How Corvallisites Die: What Happens When You Kick the Bucket Locally?

From the Film, The Seventh Seal, by Ingmar Bergman

Shooting pains filter down my arm, my chest is tight, and I feel myself mindfully drifting somewhere else. My wife attends to me, but I am not responsive; I am thinking about my life and what I have accomplished. I hear her and see her, but it all seems so meaningless compared to what is ahead. Paramedics come rushing in—they pound intensely on my chest but it doesn’t make a difference; I am already hovering above myself.

The paramedics lift me onto a stretcher and continue pumping oxygen into my lungs while rushing me into the ambulance. As fast as they can, the paramedics race to the emergency room, but their time was not fast enough. I died the second I entered the ambulance. It is a funny thing about an ambulance, they are never quite fast enough for situations like this—then again, maybe my heart was just too worn out to save.

At 2:45 am the attending doctor pronounces me dead and begins to prep for the removal of my organs, as my license stated that I was a donor. At the time it seemed like a noble idea, but now I feel as if I am being pieced off in an auction as I watch this. Of course, my heart is useless, but my lungs, liver, and kidneys are prepped to be immediately sent to the patients on the donor list, who helplessly lie in their hospital beds. They will never really know the full story as to why their lives were saved.

The doctor then proceeds to sew up my body, stitch by stich. Soon I will be covered by a nice suit and tie, but my family will never see the empty rag doll that lies within. It feels like I’m now only half of myself. After I’m sewed up, attendants wheel me down into the hospital morgue, where I wait to be identified by my wife. Before she comes, I watch the attendant begin the embalming process. He empties the blood from my body and fills my veins with a fluid that will preserve me for many years to come.

I watch my wife come down the stairs. The hospital morgue attendant removes the sheet from my head only and asks her to identify me. Seeing my face, the pain sets in, and she begins to sob and says “yes, it is him.” The pain always seems to become much more real for people once the death is tangible.

The next morning I am transported to the local funeral home to be prepared for burial. The director contacts my wife asking for a picture of me and burial clothing so that they can make me look as life-like as possible. Distraught, she decides on a picture of me from our trip to Vegas last year. I was smiling and maybe a little drunk—something I won’t be experiencing anymore. In the back area of the funeral home the attendant begins making up my face to look like the picture—a little foundation, mild blush, and a skin-toned eye shadow to make me look less pale. Afterwards, he dresses my pale, stitched-up body in the black suit my wife always loved to see me in.

Later, I find myself at the viewing. The funeral will be tomorrow, but today my friends and family gather at the funeral home to say their private goodbyes and look at me if they wish. It seems rather morbid in my opinion. The next day the family gathers at the funeral home for the procession. Friends and family tell stories of me, and my favorite singer, Cat Stevens, is playing in the background—“Wild World” has a whole new meaning now.

The family follows the hearse to cemetery where I will be slowly dropped into a solid tomb in the ground. Years ago they used to just put the coffin into the ground, but that presented too many problems with possible ground water contamination so over the last few decades they’ve dug up graves to create cement vaults for the coffins to sit in. I used to be fascinated by this but now all I can think of is how many nasty things are in the ground surrounding my coffin’s vault.

I always wanted to be cremated so that I wouldn’t financially burden my family, and so that I could be spread across some wildly beautiful creation of nature, like the rainforest or something. I forgot to update my will, however, and even though my wife knew I wanted this, she is clearly of a different opinion than I am and likes the idea of visiting a rotting body every so often. I never understood why that was comforting for people; they might as well keep the body in a coffin next to their bed.

Sometimes I thought about scientific body donation, but I never could fully get my mind around it. As a lover of science it always seemed like such a great idea—providing yourself for the benefit of others and the exploration of new techniques in healthcare. Now, however, knowing that I can watch it all happen, I don’t think I could ever have handled seeing a bunch of med students slowly dissect my body with little care as to who I was or where I came from; I would simply be a cadaver, a body without a person. That’s the thing about doctors—sometimes they can be so emotionally numb to their patients. Although I guess that’s a necessary survival skill when every day they have to tell crying wives that their husbands have died from heart attacks.

As they lower my body into the vault, I fall back into my body. I am in a dark coffin, stiff, and cold. I feel myself going lower and lower, and then I hear the vault seal shut. I am forever a tomb stone.

So You’re Dead. Now What?

The leading causes of death in Corvallis are cardiovascular disease, cancer, tobacco-linked deaths, diabetes, and accidents. But there have been only 6 murders in the past 12 years, with no more than 1 during any particular year. Whew! Still, hopefully you’ve considered your post-mortem options, and your will describes how you will be situated for eternity—to your own liking, of course.

Cremation saves the Earth one more eight-foot hole in the ground that will never be used for anything else. How long will it take for the US to become one giant graveyard, you may wonder? The answer is a really long time. The age-adjusted US death rate in 2011 was 740 deaths/100,000, or about 2,331,000 annual deaths with our current population of 315,000,000. If one cemetery burial plot takes up 40 ft2, and we assume 100% traditional burials, then that’s 3.34 miles2 taken up by plots each year out of the nearly 4 million miles2 that is the US. Our birth rate remains below 1%, so it’ll be a while—think millennia—until we have to deal with a [dead] person overpopulation problem. But while we’ve got a lot of space, Hong Kong, for example, doesn’t—they’ve ordered that all buried individuals must be exhumed in six years and cremated. They call this “renting” a burial plot. I definitely wouldn’t want to be the person who has the job of directing that process.

Cremation rates are rising steadily in the US, from 3.6% in 1960 to 38.2% in 2009. Costs for cremation in Oregon range from $500-$5,000, depending on the type of cremation container, storage urn, and whether or not a memorial service was included. 69.4% of Oregonians choose cremation, the third most frequently of all US states. Want to really be remembered forever? Have the 4-6 pounds of ashes remaining after your cremation turned into a sparkling diamond. Or launch a bit of yourself into space—orbit the Earth for $2,500, achieve lunar orbit for $10,000, or explore deep space for $12,500.

If you choose the traditional burial route, the funeral director can take care of everything from the funeral ceremony to the burial, and the average funeral costs between $6,000 and $8,000 depending on the coffin, headstone, and memorial service. But beware! Funeral directors are still sales people deep down and will try to get your family to buy that “better” coffin—anything less and you’ll feel like you’re buying a hefty bag for your loved one.

The Willamette Valley area has a low-cost alternative called Crown Memorial Centers. They offer everything for about half the price a normal funeral home would charge and can even facilitate body donation. And you can get a burial and “coffin” for as cheap as $550 if you’re willing to put your loved one in what the center calls “a plywood container.” But since natural or “green” burials—often using a biodegradable shroud and no embalming fluids—seem to be growing in popularity, perhaps even plywood will someday be considered excessive. An energy efficient cremation-like process called resomation is also available in some places, in which the body is turned into ashes via a liquid alkalai mixture.

Want to rest at home forever? Oregon Revised Statute 97 allows burial at home (although some counties have restrictions) as long as your family follows some simple guidelines.

The last, and we feel best, option is donating your body to science. Oregon Health and Science University has a program for this—they receive about 150-200 donations annually—and funeral homes can facilitate the donation for you. Doing this not only benefits science and our understanding of the human body, it also saves you money while you’re being a good citizen. To really put the cherry on the cream for this awesome alternative, ask for your body to be cremated instead of buried after its use as a cadaver is over. Now you have just become a good citizen who is land-use and economics-conscious. Congratulations!

The Less-than-Social Lives of Morgue Attendants

The average morgue attendant makes $36,000 per year to basically lose all sense of social desire. They spend over eight hours a day in a room with people who can’t talk back. In a few interviews with various attendants, they were either already socially shy which is why they were drawn to the job, or they were pulled into a socially shy lifestyle after working in a morgue for so long. Clearly we need to pay attention to the type of social sacrifices these necessary morgue attendants make, and perhaps we should think about raising their salaries to thank them for their hard service.

by Cristina Himka

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