Culture Wars and the End of Life

“I would like to propose that the end of life be sanctioned as a culture war-free zone.”

Perhaps you were following the heart-wrenching story that’s been coming out of the state of Ohio this summer. (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) It involves the odyssey of John Arthur and his partner of 20 years, Jim Obergefell. John is in hospice care; he is in the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neurological disease, which robed him of his ability to walk, talk, and which will very soon kill him. John and Jim wanted to marry before John died, but Ohio prohibits marriage between same-sex people. Their only option was to travel to another state, one that would allow them to marry.

culture_warsWhen the Supreme Court struck down DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) last June, Jim and John knew they had a very brief window of opportunity to codify their relationship in the same way as any loving heterosexual couple might. They chose to travel to the state of Maryland to be married, but getting there and back would be a daunting task. John needed a medical transport plane that could accommodate his stretcher, a trip that would cost some $13,000. Undeterred, they appealed to friends and family for help. Their appeal was met by enormous generosity and, in a matter of days, all the necessary funds were raised.

By mid-July all was ready. Jim and John along with a nurse, two pilots trained in emergency medicine, and John’s aunt, Paulette, an ordained minister, boarded a Lear jet in Cincinnati for the short flight to Baltimore. The marriage ceremony, which took place on the airport tarmac, and in which John and Jim exchanged rings, lasted only seven and a half minutes. A champagne toast followed. And after just 56 minutes on the ground they were headed back to Cincinnati. A triumph of the human spirit, I dare say.

John and Jim’s marriage license could change many things about John’s end of life care and the disposition of his estate after his death. Health insurance, for example might be less of an issue now that they are legally married. Their marriage license might very well open doors to other legal remedies for numerous other thorny problems from Social Security benefits, income and estate tax and probate concerns to the federal Family Medical Leave Act. But none of this has been tested. No one yet knows what federal benefits a same-sex couple might qualify for if they live in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage. And what are the implications for a couple, who leaves their state of residence, one that bans same-sex marriage, to marry in another state, one that allows it? It’ll be years before it’s all sorted out.

Within days of this headline-grabbing wedding, a federal judge in Ohio ordered state officials to recognize Jim and John’s marriage. When John dies his death certificate must acknowledge Jim as his spouse, so stated the decree. However, just one day later, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine appealed that judge’s ruling. And so the legal limbo continues. John won’t live to see the end of this and maybe a lot of us won’t either.

I can’t help but think about how this culture war is further complicating John’s already difficult dying. And I’ve had to ask myself: What about the professional people who attend John as he dies? Surely each of them has an opinion as to the morality, and the legality of Jim and John’s marriage. Will they be able to do their job as well as respect Jim and John’s marriage and the privileges it bestows on them without letting their personal prejudices get in the way? A tall order that!culture-wars

Despite all the new marriage equality laws, on both the state and federal level, the issue of compliance remains an open question. Here in the state of Washington, for example, we’ve had marriage equality since late last year. But there have been several high-profile cases lately where wedding venders have refused service to same-sex couples as they plan their ceremony. A florist refused, on religious grounds, to provide flowers to one of her long-time customers, a gay man, when he asked her to supply the arrangements for his wedding. Similarly some wedding officiants, caterers, and venue managers, because of their religious scruples, have also been refusing service to same-sex couples. Even some state registrars wanted an exemption, on religious grounds, from providing same sex couples a marriage license. While these things are disconcerting and bothersome to say the least, they are not a matter of life and death. One can always find another florist or caterer, right? The same cannot be said of palliative and hospice care.

Can a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, social worker, or attendant deny care or respect for the intimate relationship(s) of one of their patients, on religious grounds? Can a parent or other family member interfere with the care of a dying relative, or usurp the rights of a dying person’s spouse simply because the spouse is of the same gender as the person dying? Right now, I believe, the answer is an unqualified, “yes.”

That’s why I would like to propose that the end of life be sanctioned as a culture war-free zone. Dying is hard enough without having to worry about who will be honoring whom and what as we die. I believe that we all ought be offered a refuge from such worries at the end of our lives. If the culture wars must continue, as I know they will, let them rage somewhere other than where our life, or the life of someone we love, is ebbing away.

Hong Kong’s paper crafters work overtime to feed hungry ghosts

By Grace Li

At a workshop in an old Hong Kong neighborhood, paper craftsman Ha Chung-kin uses delicate sheets of paper and sticks of bamboo to fashion a huge, expensive boat that will soon be consigned to the flames.

A man burns a five metre long paper "Buddha Boat" believed to sail ghost spirits to the afterlife during the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival in Hong KongThe Hungry Ghosts festival that has prompted Ha’s exquisite labors centers on a superstition that the spirits of the dead return to Earth during the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar calendar, which runs from August 7 to September 4 this year.

Five meters (16 feet) long, Ha’s boat is one of numerous paper offerings ordered by Buddhist temples at this time of year, when many Chinese around the world tread more cautiously and make an extra effort to appease the roaming souls.

All kinds of items made of paper – including clothes, “gold” and “silver” ingots, mansions and boats – are burned to ensure the ghosts have enough to tide them over until the next year.

“You can earn a living by making paper crafts,” Ha said. “If you are good enough to turn paper into all kinds of things, you can make good money from it.”

The paper boat costs HK$35,000 ($4,500) and takes a skilled craftsman 10 days to finish.

But fewer young people are willing to take on the job in Hong Kong after a boom period in the 1980s. Now the city of more than 7 million people has fewer than 10 all-round master craftsmen, Ha says, making it hard to meet demand.

Ha’s shop supplies a sizable portion of the paper offerings to the local market. For this year’s Hungry Ghosts festival, it had more than 40 orders, some worth more than HK$100,000.

Orders flow in through the year, as paper lanterns and other items feature in many Chinese festivals. Ha’s shop also gets busy at Halloween – when Westerners celebrate ghosts, witches and goblins – to make scary items for theme parks and costume parties.

Slimmer profit margins due to competition from the Chinese mainland and long hours are major factors that discourage people from entering the business. At this busy time of year, Ha and his team toil up to 16 hours a day.

Fortunately, Ha’s 26-year-old son enjoys the work.

“The fact we can use the materials to make cars, iPhones and other trendy products fascinated me,” Sam Ha said as he stuck colorful tassels to the stern of the boat. “It prompted me to create new things so our customers will have more choices.”

Complete Article HERE!

Food and Death in Ritual

The Evils of Beans – Part I

By cabinetofcuriositiespodcast

In the book, Beans, A History, (yes, really), author Ken Albala relates how beans have a history of being regarded as big troublemakers. Aristotle himself spoke out frequently against The Evils Of Beans, writing that these legumes are just like testicles and were indeed the gateway to Hades. His proof? It is the only plant that has no joints. So began the belief that eating a bean would buy your soul a one way ticket to Hades.

It didn’t help matters when Porphyry went around telling everyone about that time Pythagoras did that magic trick where he planted some beans in a pot and ninety days later they looked exactly like a ladies’ downstairs mixup….which then transformed into a human head that was for sure someone’s poor soul caught in transit.


Italian author and historian, Pellegrino Artusi, writes about the history and superstitions regarding the beans in his 1891 book, The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well:

Fava, especially the black variety, were considered funerary offerings, believed to contain the souls of the departed, and shaped like the doors of hell.

Festus [a roman provincial governor AD 59-62] tells us there’s an unholy symbol hidden in the blossom of the fava bean, and the custom of making offerings of fava beans to the dead is one of the reasons, supposedly, that led Pythagoras to order his followers to avoid them.

Romans believed that the souls of their ancestors resided in fava beans. At funerals, the beans were eaten and at weddings, fava beans were presented to the bride and groom who would eat them in hopes of attracting the souls of male ancestors to carry on the family bloodline.

There are many other wild claims associated with the the poor bean — such as, if you bite a bean and leave it in the sun it will smell exactly like the blood of a murdered person, (there’s a difference?) Or, the belief in it’s magical powers of warding off ghosts. In some places around the time of the winter solstice the male head of household would emerge from the home, barefoot and toss beans around the house while repeating nine times, “Shades of my ancestors, depart.” Meanwhile, the rest of the family banged on pots and pans and stomped on the ground. This was all done to protect the family from ghosts who were there to snatch the souls of the living and bring them back with them to the land of the dead. Since the beans were believed to hold souls they were thrown out as a decoy in hopes that the soul hungry ghosts would be get confused and be sated with the beans and leave the family alone.

It wasn’t only ghosts that were easily confused by the sight of a bean, but another member of Team Undead: the vampire. According to author Colin Dickey’s “Vampires and Beans” piece, vampires could be tricked into thinking the beans were living people or even pregnant women.

Fava dei morti

Modern Italians still practice a form of these traditions. Most popular is the making and consumption of fave dei morte or beans of the dead. Fava dei morti are bean shaped cookies traditionally made for Il Giorno dei Morti on November 2 — All Soul’s Day. Numerous cultures and religions believe that it is on this day the veil between the world of the living and the dead grows thin, allowing the souls of our ancestors to come calling. Italians are no different, and enjoy these little cookies as well as a variety of bean and sausage soup, on this day, carrying on the traditions and beliefs of their ancestors.

Complete Article HERE!

Top 10 Unique Ways We Deal With the Dead

Dying is a fact of life, as is the disposal of a body after the fact. You know all about burial and cremation, but here are the other ways people, past and present- have dealt with the departed.


10 Mummification
The mummies of ancient Egypt are probably the world’s most famous dead bodies. Reserved for members of the upper classes, mummification anubis_mummificationinvolved the removal of all organs including the brain, which was pulled through the nose by a hook. The body was then stuffed with dry materials like sawdust and wrapped in linens. The Egyptians believed that mummification preserved the soul for its journey into the afterlife.

9 Cryonics
Who’s never heard of Walt Disney’s quest for immortality by having his body frozen? While that was an urban legend, cryonic science is a reality, currently only legal to perform on those who’ve been pronounced dead. Soon after dying, participants are stored in a liquid nitrogen solution to prevent decay until that time when death becomes a reversible phenomenon. Until then, the bodies remain on ice. Shown here is a four-body liquid nitrogen cooler.

8 Balinese Cremation
Contrary to the more somber western funerals, cremation ceremonies among the Hindus of Bali have an almost carnival-like atmosphere. Festive floats parade down local streets accompanying the body to a burning ground, where it is transferred into a ceremonial bull receptacle and set alight.

7 Plastination
Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany, www.bodyworlds.comSend your corpse on a tour of museums ’round the world with plastination, developed by German scientist Gunther von Hagens. His popular “Body Worlds” exhibits showcase the controversial preservation technique, which involves dissecting the body into bits, embalming it with a hardening fluid and reposing the body into various ‘educational’ positions.

6 Neanderthal Cave Burials
Before they began interring their dead in the ground proper around 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals routinely left the deceased deep inside the caves Neanderthal Cave Burialsof Europe and the Middle East. To Neanderthals, the dark, mysterious recesses of a cave may have seemed like a good place to transfer over to the otherworld, some archaeologists have argued.

5 Bog Bodies
Plenty of travelers perished accidentally crossing the murky bogs of northern Europe, but at least some individuals, especially in the Middle Ages, were buried there carefully and on purpose. Lucky for archaeologists, the chemical make-up of a bog preserves human flesh very well, allowing them to study the unlucky bog bodies closely.

4 Tibetan Sky Burial
Ever wanted to fly? In Tibet, you get to do just that, only after you’re already dead. Instead of trying to bury bodies in the hard, rocky ground, some Tibetans send their loved ones to the top of a mountain and leave them to be eaten by the vultures. The disassembled corpses are even mixed with flour and milk for a tastier treat, to make sure every bit leaves the Earth for good.

3 Viking Ship Burials
Middle Age Vikings lived and literally died by the sea. After death, wealthier Vikings were placed in ships filled with food, jewels, weapons, food and even sometimes servants or animals for their comfort in the afterlife. The boats were interred in the ground, set alight or sent out to sea. The ultimate postmortem destination for Viking warriors was Valhalla, or “Odin’s Hall”, made famous in the Old Norse sagas.

2 Tree Burials
Indigenous tribes in many parts of the world discovered that the best way of disposing the dead was to put them up high, rather than down below. Tree burial of Ogala SiouxGroups in Australia, British Columbia, the American southwest and Siberia were known to practice tree burial, which involved wrapping the body in a shroud or cloth and placing it in a crook to decompose.

1 Towers of Silence
Zoroastrians believe the body is impure and shouldn’t pollute the earth after death through burial or cremation. Instead, the deceased are brought to a ceremonial “tower of silence”, usually located on an elevated mountain plateau, and left exposed to the animals and elements. When the bones have been dried and bleached by the sun, they are gathered and dissolved in lime.

Man’s ashes traveling tropics in bottle after widow sets him to sea

Bottle with ashes, note, money washing up on Florida shores


A Tennessee man who loved to travel is having his dreams fulfilled as his ashes make their way through the tropics in a bottle that his widow tossed in the sea.

judi GlunzGordon Scott Smith died at 57 from a sudden brain hemorrhage. Beverly Smith, his wife of 27 years, put some of his ashes in a bottle with $2 and a note.

Images: Loving journey for man’s ashes at sea

She tossed the bottle off Big Pine Key, Fla., in March 2012, hoping the person who found the bottle would call her and tell her where her husband had traveled.

The bottle was found about 50 miles away in Islamorada, Fla., by a man named Ross.

“I called his wife to let her know where her husband was and she was so, so happy. She said the money was for a phone call to let her know where he was,” Ross wrote in his note.

He took his boat out six miles into the ocean amd sent Smith traveling again.

On Sunday, Judi Glunz Sidney, an owner of Glunz Ocean Beach Hotel and Resort in Key Colony Beach, Fla., was picking up debris on the beach when she found the bottle. It had traveled another 28 miles.

“Judi called the wife in Tennessee, who was excited to know of Gordon’s travels! Judi added her note,” the resort posted on its Facebook page. “We put him in a rum bottle (you know, added a little fun to his trip) with the three notes. We added another $1 in case Gordon travels far and a long distance call is needed.”

They tossed the bottle into the waters off Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon, Fla.

“He loved to fish, tell tall stories and make people laugh. He was one of the greatest story tellers I ever met,” Tom Smith, Gordon’s brother, posted.message in a bottle

Sidney was at the resort vacationing with two sisters, who are also owners of the hotel, when she found the bottle.

“We think our mom, who died a few years ago, and Gordon are in cahoots in heaven on this one. They are both from Tennessee, they both loved they keys and spent all of February there each year, and they both drank bourbon,” said Janet Glunz Bischoff, one of the resort owners.

Complete Article HERE!