Frozen in the Afterlife

Usually, when people think about what they want done with their body when they die, the options are  limited to burial or cremation.  However, in a recent interview, former American Idol judge, Simon Cowell, stated that when he dies he wants his remains to be cryogenically frozen.

Cryopreservation involves preserving a human body at an extremely low temperature in the hopes that resuscitation might be possible some time in the future.  Cowell’s rationale is he has nothing to lose – if medical technology never advances to the point that he can be revived then he’s no worse off than he was to begin with – and if it does then all the better for him. 

Cryopreservation is no laughing matter – some people take the issue very seriously.  After the death of Red Sox great Ted Williams, a dispute erupted amongst his children about what should be done with his body.  He’d left a will in which he’d stated his desire to be cremated and for his ashes to be spread along the Florida coast. 

However, after Williams’ death his son produced a handwritten note apparently signed by Williams (and two of his children) which stated they all wanted to be frozen when they died in the hopes of being revived and reunited sometime later.  At present, his head and body are in different containers and suspended in liquid nitrogen at Arizona’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation.   

All of this raises an interesting question – what should happen to the estate of a cryogenically frozen person?  Should it be distributed to the individual’s beneficiaries or should it be preserved so it’s still there in the event the frozen individual can be brought back to life in a few decades?

Saying Good-Bye to Fido...On the Cheap

An economic downturn is a time when many people scale back – including, the Los Angeles Times reports, on pet funerals.  While people still seem willing to spend money on their living pets, there’s been significant belt-tightening when it comes to bidding Fido and Fluffy a final farewell. 

While pricey burials were once en vogue, the recent trend has been towards pet cremation.  In the United States, there are about 290 pet cemeteries and crematoriums and saying good bye to a pet doesn’t come cheap. 

A pet burial might set you back $800; however, a cremation comes in at a much more economical $80 (the actual price will depend on the weight of the pet).  Additionally, by opting for cremation, pet owners are able to save money on burial-related accessories, such as caskets (which, at the Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery in Huntington Beach, California, go for as much as $375) and grave markers (which start at $275).  

The increase in popularity of pet cremation has had positive financial effects for some pet cemeteries.  Sea Breeze operates its crematorium six days a week.  Additionally, cremation-related items such as urns and memorial items are seeing increased demand. 

For the pet owners who want to keep things eco-friendly, green funerals aren’t just limited to people – there are options available for pets as well.  Let Your Love Grow is an eco-friendly line that offers biodegradable urns and burial items aimed to break down cremated remains over time so that the nutrients can be released to the soil.       

Fight Ensues over Georgia Woman's Remains

On Tuesday of this week, a judge in Georgia will be asked to decide a dispute over who can take control of a deceased woman’s body and decide her manner of burial. 

Nique Leili vanished on July 9, 2011.  Two days later her husband reported her missing to police and two days after that he filed for divorce claiming that Ms. Leili had abandoned him and their two minor children. 

Ms. Leili’s body was found in a wooded area near her home on July 16, 2011.  Her husband has been named as a suspect in her death; however, he has not been charged with any crime and last week he released a statement denying any involvement in her death.

Ms. Leili’s daughter from a previous relationship has filed a court petition seeking to take control of Ms. Leili’s remains.  Georgia law stipulates that in the case of a death, the spouse is the next-of-kin and has the right to make funeral arrangements.  However, there is an exception to this rule if the spouse has been charged with murder or voluntary manslaughter. 

Ultimately, the judge will have to decide whether the fact that Ms. Leili’s husband had filed for divorce before her remains were discovered and is now a suspect in her death is enough to depart from the general rule that the spouse can decide the manner of burial. 

In Ontario, an individual’s burial is determined by his estate trustee.  In cases where there is a will, the executor named under it determines the manner of burial.  In situations where there is no will it will fall to the court to determine who is entitled to be appointed as estate trustee (I have previously blogged on the law regarding who plans a funeral when there's no named executor).

Residents Concerned About Proposed Natural Burial Site

Last September I blogged about the increasing popularity of eco-friendly burials.  While encouraging environmentally sound burial practices might sound like a good thing, not everyone wants them going on in their backyard.

Some residents in a neighbourhood in Ajax (about 30 minutes from Toronto) are none too pleased about proposals to rezone a section of a golf course near their homes as a natural burial site. 

The objective of natural burial is to dispose of the body in a chemical-free way and in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition.  Typically, the body is interred in a shroud or biodegradable coffin and without being embalmed.  Rather than traditional headstones, graves are marked by trees and shrubs. 

About 40 residents near the proposed burial site are concerned about the impact it will have on their homes.  The issues raised range from worries that gases emitted during decomposition will enter into the soil and the groundwater source (thus requiring frequent water testing) to concerns that summer barbecues will disrupted by burials taking place on the other side of the garden hedge.

John Overzet, the owner of the golf course responds that the complaints of residents were addressed a year and a half ago and that the cemetery will pose no hazard. Specifically, he points out that local health authorities are aware of the proposed cemetery and have raised no concerns.  Additionally, natural burials are governed by the Cemeteries Act in Ontario, which includes various requirements regarding burial, including the minimum depth of the grave site.

If the plans for the cemetery are approved, Mr. Overzet estimates that it will be another five years before it is operational.  His hope is that within the first 10 – 15 years of operation, 10,000 burials will take place.     

Queen Victoria's Funeral and Will

Today is Victoria Day for the Canadians out there.  Victoria Day was first declared a federal holiday in Canada in 1845 and is held annually on the last Monday on or before May 24.  The holiday celebrates the birthday of Queen Victoria as well as the official birthday of the reigning monarch.

Queen Victoria was born on May 24, 1819 and died on January 22, 1901 at the age of 81.  In 1897, four years before her death, she had written instructions for her funeral.  She had requested a military funeral and that she be dressed in a white dress and her wedding veil.  At her request, her doctors and dressers had laid in her coffin various mementos from her family, friends, and servants. 

Queen Victoria lay in state for two days before her funeral was held at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on February 2, 1901.  She was interred at the Frogmore Mausoleum at Windsor Great Park beside her husband, Prince Albert.

A few days after Queen Victoria’s burial, the New York Times published an article speculating about the terms of her will.  It reported that there were rumours that several of her children were to receive bequests of £140,000 while a number of her grandchildren were to receive “liberal legacies.”  The bulk of her private wealth was left to her eldest son, Edward, who inherited the throne on her death.   

Too Busy to Say Good-Bye? Try a Drive-Thru Funeral

Several months ago, I blogged about the growing popularity of funeral webcasting services. However, those who want a more personal touch, but are short on time, might appreciate the convenience of drive-thru funeral homes. 

This past weekend, the Los Angeles Times reported on the Adams Funeral Home, in Compton, California which includes amongst its services, drive-thru visitations. This involves placing the deceased's casket in a glass display window visible to drivers passing through a drive-thru lane. 

Adams Funeral Home is owned by Peggy Scott Adams, a Grammy-nominated gospel singer. It was Peggy’s late husband, Robert Adams (a local politician) who initially came up with the idea for drive-thru viewings.  According to the video that accompanies the article, Robert came up with the idea after seeing funeral homes in the south that offered video displays of the funeral outside the building – he thought he could improve on the concept. 

The funeral home’s business has been brisk – it was especially good in the late 80s when gang violence in Los Angeles was high.  Cemetery shoot outs had made gang members reluctant to attend gang funerals, so the bullet proof glass used for the partition at the funeral home made it a popular venue. 

These days, the benefits of drive-thru funerals are slightly more vanilla in nature – seniors can stay in the car and those in wheel chairs have easier access to the viewing.  In addition, it is less complicated for family members of the deceased and, in the case of community leaders, more people can attending the viewing. 

Funerals start at $1,295 and despite the success of the company’s drive-thru business, traditional visitations are still the most popular. 

Fur Flies Over a Stuffed Polar Bear

There are endless stories about how attached people get to their pets – and the devastation that they can feel when a pet dies.  Apparently, they get super attached to zoo animals as well. 

There is controversy afoot at the Berlin Zoo over plans to stuff the body of a beloved polar bear that recently died.  Knut (pronounced “Knewt”) was born at the Berlin Zoo in December 2006.  His mother rejected him at birth.  Subsequently, a national debate erupted over whether the zookeepers should take over his care or whether the extensive interaction he’d had with humans at such a young age would so distort his development that he should be put to sleep. 

Knut was allowed to live and became a big attraction at the zoo for awhile.  Unfortunately, by the time he was a year and a half, he’d grown from a cute little cub into a 350-pound bear – and the attention died down (although he did still have some devoted followers).  This was hard for poor Knut who had become accustomed to all the human interaction – when he was left alone with no visitors or keepers he would cry out.  At the time, a German zoologist referred to Knut as a “psychopath addicted to human attention.”

Knut’s life came to an abrupt end in March 2011.  While standing on a rock, Knut started to spin in circles, suffered a seizure, and then plunged into the water where he died. 

After Knut’s death, Bernhard Blaszkiewitz, the zoo’s director, decided to stuff Knut’s body and have it displayed in a museum.  However, for a vocal group of protestors, this isn’t acceptable – they don’t want to see him stuffed, believing it to be undignified and no way to treat an animal that, to some of them, was like a friend or family member.  Others are not so sympathetic, believing that in the end, a polar bear is just a polar bear, and that those opposed to Knut being stuffed should “get a life”.

Unfortunately for those opposed to Knut being put on display, they may have to deal with it.  Apparently the stuffing process (technically called “dermoplastik”) is well under way. 

Now You Can Plan Funerals Online

For the past few months, I’ve been seeing advertisements for the company Basic Funerals in various subway stations in Toronto, so a recent article in the Globe & Mail about the company caught my eye. 

Basic Funerals bills itself as the first funeral company to give people the option of arranging funerals in person, over the phone, or online.  The web-based service gives family members the ability to arrange their loved one’s funeral from the comfort of home.

The services include visitation, grave-side services, cremation, burial, and basic estate services (such as transferring air miles or applying for a CPP death benefit).  Costs vary; however, in Toronto, a complete basic cremation package starts at $1,674, a burial and graveside service starts at $1,800, and a basic funeral with casket starts at $3,500.     

The company’s web-based model represents a fundamental shift from the traditional model employed by funeral providers.  Typically, a funeral business involves high overhead – it will operate out of a fixed premises, keep merchandise and equipment onsite, and will employ staff.  Basic Funerals’ goal is to be as automated as possible and to offer funeral services at about half the price of traditional funeral providers.

While the company heavily promotes its web-based service, clients are also able to arrange funerals over the phone or in person.  Basic Funerals is a licensed funeral establishment and contracts with the clients to provide services/merchandise directly. 

Since the company’s inception in 2009, it has arranged over 1500 funerals in Ontario and has recently expanded its services to Colorado and Illinois.   

Is Tweeting Condolences Appropriate or Just Tacky?

It is often said that there’s no “right” way to grieve the loss of a loved one – however, are some ways tackier than others?  That was a question raised recently in a Globe and Mail article about the increasing trend of announcing deaths and sending condolences using twitter and facebook.

The impetus for the article was the miscarriage recently suffered by Amanda Holden, a television presenter in the United Kingdom.  After the tragic news became public, it appears that a number of celebrities in the UK took to twitter to send their condolences. 

For those not familiar with twitter, it’s a social networking site where members can send out messages (with a maximum 140 characters) for all the world to see.  Former Spice Girl, Emma Bunton, tweeted “Absolutely devastated for @Amanda_Holden and chris.  Thinking of them and sending our prayers at this very sad time”.  Several other British celebrities followed suit.    

While expressing sympathy and sending best wishes is certainly a kind thing to do, is using twitter simply a sign of the times or would a phone call or letter have been more appropriate?  Jan Moir, a columnist for the UK’s Daily Mail, certainly thinks saying "sorry for your loss" over twitter amounts to a faux pas.  She asks whether there is “something distasteful about this new eruption of celebrity-to-celebrity condolences, played out in the Twittersphere hall of mirrors to an audience of millions”.   

Whether it’s appropriate or inappropriate, one person who didn’t seem to mind was Amanda Holden herself.  A few weeks after her miscarriage, she sent a message to all her followers on twitter thanking them for their “support and love.”

Who Plans the Funeral When There's No Named Executor?

One of the obligations of an executor is to arrange for the deceased’s funeral and burial.  However, it is not uncommon for an individual to die without a will, leaving no one with the legal authority to dispose of the deceased’s remains.  Sometimes this isn’t a huge issue – the deceased’s next of kin agree on the manner of burial.  However, when they can’t agree, problems can arise.

This was the situation in the recent decision of Buswa v. Canzoneri.  By way of background, the deceased died unexpectedly without a will, and was survived by seven siblings (who were the applicants in the proceeding).  After the deceased’s death, an individual came forward alleging that she was his daughter (this was denied by the siblings). She was the respondent in the proceeding.   

Unfortunately, a disagreement arose over the proper burial of the deceased’s remains.  The deceased was a member of the Whitefish River First Nation, as were his siblings (the applicants) and they wanted him to be buried in accordance with traditional Anishnabek practices.  The respondent argued that at the time of his death the deceased was no longer an adherent to the Anishnabek belief system and had wanted to be cremated. 

The applicants brought a motion seeking the appointment of an estate trustee during litigation for the limited purpose of disposing of the deceased’s remains.  S. 29(1) of the Estates Act provides that where there is no will naming an executor, the court has the discretion to appoint (a) the deceased’s spouse/common law partner; (b) the deceased’s next of kin; or (c) the partner and the next of kin. 

Although “next of kin” is not defined in the Estates Act, Justice Stinson (the motion judge) considered definitions of the term found in various legal texts and determined that it referred to the person most closely related to the deceased.  Stinson J. then considered whether he was satisfied that the respondent was the deceased’s natural child. 

While there was no DNA evidence and the deceased and the respondent did not meet until 2008, Stinson J. found other evidence to suggest a father/daughter relationship (such as that the deceased had signed a statutory declaration that he was the respondent’s father).  He decided that on a balance of probabilities  the respondent was the deceased’s natural daughter.

Stinson J. then concluded that as the deceased’s natural daughter, the respondent qualified as his “next of kin” and, accordingly, appointed her as estate trustee during litigation for the purpose of dealing with the deceased’s remains.     

Wiarton Willie Dies, Scandal Ensues...

Sometime this morning, Wiarton Willie (and his good American groundhog friend, Punxsutawney Phil) will emerge from his burrow.  If he sees his shadow and retreats then it will be six more weeks of winter. 

Groundhog Day has been observed since at least the end of the 19th century – they’ve gathered in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to celebrate it since at least 1886.  The story of Wiarton Willie dates back to 1956 when Mac Mackenzie, a resident of Wiarton, Ontario (a town on Georgian Bay about 3 hours northwest of Toronto) wanted to beat the winter blues and sent out a press release inviting people to Wiarton for a Groundhog Day party.  When a reporter arrived and asked where the groundhog was, Mac threw a fur hat into the snow and the reporter took a picture.  The tradition continued from there.

Willie the groundhog became involved sometime in the 1980s – and brought fame to Wiarton, making its winter festival the largest in Bruce County and the town internationally known for its weather-prognosticating rodent.  A statue was erected in Willie’s honour in 1995.

Sadly, Willie passed away while hibernating during the winter of 1998 – 1999.  This was discovered by the organizers of the Winter Festival only a couple of days before the big event.  On Groundhog Day, a lifeless Willie was presented to the crowd while lying in a little casket with pennies over his eyes and clutching a carrot.   

Alas, like has happened with so many other celebrities, Willie’s death was mired in scandal.  It seems that the lifeless groundhog presented to the crowd was not actually Willie.  Apparently, by the time his little body was found it was so badly decomposed that it could not be shown to the public.  Instead, organizers put a stuffed version in the casket – a move which caused endless speculation over his real cause of death.   

After his death, the original Wiarton Willie was replaced by “Wee Willie”, who fulfilled the role until his own death in 2006.  Wee Willie 2 now holds the job.

For those who feel like heading up to the Bruce Peninsula, the 55th annual Wiarton Willie Festival runs until February 6, 2011.  

Poe's Mysterious Toaster Continues to be a No Show

A mysterious visitor's annual ritual of leaving cognac and roses at Edgar Allan Poe’s graveside appears to have come to an end after more than sixty years. 

Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809.  His early life was difficult – his father abandoned the family when Poe was young and his mother died a year later from consumption. 

Poe moved to New York in the early 1830s, which is when his publishing career took off.  He would become known for his macabre tales and poems.  While Poe enjoyed prominence, he had difficulty supporting himself as a writer and would frequently have to borrow money.  Over time, his behaviour started to become erratic and he developed a drinking problem (apparently fuelled by the sudden death of his wife).  Poe died in 1849, at the age of 40 under mysterious circumstances – his cause of death is still unknown and theories have included suicide, murder, alcoholism, and hypoglycemia.

Poe's funeral was a simple one and reportedly was attended by few.  He was interred at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, initially without a gravestone - although one was put in place in 1875.

The mysterious visits to Poe's grave apparently started in the 1940s (and were first referenced in print in the Evening Sun, a Baltimore paper, in 1949.)  The “Poe toaster”, as the visitor was called, was always dressed in black, and wore a white scarf and a wide-brimmed hat. The visits continued every year on the anniversary of Poe’s birth, with the visitor leaving a half-empty bottle of cognac and three roses on Poe’s gravestone.  

In 1993, the visitor started leaving notes and one left in 1998 indicated that original Poe toaster had died and the tradition had been passed to his two sons.  Apparently, the sons didn’t take the duty seriously and in 2009 the visits stopped. Why is unclear, although the fact that 2009 was the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth might have had something to do with it.

It remains to be seen whether the Poe toaster will reappear.  In the meantime, various “faux Toasters” have taken up the mantle and have been trying to reenact the ritual themselves.  

Lee Harvey Oswald's Coffin Hits the Auction Block

Christmas has come early for the conspiracy theory junkies out there: the coffin of Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated John F. Kennedy, is coming up on the auction block (body not included).   

Oswald had been arrested a couple of hours after Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963 and ended up being shot himself a couple of days later.  He was interred in a pine coffin, where he remained for almost twenty years.  Oswald’s body was exhumed in 1981 at the request of his widow, Marina.  Apparently, Marina wanted to test a conspiracy theory that a Soviet secret agent had assumed Oswald’s identity to carry out Kennedy’s assassination and had then been buried in Oswald’s place.   

As it turned out, it was in fact the real Lee Harvey Oswald who had been interred.  Accordingly, he was returned to his plot in the Rose Hill Memorial Park in Fort Worth, Texas.  His original coffin had suffered extensive water damage so the re-interment occurred in a new one. 

The coffin is being sold by the Baumgardner Funeral Home (who had handled the re-interment), with the California-based auction house, Nate D. Sanders, handling the sale. 

Bidding is set to start at $1,000.  The final sale price is expected to be much higher, although by how much is unclear.  Almost 50 years after Kennedy’s death, there is still a significant market for assassination-related memorabilia.  In 2007, the window and frame from where Oswald shot Kennedy at the Texas Schoolbook Depository, was listed at auction for $100,000 and ended up selling for more than $3 million.    

Saying Good-Bye from Behind a Computer Screen

When a loved one dies, friends and family often want to pay their final respects – however, geographically-scattered relatives, a depressed economy, and busy schedules can all make it difficult to say “good bye”.  

For times when you can’t attend a loved one’s funeral, now you can watch it live on the internet.  An increasing number of funeral providers are embracing the web and offering funeral webcasting services. 

Funeral webcasts work in the same way as any other webcast – there’s a provider (usually a funeral home) which streams live feed of the funeral or memorial service.  In some cases, it’s also possible to have the burial webcast.

Most services then allow the webcast to remain online for a fixed period of time.  While the webcast can be streamed so it’s available to everyone, it can also be password protected, so as to keep out the voyeurs. 

While some funeral service providers have been offering the option for years, traditional webcasting companies are now becoming more involved and offering the technology as well.  Some of the reasons for the increasing popularity are technology based – equipment and broadband are both less expensive and better quality. Although to a large degree it’s also an inevitable by-product of the fact that the internet is now such an integral part of everyday life. 

While funeral webcasting is wonderful at bringing everyone together, some think that it is also helpful in keeping people apart.  This video notes that it is a useful alternative in situations where you don't want certain people attending your loved one's funeral - I suppose that instead of sending an invitation, you simply send a username and password and hope they get the picture.

Building a Legacy, One Terracotta Warrior at a Time

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to see the “Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army” exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum.  The exhibition showcases funerary art from the tomb of Warrior Emperor Yin Zheng, the first emperor of China – including some of the life sized terracotta warriors with which he was buried.   

Yin Zheng is a pivotal, but controversial, figure in China’s history.  He unified China and went on to become its first emperor in 221 BC, ruling until his death in 210 BC.  While he is credited with developing a strong centralized government and bringing about social and cultural reform, he was an autocratic leader and his rule was characterized by tyranny and bloodshed. 

Yin Zheng wanted to ensure his continued dominance, so he built a massive mausoleum – at over 2.18 million square meters, it’s the largest in history – and filled it with 8000 terracotta warriors to help him rebuild his empire in the afterlife.  The site was first discovered by farmers in 1974 and, to date, over 2000 terracotta warriors, horses, and chariots have been unearthed. 

It is believed that construction of the mausoleum started in 246 BC, when Ying Zheng was only 13, and involved more than 700,000 builders.  The project was so labour-intensive not just because of its sheer size, but because Ying Zheng had directed that no two warriors should look exactly alike, the result being that each is unique.  Also inside the complex are palaces, watchtowers, and various artifacts that he anticipated needing in his afterlife. 

For those who are interested in seeing the exhibition, it runs until January 2, 2011. 

Eco-Friendly Burial: Going Green in the Final Frontier

A recent article in the Economist, “Exit Strategies – Innovations for a Conservative Industry,” discusses the environmental damage that comes from traditional burial rites and the eco-friendlier options that are emerging.   

The harm generally starts shortly after death with the embalming process and the harmful chemicals used.  It continues as the body is moved to a coffin, frequently made of valuable hardwood such as oak or mahogany.   

Neither cremation nor traditional burial are particularly kind to the environment.  Cremating a body reportedly produces 160 kg of carbon dioxide as well as other gases and chemicals.  Traditional burial is even more harmful – by combining the formaldehyde, wood, and cement involved, with the ongoing maintenance required of gravesites (such as lawn mowing), burial creates an even larger carbon footprint than does cremation – and that’s leaving aside the issue of land scarcity. 

Perhaps as a natural offshoot of the trend towards “living green,” there is now an increasing interest in “dying green.” There are a number of companies that supply environmentally friendly funeral products.  For example, Passages International offers such green options as wicker caskets and cornstarch eco-urns. 

Environmentally friendly methods of disposing of bodies are also becoming more popular.  Since the late 1990s, natural burial grounds have been opening in the United States (although they do not appear to have made it to Canada yet).  The objective of natural burial is to dispose of the body in a chemical-free way, in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition.

With natural burial, people are buried unembalmed, in a biodegradable coffin (usually 2-3 feet below ground, rather than the usual 6 feet).  Headstones are typically modest and made of natural materials – although, in some natural cemeteries, there are no grave markers and instead grass and wildflowers are left to create a meadow.    

Eco-friendly cremation options are also emerging – resomation breaks down the body in a water and alkali-based solution and what remains is dried into a powder, while promession involves freeze-drying the body with liquid nitrogen then turning it into dust with ultrasonic vibration. 

While eco-friendly burial methods are kinder on the environment, they’re not necessarily kinder on the wallet – they cost about the same as a traditional burial or cremation.