds to rapidly consume, digest, and disperse within the food chain. At Tibetan sky burials the vultures are given a silver service equivalent in the form of Vajrayana Buddhist excarnation, during which the cadaver’s flesh and organs are removed and the bones divided with butchers’ knives. As is their belief, once the soul has been freed, the uninhabited body is of little consequence. In a final, selfless offering, it is put out to nourish the life cycle. Elsewhere in Asia, in the Indonesian region of South Sulawesi, the dead relatives of the Toraja people sit at home unless towed out on a family outing. Awaiting an extravagant funeral that can occur many weeks after their death, they are cast within the family set-up as simply ill.
There is also the compelling and idiosyncratic world of human taxidermy or temporary preservation at the behest of the deceased. It was 24-year-old Angel Pantoja Medina’s wish to stand at his own wake. After he was found dead under a bridge in San Juan, Puerto Rico, his wish came true. Medina’s embalmed corpse was propped up for his three day wake in his mother’s living room, dressed in his favorite Yankees cap and sunglasses. This growing trend appears to bestow a touch of humor upon otherwise solemn proceedings, as with English taxi driver Alan Billis who became immortalized as Tutan-Alan. Shortly before his death from lung cancer in 2011, he agreed to be mummified in the Pharaoh tradition for a British Channel 4 documentary. His wife Jan reflected that in death, he slept as usual and was treated like a king. English philosopher, economist, and all-round libertarian Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832, requested in his will that his body be dissected and then preserved as an auto-icon. To this day, his scrappy remains are on show at UCL (University College London), an institution based upon his utilitarian vision. There, his skeleton sits encased in stuffing, filling out his two-century-old clothes, underneath the wax likeness of his head. His real head, the victim of a botched-up preservation treatment and a football kickabout from UCL rival pranksters King’s College, who temporarily stole it, is a gruesome fright mask kept in a covert room for safety.
In other instances, preserved bodies can comfort the living, or alternatively, they can satisfy ghoulish sightseeing curiosity. On the popular backpacker’s stop-off of Koh Samui, the island’s famous mummified monk, Luang Pho Daeng, sits in a display case, cross-legged in orange robes and a pair of sunglasses that take the glare of his empty eye sockets, surrounded by flowers, incense sticks and fruit offerings. For Thai people, his body is there to be worshipped, while death is seen as an opportunity to be reborn in a better life. Less cheerful are the haunting tourist sites of Guanajuato’s Mummy Museum and the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, where Rosalia Lombardo, the Sleeping Beauty, lies in an airtight case, frozen in her perfectly preserved infancy after dying of pneumonia in 1920.
The power of the aesthetic should never be underestimated and therefore dignity in death is no easy feat. Human exhibits, dead or alive, have been historically plentiful, as with the woeful case of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman who in the early 19th century was better known as Hottentot Venus. Baartman was exhibited in Britain and France for – as was perceived by crude onlookers, her exotic proportions, before being posthumously cast in plaster for a permanent exhibit at a French natural history museum alongside her skeleton, brain, and genitals. Her remains were eventually returned to South Africa in 2002 in response to demands from Nelson Mandela.
For many outside of hospitals, morgues, and the ambitious end of breaking the law, there is seldom any cause to see anything as explicit as death. The dying and the dead, or the memento mori, serve as a reminder of the reaper’s ticking clock. Unless, perhaps, if the presentation combines objectivity, science, and spectacle.
For many outside of hospitals, morgues, and the ambitious end of breaking the law, there is seldom any cause to see anything as explicit as death. The dying and the dead, or the memento mori, serve as a reminder of the reaper’s ticking clock. Unless, perhaps, if the presentation combines objectivity, science, and spectacle. The Dalian Medical University and Heidelberg’s Institute for Plastination are two of the places where Dr. Gunther Von Hagens, the black fedora wearing creator of the plastination method, immortalized on celluloid thanks to his cameo in the 2006 Bond film Casino Royale, has practiced his unusual arts with peeled human and animal exhibits. In 2002, in a Grimm fairytale nod to Willy Wonka, Von Hagens stood on a platform in the middle of an East End London street before an eager crowd, holding aloft the last available ticket for the first public UK autopsy in 170 years. In his East German inflection he gave an impassioned speech on the importance of being better educated on human anatomy. Dramatic stuff. Body donors can and do register at the end of visiting his exhibitions, a weighty alternative to signing the standard guest book, but one that can further scientific education and release the burden of funeral costs upon the family. However, the rumor-mill that has followed Von Hagens and the various traveling Body Worlds exhibitions have stirred up a good deal of debate and controversy, such as specimen consent, particularly regarding his stash of stiffs from China. All of this adds to the sideshow elements of the Von Hagens circus. One suspects that wherever there are bodies used for anatomical study and exhibitions, there will always be tales of body snatching. Now terminally ill with Parkinson’s Disease, Von Hagens has requested that when the time comes, he will undergo plastination courtesy of his wife’s handiwork and then be exhibited in the show he created.
At the grislier end of scientific body donation are America’s half a dozen body farms, grim gardens of open-air decomposition where crime scene forensic study can be applied to a specific environment. Such contributions are self-effacing and profoundly useful. As for common Western practices, happy endings don’t come cheap, with the average cost of a coffin burial funeral coming in at $7,200. Cremation is on the up due to space saving economics, increasing secularism, and the catching-up of Christendom. The Catholic Church lifted the ban on cremation in 1963, and since 1966, funeral rites are permitted so long as the ashes are committed to cemeteries owned and run by Catholic parishes and dioceses. There is also a growing market for eco-friendly bio-cremations, practiced in a few US states, where accelerated decomposition occurs from heated water and lye. At the end of the process, separate from the the bones which are pulverized into ash, the oil-like 150 gallons of sterile waste water are then unceremoniously flushed down the drain. Be that as it may, if reclaimed water laws are present in the bio-cremation area, then it is quite possible that a body subject to this method may pass life to land through a hosepipe.
The End appears to work best if its loose ends can be steadfastly bound and if it succeeds in easing grief and sometimes, guilt. Death’s momentary aftercare, in all its forms, matters to the community gathered by a lifetime.
There is an undeniable sense of finality when a deceased vessel is speedily destroyed or reduced to its basic chemical elements, completing its full circle return to a primitive form. Much like the sky burial conversion into bird food, which, albeit a graphic goodbye that could drop the jaws off most customs, fulfills the waste not want notproverb; quite the opposite of Hart Island’s sense of unfinished business. The End appears to work best if its loose ends can be steadfastly bound and if it succeeds in easing grief and sometimes, guilt. Death’s momentary aftercare, in all its forms, matters to the community gathered by a lifetime. There is a lot to consider, be it ceremony, disposal, raising funds, finding space, and ultimately coming to terms with the arrangement of loss.
K. Krombie is a writer and journalist living in Queens, New York.