Plotting death

In Features /

By Emily Yearwood

When I was 14, I wrote a will and planned my own funeral. I agonized over the all-important question: Should I tell my parents to play Fire and Rain by James Taylor or Wind of Change by the Scorpions?

But it never occurred to me to consider another question—What should they do with my body? There are more options that I might have imagined.

Neat preservatives

The traditional route is embalming, the temporary chemical preservation of the body. Contrary to popular assumption, a corpse does not have to be embalmed if it is going to be buried. But funeral directors strongly recommend the procedure if there is going to be an open casket or the funeral isn’t taking place immediately.

Funeral director Jason Hann, 24, described the embalming process on the condition his workplace remain anonymous, because he didn’t want to upset his customers. First, Hann said, the body is laid on a table and disinfected with sprays and soaps. Special attention is paid to the nose, mouth and groin.

Blood makes the body rot, so next Hann uses a hose-like machine to pump formaldehyde-based arterial fluid through the veins. The pressure pushes out the blood, which is caught by a drain in the metal table.

The arterial fluid is neat stuff. Besides temporarily preventing decomposition, it returns the body to its normal colour. There are different fluids for different skin colours. If the wrong fluid is used, Hann said, the person could appear “brighter” than normal—although he says it’s never happened to him. “Not to me, thank God.”

Next, the director uses a machine called an aspirator to suck remaining blood and faeces out of the body cavities. The person is then sewn up and covered with makeup according to the family’s preferences. Hann can even fix misshapen body parts—say, a crushed nose—with wax.

The whole embalming process takes about two hours. Hann said family members are often close at hand while the body is in his care. Although they would not be involved in the embalming process, religious or cultural traditions might require them to wash the body or spend the night with it at the funeral home. Funeral directors try to accommodate these practices.

“As long as it’s not going to endanger the safety of people in the funeral home, we go for anything,” Hann said. “You can’t light a bonfire.”

Hot retort

If fire is your style, consider cremation. Most funeral homes do not have crematoriums, but they’ll help your family find one.

Rob MacFarlane counsels grieving families at Glen Oaks Memorial Gardens, a crematorium in Oakville. First, the body is placed in a container (either a casket of a pressboard box), which is pushed with a forklift into a large oven-like machine called a retort. The intense heat inside the retort reduces the body to a pile of bone chips. “The last to go are the ribs and skull,” MacFarlane volunteered.

The operator pushes the hot remains into a basket underneath the retort and places it in a cooler. Afterward, the operator puts the remains in a pulverizer, which grinds down the bone chips. The particles are emptied into an urn.

MacFarlane said the average urn weights between three and four kilograms. “If you were to toss it out, the majority [of the remains] would drop at your feet because it’s so heavy.”

It’s technically illegal to scatter cremated remains. They are, after all, human remains and Ontario law requires them to be buried in a cemetery space.

Dissection

If neither cremation nor embalming sound good, you could donate your body to science.

Michael Wiley, head of the University of Toronto’s anatomy division, said the school gets about 115 bodies a year—all people who filled out paperwork promising their bodies for study.

Cadavers must meet certain requirements to be accepted. The dead person must not have had a communicable disease such as AIDS, must not have suffered serious trauma, must not have had major surgery lately, and must not have undergone a post-mortem examination.

Donated bodies are embalmed immediately and put in cold storage. Wiley said most bodies are dissected within a year.

After serving their purpose, bodies are cremated and buried on the U of T’s plot at St. James cemetery in an annual service for donated bodies. Students and faculty perform the nondenominational service. Families of the dead are invited.

Travel in a box

If you’re looking for a more exotic funeral—say, roasting on a funeral pyre in your home country—you can always arrange to be shipped out of Canada.

In that case, the law requires embalming. A lot of paperwork is required, said funeral director Rebecca Knowles. “With shipping a body, there are a lot of documents to be filled out. We have to get in touch with the consulate. They will seal the air tray [part of the shipping container].”

One creative burial option in a foreign country can be found in Salt Lake City, Utah. For just $63,000, a gentleman named Corky Ra, founder of the Summum religion (espousing “modern mummification, permanent preservation, cloning and transference) and owner of a local pyramid, will mummify you.

So far, Corky has only practiced his patented mummification technique on cadavers, but his wife Gracie said 137 people hired him to do the deed when they die. Corky doesn’t have any Canadian clients yet, although Gracie has mummified a few Canadian pets. Gracie said people choose mummification because they might not like the other options. They might do it for religious reasons, or to satisfy their egos.

“Some people do it because they feel they have done something very magnanimous in this life and they want a memorial.”

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