Living the Ancient Greek Death

One needs to put oneself in the sandals of a dying Greek to understand the mind frame of the ancient Greeks and to understand why they did the things that they did. Also, one needs to live an ancient Greek death following all the rites of passage and the burial laws.

The first rite of passage, or prothesis, means laying out of the body.

By Robert Garland, Ph.D.

Putting Oneself in the Sandals of a Dying Greek

The ancient Greeks held certain ideas about death. One of the most characteristic motifs that people find on ancient Greek tombstones is the handshake between the living and dead. Both figures invariably exhibit a dignified calm. That’s what Greek tragedy is all about—looking death squarely in the eye. As a Greek, they knew that terrible things happen; and they knew, too, that by confronting them head-on, they’d be able to deal with them and get on with life. One could posit that the Greeks got it just right.

But one needs to put oneself in the sandals of a dying Greek to understand it. It’s an unpleasant thought, but there’s no escaping it if one wants to fully experience the other side of history.

The Role of a Physician in Death

Let’s assume one is dying in one’s home, surrounded by one’s relatives, including young children. There won’t be any physician at hand to give painkillers.

A physician may have offered treatment in the earlier stages of sickness, but once it became inevitable that there could only be one outcome, the medical profession had nothing to offer anymore.

It’s also extremely unlikely that a physician would be called in to put one out of one’s misery by euthanasia, a coined word of Greek etymology meaning ‘good death’, but which has no ancient Greek equivalent. In fact, the Hippocratic Oath, which was probably widely adopted, enjoined upon those physicians who took it “not to administer a poison to anybody who asked for one and not to propose such a course”. So let’s hope that one’s final illness is short and painless.

The Role of Gods in Death

The poet Keats has a wonderful line in Ode to a Nightingale: “I have been half in love with easeful death”. The Greeks conceived of easeful death in the form of the God Apollo, who came to strike them down with his so-called ‘gentle arrows’. That’s the best that he or any other of the gods had to offer. They certainly didn’t have any consolation to give someone.

In Euripides’ play the Hippolytus, when Hippolytus is dying, the goddess Artemis, to whom he has devoted himself exclusively all his life and with whom he’s had a very close relationship, bids him farewell. She explains to him that it’s not lawful for a deity to be present at the death because the pollution that a corpse releases would taint her.

The one god who may have taken some slight interest in the fate of the dying is the healing God Asclepius. When Socrates passes from this world to the next in Plato’s dialogue the Crito, he has this to say, “I owe a cock to Asclepius. See that it’s paid.” Cocks were sacrificed to Asclepius. Socrates may be indicating that Asclepius eased his passing, although it’s possible, too, that he’s merely suggesting philosophically that death is a ‘cure’ for life.

The First Rite of Passage: Prothesis

in ancient Greece, as soon as one died, the women in one’s family began keening and ululating so that everyone in the neighborhood knew of the individual’s demise. It was the women, too, who took charge of one’s body and prepared it for burial. They closed one’s mouth and eyes, tied a chin strap around one’s head and chin to prevent the jaw from sagging; they washed the whole body, anointed it with olive oil; they clothed the body and wrapped it in a winding sheet, leaving only one’s head exposed.

Then they laid the body on a couch with one’s head propped up on a pillow and one’s feet facing the door. After getting all this done, they sang dirges in one’s honor.

This is the scene that is depicted on the very earliest Greek vases with figurative decoration. It’s called the prothesis, which literally means the laying out of the body. It represents the first stage in the process that will take one from this world to the next, ‘from here to there’, as the Greeks put it. Meanwhile, relatives and friends would call at the house and join in the grieving.

The Second Rite of Passage: Ekphora

The second rite of passage is the ekphora. Ekphora means literally ‘the carrying out of one’s body’—specifically from one’s home to one’s place of burial. According to Athenian law, the ekphora had to take place within three days of one’s death, although in hot weather it’s likely that it would have taken place much sooner. The ekphora had to take place before sunrise so that it wouldn’t create a public nuisance.

If one was wealthy, one’s body would be transported in a cart or carriage drawn by horses. This scene is also depicted on the earliest vases with figurative decoration. Professional undertakers might also be employed to bear the corpse and break up the ground for burial. These professionals were known as ‘ladder men’ klimakophoroi, because they’d lay one’s body on a ladder, which they carried horizontally.

If professional undertakers were employed, they wouldn’t have any physical contact with the family members before this phase. The Greeks would have been shocked and appalled by the idea of handing over one’s body to professionals to prepare it for burial.

The Third Rite of Passage: Burial

It was one’s relatives who conducted the burial service. No priests were present either. Priests were debarred for exactly the same reason that Artemis absented herself from the dying Hippolytus, so as not to incur pollution. Because if they incurred pollution, they might transmit it to the gods.

Absolutely nothing is known about the details of the burial service. Truth be told, it’s not even known if there was a burial service as such. If any traditional words were spoken, they were not recorded. Both inhumation and cremation were practiced, although cremation, being more costly, was seen as more prestigious. If one was cremated, then one’s relatives would gather the ashes and place them in an urn, which they then would bury along with the grave gifts.

The commonest grave gift was pottery. In fact, that’s why so many high-quality Greek vases have survived intact—because they were placed intact in the ground.

Over time, however, the Greeks became more stingy. Chances are, if one died in the 4th century B.C., all one would get is a couple of oil flasks known as lêkythoi filled with olive oil—olive oil was regarded as a luxury item. Some Greeks, however, were so stingy that they purchased lêkythoi with a smaller internal container to save them the expense of filling the whole vase with oil. Supposedly, they thought the dead wouldn’t notice.

As soon as the filling of the grave was done, they’d erect a grave marker over it. After completing the third and final rite of passage, all the mourners would return to the grieving home for a commemorative banquet.

The Burial Laws

Pottery was one of the most common grave gifts for the dead.

Since one’s corpse was regarded as a source of pollution—the Greek word for the pollution is miasma, which means much the same in English—one had to be buried outside the city walls. In the ancient Greece, burial within a settlement was extremely rare after the 8th century B.C. The same was true of Rome. The earliest Roman law code, the Law of the Twelve Tables, dated 450 B.C., contains the provision, “The dead shall not be buried or burnt inside the city.”

It is not certain, but the origins of the belief in pollution may be connected with a kind of primitive sense of hygiene. Dead one’s relatives and anyone else who had come into contact with the corpse were debarred from participation in any activities outside the home until the corpse had undergone purification.

Reintegration into the community for mourners didn’t take place until several weeks after the funeral. One’s relatives also had to take measures to prevent the polluting effect of one’s corpse from seeping into the community. That included providing a bowl of water brought from outside the house so that visitors could purify themselves on leaving.

Common Questions About Living the Ancient Greek Death

Q: What are the three stages of an ancient Greek funeral?

The three stages are the laying out or the prothesis, the funeral procession or the ekphora, and the burial or the Interment.

Q: How did the Greeks honor the dead?

Greeks honored the dead by following the three rites of passage, by building the tombs in Ceramicus, the Potter’s Quarter, and by offering the grave goods.

Q: How did Greeks prepare for the afterlife?

Greeks prepared for the afterlife by following the three rites of passage and offering the grave goods.

Q: What was the burial law in ancient Greece?

According to the burial law in ancient Greece, one had to be buried outside the city walls.

Complete Article HERE!

The daunting task of holding an Islamic funeral in a pandemic

For some Muslims, the pandemic strips away their ability to mourn

COVID-19 has upended the Islamic burial.

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Grieving is difficult. Grieving during a pandemic even more so.

In the Islamic tradition, a person’s passing is marked with an elaborate and symbolic funeral. But what happens to those traditions when the world is put on pause, and when tragedy seems never-ending?

Two Muslim leaders, Ahmed Ali and Payman Amiri, share their stories on how they’ve had to adjust their practices in the time of COVID-19, and how mourning has changed in their communities. They tell Scienceline about the symbolism involved in a typical Islamic funeral, what the transition has been like as the pandemic has ramped up and their experiences of having to deal with the dead while mourners grieve from afar.

Hannah Seo: Each of our lives are marked with landmarks in time: birth, maybe a graduation, perhaps a marriage and a few anniversaries…In the Islamic tradition, one of the most important of these events is actually someone’s death.

Payman Amiri: In our culture and tradition. Dying is part of life.

Hannah Seo: This is Payman Amiri, he’s the chairman at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, where he also works as an Imam. Imams are community leaders in Islam whose duties include teaching the Quran, leading prayers, and generally guiding the members of their communities. One of his duties is managing Islamic funeral services.

Payman Amiri: When somebody dies, you know, we try to sort of do that celebration of life, you know, like very formal in a big event and you just look at these family members that they are traveling with their loss.

Hannah Seo: But since COVID-19 spread across the nation, these funerals look vastly different.

(Guitar music)

Hannah Seo: This is Distanced, Scienceline’s Special Project about how different communities are responding to the coronavirus pandemic. In this installment, we’re looking at how the Islamic community has had to adapt its funeral services, which are important religious events.

Hannah Seo: Islamic funerals aren’t simple. They’re involved, meaningful, and the whole process can span up to several days.

Payman Amiri: The services include the washing of the body for the deceased person has to be washed in a proper way and they get treated with proper spices and herbs is a traditional thing for you. You put it on your skin and then you cover them in a white shroud…

Hannah Seo: He says that all the steps in a proper funeral service are imbued with history and symbolism.

(Guitar fades out)

Payman Amiri: So in our tradition, we believe we came from God, and our return is towards God. And so when you want to give them back, you want them to be washed clean. It has to be a white shroud, it has to be simple because every man and woman will go back to that white shroud. So it’s a symbol of humility.

Hannah Seo: Every aspect of an Islamic funeral is thought through, even the material…

Payman Amiri: It has to be cotton, it’s just everyone is treated equally because, you know, in God’s eye, everyone is equal.

Hannah Seo: Once the body is washed, the next part of the ritual can begin.

Payman Amiri: The body gets transferred to the cemetery, the body gets buried, facing toward Mecca, which is the direction all Muslims pray. And then you get the family members to, to say goodbye by putting flowers in the grave.

Hannah Seo: Or at least, that’s how things are supposed to be done.

(Guitar music)

For Payman, everything changed starting in early February, when he got a surprising call from a family in Santa Clara.

Payman Amiri: When she passed away and her family contacted us. It was the first case of community infection, and so it was a big deal.

Hannah Seo: Azar Ahrabi, a 68-year-old muslim woman from Santa Clara, California was initially diagnosed with pneumonia, but passed away from COVID-19 on March 9th. At the time, people thought she was the very first case of local community transmission of the new coronavirus in the county, but later, local health officials found two other cases who passed away before Azar’s case even came to light.

(Guitar music fade out)

Originally, Payman was supposed to arrange Azar’s funeral. But the virus, and fear of transmission meant that everyone had to take new precautions.

Payman Amiri: What happens if somebody dies with COVID they have to be in body bags, which were a thick bag with a zipper, and the body was in there. And then there are certain people who could only handle the body they have to be fully covered in PPE.

Hannah Seo: PPE is personal protective equipment: masks, gloves, etc. Suddenly mourning went from something close and intimate to something clinical, impersonal.

Payman Amiri: In our tradition, when somebody passes away, you greet the family with hugs and kisses and you hold on tight. And, of course, post COVID-19 nobody could do this.

Hannah Seo: And the moment that helps bring closure to the whole thing is usually a gathering.

Payman Amiri: Usually a lot of people show up in these memorial services, and it’s always the dinner. At the dinner table a lot of people share memories of the deceased person and it sort of helps the survivors put an end to that  chapter.

Hannah Seo: But of course the pandemic has rendered these practices impossible. With mosques, funeral homes, and various businesses shut down, that closure is hard to come by.

Payman’s struggles in the throes of the pandemic are not unique — far from it. Imams across countries have had to adjust in ways they never imagined.

Ahmed Ali: We had to go in people’s home, pick up the deceased. We went into the hospitals, we pick up bodies from there.

Hannah Seo: That’s Ahmed Ali, an imam in Brooklyn, NY. He says imams, as leaders of the community, have had to step up and show up for their people. Masjids and mosques, the usual places of worship and congregation for muslims, closed. Communities were left floundering, and only a few people were left to pick up the slack. For Ahmed, it’s been a lot to take over.

Ahmed Ali: Usually the imam’s job is to just lead the funeral prayer and rest the work is done by the funeral home, but all the employees left in the very beginning of this pandemic. And people were scared because they didn’t know how to protect themselves from this virus and nobody knew what actually this virus is. So, they called me and they say, ‘Imam, can you come and help?’ 

Hannah Seo: Shouldering all the roles himself, Ahmed became body collector, mortician, funeral director — you name it. And at times, it was gruesome.

Ahmed Ali: When we receive the body from hospital, usually they have all the IVs attached. And if the person was in critical condition, then they have tubes inside their mouth. And some time, when we remove the IVs, the blood start coming.

(Guitar music)

Hannah Seo: Ahmed says there were times he’d have to enter storage units with racks of bodies, checking toe tags to find the right person. It took its toll, and the burden was immense.

Ahmed Ali: It’s not an easy thing. So you can say it takes about two hour to wash one body. This was really difficult because picking up a body and taking it into the funeral home then unload it then put on a table, wash it, put inside the piece of cloth and then put it back inside the casket, then take it for the funeral prayer, then go to the cemetery lower down the body inside the grave. So this all work is actually really difficult.

Hannah Seo: If this seems like so incredibly much for one person to take on, that’s because it is. But Ahmed couldn’t turn away…

Ahmed Ali: I didn’t say no because this is a responsibility of an imam, that whenever things go, this kind of pandemic, then we have to show that we actually care for our community.

Hannah Seo: Comforting others is easier said than done, especially when you see your community hurting, with no power to change things.

Payman Amiri: I get emotional when [I know when] I do these services to start with because you see, you know, the family is crying and grieving when you feel for them.

(Guitar music fade out)

Hannah Seo: Recreating that connection and support during the pandemic, a time of intense disconnection, is challenging. The emotional burden of conducting a funeral is hard enough without the impediments of social distancing and Zoom preventing everyone from mourning the way they deserve to.

Ahmed Ali: Well, a lot of family members, they did use the Zoom and FaceTime and other apps to show the funeral service to their families around the world. I think, that’s an honor for me that I was able to help those families.

Hannah Seo: Ahmed Ali has led countless services all by himself, with no mourners or relatives around to claim the decedent as their own.

Ahmed Ali: Whenever I got a body with no family member, then I used to record a clip when we lower the body inside the cemetery.

Hannah Seo: Ahmed recorded these services in case friends or family came later, in case they came and wanted something to remember their loved one’s passing.

Ahmed Ali: But there are many clips I recorded and nobody ever asked for them. It’s sad because, you know, I was leading the prayer, I don’t know that person. But I was just there because, you know, I know that that person is a Muslim and a family to me.

Hannah Seo: With many states reopening, Payman and Ahmed’s lives have returned to some form of normalcy. In fact Payman recently had to organize the burial for another COVID-19 victim; this time, however, he was able to carry out a full service for the grieving family.

Things may have gotten better, but Payman and Ahmed are still anxious about the situation. The worst may be behind them, but  helping families process their loss is work that is never done.

Ahmed Ali: I as an imam just was able to stand next to them and tell them that, you know, this is reality of life. And now all we can do is pray for this deceased brother or sister.

(Prayer and guitar music in background)

Hannah Seo: This episode was reported by Jonathan Moens and me, Hannah Seo, for Scienceline. Thanks to both Payman Amiri and Ahmed Ali for sharing their stories.

Complete Article HERE!

What was a funeral like 8,000 years ago?

Newly discovered child burial site reveals ancient secrets

Entrance to Makpan cave, Alor Island, where the burial was discovered.

By

Humanity has done a pretty good job of recording its collective history over the past two or three thousand years. Earlier time periods, though, are still very much shrouded in mystery. Now, a groundbreaking new archeological discovery in Indonesia is revealing secrets from 8,000 years ago.

Archeologists from The Australian National University have discovered an ancient child burial site located on Alor Island, Indonesia. While a funeral for a child is no doubt a morose and depressing event in any century, this unearthing is providing some invaluable insight on early mid-Holocene era cultural and burial practices.

Stunning burial practices unearthed

Articulated left foot (bottom left) and right foot (center) excavated in the ANU laboratory.

According to lead researcher Dr. Sofia Samper Carro, it’s clear that the child was laid to rest with a formal ceremony of some kind. The research team estimates the child was between four and eight years-old at the time of death.

“Ochre pigment was applied to the cheeks and forehead and an ochre-colored cobble stone was placed under the child’s head when they were buried,” she says in a university release. “Child burials are very rare and this complete burial is the only one from this time period,”

“From 3,000 years ago to modern times, we start seeing more child burials and these are very well studied. But, with nothing from the early Holocene period, we just don’t know how people of this era treated their dead children. This find will change that.”

Of particular note is the fact that the child’s arms and legs appear to have been removed and stored elsewhere before the rest of the body was buried. This sounds rather odd from a modern perspective, but researchers say it isn’t wholly unprecedented.

“The lack of long bones is a practice that has been documented in several other burials from a similar time period in Java, Borneo and Flores, but this is the first time we have seen it in a child’s burial,” Dr. Carro adds.

Why did ancient cultures remove arms and legs before burials?

The answer is probably lost to the sands of time, but researchers theorize some form of religion or spiritual belief is a likely explanation.

“We don’t know why long bone removal was practiced, but it’s likely some aspect of the belief system of the people who lived at this time,” Carro adds.

While teeth examinations project the child as being around six to eight years-old, the full skeleton appears to be closer to four or five years-old.

“We want to do some further paleo-health research to find out if this smaller skeleton is related to diet or the environment or possibly to being genetically isolated on an island,” the lead researcher comments. “My earlier work from Alor showed adult skulls were also small. These hunter-gatherers had a mainly marine diet and there is evidence to suggest protein saturation from a single food source can cause symptoms of mal-nourishment, which affects growth. However, they could have been eating other terrestrial resources such as tubers.”

“By comparing other adult burials we have found from the same time period with this child burial in a future project, we hope to build a chronology and general view of burial practices in this region from between 12,000 to 7,000 years ago which at the moment is still scant.”

Complete Article HERE!

Couples Care for Stillborn Babies for Weeks While Grieving, & We Need to Be OK With That

By Sabrina Rojas Weiss

When Chrissy Teigen lost her baby Jack last week, some disapproved of the fact that both she and her mother shared images of themselves holding him. Those people may be surprised to learn that some parents go even further when grieving a stillborn baby, choosing to visit and hold them for days or weeks. As October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month, we want to help spread the word that this is one of many ways to grieve and memorialize a miscarriage or stillborn child.

“She was a fully grown baby and I kept thinking that she would wake up at any minute,” British mother Jess Mayall told the Sun of her stillborn daughter Ava. Her hospital in the U.K. allowed her to keep Ava in a refrigerated device call a CuddleCot for two weeks. That meant that she and her partner could hold her, take pictures with her, and even take her on walks in a stroller to say goodbye.

“The hospice was a life saver for us,” Mayall said. “The support they offered us really changed our experience and we are so glad that we were able to make two weeks’ worth of memories with her before laying her to rest.”

This is a practice some hospitals and pregnancy-loss organizations have recommended for bereaved parents, even sometimes suggesting they bring the baby home for a short time. While in the U.K., most hospitals have CuddleCots, there are parents and others hoping to bring more of them to the U.S., where often parents don’t even get to see or hold their infants after losing them.

The prospect of holding and caring for a deceased infant is not for everyone, though. We hope to help normalize many ways to cope with this tragedy. Here are some other ways to grieve and memorialize pregnancy and infant loss:

Seek the help of a doula. BirthWaves.org has doulas in five states who provide free help for parents during delivery of a stillborn child as well as with all the difficult things that come after they return home, from lactation support to funeral arrangement.

Hire a photographer who is comfortable with bereavement photos, or take pictures yourself.

Frame an ultrasound picture or create art with their footprint.

Buy a customized Molly Bear that is the weight of your baby.

Fill out a special memorial baby book.

Create a customized book for you and your other children to read together.

Make a memory box.

Reach out to a local or online support group.

Share your feelings with friends and family. No one needs to go through this alone. You may also be surprised to learn that someone close to you suffered from miscarriage or stillbirth without telling anyone until you did.

Read about other beautiful ideas from Still Standing magazine.

Complete Article HERE!

The Newly Legal Process for Turning Human Corpses to Soil

Reusable eight-by-four-foot steel cylinders, packed with wood chips, straw, and alfalfa, present an eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial

By Corinne Purtill

There’s an empty warehouse 20 miles south of Seattle that, if everything goes as planned, will soon be full of dead people.

The facility belongs to Recompose, the first U.S. company to compost human bodies indoors, through a process known officially as natural organic reduction. Washington state became the first — and so far, only — U.S. state to legalize the practice in May 2019. Recompose opens in November. It’s designed to hold the bodies of up to 10 recently deceased people at a time, each of them quietly decomposing into a loamy, nutritious soil, just as their previous owners wanted.

At the most basic level, decomposition is not a new technology; microbes have been doing it extremely well for just about as long as organic matter has existed. But it’s a part of death that Western funeral practices have traditionally gone to great lengths to evade: Embalming a corpse in chemicals with the goal of preserving a “natural” (that is, not dead) look; hawking expensive caskets that claim to seal out nature’s corrupting forces.

Recompose takes the opposite approach.

Against an attractive millennial pink background, the company’s website plainly explains the eco-friendly setting in which clients will decay. Instead of in a single-use casket, bodies rest temporarily in a reusable eight-by-four-foot steel cylinder, packed snugly in a cocoon of wood chips, straw, and alfalfa. For 30 days the dead human and living microbes stay in the vessel together, lying alongside fellow Recomposers in the warehouse’s hexagonal wooden frame, while the microorganisms slowly break down the corpse. At the end, after a brief turn in a curing bin to cool and dry out excess moisture, what once was a human body is now about a cubic yard of fertile, nutrient-rich soil, which can be returned to loved ones or scattered according to the decedent’ wishes. (The company will deliver all or part of the soil free of charge to Bells Mountain, a protected wilderness in southern Washington.) The service costs $5,500 — more than a typical cremation and service costs in the U.S., but about half the cost of burial. Some 275 people have already signed up for the service since reservations opened a month ago, said customer and communications manager Anna Swenson.

“There are a lot of signs and signals that are somewhat apocalyptic that kind of turn you back to your mortality.”

Why hack death? Cremation releases more than 500,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually in the U.S. alone, along with significant levels of mercury emissions. Traditional burial shoves truckfuls worth of metal, concrete, wood, and formaldehyde beneath the ground each year. Cities around the world are running out of traditional cemetery space, and preserving any unmolested open space is hard, even if you’re not trying to get permission to plant corpses in it. Human composting and its kindred green death technologies distill the body from a large, unwieldy, decomposition-prone state to one that is smaller, shelf-stable, and portable, with negligible environmental cost along the way.

There are existential reasons as well. As a pandemic rages and wildfires burn and a general feeling of doom pervades the air, “there are a lot of signs and signals that are somewhat apocalyptic that kind of turn you back to your mortality,” said Jeff Jorgenson, who owns green funeral homes in Seattle and Los Angeles.

“We look at what we’re doing and how disconnected we are from the earth and realizing that we’ve created this mess. We’ve allowed this to happen. And I think that informs decisions and perspectives on death.”

Recompose founder and CEO Katrina Spade was raised in a family of doctors “where it was fairly normal to talk about death and dying at the dinner table,” as she explained in a 2016 TED Talk. That frank approach to life and its end followed her to architecture school, where she became fascinated by a particular design question: How to dispose of her own physical body when she was no longer living in it, without — as she put it — “destroy[ing] the possibility of giving back after we die.”

She admired the example of green cemeteries, where nonembalmed bodies are wrapped in biodegradable materials and buried in a grave about three or four feet deep in which, over the course of about two years, tissues decompose into matter that nourishes the surrounding soil. (Bones can take up to 20 years more to fully disintegrate, according to the Green Burial Council.)

Green cemeteries are lovely places, with trees and plants growing freely without the austere manicuring of a traditional cemetery. There just aren’t very many of them. Only a few hundred of the thousands of cemeteries in the U.S. offer any green burial option, including many Jewish and Muslim cemeteries, whose burial practices traditionally forgo embalming and nonbiodegradable caskets. With composting, the body can go through the same process as it would beneath the soil of a green cemetery, even if there’s no open space for miles.

There’s also the question of one’s final resting place. A body placed in a green cemetery becomes, effectively, a part of that particular expanse of earth. One of the benefits of cremation is that the deceased or their survivors can dispose of the resulting “ashes” however they see fit: scattered in a meaningful spot, divided amongst children, even shot out of a cannon if that feels most appropriate.

Wouldn’t it be nice, Spade thought, to rot closer to home, to turn back into something that feeds the earth instead of takes from it, and to have a say in where the soil made from you goes?

Agriculture has been using natural organic reduction for decades to dispose of dead cows and other livestock on farms. For her master’s thesis in architecture, Spade laid out the idea for a facility where humans could be composted this way, indoors, in a setting that would be both dignified and sanitary.

Upon graduation, she began in earnest to make the business a reality. In 2018 she partnered with the Washington State University Soil Science Department for a study using six donor bodies to confirm that soil produced from human composting would be pathogen-free. The heat produced by the composting process kills almost all pathogens; the only people who will not be eligible for composting at Recompose are those who die with prion conditions, like Creutzfeldt–Jakob (“mad cow”) disease, as the proteins that cause those conditions can remain toxic in soil for years.

Recompose’s vessel is not the only relatively new advance in the disposal of human corpses. The law that made Washington the first (and so far only) state in the U.S. to legalize human composting also explicitly legalized alkaline hydrolysis, also known as chemical cremation.

The novelty of Recompose got more attention, as alkaline hydrolysis was already legal in more than a dozen U.S. states. But because the technology fits so easily into existing crematoriums, chemical cremation, which was also originally developed to dispose of dead cattle, may be the more accessible option at the moment for people without access to a green cemetery or reduction facility.

More than half of the people who die in the U.S. each year are cremated, a process that emits more than 500 estimated pounds of carbon dioxide per body. In alkaline hydrolysis, a body is placed inside a vessel containing a solution of water and the caustic base potassium hydroxide that’s then heated and pressurized. Over about three hours, the pressurized liquid dissolves the body’s soft tissues as fire does in a traditional crematorium. Because there’s no combustion, there are also no greenhouse gas emissions.

The end result of both processes is the same: Bones that are then pulverized into what are typically referred to as the “ashes” of the deceased. Traditional cremains are the color of gray sand. The remains of a chemically cremated body are the pure white of seashells.

Green death tech also expands to engineered materials that line coffins and wrap corpses, and that sell themselves as accelerating the conversion of the former, resource-consuming you into matter that feeds other life forms, the ideological opposite of traditional burial marketing.

“People want their deaths to mean something. They want their bodies to be useful in some way.”

These include the offerings of designer Jae Rhim Lee’s company Coeio, which sells burial garments laced with a mixture of mushrooms and other organic matter that claim to speed decomposition and break down the toxic compounds the body releases. (According to his wishes, actor Luke Perry was buried in one after his 2019 death from a stroke at age 52.) The Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel created Capsula Mundi, a biodegradable, egg-shaped urn whose creators say should be buried in the ground, with a tree as a grave marker.

New technologies for disposing of bodies allow new ways of mourning the dead. Even before Covid-19 disrupted the ability to gather in mourning, it was a challenge to convene dispersed loved ones and choose a specific place to lay to rest a person who lived their life in multiple cities or countries. The share of people who identify with organized religion has fallen. Secular services that fill the need for mourning rituals have grown in their place.

Recompose is also a funeral home, and eventually, the business hopes to move to a facility large enough to allow for memorial services where loved ones can participate in the process of placing the body in the vessel. The company also plans to offer franchising opportunities in a few years. While patents are pending on the specific design of their vessels, composting itself is not a proprietary idea. In the future, rather than calling the church to organize a service, one may call the closest organic reduction facility.

“People want their deaths to mean something. They want their bodies to be useful in some way,” said Nora Menkin, executive director of the People’s Memorial Association, a Seattle-based nonprofit cooperative funeral home. Over the last six months, there’s been a jump in calls to the organization from people contemplating their mortality while riding out the pandemic at home. They want options, she said, so that “your last act on earth isn’t polluting it.”

The way we dispose of bodies says more about how we live. Embalming became popular in the Civil War, the first episode in U.S. history where people died en masse far from their homes and needed to be transported for burial. Cremation rates rose as the country became more mobile, and scattered families could not be convened fast enough for a burial. Today, more people seek options that don’t contribute to the environmental destruction we see around us, that allows our earthly remains to be shared by the people we loved or disposed of altogether. To embrace our final obligation, which is to return to the earth the substance that let us be ourselves.

Complete Article HERE!

Why Indians of all faiths commemorate the dead with food

An excerpt from ‘Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes’ by Shylashri Shankar.

By

Each February, on the lunar day my father passed away, I wake up at dawn, bathe and drive over to my mother’s house. I enter the kitchen and begin sorting the vegetables. I wash the spinach and soak it in salted water. The bhindi, I pat dry. I remove the mud clinging to the arbi, rinse the green chillis, ginger and coriander leaves. Then I make a cup of tea for my mother who is unwell, and sit at the dining table to choreograph my cooking moves this year. Sixteen dishes have to be made by half past ten when the priests will arrive. Four hours to wash, chop, chiffonade, boil, cook, simmer, combine, soak, grind and fry vada, knead dough for puris, pickle the mango, roast the arbi over a low flame for half an hour, make the rice, kheer and mango chutney. Everything has to be done from scratch – no preparations can be made the previous day. Even the vegetables have to be cut on the day.

I begin the dance between the tasks like a Sufi dervish, meditatively and fluidly. These were my father’s favourite dishes – keerai, kootu, rasam, puris (we used to compete over how many puris we could eat), bhindi fry, crispy arbi with rice flour and spices, the mango and gur boiled in its own juice, and the mint chutney. These dishes were made on the tenth day after his death, and each year my mother and I make these dishes on his death anniversary. As I cook, I also think of others whom I loved who have passed away – my aunt who lived with us and was famous for her coconut barfis and chikkies, my perima who made the most delicious chutneys, pickles, papads and pastes and sent them to us from Shimoga every couple of months, my favourite uncle who was born on the same day as me and who lived a simple and contented life. I remember the things they did, and what we shared. There is a sense of calm, of peace, of unhurried movement. I salt and spice by instinct, not by taste. I cannot speak over the food, and I cannot taste it – it would be polluting. The priests arrive. After a short chant, they are ready. I serve everything course by course, on a banana leaf. They eat everything and take second helpings. I cook only occasionally, so you’d think the spices would be off, but instinct serves me well on this day. Or is it the emotions and memories infusing the cook?

Research shows that rituals can help in relieving people of their grief and other feelings that torment the spirit. A ritual, whether it is a religious one or something you have made up, helps to restore a sense of control to the mourner, control we have lost in the unexpectedness and the suddenness of the tragedy. A ritual involving cooking returns that control to you as you decide when the coriander seeds have been roasted enough, when the vegetable is done to a crunchy bite, and when the chana is cooked.

It is not surprising that many traditions contain rituals where the person who has passed on is remembered through food. The bereaved are comforted by other mourners who bring dishes like fried chicken, biryani, sandwiches and so on. The Koran, for instance, discourages the family of the dead from cooking but urges the community to bring food to the family. In Hyderabad, Muslims bring biryani, haleem, kebabs and dahi baday. Across the pond in Sri Lanka, visitors dressed in white deliver food to the mourners and the monks. The Buddhist ceremony, Daane, involves eating parupu (dal), kiri bath (rice and coconut milk) and gotu kola sambol. Pitru paksha of Hindus observed during the dark half of the lunar calendar uses food to commemorate the dead. So do similar festivals in other parts of the world: All Souls Day in Italy and Sicily where marzipan delicacies are crafted in the form of fruit and vegetables, and the Day of the Dead in Mexico where sugar skulls, candied pumpkin and mole negro are prepared for the souls of the dead.

Why are these dishes and not some others used in the formal rites? Is it because they create a sense of calm, some succour to the grief-stricken mourners? Is it ethnicity, religion or the geographic location that makes a dish or particular ingredients comforting to a mourner? In India, religion plays a key role in deciding whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian foods can be served to a mourner. Unlike Muslim and Christian mourners, Hindu mourners eat vegetarian meals even if chicken and fish are part of their daily diet. Why? It could be because death is involved in the act of eating meat (dead animals) since in Hindu culture a person is both bodily and morally what he or she eats.

But in a study of mortuary rites in Benares, Jonathan Parry highlights how some aspect of the deceased is symbolically digested not only by the ghost but also by the ‘chief mourner, by the impure Funeral Priests (a specialist subcaste known as Mahabrahmans) and by the pure brahmans’. Parry points out that in some instances, as in the funeral rites of the Raja of Nepal, the Funeral Priest was fed the deceased’s ground-up bone in a preparation of kheer (concentrated milk and sugar), and was laden with gifts and banished from the kingdom. By digesting the deceased, his pure essence is distilled and translated by the digestive fire of the stomach to the other world, while his impure sins are eliminated. The ghost is converted into an ancestor, or pitr. The food served to the group consists of rice boiled without salt but garnished with milk and horse bean lentils (urad dal).On the thirteenth day, the mortuary feast is prepared.

Nirad Chaudhuri narrates an incident where a wealthy relative had to rubber-stamp the backs of peoples’ hands to prevent them from eating twice, many having trekked over 50 miles to attend the feast. It is not just the wealthy who have to feed hundreds of people to mark the end of mourning. The poor have to do it as well, and usually incur high debts as they sell their bullocks and grain and borrow at exorbitant rates of interest to meet the expense of feeding the village. For the Gonds and the Bhumias, the death feast is the most expensive ceremony.

The formal rites also involve other offerings in the soul’s passage from being a ghost to becoming an ancestor. Hindus offer rice or flour balls known as pindas. Some castes leave these pindas outside and hope that a crow will eat it. If it does, the ghost has become an ancestor. In Mysore, some middle castes throw three balls of butter at the idol beseeching it to open the gates of heaven (vaikuntha samaradhana).

Death need not be only of the body. The death of a relationship can be quite brutal. In mourning for the ‘we’ that has died, you may turn to your favourite dishes and binge-eat day after day. Well, don’t. In randomised trials of over 45,000 participants, London-based researchers discovered that eating meals high in vegetable and fiber and cutting back on junk food eased depression. But not anxiety. Also these meals worked better on women than men. They are trying to figure out why. NIH research has found that enhanced recovery from depressive disorders is delivered by oysters, mussels, seafood and organ meats, leafy greens, lettuce, peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli. Now we have an Antidepressent Food Score, a nutrient profiling system to give dietary recommendations for mentally ill people.

What about foods that can increase and worsen depression? These typically are sugar-rich foods – cookies, doughnuts, red meats, fried chicken and soft drinks – that create a high followed by a crash. But dark chocolate, thank god, enhances the mood by releasing endorphins to the brain and promotes a sense of well being. I tested it over a two-week period of nibbling two slices of chocolate after lunch. Godiva’s 78 per cent cacao made me perky while Cadbury’s Crunchie left a claggy sensation in my arteries. Either there is some truth to it or I may be exhibiting the recency effect – remembering best whatever I have read or encountered most recently.

The moral of the tale is to treat grief as a natural phenomenon and address it through rituals, simple or elaborate, and eat foods that produce equanimity.

Complete Article HERE!

This ‘Living’ Coffin Uses Mushrooms to Compost Dead Bodies

This ‘Living’ Coffin Uses Mushrooms to Compost Dead Bodies

Hendrikx with the ‘Living Cocoon’ coffins.

by Becky Ferreira

For tens of thousands of years, humans have developed funeral rites and burial practices that reflected the attitudes of their particular time and place. These traditions of honoring the dead continue to evolve into the 21st century, as people seek “green burials” that are more environmentally friendly than standard coffins. 

One of the newest examples comes from Loop, a Dutch biotech company that recently unveiled a biodegradable coffin made of fungus, microbes and plant roots. Called the “Living Cocoon,” the coffin is designed to hasten bodily decomposition while also enriching soil around the plot.

“Normally, what we do as humans is we take something out of nature, we kill it, and we use it,” said Bob Hendrikx, founder of Loop, in a call. “So I thought: what if we humans start moving from working with dead materials toward a world in which we work with living materials?”

“We would not only become less of a parasite, but we could also start exploring super-cool material properties, like living lights, walls that are self-healing, and that kind of stuff,” he added.

Hendrikx was inspired to develop the Living Cocoon while presenting a living home concept at last year’s Dutch Design Week. While houses are obviously for the living, Hendrikx got to thinking about adapting the concept into a coffin powered by mushroom mycelium, which is the filamentary vegetative part of the fungus.

“Mycelium is nature’s biggest recycler,” Hendrikx said. “It is continuously looking for dead organic matter to transform into key nutrients.”

Developed in collaboration with Delft University of Technology and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Living Cocoon contains a moss bed packed with mycelium, plant roots, and a lush ecosystem of microorganisms. It is already on the market in the Netherlands, and has been used for a burial at the Hague.

Initial tests of the coffin indicate that it degrades in soil over about 30 to 45 days, and the Loop team estimates that bodies within coffins should be composted after three years. Mushrooms can also remove contaminants from soil, so the researchers have a “bigger vision” to use the coffins to purify dirty environments.

“We have a dream of having super-new natural funeral-based concepts in which we go to different cities and search for the most dirty soil and start cleaning that up,” Hendrikx said.

“We already have this product launched on the market, but what we want to really know is how long does [decomposition] take exactly, what does the decomposition phase look like, and also—this is super-important—what kind of chemicals can it absorb and in what amounts,” he added.

The Living Cocoon is one of many emerging concepts that aim to reduce the environmental tolls of current mortuary norms. Right now, both caskets and cadavers are treated with chemicals that leach into soil over time, potentially contaminating groundwater.

Green burials are exactly not a new phenomenon, as Indigenous cultures around the world have practiced environmentally friendly mortuary practices for thousands of years. For instance, “sky burials” that expose bodies to high altitudes where they can be scavenged by birds and animals, are still practiced in the Himalayas today.

But more novel funeral technologies such as “water cremation,” in which bodies are broken down in water and potassium hydroxide, are attracting the interest of people who want to tread lightly on the planet, even after they no longer live on it.

To that point, the Loop team thinks that the Living Cocoon will help people access the right end-of-life experience for them.

“I think people are ready for this,” Hendrikx said.

Complete Article HERE!