Archive for May, 2012
We’ve all smelled it. And like flatulence in church, nobody says anything.
It’s that odd perfume that comes from Great Grandma Eunice when you reach down to give her a hug.
It’s that odor that wafts through nursing homes.
And now science is here to prove to us what we’ve already known.
Old people have an odd odor that is all their own.
And no, it’s not moth balls; it’s not an old person perfume; it’s not the fact that their skin hasn’t touched bath water in a couple days; nor is it the decade old clothes that have been re-worn for consecutive days (I pull that trick in the winter when I don’t sweat).
In fact, notes Johan Lundström, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, the smell of older people is a universal smell that can be identified from Asia to Alaska.
There’s even a word for this smell in Japan: kareishū.
Here’s the explanation for “the smell” from Dr. Lundström:
The root cause of the old person smell is still a mystery, but the study notes that long-term changes to the skin glands may be involved. Lundström suspects it also may be related to an accelerated rate of cell decay. “As cells die at a faster pace, they might give off a different odor that is unique to people with old age,” he says. (from CNN.com)
As a funeral director, I know the small all too well as I frequent nursing homes more often that some of the occupant’s family. It’s a smell that has always elicited sadness in me. Sadness for those who sit in waiting, often unvisited by outsiders.
I’ve read before that babies have a certain smell that neurologically encourages attachment in adults. We can actually love our infants more just by smelling them.
So, what does the “old people smell” encourage? For me, it’s encouraged a sense of the holy … a sense of both respect and a degree of otherness. An otherness that’s been created by a recognition of life and death. An otherness that we can learn from.
Next time you smell the “old people smell”, maybe we should just sit and listen (not necessarily to their words) to the holy that’s apart of the end stage of life.
When you die, who is entitled to make your funeral and burial decisions?
Have you created a will?
Have you assigned an executor of your will?
Have you designated a beneficiary of your estate?
If you haven’t, that’s (sorta) okay because – by default — there is a legal (with emphasis on legal) next-of-kin (NOK). 
For married couples, one’s spouse is the legal NOK upon death, unless an Executor has been designated.
We saw this “legal NOK” play out on a public level with the death of Mary Kennedy. Even though Mary’s husband Robert was estranged, had filed for divorce and was living with his girlfriend, his legal status as “husband” confirmed him as the decision maker for Mary’s disposition, funeral and estate.
Mary’s family, recognizing the fact that Robert was possibly the least qualified to respect Mary’s wishes, sued for said rights of disposition. They lost. Sure, they had more affection for Mary. Sure, they had loved Mary better than Robert. Sure, Robert was probably the main influence in Mary’s suicide.
Unfortunately, though, the people who loved Mary the best in life were unable to do so in death. While the the legal process of designating a NOK in the absence of an Executor works most of the time, in Mary’s case it didn’t.
And this brings us to gay rights in death.
The latest statistics I’ve read show that half of Americas support gay marriage while the other half do not. It’s a divisive and complex discussion that touches anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics, genetics, gender and sexuality, philosophy and theology. I know this is a contentious conversation and I usually don’t touch bruised topics unless they involve Mark Driscoll.
But, being that few have looked at gay rights from the perspective of thanatology (the study of death and dying), I thought I’d give it a stab. From a thanatological perspective, this issue seems to be less determined by whether or not one agrees with gay marriage or civil unions and more to do with who can best honor the deceased in death.
In the Kennedy case, Mary could have legally designated an Executor of her estate before she died. This would have taken away Robert’s default NOK rights and placed them to the designated Executor. The problem was this: she didn’t designate an Executor.
While I’m sure committed gay couples — recognizing that many states don’t affirm their unions — will often set up their partner as an Executor, the case of Mary Kennedy shows that not everyone has a binding will that designates their Executor … even when they SHOULD have a binding will.
I’m sure there’s cases that exist right now where a gay couple has been together for a couple decades and haven’t set up a will or designated their partner as the executor. And, I’m sure, like the Kennedy case, the legal NOK (the parents or possibly children), may attempt to ostracize those that really loved the deceased the best.
And yes, Robert ostracized Mary’s family from having any part in the service.
What happens when a gay committed couple hasn’t designated their partner as the executor?
What happens when the parents so disapprove of the gay relationship that — like Robert did with Mary’s family — the legal NOK ostracizes the partner who had been with the deceased for decades?
When does the Christian church’s hunger for being Biblical and right become cruelty?
Should the church support denying somebody the ability to properly grieve?
You may be personally opposed to the state granting gay couples the right to marry (and I do realize that the issue at hand is much larger than simply whether or not the state should affirm gay marriage), but it seems that denying a couple the ability to care and take care of their partner in death creates the kind of drama and difficulty that was recently on display in the death of Mary Kennedy.
 If an Executor has not been designated, by default your spouse is granted those rights. If your spouse isn’t alive or you aren’t married, it becomes your oldest child who is over the age of 18. If you don’t have a child over the age of 18 — or you don’t have children — it’s your parents. If your parents are dead, the NOK becomes your eldest sibling. If you don’t have siblings, parents, a spouse, or child, you should DEFINITELY consider designating an executor or you may find your inheritance being awarded to the state, or some distant cousin you’ve never met.
I’ve been finding myself at local hospital morgues nearly every day for the past month and today was no different. I parked my car behind the hospital in the little parking space that they have set aside for us funeral directors … a space where the dead are out of view from the living. I backed up to the ramp, put my car in park, pulled out my stretcher, punched the passcode into the security lock and parked my stretcher in front of the morgue door. From there, I took the long walk from the back of the hospital, through the halls and to the front, where I happened to pass the security guard. Usually he’s in his office, but today I must have caught him returning from fulfilling one of his many duties.
“You’ll be seeing me in a moment”, I said as I pass him along the hall. He’s responsible for opening the morgue and – if he’s feeling up for it — helping me with the transfer.
He’s about 35 years old. Nice. Professional guy. Takes his job seriously.
He stops the conversation that he’s having with a pretty nurse, turns around and starts walking with me to the lab that holds the paper work I have to fill out to officially release the body from the care of the hospital.
“I’ll let the lab staff know that I’m aware you’re here so they don’t have to page me.”
He lets them know, and starts his walk back to the morgue while I fill out the necessary paper work for the release.
I walk back and he’s at the morgue door waiting for me.
“Do you want some gloves, sir?” he asks.
I’m 30 years old, but I look more like 25ish. He’s probably 35. “Why would he call me ‘sir’?” I think to myself. This honorific was so natural for him too Pondering it a little more I suspect I know why, so I probe.
“You have the weekend off?” I ask.
“Yup.” He replies.
“You working Memorial Day?”
“Nope. Sittin at home, by myself, remembering.”
Feeling pretty confident that I’ve figured out why the whole “sir” thing was so natural for him, I ask my next question based on an assumption: “Are most of your co-workers ex-military?”
“Yes, sir.” He says. “Our boss is ex-army and hires us veterans.”
I reply: “Going from military to security is probably an easy transition for you guys.”
“Not for me. I was trained to take lives not save ‘em.”
At this point, the conversation moves from small talk to real talk. He’s starting to get personal and I can tell he wants me to know who and what he is.
“I’m an ex-marine. I was on the front lines of the first wave of infantry when we invaded Iraq.”
Out of the blue, without me probing, he say, “Lost some good fuckin friends.”
I lost a great uncle in World War II (who I obviously never knew), I lost a childhood friend in Iraq, but I’ve never served in the Military. I’ve attended a hundred military funeral services, some at Military Cemeteries and a half dozen at Arlington Cemetery, but I’ve never lost a close friend. My dad and cousin have blown taps for hundreds of veterans at their interment, but none of those veterans were my immediate family.
I know enough to know that while Memorial Day has significance for our nation, but I can’t say I have a personal connection to Memorial Day like the parents and sisters of my childhood friend, or like the this young man I was a talking to as we pulled the body out of the morgue.
I could have pushed him. I know how to ask the questions that start the tears, but I refrained. “He’s shed enough”, I thought.
But I pushed him anyways. I looked him in the eyes as I draped the cover over the dead body lying on my stretcher, “What are you doing on Monday?” Tears started to well up in his eyes, so I pulled back any more questions.
He paused. Gathered himself. Looked at the ground and shook his head. His emotion was still raw, and he struggled to constrain them.
I knew what he was saying. I’ve heard it said a thousand times. No words, but enough to say what you’re feeling.
After he gathered himself, and I listened for a couple minutes, it was time for me to go.
He helped me down the ramp to my car. I reached out my hand, shook his hand and said, “Thank you for your sacrifice.”
“I’d do it again”, he said.
This Memorial Day I’ll be remembering him as he sits in his house and remembers the ever haunting ghosts that will torment his life. I will remember and memorialize the sacrifice this young man has given as he carries the burdens those who passed before their time.
We should remember that these types of deaths also can take the lives of those left alive.
The first time I heard of “Diamond Burial”, I thought it was an extreme case of the funeral industry attempting to accommodate the baby boomer inspired market demands for “personalization.” I’m not a big fan of the personalization thrust in the funeral industry as I think it’s both a passing trend and can tend to overlook the real value of funeralization: holistic community creation.
After watching this video, I think I’ve changed my mind on Diamond Burial. The main reason I changed my mind is because — as you’ll see in this video — “Diamond Burial” seems to be taking off in a deeply communal society: China. There’s a truly existential value that the Chinese mother communicates in this video that hits at that “communal creation.”
We all die. Ten out of ten of us will breathe our last someday. Being aware of our mortality helps us live life more fully. It helps us set goals and plan ahead. You’ve only got one life, so what do you want to do with it?
Every once in a while I like to have a “get to know you” post, where I (we) can learn about you!
So here’s a short little question for you: WHAT’S ON YOUR BUCKET LIST?
What do you want to do before you die?
Bucket lists can have things as unique as “I’d like to see a platypus before I die”, as common as “I’d like to learn to dance” or as exceptional as “I want to write novel.”
So … what’s on your bucket list?