Keeping Costs Down


Bones, Bugs, & Batesville

Dying is a very dull, dreary affair.  My advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.

- Somerset Maugham

by Lisa Carlson

The "Body Farm" it's been called - the brain-child of Dr William Bass, a forensic anthropologist - and the only location of its kind in the country.  Several out-of-town acres owned by the University of Tennessee (UT) in Knoxville have been set aside to study body decomposition and the relevant stages of insect development.

The bodies there have been donated for scientific study, and - for the most part - will end up in the university's collection of skeletons that make up a large database of body-types.  With a growing collection, forensic experts are charting the differences between male and female, old and young, black and white, tall and short, heavy and thin.  The skeletal studies provide a basis for computer whizzes who can then reconstruct likely features as an aid in identification.

In addition to the skeletal studies, the rate of organ degeneration after death - especially the liver - is being studied.  Ultimately, that should allow the time of death to be pinpointed with increasing accuracy.

With the unique and valuable knowledge generated by these forensic studies, UT staff are regularly in demand for training police, medical examiners, and FBI investigators.  Some graduates have gone on to work in law enforcement.

I first learned of this centre from a Popular Science article sent in by John White of the Hawaii society and mentioned it in an earlier newsletter - more out of random curiosity than anything.  But I had a new reason for my interest that prompted me to drag my husband away from a day in our April vacation for a visit.

Barbara Osborne, a woman from Mississippi, had had no reservations about spending $4,000 for Daddy's "protective" copper casket.  The mortuary agreed to hold it while a private family mausoleum was being built.  Two months later - when Barbara went to place flowers for Father's Day - the casket was "stinking to high heaven."  Batesville took four months to supply a new casket.  A video of the rotting flesh made during the transfer confirmed Barbara's worst fears.  Barbara now has an $8 million law suit against Batesville for consumer fraud.

When Barbara discovered the Funeral Consumers Alliance last summer (a friend had seen the US News article),  She was relieved to find a sympathetic ear and someone who understood the issues.  Sometimes Barbara called me every day, several times a day.  "Do you know any experts on decomposition," she lamented during one such call.  Fishing for something - anything - she could research on her own, I casually mentioned the Body Farm.

Barbara is a sharp lady, a real bull-dog and go-getter.  So I shouldn't have been surprised when she called back the next day.  She had learned the name of the director and found Dr Bass off on a summer sabbatical at Tulane University.  In the course of their conversation, Dr Bass mentioned that UT had had a contract with Batesville Caskets for almost 8 years.  Staff at the forensic centre monitored monthly the gases being expelled from the caskets that Batesville had shipped there.  Barbara quickly asked him if he would testify in her court case.  Dr Bass agreed.

Barbara excitedly gave me his number at Tulane and urged me to call.  Dr Bass and I had a delightful conversation.  I read him some of the casket chapter from my nearly-finished book, and he was quite amused - "You really know what you're talking about.  I'll have to buy a copy," he chuckled.  "I'll send you one," I offered, and made sure his name was on the list for gratis copies when it was finally published last fall.

It was with some shock that Barbara learned at the end of March this year that Dr Bass was now under retainer for Batesville Casket Company.  That probably explained, in part, the protective order that Batesville lawyers had wanted Barbara's lawyers to sign off on - with that in place, anything that Batesville chose to mark "Confidential" during the trial could not be made public.

But "confidential" was not what Barbara had in mind.  Although she has suffered personally - nightmares and a consuming anguish over the unwitting casket choice - she feels strongly that "protective" caskets need to be exposed to the public as consumer fraud.  It's hard not to agree.  The Batesville web site states:

The urge to keep our loved ones protected and safe is fundamental to all of us.  No wonder so many families are comforted by the ability to protect their loved ones with the Batesville Monoseal protective casket.

It's going to keep out air, water, and other elements, we're told.  But Batesville doesn't bother to reveal that, by keeping air out, a sealed casket (in anything but the most frigid weather) becomes a crock-pot that is likely to turn the body into a smelly stew, whether it's embalmed or not.  And Batesville had six caskets at the forensic centre to study this stew!

If Batesville were going to ask the court to keep Dr Bass's testimony confidential during the trial, then maybe we had to find another way to bring this intriguing Batesville study into the open.  Surely not everyone at UT was under retainer to Batesville.  A visit to poke around seemed imperative.  In fact, it seemed fated, with Knoxville already scheduled as the first stop on our vacation.

I called Dr Bass, and we chatted about my book.  He was impressed, he said, and had been sharing information from it with others.  I mentioned that I would be visiting Knoxville in a couple of weeks and would love a tour of the Body Farm.  (I didn't mention Batesville.)  Proud of the distinction he'd created for UT with the forensic center, he was eager to oblige.  But, alas, he would be on a speaking trip that week.  Not to worry, he said.  He'd get someone else to show me around.  How convenient, I thought, though I was disappointed not to meet this colourful man who always seemed to have a twinkle in his voice.

Dr Murray Marks has been at UT off and on for nearly 10 years.  With Dr Bass on emeritus status, Dr Marks has taken over most of the classes Dr Bass used to teach.  He also supervises many of the projects that go on at the Body Farm - a name he doesn't much like, he said, because he doesn't think it sounds respectful of the work there.

We followed his pickup out of town to the remote location.  A high wooden fence blocked any view through the metal-link barrier, topped by a coil of razor wire, that surrounded the wooded acreage.  Before we went in, Dr Marks gave us a history of the centre.  Only a few of the bodies there are from unclaimed indigents.  The majority have been donated for scientific study, he emphasized, and remains can be returned to the family if requested.  Most, however, will join the skeletal collection the university is building.

"It's almost beautiful," commented Dr Marks, of the natural events that follow decomposition and the body's disintegration into the cycle of nature.  As the gates swung open and I noticed the spring wild-flowers beside the hillside paths, I had to agree.  With most bodies 20 feet apart or so, there was no overwhelming "smell," though the day was still early.  An aroma of pungent "spring earth" was more like it.

We saw 15 or 20 corpses in varying stages of decay above ground as we walked the paths, some covered by tarpaulins to keep off the vultures, though we saw armadillo-like bugs busy at work when we peeked underneath.  Others have been buried and will be exhumed at various stages.  A marker next to each cadaver noted the date it had been laid out.  After only four winter and spring months of Tennessee weather, all that remained of one was the skeleton with clinging fragments of leathery skin, tangled with pieces of disintegrated clothing - a flimsy nightie, perhaps, or a wrapping sheet.  In the summer, it takes about 2 weeks, I was told.  As the body decays, volatile fatty acids are released, with the liquid run-off killing the vegetation nearby.

Two had been embalmed.  "Only the vascular system is preserved," pointed out Dr Marks, the visceral cavity agape and empty, the skin more white and intact than on others we saw.  It didn't look "natural."  The other bodies were becoming a rich sienna brown, an earthen colour, "scorched" as the tissues broke down and fatty acids ran off into the soil.  (Soil under a decomposing body is another subject of study.)

But the object of my greatest curiosity was at the centre of this almost park-like area - the Batesville study.  Four cement vaults (painted black to absorb more heat) sat side-by-side on top of the ground.  Two tubes ran out of the end of each into a mechanical unit tucked under a small shelter nearby, one outlet marked "liquid," the other marked "air."  They had cut down some trees to increase the sunlight, said Dr Marks.  I asked what the purpose of the study was.  Dr Marks said that formaldehyde boils at 115°F and that he'd understood there were problems at mausoleums in the Southwest.

If Batesville already knew about hot weather mausoleum problems (long before Barbara Osborne bought her protective casket), what would this study show?  I wasn't able to learn much in the way of details because the first graduate student on the project, Brent Goodman, had signed a silence agreement with Batesville at the beginning of the study.  I had to glean bits and pieces from others.

Every month for the first few years, data would be collected and sent off to a Batesville laboratory in Indiana.  That included a paper tape where a stylus had logged the daily temperature and humidity inside each casket/vault.  Liquids were drawn out with a manual pump.  Those samples, along with gas samples, were shipped off, too.  By the end of 3 years, there wasn't much change in the composition of the samples, but the study has continued on for nearly 5 years more, with liquid and air drawn less frequently.  (In contrast, bodies exposed to the elements had finished the decomposition process and were totally dehydrated in a fraction of the time.)

If different caskets and different embalming methods were used, as I'd been told, was there an obvious difference from one to the next?  And where did Batesville get the bodies for these 4 above-ground vaults and another 2 buried in the hillside?  Dr Marks didn't know.

When I called Batesville to see what I could learn, I was referred to Joe Weigel, director of public relations for the casket company.  He was very cordial and very smooth.  He told me that the reason Batesville did the study was to "help Dr Bass build more knowledge and to help improve our products."  When I asked what they learned, he said the study wasn't finished.  "We don't have enough information yet."  That was strange, I said, because after the first 3 years, there apparently was no change in the character of samplings.  He insisted that the project wasn't over.  Maybe I'll call him again in September - 5 months from now - when it is.

As to where Batesville got the bodies: through "the proper channels for scientific study" was all Weigel would say.  Mmmmm.  I suspect that's a new wrinkle for body donors to consider.

If there had been any substantial revelation in this study, it likely would have been put to good use in the industry as soon as it was known.  Having read the trade journals for over 12 years, I've seen no such news appear.

My guess is that this study merely verified what any cemeterian and most funeral directors already know: embalmed or not, dead bodies decompose to one degree or another.  And a sealed casket creates a smelly stew.


See also:

bulletJohnny's Rotten: Strange Harvest at the Body Farm (in the section on Working) - Still, the indignity of it all.  The knuckle-size flies, the putrid gases, the vulture circling this very moment.  The odour, which Marks describes as "unlike anything else," can be rancid, vaguely similar to wet leather mixed with eggs or sweat or tar, or a hybrid of all.  In its densest pockets, it suffocates...
bulletDead Wives Club (in the section on Odds and Oddities) - Gesina was embalmed 12 years ago.  Her husband says, "Part of the coffin opens to reveal Gesina's face.  I only open it on certain occasions.  Her cheeks have hollowed a little and she's got thinner and darker, but her face is still perfect,"  Listen up, Batesville!  What's their secret?

Common Garden Burial

Death gives life its fullest reality.

- Anthony Dalla Villa

Grave digger: Terry Lee digs his wife's grave in the back garden of his home in Dover, England.  "When I go, I'm going in there with her."

by Julia Stuart

Ruth Lee's funeral was not a dignified affair: dropped in the ground, wrapped in Christmas paper, before the council could stop it.  But she wouldn't have had it any other way...

All that protects the body of Ruth Lee from the elements and the gaze of the neighbours is a biodegradable coffin and several feet of soil.  Terry Lee, Ruth's husband, insists it was his wife who, in common with about 200 people a year in Britain, wanted to be buried in her back garden.  "She had been housebound for years," says Lee, 56, who owns the ex-council house.  "Her bed was downstairs and her only view was from the living-room window.  We had all sorts of animals - dogs, cats, rabbits - and every time they died they were buried in the back garden.  She made it her express wish that when she died, she wanted her final resting place to be up the garden with the animals."

But many would question whether Ruth would have been quite so happy with the circumstances.  For the tale of how her body ended up several feet under in her back garden is farcical.

When Ruth died of liver cancer in January last year, aged 66, her husband informed an undertaker of his intentions, arranged a funeral and dutifully dug a hole in his back garden.  When word spread, horrified neighbours complained to Dover District Council, which took Lee to court on the grounds that part of the covenant of the house stated that the owner should not do anything to devalue the property or that of the neighbours.

The judge issued an injunction preventing Lee from burying his wife's body in the garden, or encouraging others to do so.  Lee was furious.  "I said I would get her embalmed as a protest," he says.  "The council said they would take me back to court to get an injunction, saying I couldn't have her on my property in an embalmed condition because of the neighbours.  My argument was that if the neighbours want to look into the window that's up to them."

He insists he wasn't being disrespectful to the memory of his wife.  "My wife would have stuck by me all the way because she wanted to stay with the animals," he says.  He didn't, however, carry out his threat, and his wife's body remained frozen at the hospital mortuary.

After the Department of the Environment refused to alter the wording of the covenant, Lee decided to use his wife's body for a more public form of protest.  In December last year he collected it from the mortuary, put it inside a biodegradable coffin, and wrapped it in Christmas paper and ribbon.  "I thought it would have a better impact," he says.  He then drove to London with a group of friends, and sat with the coffin in the car for 45 minutes outside Downing St.  He then brought the defrosting body back home, and went out.  Within hours council officers were there with a warrant to enter his home to make sure he wasn't defying the injunction, and to check the body wasn't a health risk.  They were too late; in Lee's absence a group of supporters had buried Ruth's body in the garden.

"The council accused me of breaking the injunction but I wasn't even there, and I hadn't encouraged anyone," he insists.  "I had been intending to take her to Yorkshire the next day to bury her in a nature reserve."

Ruth Lee is one of many people looking for a burial at home, or in a natural environment, in eco-friendly materials.  The precise number of garden burials in Britain each year is not known, but John Bradfield, the author of Green Burial, which covers the legal aspects of burials on private land, believes it to be about 200.  He says no consent is required from the local authority, but the Registrar of Births and Deaths must be told where the burial took place.

Eight years ago there was only one woodland burial ground in Britain.  Now there are about 130, with about 20 burials a year carried out at each one.  Nicholas Albery, a director of the Natural Death Centre, a London-based charity which supports those dying at home and helps arrange funerals, says woodland burial is the fastest-growing environmental movement in the country.  Some of the sites will be holding open days this Sunday to mark the National Day of the Dead.  The day is organised by the Natural Death Centre as a time to remember friends and family who have died.  The charity advises against garden burials.  "They can cause a lot of dissension within the family, they can annoy the neighbours, and some estate agents argue they can seriously reduce the value of the property, though there is no evidence of that."

Ruth Lee's burial was far from decorous.  "She was not buried dignified," Lee says.  "My right of way is through the neighbour's house.  From what I understand they ran up the pavement with the coffin, through the neighbour's back way, up my garden, dropped her down the hole and threw dirt on her."

A neighbour who witnessed the hasty burial still shudders.  "It was terrible," she says.  "There were five of them and they dropped [the coffin] on the floor coming out.  They tried to put her in the hole, but it wouldn't fit in the ground and they had to keep pulling her out and digging again.  Eventually they got her in."

Dover District Council has decided not to take further legal action.  Chris Barnett, the director of health and housing, says: "We have been advised that unfortunately the law in this area is very weak, and the chances of the council obtaining an order for the exhumation of Mrs Lee's body are extremely uncertain ..."

Lee's neighbours are horrified that the body will remain in the garden.  A mother of two, whose garden backs on to his, won't let her children play in their garden.  "I think it's terrible.  It's really creepy.  She shouldn't be there.  He thinks he's got one over us, but it's not a game.  I'm just worried about him digging it up.  If I hear noises outside it plays on my mind.  My bedroom overlooks it, and I keep having nightmares that the coffin is falling to one side and she's falling out of it."

Another neighbour, who has lived in the area for 64 years, is equally distressed.  "I don't think Ruth deserved what she got.  It has opened the floodgates for everybody who owns a council house to bury a relative in the garden and save on a funeral."

Despite getting what he wanted, Lee is far from happy.  He is now demanding compensation from the council for stress.  "My daughter has overdosed, my son has overdosed.  They can't control my 10-year-old granddaughter - she's under all sorts of clinics because of her gran," he says.  He has no intention of paving over the grave, but has covered it with sheets of glass to prevent animals digging up the body.

He says he will turn the garden into a cemetery to "wind up" the neighbours even more.  "I shall put a gravestone up.  I wasn't going to.  I will now.  If the neighbours don't like it, they can move.  I will not bow down to oppression and tyranny."

And the story is not over: "When I go, I'm going in there with her," he says. - Independent

Source: The Evening Post Wednesday 4 April 2001

These people unfortunately almost sound like caricatures.  They took something simple - a natural burial - and appear to have blamed their life's troubles on it.  The cause of the children overdosing?  Granddaughter out-of-control?  Won't let her kids play in the garden?  Come on.

Competing with a Lower Cost Alternative

by Glenn Gould

You're shopping for a new electronic consumer product at an electronics department store.  You turn down the aisle with 30 products displayed; you find a group of five with the package of features you want.  Price varies little, if any from one product to the next.  One of the options is a brand name you recognise as a quality leader.  Which do you select?  All things being equal, consumers will select a leading brand name.  The value of a well established brand name is the inherent confidence consumers have in the name, even when all tangible data suggests there is no difference in products.

What does this have to do with funeral service?  The selection of a funeral home has less to do with services, prices, convenience, religion, cremation and pre need and much more to do with the consumer's perception of the brand name.  Just as in retail and other professional services, maintaining a strong brand name will prove the best defense against discount funeral service.

Source: from The American Funeral Director

Oh?  Forewarned is forearmed!

Lowest Cost Alternative?

Source: Funny Times August 2003

California Woman Helps Bring Funerals to the Home

by Michael Kahn

Sebastopol, California - Want to know how to keep a corpse fresh during a do-it-yourself funeral?  Wondering how to build a coffin for a dearly departed loved one?  Jerri Lyons has answers to these and other questions for people looking to conduct home funerals.  She dispenses to-die-for advice ranging from the legalities of getting a body home from the morgue to the basics of bathing a corpse.

In running seminars on how people can care for their own dead, Lyons, 55, and her nonprofit group Final Passages have become leaders in a small but burgeoning movement that seeks to provide a more compassionate and cheaper alternative to mainstream funeral practices.  "We prepare for other rites of passage like weddings and births," Lyons told a group of about a dozen people who gathered in her northern California home recently to learn more about home funerals.  "Not a lot of people prepare for death."

On a recent sunny morning Lyons started the meeting of mostly women attendees by asking why they wanted to spend the day talking about death and dying.  The courses cost $35 to $375 depending on length.  A self-described psychic said she talks with angels and simply wanted more information while another woman asked whether it is legal to build a funeral pyre on private property as she prepared for the eventual death of an older lover.  "I want to be buried in the land I've been taking care of," said another participant named Pam.  "There is more spirituality when I do it myself."  Others said they wanted to make sure they don't burden surviving loved ones.  A lawyer serving a rural community wanted to pick up information for an increasing number of clients who inquire about home funerals and burials.  A middle-aged woman named Cheryl said funeral homes are a big rip-off and that she wants to make sure people remember her life rather than her death.  "I want to plan the way I go out," she said.  "I just want my life to be celebrated."

Ice Often Crucial

The day-long seminar covers everything from wading through the complexities of taking a body from the morgue or hospital to properly placing ice on a corpse to keep it fresh.  For less than 24 hours, ice may not be needed but families usually need to cool a body if it is exposed longer, Lyons told the group.  Ice is also crucial for longer vigils to ensure liquids do not come out through the mouth, although she adds it is always possible to improvise.  "I've had a number of people use frozen vegetables," Lyons said and warned the group about other pitfalls.  For example, she said one family put too much padding in a coffin and were unable to close it when they loaded the body inside.

There are also slide shows and videos showing families painting caskets, preparing bodies for memorials and eventually loading them into a car for the final trip to the crematorium.

Lyons turned to her current career after the 1994 death of a close friend whose will instructed that her body not be taken to a mortuary and instead be cared for at home.  This first experience with a home funeral showed Lyons that carrying out intimate acts such as bathing and dressing her deceased friend actually made it easier to deal with the loss.  "It helped us with our mourning and grieving," Lyons said.  "It made it more meaningful because we were the ones touching her body instead of turning her over to some strangers she didn't know."

Do-It-Yourself for Less

With a mortuary funeral costing an estimated $5,000 compared to a do-it-yourself home version that can run as low as a few hundred dollars, Lyons' supporters say it is easy to see why more people are looking at home funerals.  Joshua Slocum, a director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, said he has no figures for how many Americans conduct home funerals each year but predicts the numbers are growing.  "We are getting more calls all the time," said Slocum, who noted it is legal to bring a body home in 45 out of 50 US states.  "Some people are growing disenchanted with the cost of funerals and the anonymity and sterility of releasing a loved one to a sterile, commercial environment."

The home funeral movement, however, is not likely to drive a stake into the well-established death-care industry, according to analyst William Burns of Johnson Rice in New Orleans, who follows publicly traded funeral home companies.  Instead, the biggest problem facing the nation's 23,000 funeral homes is what he called a soft mortality rate due in part to a weak flu season the past few years.

Source: Reuters Lifestyle Saturday 21 June 2003

Game Publicity Plan Raises Grave Concerns

A gravestone with advertising billboard.

by Mark Oliver

A computer games firm has been accused of pushing back the frontiers of bad taste after it announced that it was seeking to advertise its latest title on gravestones.  Acclaim Entertainment said yesterday that it would pay relatives of the recently bereaved in return for placing small billboards on headstones, and that the offer might "particularly interest poorer families".

The Church of England said that there was no way it would allow any of its graveyards to be used in such a fashion.  A spokesman said: "There was enough fuss with plastic flowers in churchyards."

A spokeswoman for the company, which bills the game as a "journey to the Deathside", said: "It's a dark, gory type of game and we thought it was appropriate to raise advertising to a new level."  The firm insisted that it was a genuine offer and claimed that the marketing ideas for its new PlayStation 2 game, ShadowMan 2, were valid.  Acclaim Entertainment went on to claim that "advertising on gravestones falls outside of codes of conduct and regulations of any formal advertising bodies".

However, Matthew Carrington, chairman of the Outdoor Advertising Association, said that any attempt to advertise on headstones would require planning permission from local authorities whether the land was public or private.  Mr Carrington said: "It is illegal to put any advertising up outdoors without planning permission ... and of course there could be issues of desecration."  He said the concept of advertising in graveyards was "clearly objectionable" but said he was not surprised as advertising firms were continually "upping the ante to shock".  He added that he thought it unlikely that the firm would get approval for its plan.

Sony, which makes the PlayStation 2 consoles, said it would not comment on the advertising tactics of third parties who produce games for them under licence.  A spokeswoman rejected suggestions that Sony was responsible for creating an "edgy" advertising culture around its console which may have galvanised Acclaim Entertainment's marketing tactics.

On the ShadowMan 2 website, the game is described as incorporating "fierce and gruesome" fighting.  It involves users playing a New York policeman who has a "living dead" alter ago who is seeking a confrontation with the devil.  He has magic and voodoo weapons to help him.

A London spokesman for Acclaim Entertainment, which is based in New York, said that was appreciated that people may find its advertising offer offensive but that others might see it as a good way of procuring "a subsidy to burial costs to give their loved one a good send-off".  He rejected the suggestion it was a cynical media stunt.

No one has yet to volunteer and the firm said payments would be calculated with regard to the exposure potential of any particular headstone.

Source: Friday 15 March 2002

This Was NOT a Low-Cost Alternative!

Stop and Rest

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