Death of the funeral

Trends in commemorating those who die are shifting away from tradition. And, as the population ages and times change, the City of Kamloops is looking at how to manage the dead


A statue of Jesus stands among the remains of loved ones in a mausoleum at the city’s Hillside Cemetery. Funerals with large gatherings are on hold amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Jessica Wallace

Dead are the days of traditional casket burials for all.

These days, a dying man’s wish may be to grow into a tree, while another may choose to be buried in a certified eco-friendly cemetery.

Last spring, Washington became the first state in the U.S. to legalize human composting.

Funerals — once a place for obligatory tears and dark clothing — are today often substituted with a “celebration of life,” complete with funny stories and laughter.

Trends in dying are shifting away from tradition. And, as the population ages and times are changing, the City of Kamloops is looking at how to manage the dead, with an update to its Cemetery Master Plan.

The plan focuses on the city’s primary cemetery, Hillside Cemetery on Notre Dame Drive.

City civic operations director Jen Fretz said the plan will address current trends as traditional casket burial declines in popularity.

More common these days is cremation, Fretz said, noting the plan will look at demand for increased mausoleum space at Hillside Cemetery. The current mausoleums, she said, are “fully subscribed.”

Schoening Funeral Service manager Sara Lawson lauded the city’s planning, telling KTW the industry is rapidly changing.

She said some people may be surprised to know that in British Columbia, 85 per cent of people are cremated after death, with 15 per cent buried in a casket.

In Kamloops, that number is slightly lower, at 80 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively.

The overall trend, however, is a rise in cremation. Lawson believes that is happening for multiple reasons, primarily a new generation and loss of tradition.

“Newer generations aren’t attending church as much as grandma and grandpa,” Lawson said. “Back in the day, that’s what you did. You had a casket burial. You had service at the church.”

Another reason cremation is increasingly popular is due to urgency for gathering that comes with casket burial and desire for options. For example, if a family cannot unite in one place for some time until after a loved one’s death, cremation might make more sense. Perhaps everyone wants to meet in a place that was meaningful to the deceased.

“It happens more and more where there is a bit of a delay for the service,” Lawson said.

In addition to mausoleum space, the city will explore trends in green burials.

The Green Burial Council describes a green burial as a way of caring for the dead with “minimal environmental impact that aids in conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health and restoration and/or preservation of habitat.”

Green burial requires non-toxic and biodegradable materials.

Lawson said only one cemetery in B.C. is certified to meet green burial standards — Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria, which opened in 2008.

According to its website, Royal Oak is the first urban green burial site in the country, where it “returns human remains to the earth in a simple state permitting decomposition to occur naturally and so contribute to new life in a forest setting.”

Green burial prepares the body without embalming.

The body is buried in a biodegradable shroud, simple container or casket made from natural fibre, wicker or sustainably harvested wood.

Lawson said the difference between regular cemeteries, such as Hillside, and a green cemetery is the grave liner. While most cemeteries have grave liners made of concrete, wood or fibreglass, green cemeteries use dirt as a way to return remains to the elements as quickly as possible.

Schoening does offer green options, but there is no green burial site in the B.C. Interior. Green burials are not yet a common request, Lawson said, but she expects it will become more in demand in the next five to 10 years.

The city will also explore the potential for a scattering garden, which is a place to scatter ashes. Lawson said scattering gardens may look like flower gardens, wherein ashes can be scattered for a fee.

Compared to scattering someone’s ashes in a backyard or elsewhere in nature, cemeteries are permanent — meaning loved ones won’t return to that special location one day to find a development in its place, a rose garden dead or a tree chopped down.

“Cemeteries stay the same,” Lawson said. “The record must remain forever.”

Updates to the Cemetery Master Plan are expected by the fall.

With need for expansion of the cemetery, rates may also be on the rise.

The city said its fees are between 20 to 25 per cent lower than similar-sized communities and the goal is to recover operating costs with revenue collected.

MODIFYING THE MEMORIAL

While funeral servcies undergo a transition, a Kamloops pastor has noticed memorials are also changing.

Rev. Steve Filyk, a minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, said newspaper obituaries increasingly state “no funeral by request.”

He suspects it is due to the taboo nature of death. As a culture, he said, people don’t want to acknowledge death, as it is finite.

“Perpetual youth is sort of what the focus of our culture is, right? In that way, I don’t know how well prepared we are to face it — to face the loss of loved ones or face our own death,” he said.

Filyk said he worries about the psychological impact of not marking someone’s death.

“I think to set apart and designate a time, not just for yourself but for everyone, where the world will stop for a few moments. It’s about that,” Filyk said.

“A moment of silence at Remembrance Day, where the world just stops to acknowledge that this person was special. They had warts and foibles, but they were special to a bunch of people and had an impact and that their loss is felt. I think it’s important to acknowledge that.”

Of memorials that do occur, Filyk said they rarely involve a casket and often involve photo slideshows in an increasingly media-driven, photo-centric society.

In addition, Filyk said he has noticed memorials are getting longer and are often called celebrations of life.

Regardless of whether people follow a faith tradition, Filyk said it is important to acknowledge wisdom from centuries past.

Memorials can be secular or religious, he said, noting there are unique ways to honour someone. with the better memorials providing opportunities to share stories.

“Any story often reveals something interesting about who they were and I think there’s something about telling those stories that somehow helps us heal,” Filyk said.

“Maybe because we’re all together having that similar focus.”

Complete Article HERE!

We’re used to grieving together.

What happens when we can’t?

Coffins accumulate in a tent at the Bergamo hospital in Lombardy, Italy, where funerals are now banned.

By Meghan O’Rourke

One recent night, as my concern mounted about the spreading coronavirus, my partner observed in reassurance: “It’s not like it’s the Spanish flu. People are still able to hold funerals.” On the very next day came the news that Italy had banned civil and religious ceremonies, including funerals — meaning people can no longer come together to grieve the dead. With coronavirus cases exponentially rising in the United States, this problem may soon be ours, too: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that families hold “virtual” funerals, streamed online, to limit the numbers in attendance.

Most of us have adjusted quickly, or tried to, amid the radical changes that constitute our new normal. But this possibility — that the newly bereaved may be unable to hold funerals — is a gutting reality we may never make peace with. Within it lies the trauma of the pandemic: This global public health crisis brings with it a surge of infection-driven death and chaos (temporary, we hope) that few of us have ever witnessed. There’s a lot we can numb ourselves to in order to survive. But I’m not sure we can numb ourselves to the idea that we can no longer come together for funeral rites — behavior that defines us as human.

Mourning rituals across cultures show that we need others to grieve with us. After my mother died in late 2008, I was struck by how these rituals, which had once seemed rote to me, suddenly became important. I craved social recognition that I was no longer myself, exactly, that the loss had made me a new person. The bereaved need witnesses to help them begin to separate themselves from the dead, to adjust to the sudden, shocking absence of their beloveds. Most cultures have a scripted set of customs: rituals tied to the preparation of the body; rules about the period before the burial. At an Irish wake, mourners gather to visit the body of the deceased, saying their goodbyes and often telling celebratory, even raucous stories in honor of the life now gone. In Jewish culture, mourners sit shiva typically for seven days, supporting those who were closest to the dead person. In many such rituals, visitors are meant to take their cue from the primary mourners — looking at the floor if the widow was somber, talking if she wanted to talk. In the Muslim tradition, the body is buried as soon as possible, but visits of comfort happen afterward (again, it is believed that social encounters help with grief), as well as a 40-day mourning period, in which the community is encouraged to send flowers and food to the bereaved. To support mourners, many traditions feature more than one ritual over the course of a year or two at specific times, including, in Judaism, the yahrzeit observance, commemorating the anniversary of a death. Everywhere, food is welcome and passed around: “a small, good thing,” as Raymond Carver put it in a short story about sharing fresh bread after an unthinkable loss.

The coronavirus pandemic is changing us in ways we can’t imagine yet. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the dead exert power over us long after they are gone. All the more so when the circumstances of loss are traumatic, as they are now in northern Italy, where the hospital system is overwhelmed and near breaking — and as they may soon be in the United States. In “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” the historian Drew Gilpin Faust points out that the mass casualties in that war “transformed the American nation as well as the hundreds of thousands of individuals directly affected by loss.” Americans began referring to the “ordinary death” that existed before the war, distinct from the extraordinary deaths during it. Surrounded by death, Americans embraced ideas that made it seem less of an irrevocable loss: The first national Spiritualist conference was held in 1864 in Chicago, the idea that it was possible to communicate with the dead having grown more popular during the war years. Some modern funeral practices — embalming, for example — were born of an emotional need then: Families wanted to see the bodies of their loved ones, and embalming helped slow their decomposition, allowing them to be shipped home on slow trains.

Through mourning, we insist that erasure isn’t complete. We honor what was and give shape to the fact that — through our loss, our love — the person who is gone still exists in our minds. Our disposal of our dead distinguishes us from animals. As the scholar Robert Pogue Harrison writes in “The Dominion of the Dead,” “Humans bury not simply to achieve closure and effect a separation from the dead, but also and above all to humanize the ground on which they build their worlds and found their histories.” When we don’t do it, we have a sense of deep wrong. Think of the lengths to which we go to recover the bodies of fallen soldiers. In 1993, for example, the American ambassador to Somalia negotiated with clan leaders in Mogadishu to bring home the bodies of the helicopter crewmen and Special Ops soldiers who had been dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. In this current crisis, it’s not as if we won’t be burying our dead, but many people are dying alone in hospitals, unable to say goodbye to their loved ones, and even in the days after, an essential social element is missing. Something in us, at the core of our humanity, wants to elegize, to remember — and to do it together.

The science of mourning is hard to pin down, as one might expect with such a complex human process, but studies suggest that rituals do help the bereaved: They bring some immediate relief to acute grief, and they establish formal avenues of coping and social support. Holding a funeral, saying goodbye to a loved one’s body, marks the rift between life and death, the rending of the universe we feel. To bury, Harrison writes, is not literally or merely to put in the earth (humans also have cremation, and sky burial, and more), but “in a broader sense it means to store, preserve, and put the past on hold.”

So what happens to us now, in a moment that presents these challenges? As during the Civil War, we face a bright line between the ordinary past and the extraordinary present, a before and a now whose full ramifications — emotional, economic, psychological and national — we cannot begin to understand. We hardly know what now is; we won’t until the worst is over. Along the way, we will surely find alternate ways to grieve, watching our funerals on the blue light of our screens, distant but not isolated, trying to be together while apart. The challenge is to find meaning in the chaos — to find a story we can hold onto, even in the stark absence of a reassuring ending to this pandemic in sight.

The coronavirus pandemic will be understood by its cost in lives, but also by its economic, social and cultural costs, by how it forces us to reconceive ourselves and our humanity. This is yet another reason to push to “flatten the curve,” as epidemiologists put it: so we are not forced into such isolation that most of us are unable to mourn together.

My father died suddenly in a hospital two years ago, on March 9, from a case of pneumonia that turned into sepsis and caused further complications. The two weeks when his body was fighting sepsis were disorienting, timeless, traumatic, full of beeping machines and sunless rooms. His sudden turn for the worse came while he was with strangers; we never said goodbye. But his doctor was kind enough to let us go into the operating room where a team had tried to save his life: restarting his heart, ventilating him and more. When we saw his body, it looked small and alone, heartbreakingly so. But at least I have an image to hold on to, had a chance to touch his hand and whisper our love, the love that underpins grief and drives the living to mourn, through ritual and memory, the gulf between us and those who have gone. We know what is by marking the shape of what is lost; we do that by saying goodbye, together.

Complete Article HERE!

Offering Sympathy From a Distance in the Time of Coronavirus

When a friend is grieving a loss, here are ways to provide support

By Margie Zable Fisher

When my good friend, Nikki, told me a few days ago that her father had just passed away from natural causes, my first reaction was to offer sympathy. Then I asked, “What are the funeral arrangements?”

Her answer: “I’m not sure. We will have a memorial service, but we don’t know when. This pandemic is kind of getting in the way.”

Well, yes, it is.

Nikki and I are part of a group of friends who met playing tennis over 20 years ago. We’ve celebrated and helped each other over the years, through marriages, births, divorces and deaths.

But after Nikki’s response, I was stumped. How was I going to support her through the grieving process, when there was no memorial and when we were all supposed to be practicing “social distancing?” I reached out to experts to get some ideas.

The New Rules of Gathering

David Kessler, a Los Angeles-based authority on grief and founder of Grief.com, is in a similar situation. Someone he knows recently died. “This is a strange new world of grief,” he says. “If we can’t gather for a funeral, mourning gets very complicated.”

In the blink of an eye, the world’s burial rituals — which have traditionally helped people through the grieving process — have changed. Italy has banned traditional funeral services. Countries around the world (including the U.S.) have suggested limits on the amount of people attending services.

People over 60 may have the toughest time attending funerals of family members or friends. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that those at a serious risk of COVID-19 avoid gatherings of 10 or more, and older people are at highest risk. Some funeral directors, including Virginia Kerr Zoller, co-owner of Kerr Brothers Funeral Homes in Lexington, Ky., are already suggesting that people’s older relatives stay home, according to a recent article in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

James Olson, funeral director of Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan, Wis., and a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association, notes that Wisconsin’s governor declared that no gathering be larger than 10 people. This seems to be the most common suggestion around the country. But, as Olson notes, this could change daily or even hourly.

Matt Levinson, president of Sol Levinson and Bros. Funeral Home, serving the Jewish community in Baltimore, says they are still conducting burials quickly (as commanded by Jewish law), but are recommending that only the immediate family of 10 people or less attend. The funeral home is also offering the option to conduct the memorial service at a later date.

Levinson and his team are offering comfort the best way they can during this time — by alleviating some of the worry of gathering.

“Funeral arrangements are made over the phone, chairs are continually sanitized and spaced farther apart at the cemetery, and gloves are used for people who want to use a shovel to place earth in the grave,” he says.

Levinson also notes that he is working hard to keep his staff healthy. He has them working in shifts, not only to protect them from infection, but also to give them time off to handle the daily demands of this crisis.

One thing that hasn’t changed: informing friends and family about a recent death through phone calls, texts, newspaper obituaries and in Facebook posts. What’s missing are funeral arrangements, and details about gatherings such as shivas, where, in the Jewish tradition, loved ones and friends get together at a home for a week after the burial to support the family of the deceased.

Phone Calls Are Important

So if we can’t mourn together in person, how do we offer comfort?

“We aren’t able to hug, and physically connect, so we need to rely on using our words,” says Kendall Kridner-Protzmann, a pastor of congregational care at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo.

Kridner-Protzmann suggests calling mourners frequently. “Reach out through phone calls, and leave a message if necessary. Even just saying ‘This is really hard,’ is very healing.”

“When you can’t be physically present with a grieving loved one, you can still offer your emotional presence,” says Kelila Johnson, founder of Communing with Grief in Seattle. “There is solace in sitting quietly with someone, even if it’s over the phone or a video call. Often what grievers need most is to know that they don’t have to speak but that they are safe to speak, if they wish.”

Kessler suggests that in the first week after someone has passed, check in with loved ones multiple times. “If the person is in tears for an hour, you probably need to call daily,” he says. “If the mourner says that things are okay, you can probably check back in a couple of days.” He also strongly recommends calling instead of texting, and using FaceTime or Skype, to create a visual connection.

Technology Can Help

When you can’t gather in person, technology offers opportunities to comfort:

  • As mentioned, video calls are a great way to deepen your connection beyond audio.
  • Live streaming, which has been available for long-distance loved ones to view funeral services for many years, is now a necessity.
  • Social media is also helpful. “I’m usually not a big fan of Facebook,” says my friend Nikki. “My sister suggested we announce my dad’s passing on it, and I was floored by the comments we received.” Not only did Nikki receive hundreds of condolences, but she also heard from people from her childhood who shared stories about her father. “It was the greatest thing to hear from so many people. It really made me feel better,” she says.

Other Ways to Show You Care — In Person

I also learned four creative ways to get out and about to support those who are grieving.

Visit the grave. Just because you weren’t able to go to the burial, that doesn’t mean that you can’t go to the cemetery. “Any time after the burial, and while cemeteries are still open, you can go to the gravesite on your own, or at a distance from others, and pay your respects,” says Olson. Letting loved ones know you did this can offer comfort.

Bring food. “When you go food shopping, buy a bag of fruit for your friend, and drop it off,” says Kessler. “You don’t even need to go in the house.” Does your friend have a favorite restaurant? Order takeout, and deliver it.

Walk together — at a distance. Exercise is important to our mental and physical help at any time, but especially when grieving. “If you live nearby, offer to go for a walk with your friend,” suggests Dave Wyner, psychotherapist and certified grief counseling specialist in Louisville, Colo. “Make sure to follow health experts’ advice on keeping your distance. It might feel a little weird to walk that far apart from each other, but it can still feel incredibly supportive to the person grieving. It really comes down to helping them know they’re not alone with their pain.”

Volunteer. Obituaries often list charities you can donate to in someone’s honor. “Why not volunteer for that charity, by helping them out in person?” suggests Olson. He gives an example of The Humane Society. Instead of donating money (or in addition to it), you could offer to walk dogs, in the name of the deceased, he says. This is needed all the time, but now, it may be especially helpful.

How I’m Helping My Friend

Now that I’ve learned how to provide solace and love to those grieving during the pandemic, I’m planning to reach out to Nikki more often by phone. I will give her space to talk and I will listen.

I’m also going to offer to take a walk or a bike ride together (at a distance, of course). And I’m going to ask her what type of meal she and her family would like me to deliver.

The bottom line: We’re all struggling during this health crisis, but people mourning the deaths of their loved ones really need our support. While you may not be able to offer comfort through traditional grieving rituals, I hope these suggestions can help in a time when it is so needed.

Complete Article HERE!

She discovered a lost graveyard and a mystery she longs to solve:

Who is buried there?

A footstone lies in a secluded section of the woods west of downtown Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Amateur historical researcher Bonnie Zampino says she believes the site is a forgotten Civil War-era cemetery.

The neglected plot of land in the woods of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., may hold remains dating to the Civil War era

By Peter Jamison

It was last summer that Bonnie Zampino first noticed something unusual about the wooded plot of land in the hills above this historical town.

Zampino, a case manager for recovering drug users who lives in the neighboring community of Bolivar, was used to encountering curiosities from the past on her hikes through Harpers Ferry, a town where history has left its imprint several times over. The village overlooking the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers is most famous for the failed anti-slavery raid led by abolitionist John Brown in 1859. It was also the site of a Civil War battle and hosted large contingents of Union and Confederate troops.

Zampino, 50, had made a hobby of her interest in abandoned rural properties, taking photographs and researching old land records. But the lonely section of woods to the west of Harpers Ferry’s historical downtown and national park were unlike anything she’d seen before. Thin, jagged slabs of stone stuck up in rows. There were bathtub-size depressions in the ground — what Zampino would later learn can be a sign of settling graves. A small, white footstone sat unsteadily in the earth, like a loose tooth.

She set out to learn more about the town-owned property. Records were scarce, but after months of archival sleuthing, Zampino developed a theory that this section of woods is a forgotten remnant of some of the nation’s darkest and bloodiest days. She thinks she has discovered a lost graveyard of Union dead.

Her hypothesis, at this point, is only that. Even if soldiers’ remains are buried at the site, the number of bodies is uncertain. Zampino’s detective work has been complicated by confusing and sometimes contradictory records from the years immediately after the Civil War, a time when many of the corpses left behind by America’s deadliest conflict were disinterred and — at least in the case of federal troops — moved to special resting places.

But Zampino has uncovered compelling documentary support for further investigation, including National Park Service and military records — some dating back 150 years — that point to a soldiers’ cemetery at the location in question and suggest it fell into neglect not long after the war ended.

“Whoever’s here, I’d like to know,” she said, standing at the site in Harpers Ferry on a recent afternoon. A narrow lane of cracked pavement runs through what Zampino believes to be the old cemetery. The ground was covered in matted leaves and fallen branches. “This shouldn’t look like this,” she said.

The roots of the mystery Zampino has been trying to solve lie in a largely forgotten epilogue to the Civil War. The American military has long prided itself on the faithfulness with which it recovers the remains of those who die in conflict. After the war’s end in 1865, that endeavor took place on a huge scale, with federal officials fanning out to battlefields to retrieve the bodies of soldiers, sometimes in advanced states of decomposition. Those remains were reburied in new national cemeteries.

The job, while harrowing, was deemed essential by the government and welcomed by relatives of the fallen.

“Words fail to describe the grateful relief that this work has brought to many a sorrowing household,” wrote David Wills, a lawyer who led the effort to create the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

John Frye, a local historian and curator of the Western Maryland Room at the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown, Md., said it was unlikely that the federal government could have overlooked a sizable number of bodies in Harpers Ferry during its retrieval efforts. Zampino said she believes anywhere from dozens to several hundred soldiers may have been interred at the site based on records she has reviewed.

“I can’t imagine the United States of America letting 300-some graves of Union soldiers go unmarked,” Frye said in an interview.

Zampino has gotten used to skepticism — or plain confusion: At the outset of her research project last year, most people seemed unaware that bodies had ever been buried at the site she discovered. “The more I couldn’t get information, the more I was like, ‘Man, I want to figure this out,’” she recalled.

She eventually discovered a 1959 National Park Service report that identified the plot as Pine Grove Cemetery, established in or around 1852. The report stated that “the cemetery was used as a burial ground during the Civil War.”

At the National Archives, Zampino discovered letters between military officials from 1866 to 1869 that discuss a “Citizens Cemetery” — separate from the other known cemeteries in Harpers Ferry — that she believes to be Pine Grove. An 1866 quartermaster general’s report says the cemetery “contains a number of soldiers graves, said to be not less than 75” that are “not distinguishable from citizens graves.”

Some of the stones Zampino says she believes were part of a wall surrounding the now-forgotten Pine Grove Cemetery in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Even then, however, confusion reigned over what the graveyard held.

In 1867, a military officer, responding to a request that the cemetery walls be rebuilt to protect the commingled grave plots of soldiers and civilians, replied that “all the bodies of U.S. soldiers interred at Harpers Ferry” had already been moved to Winchester National Cemetery in Virginia. Military records of the war dead from the time state that hundreds of soldiers’ bodies were moved from Harpers Ferry to Winchester between 1866 and 1867, but they are vague about what cemetery they came from. Zampino said they might have come from the more famous and centrally located Harper Cemetery.

At this point, Zampino said, the only way to resolve the questions raised by the documents is to conduct a physical examination of the site for graves and human remains. To that end, she is hoping to work with the Harpers Ferry Historic Landmarks Commission to apply for a grant that would fund ground-penetrating radar.

“I think it’s worth pursuing,” said Deborah McGee, the commission’s chairwoman.

If such research confirms the presence of soldiers’ remains, the National Cemetery Administration said, it “stands ready to provide government-furnished markers and/or grave space in a national cemetery.”

Whatever the outcome, Zampino said, she believes that after a century and a half, it’s time to solve the mystery of who rests in Pine Grove cemetery.

“There are people here,” she said. “And nobody knows who they are.”

Complete Article HERE!

Protecting Trans Bodies in Death

Your life. Your death. Your rights.

***SELECTED SOURCES/ADDITIONAL READING***

“DYING TRANS: PRESERVING IDENTITY IN DEATH” http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/dy…

“The Supreme Court is finally taking on trans rights. Here’s the woman who started it all.” https://www.vox.com/latest-news/2019/…

“R.G. & G.R. HARRIS FUNERAL HOMES V EEOC & AIMEE STEPHENS” https://www.aclu.org/cases/rg-gr-harr…

“A transgender woman wrote a letter to her boss. It led to her firing — and a trip to the Supreme Court.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation…

“Transgender woman dies suddenly, presented at funeral in open casket as a man” https://www.miamiherald.com/news/loca…

“Transgender People Are Misgendered, Even in Death” https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ex…

Did Neanderthals bury their dead with flowers?

Iraq cave yields new clues.

The bones of a Neanderthal’s left hand emerging from the sediment in Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq, is seen in an undated photo.

By Will Dunham

A Neanderthal skeleton unearthed in an Iraqi cave already famous for fossils of these extinct cousins of our species is providing fresh evidence that they buried their dead — and intriguing clues that flowers may have been used in such rituals.

Last week, scientists said they had discovered in Shanidar Cave in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq the well-preserved upper-body skeleton of an adult Neanderthal who lived about 70,000 years ago.

The individual — dubbed Shanidar Z — was perhaps in his or her 40s or 50s. The sex was undetermined.

The cave was a pivotal site for mid-20th-century archaeology. Remains of 10 Neanderthals — seven adults and three infants — were dug up there six decades ago, offering insight into the physical characteristics, behavior and diet of this species.

Clusters of flower pollen were found at that time in soil samples associated with one of the skeletons, a discovery that prompted scientists involved in that research to propose that Neanderthals buried their dead and conducted funerary rites with flowers.

That hypothesis helped change the prevailing popular view at the time of Neanderthals as dimwitted and brutish, a notion increasingly discredited by new discoveries.

Critics cast doubt, however, on the “flower burial,” arguing the pollen could have been modern contamination from people working and living in the cave or from burrowing rodents or insects.

But Shanidar Z’s bones, which appear to be the top half of a partial skeleton unearthed in 1960, were found in sediment containing ancient pollen and other mineralized plant remains, reviving the possibility of flower burials.

The material is being examined to determine its age and the plants represented.

“So from initially being a skeptic based on many of the other published critiques of the flower-burial evidence, I am coming round to think this scenario is much more plausible and I am excited to see the full results of our new analyzes,” said University of Cambridge osteologist and paleoanthropologist Emma Pomeroy, lead author of the research published in the journal Antiquity.

Scholars have argued for years about whether Neanderthals buried their dead with mortuary rituals much as our species does, part of the larger debate over their levels of cognitive sophistication.

“What is key here is the intentionality behind the burial. You might bury a body for purely practical reasons, in order to avoid attracting dangerous scavengers and/or to reduce the smell. But when this goes beyond practical elements it is important because that indicates more complex, symbolic and abstract thinking, compassion and care for the dead, and perhaps feelings of mourning and loss,” Pomeroy said.

Shanidar Z appears to have been deliberately placed in an intentionally dug depression cut into the subsoil and part of a cluster of four individuals.

“Whether the Neanderthal group of dead placed around 70,000 years ago in the cave were a few years, a few decades or centuries — or even millennia — apart, it seems clear that Shanidar was a special place, with bodies being placed just in one part of a large cave,” said study co-author Graeme Barker, a University of Cambridge archaeologist.

Neanderthals — more robustly built than Homo sapiens and with larger brows — inhabited Eurasia from the Atlantic Coast to the Ural Mountains from about 400,000 years ago until a bit after 40,000 years ago, disappearing after our species established itself in the region.

The two species interbred, with modern non-African human populations bearing residual Neanderthal DNA.

Medieval ‘Black Death’ mass grave uncovered in the English countryside

By Ashley Strickland

The sweeping scourge of the Black Death in 14th century England was so great it forced city-dwelling victims out to countryside hospitals, based on the tragic findings in a mass grave in Lincolnshire, England.

The remains of 48 people, including 21 children, were found at a previously unknown Black Death mass grave site at Thornton Abbey, according to a new study.

In less than two years, the Black Death claimed nearly half the lives of people in England between 1348 and 1349. Mass graves in England’s large Medieval cities have shown how overwhelmed they were. But small rural communities weren’t known to have these mass graves until now.

The 48 people in the mass grave were buried over a few days, but those at the medieval hospital attached to Thornton Abbey took the time to carefully wrap each person in a burial shroud and place them individually so they weren’t overlapping.

The study detailing the findings of the mass grave published Tuesday in the journal Antiquity.

The placement of the bodies in the mass grave.

“Later medieval Black Death cemeteries are surprisingly rare in England,” the authors of the study wrote. “The mass grave at Thornton Abbey is set apart from other 14th-century examples by its rural location and monastic association.”
The researchers believe that victims of the Black Death fled the overcrowded cities and overwhelmed hospitals there, only to die at the abbey and its hospital shortly after their journey.

An analysis of the teeth recovered from 16 of the remains revealed Yersinia pestis DNA, the pathogen for the Black Death. It’s the same strain from the outbreak that affected London, based on DNA recovered from mass graves there.
And because the grave site appears to have been disturbed at some point in its history, the researchers believe the mass grave may actually be larger and contain more Black Death victims.

Thornton Abbey was founded in 1139 in the Lincolnshire countryside and did well thanks to an association with the wool trade. Henry VIII closed it during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, and at its height, it was one of the richest.

“Medieval hospitals were religious institutions that provided a variety of services to the needy, including assisting pilgrims, providing alms to the poor and helping the sick and dying,” the authors wrote.

Archaeologists began to survey the area in 2011 and discovered earthworks, or human-made land modifications, which they thought represented what was left after a mansion was built on the property. Instead, they began to uncover multiple human remains.

The people were aged from one to 45 years old at time of death, with many of them between one and 17 years of age when they died. And although no babies younger than 12 months were found, the researchers believe the softer remains wouldn’t have been preserved.

Monasteries also struggled as emergency areas and cemeteries opened in the larger cities. About 11 miles from Thornton, Meux Abbey monks suffered from the Black Death and 80% of them died. This may have left Thornton as one of the only local options.

“To a society that valued ‘a good death’ above all else, the universal expectation would have been for the dead to be interred individually and with full church rites,” the study’s authors wrote.

Despite the dark time for the overwhelmed monastery, the care they took with burying the dead suggests how seriously they took their duties. Based on practices at the time, mass graves were seen as a failure of the system. But Thornton provided one of the last places where people could bring their “dead and dying to receive a proper burial and hope for salvation in the afterlife.”

“Although this reflects an acute historical tragedy, it also provides hitherto unseen details about the response of a small rural community to the devastation caused by the arrival of the Black Death,” the authors wrote. “The Thornton Abbey mass grave adds significantly to an understanding of the most deadly pandemic of the last millennium to have affected Europe.”

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