But then what? As far as the final destination of our souls is concerned, most religious folks tend to think in terms of The Big Four: heaven, purgatory, reincarnation, and that nightmarish landscape of never-ending agony and pain, Gastonia.
No big surprises there, but frankly, the selection seems skimpy. But what about your body? Now there's the surprise: there is a veritable smorgasbord of options available to our earthly bodies once we pass on to the great hereafter. Over the course of history, the human cadaver has been buried quickly, kept around for a wake and then buried, mummified, cremated, thrown to wolves, used to test France's first guillotines, aided in the evaluation of US army rifles, served as human crash-test dummies, and been nailed to a cross in a Parisian lab. Today, corpses help pioneer new surgical procedures, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery; they serve as real-life (well, real death) resources for human decay research at the University of Tennessee (aka the "Body Farm"); and last year, late baseball legend Ted Williams was turned into a human Popsicle in the still-evolving field of cryogenics.
So think of the possibilities. Sure, you could play it safe and choose one of the usual postmortem routes, like cremation or being buried in a coffin six feet under, but they've both been done to death -- ba-da-boom!
In an effort to think outside the pine box, we decided to explore some of the bold, weird, historic and plain creepy undertakings of the dearly departed.
From Mummies to Morticians
We've all heard the old saying that the two things in life that are certain are death and taxes. And while the tax part may not apply to some rightwing nut separatists who shun Uncle Sam, not even they can elude the angel of death (and I hear they're mad as hell about it, too). With death being so inevitable, and seeing how we're living in the world's most prolific free-market society, our post-life options are to die for.
Most people in the US still choose burial as their body's post-life experience. Mankind first began burying its dead for practical and obvious reasons. A decomposing corpse wasn't a very pleasant sight, and even less palatable to smell. They also tended to attract hungry predators, and spread all kinds of nasty diseases. Placing the dearly departed underground simply made life easier for the living.
Eventually, burying the dead took on profound spiritual and religious overtones. The ancient Egyptians, for example, believed that the dead lived on in the next world, and that their bodies had to be preserved forever as they were in life. With such a powerful inspiration, it's no surprise that they were one of the first practitioners, and perfecters, of mummification.
Ancient Egyptian embalmers removed the brain from behind the eye socket or through a nostril by using a hook. All internal organs were also removed, except for the heart, which was thought to be the location of intellect and memory. They usually filled the empty abdomen with linen pads or sawdust, and then placed the body in natron (a compound of sodium salts found on lakeshores) until the tissues were dried out. Finally, they wrapped the body in layers of linen bandages and placed it in a coffin, which was then placed in a tomb, along with many treasured objects of daily use; the Egyptians believed the dead would need these artifacts in the next world. Thousands of years later, archaeologists continue to find these mummified bodies, including famous Egyptian pharaohs like Ramses II and Tutankhamen, and most recently, what's believed to be the legendary Queen Nefertiti.
Today, we rely on the embalming process. For a detailed description of how it's done, we consulted Brian Clyburn, general manager of Long and Son Mortuary Service in Charlotte.
The procedure starts with the mortician making several precise incisions -- one just above the clavicle along the main carotid artery and another along the inner thigh at the femoral artery. Using tiny hooks called aneurysm needles, the tissue is pulled back, and small incisions are then made in the veins and arteries, into which tubes about the diameter of a pen are inserted.
Through these tubes embalming fluid -- a combination of formaldehyde and alcohol -- is pumped into the
arteries, while the vascular pressure forces blood out of the body's veins. After the proper amount of blood has been drained from the body and the proper amount of embalming fluid pumped in, a long hollow metal tube is inserted in the corpse's lower right abdomen, which drains any remaining fluid, swelling or gas. Finally, in preparation for the funeral, all the incisions are sewn up, make-up is applied, the hair is combed, proper attire is slipped on, and the body and facial features are posed just so.