Sunday, July 28, 2013

Laying Your Loved One To Rest: Buyer Beware!

Image may contain: 2 people
Johnny with my wife, Janice, in his Las Vegas care facility in 2009.

According to a piece in TIME (June 24, 'The New Way of Death')  "death in the U.S. is a $13.4 billion  year industry and cremation accounts for about 20% of that number- a percentage that belies the full extent of its popularity- simply because cremation is cheaper than burial".  However, because families (or the person himself) choose cremation as the final mode of farewell doesn't imply or mean dignity need be foreclosed. Though we may have paid less to lay a loved one to rest, we fully expect his corpus will be treated with the same respect and dignity as if he was being buried.

The truth may be somewhat different, as my family learned after my younger brother John was recently cremated. What we didn't expect was a farce on top of the tragedy of his untimely death in which: his body would remain un-cremated for at least 3 weeks, and the final image photo  - which was to be our family's last remembrance of him - turned out to be a "ghoulish nightmare visage" as my wife put it.

The image was so gruesome there is no way in hell I would post it, if only to respect the sensibilities of many readers. So, despite paying nearly  $1,100 for what my family expected would be a decent cremation and final laying to rest, we were appalled as the last photo of Johnny showed him in a cardboard box-  still with hospital gown on, his head jerked to the right in an unnatural contortion, tracheotomy wound still showing with blood evident and eyes wide open in a grisly 'death stare'.  Needless to say, this is NOT the way we wanted to remember him!

Earlier we had to wait 5 days (after his death) for a cremation authorization form to be signed by all members of the family (this new law arrived a few years ago in a number of states.) This took time but we did it as expeditiously as we could as we didn't want John's body lying around any longer than necessary. After the form was submitted, the funeral home (in Oklahoma City) then wrote back and said another form was also needed  - so we had to attend to that costing another couple days. Then a doctor's authorization was needed for the death certificate, and after that was taken care of it had to be redone since the signature wasn't "legible". (What doctor's signature is?) On and on and on it went including other issues - delaying John's cremation at least 3 weeks. We thought all had been appropriately taken care of, then we received the final photo of John which didn't sit well with us. Some attempts were made to get media attention, by my middle brother Jerome in OK, but these didn't pan out.

But I decided to write this blog post to let others know of what they may be getting themselves into if they do happen to choose cremation as an option, instead of burial.  (And note: cremation is not new by any means. As the TIME article observes: "Cremation appears to be as old as traditional burial. The ancient Greeks practiced it. The Romans practiced it. But it wasn't until the 19th century that modern cremation took root in the U.S.."

The problem, of course, is that the U.S. is a Neooliberal capitalist bastion, dominated by the only real god that most worship: money. That means that profits reign over the interest of people in nearly every sphere of interest, from health care, to funeral services. And the truth is that funeral homes are not at all pleased with the increasing choice of cremation which is costing them major profits given it costs about one third of regular burials.

TIME notes what you can expect if you opt for cremation (p. 34):

"First, you'll likely be placed in a plain coffin or a cardboard box. You may have a tag put somewhere on your body or a metal disc placed inside your vessel with a unique number along with matching paper work so the crematorium operators know you're you - but for now you're no longer you, you're No. 15768."

Once you're ID'd you're placed in the crematorium chamber which will operate at 1, 800 F. After an hour of intense heat and flame you're reduced to grayish ash that will be raked into a box and left to cool. From there, personalized urns may be distributed, say to send to family members. But note that at no stage, merely because there is less ritual, does dignity have to be absent.

As cremations have become more popular  TIME (p. 36)  notes," unbelievable stories of errors and misidentifications have cropped up." The most grisly occurred near Noble, GA in 2002 where 334 bodies were found stacked in random piles, all in differing phases of decomposition.

The owner was charged with 787 felony counts and sent away for 12 years. The warning that ought to have alerted people was his offering $125 cremations. While cremations are cheaper than burials they aren't that much cheaper.

Other aspects of the business are also disturbing. As one Florida funeral director with an insight, quoted in TIME, notes, most crematoria are "off the beaten path" and in addition, the industry "doesn't necessarily attract the most reliable employees". He adds: "Lots of times you've got people who are ex-cons. It's really not the kind of job that most people want to do.."

The whole piece, in the wake of what happened to Johnny, got me to re-thinking cremations for my wife and myself.  One alternative way, as the author of the TIME article recommends, is to incorporate a memorial service as part of the cremation. As the author puts it (p. 37):

"Memorials are important for funeral directors because they can't make a living on ashes alone. But it's important for you too, because whether you realize it or not, you may be setting fire to your own history."

That is, should you decide against having your ashes memorialized somewhere. And as the author acknowledges: "What will future Americans think of their ancestors collectively going up in flames?"

Indeed. So given the thousands of hours my wife has put in on her genealogy research for my family - as well as hers- it would be nonsense to toss all that work into the fire as it were, and also leave nothing for our descendants or nieces, nephews to find should they want to extend the family tree.

As for Johnny, though the funeral home messed up his ending, it is at least an object lesson and cautionary note for the rest of us when our own time comes.

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