29 June 2009

Things I’ve learned from TV: Bringing death home

I get annoyed by people who say “Oh, I never watch TV”. Sure, 90% of TV is crap; Sturgeon’s Law applies. Similarly, 90% of books are crap, but you wouldn’t hear the same people saying “Oh, I never read books”.

TV can be educational. It can even be educational and entertaining at the same time. You just need to be careful what you watch. Tonight I watched a couple of episodes of Penn and Teller’s show “Bullshit!”

I learned that until around the early part of the 20th Century, houses had a parlor. When someone died, the family would lay them out in the parlor, which was the room used for serious events. The family would clean and dress the body. Everyone would view the body in the home, satisfy themselves that the person was really dead, and do any grieving they needed to do. The body would then be taken to the burial plot, and simply buried.

Then around 1910, marketers decided that the parlor was old fashioned–and more importantly, that it was inappropriate for families to perform funerals themselves. The parlor was rebranded with a new name, designed to make it utterly clear that it was an inappropriate place for the deceased: “living room”. For your funeral services, you were to go to a “funeral parlor” and have things done by professionals. The old family heirlooms that reminded you of the past were cleared away, and new modern furniture replaced them.

The “funeral parlors” soon began inventing new services. Embalming, fancy caskets, and so on. It turns out that the funeral industry is sleazier than user car sales. My favorite bit of info from the TV show concerns rubber seals around the lids of coffins. Apparently these are often pushed as an expensive upgrade to protect the body from moisture. Unfortunately, the bacteria in the body chow down after death, producing gases. The rubber sealed coffin ends up like a pressure cooker, the body decomposes more quickly because of the heat and pressure, and eventually when the coffin loses structural integrity the liquified body tissues get pumped out through the cracks by the gas pressure.

Cremation isn’t much better. Prices vary by factors of ten, because the person doing the shopping isn’t in the mood to price compare. While you can get a $60 cardboard box, chances are they’ll try to upsell you to a $1400 wood coffin with extra fluffy pillows. (No, really.) Also, cremation’s not great for the environment, as it releases mercury from the fillings in people’s teeth.

There are alternatives, and home funerals are starting to come back into fashion. In Texas, you don’t have to embalm the body with toxic solvents; you don’t need a mortician’s license to transport the body; you don’t need a traditional fancy casket. If you want to dig a hole in the back yard, put your loved one’s body in, and plant a tree, as far as I can tell that’s legal as long as you own the land. (Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and haven’t researched thoroughly, so check the facts before proceeding.)

Sure, Penn and Teller are abrasive, and sometimes miss the point. However, their show on the death industry ended on a great human note. They put it this way:

It may be hard to admit, but the dead are dead. Nothing you can do will please them. Ashes don’t know if they’re in a marble urn or an old Starbucks cup. The time to treat people right is when they’re alive. A ham sandwich, a soda and a joke now mean more to your loved ones than a $10,000 coffin after they’re dead. Which brings to mind one more thing: If you’re still lucky enough to be able to do it, call your mother. Yeah, right now. You don’t know anyone in the credits and they’ll be pretty much the same next week, so call your mom. Now.

(She’s on vacation in France, or I’d have talked to her already today.)

© mathew 2017