Death in the News

My thoughts on that Russian woman who was “embalmed” alive

Ekaterina Fedyaeva

While the fear of being buried alive was a prevalent fear that had some legitimacy before the dawn of modern healthcare, today that fear — at least in countries with access to modern medical science — is unfounded.  In centuries past, the fear of premature burial was so prevalent that Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki developed a bell system that enabled someone who was buried alive to alert those above ground that there had been a ghastly mistake.

Giving farther evidence to the fact that people were prematurely buried is T.M. Montgomery, who supervised the disinterment and moving of the remains at the Fort Randall Cemetery in 1898.  He reported that “nearly 2% of those exhumed were no doubt victims of suspended animation.”

While being buried alive is impossible for an embalmed body, I’ve always had this fear that I’ll pick up a deceased person, bring them back to our prep room only to discover that they are still very much alive.  The fear is real enough that when I embalm someone I generally wait a minute or so after I make my first incision to see if there are any faint signs of life before I raise the artery and vein.  So far, I — and every funeral director I know — have never encountered a still living supposed “corpse.”

There have been modern-day cases were someone has been prematurely pronounced dead.  Here’s one such case:

Mrs Banks, 61, was found unconscious in bed after taking a drugs overdose on New Year’s Eve.  She was discovered by her husband, Claude, at their home in Stonely, near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire and subsequently pronounced dead by David Roberts, the family’s GP.

Three hours later, Ken Davison, an undertaker who knew the Banks family, saw a vein twitch and heard her snore in the mortuary at Hinchingbrooke Hospital, Huntingdon, just as he was preparing to put her in a refrigerated body tray.

Will Bennett

But, thank goodness, Mrs. Banks was discovered alive before any attempt was made to either embalm or bury her.  Because of modern healthcare, I’ve always regarded any reports of someone being “embalmed alive” with a high degree of skepticism.  So when I saw this title, “Russian woman embalmed alive in deadly hospital mistake” floating around the internet, I thought it was an Onion article.

It wasn’t.

This per the often unreliable tabloid The Sun, “Ekaterina Fedyaeva was said to be undergoing routine surgery at a hospital in Ulyanovsk, in the Volga Federal District of Russia, when the hospital provided her on a formalin drip, which contains formaldehyde and is used to prevent corpses from decomposing.”

I’m still hoping that this is some elaborate hoax.  But it doesn’t seem to be.  This is a once in a billion kind of mistake that could have only been made through a confluence of poorly designed and poorly practiced medical protocols.

Here’s some more details:

“Her legs were moving, she had convulsions, her whole body was shaking,” said her mother, according to The Sun. “I put socks on her, then a robe, then a blanket but she was shivering to such an extent, I can’t even describe it.”

Her mother also said that no doctor ever checked on her after coming out of surgery.

“This is pure murder,” said Galina Baryshnikova, according to reports. “[It] was simply eroding her body from inside.”

She said she begged doctors to help but they told her to go home.

“For 14 hours after surgery she was living with this formalin and they did nothing,” she said.

She said a doctor eventually admitted to the blunder but did not specifically reveal the cause of her condition.

Fedyaeva was later transported to a hospital in Moscow, where she ultimately died. A criminal investigation into the cause of her death is said to be underway. — Fox 32

Pure formalin is a much strong solution that the embalming fluid we use on dead bodies.

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring gas that is highly dissolvable in water.  When it is dissolved in water, it’s called “formalin”, which is the liquid that was intravenously given to Ekaterina.  Formalin is 40% formaldehyde.

Embalming fluid is rated by formaldehyde index:  strong embalming fluid has an index of 28% to 36%, medium fluid has an index of 19% to 27%, and weak fluid is 10% to 18% index.  Even our strongest embalming fluid has less formaldehyde than pure formalin, and even much less when we mix the embalming fluid with water.

After we mix the embalming fluid with water, the solution has a much lower amount of formaldehyde, often around 2%.  In other words, what was injected into Ekaterina — if it was formalin with 40% formaldehyde — could have been up to 20 times stronger than the embalming fluid I would use in my prep room. 

With arterial fluid that is 2%, I can effectively harden and preserve most cases.  This is how it happens: “Formaldehyde or glutaraldehyde fixes tissue or cells by irreversibly connecting a primary amine group in a protein molecule with a nearby nitrogen in a protein or DNA molecule through a -CH2- linkage called a Schiff base” (Wikipedia).  To put it simply: formaldehyde literally rips apart tissue on a molecular level.  

SOME QUESTIONS:

A slow, intravenous drip of formalin would have ripped apart the insides of Ekaterina Fedyaeva.  This is absolutely torturous.  The stuff of nightmares.  And this leads to the main question: HOW DID SHE LIVE FOR 14 HOURS?  The potency of this fluid is extreme, and — although I have no idea how long one should live with a bag of formalin in their system — I have a hard time wrapping my head around 14 hours.

The other factor that adds a twist to this story is that formalin has a potent smell.  The kind of smell that burns when you breathe it in.  However or whoever put formalin in the IV bag (and I don’t know the protocols for filling IV bags), were either without a sense of smell, extremely dense, or they did it on purpose.  My guess is that murder is a legitimate possibility in this case. 

While I hope this story isn’t true, if it is true it seems that Ekaterina wasn’t conscious during this travesty.  I can only hope that was indeed the case.

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Consider supporting my work by buying my book, “Confessions of a Funeral Director.”  Click the picture below to read more:

On that Decaying Foot that Popped out of the Ground in a New Jersey Cemetery

 
You may have seen this article floating around the interwebs about the decaying foot that popped out of a neighboring grave as the family of Cleveland Butler was burying him in his grave (pictured above).
 
A couple things: this doesn’t seem to be an Onion article, although that is exactly what I thought it was at first glance.  It’s been in the New York Daily News twice (HERE and HERE), so it’s either a REALLY good hoax, or it’s true.  
According to the article, the Mount Holiness Memorial Park Cemetery doesn’t require an outer burial container (vault / grave liner), as you can tell by the photo. The blue casket of Mr. Butler is simply being lowered into the ground, sans burial container, as noted by the cemetery caretaker.  Most cemeteries require an outer burial container partially so body parts aren’t popping out, but mainly so the cemetery doesn’t have casket sized sink holes from old, collapsed wooden caskets (photo below).  Outer burial containers are — how shall we say it? — superfluous.  But, they’re part of the American Way of Death, part of the “keep death clean” mantra of ‘Merica.    
 
Speaking of the “keep death clean” mantra, let’s give a slow clap to whoever embalmed that foot.  That foot has been dead for almost 50 years, it has been exposed to the elements, and it still has its footiness.  The fact that embalming has the ability to preserve dead bodies for such an extended period of time should give us pause: how long will bodies untouched by the elements actually last?  Some funeral directors who have witnessed disinterments have claimed that they’ve seen bodies 70 years dead that look like they were buried yesterday.  Meaning that your grandmother, maybe even your great grandmother, maybe even your great, great grandmother could be six feet below the ground in nearly pristine condition, like the day they were buried.  I find it facinating as both an embalmer and as someone who has studied cultural attitudes of death.
Per the New York Daily News, the daughter of the deceased said,

“I’m so overwhelmed.  I’m very stressed, depressed because I’ve never, ever been to a funeral before and seen anything like this.”

The family is considering a lawsuit, and I’m not diminishing the family’s feelings or experience.  After reading the article, it does seem like the cemetery could have handled things a little bit better.  Although they may not have been able to stop the foot from popping out on Mr. Butler’s casket, they could have been more sensitive in explaining to the family how it happened.

With that said, I do feel the culture of “keep death clean” has amplified such experiences.  For many cultures, seeing death and caring for their dead is a part of their lives.  There is a disconnect between the living and the dead here in America.  We’ve tried so hard to keep death clean that whenever we see the dirty of death, we’re surprised and traumatized.  In a sense we’re all to blame.  The funeral industry is to blame.  The cultural posture of death denial is to blame. The medical industry that keeps death clean and hidden is to blame.  And the fear that most of us have towards death, and dead bodies, are to blame.
I feel deeply for the Butler family as such an experience is definitely traumatic, but I also hope that the future of our relationship with death allows us all to see the dirty of death without being surprised or disgusted.  Death holds too much humanity and goodness for us to keep it separate from our everyday lives.

If you’re interested in seeing the dirty of death, and yet the beauty of it, I wrote a book about it:

An Explanation as to Why Those Caskets Are Floating in the Louisiana Flood

Via ABC News: Casket floating in Ascension Parish, Louisiana

Via ABC News: Casket floating in Ascension Parish, Louisiana

You’ve probably seen those utterly disturbing pictures of caskets floating downstream from the Louisiana Flood.

It’s horrible.  The stuff of nightmares.

You probably have some questions:

Why do they float?

Can those bodies be easily identified?

Shouldn’t the vaults keep them contained in the ground?

To the first question.

There are a couple of kinds of caskets.  There are wood and metal caskets.  Within the metals, there are sealing caskets (also known as gasketed or protective) and non-sealing caskets.  Sealing caskets have a rubber gasket that creates an airtight seal when the sliding lock bar is cranked shut with the casket key.  You may have seen funeral directors use said key after the lid is closed at a funeral.  We insert it into a small crank hole at the foot end of the casket and turn it until the lock bar is totally tight.

Sealing caskets are the only ones that will float.  Even though you would think a wood casket would float, because wood caskets don’t seal, they’re more likely to fill up with water and stay put in their vault.

Can those caskets and the bodies contained in them be identified?    

Most sealing caskets have what’s called a “memory tube.”  You can see where that tube is located in the picture below.

louisiana flood caskets - Google SearchIf the funeral home filled out the memory tube, the process of identification is a whole lot easier.  If the casket doesn’t have a memory tube, the process becomes much more complex.  Although I’m not certain, I can imagine that DNA testing would be the last resort.

Shouldn’t the vaults keep them contained in the ground?

Most cemeteries require vaults (a requirement that I disagree with, but that’s another blog post).  Vaults, like caskets, can either be the sealing type or the non-sealing type.  When the ground becomes over-saturated with water, the sealing vaults can pop out of the ground, causing the vault and the casket it contains to float away (see the picture below).

Photo by PAUL BOWERS

Photo by PAUL BOWERS

More often than not, it’s just the casket that floats away.  In the case of the Louisiana Flooding, the vaults are exposed above ground (I would only assume it’s because there’s a high water table in these parts of the country).  If the vault was buried underground as is the case in most cemeteries, it’s less likely that the caskets would pop out.  But, since they’re that much closer to the top, it’s that much easier for them to stroll down the river when the flood waters come a rolling.

If you don’t want to go boating and floating after you’re dead, there are a few things you can do to make sure your body never washes away:

  1. Cremation
  2. Green burial
  3. Don’t use a sealing casket
  4. Tie your vault to an anchor.

When you Only Find a Piece of Your Loved One

 

Just like the life cycle feeds off of death, so does the news cycle. Anything that has a degree of tragedy usually finds its way onto the national and/or international news. In principle, many of us realize that “if it makes the news, we don’t have to worry about it” (because the news is by definition exceptional), but unfortunately the news ends up normalizing tragic deaths, causing us to have unreasonable fears.

The reality is very much the opposite. Most deaths are not tragic. Most are decent, respectful, good and natural deaths. Most dying processes allow for family and friends to say “Good-bye”. And most die at a good age. It’s easy to forget that the life expentancy in the United States is nearly 79 years. While we can’t say for certain that those 79 years were all good years, we can say that the vast majority of deaths occur at a later stage of life, after much of living has already taken place.

The normal death is usually a good death.

But when tragedies like Kogalymavia Flight 9268 occur and the 224 passengers are killed, it’s hard for tragedies not to cloud our view.

There’s some definable characteristics that make a death tragic. Suddenness, intense pain in dying, a death that happens in one’s youth, an accidental death, etc. are all characteristics that can make a death particularly tragic. Another factor is dismemberment.

If the deceased’s body is never found, it’s a tragic death that too often inspires unresolved grief; a double wammy of losing a loved one and never being able to properly say good bye to the physical representation. A dismembered body is often a dismembered grief.

I’m often noticed how important it is for families just have the solace of knowing the body, or even a piece of the body of their loved one has been found.  It offers some degree of peace, some degree of knowledge that their loved one is indeed dead.  A missing body seems to produce an unresolved grief, where the question always seems to exist: “Did he/she survive?  Are they still out there?”  Accepting the death of a missing loved one is made that much harder when the there isn’t a physical dead body to provide that visual wake-up call.

When I see tragedies like Flight 9268 and the incredibly intricate process of determining remains (as small as they may be), I’m again reminded of the healthiness of viewing the body of the deceased.  Please understand, I’m not necessarily promoting embalming, but I am saying that the value of seeing the deceased at some point seems to provide a legitimate psychological aid in death acceptance.  Part of the reason that cremation can be unhealthy is that there’s times when we don’t get to see the deceased as dead.  The body is whisked away to the crematory never to be seen again.  There’s value in making that extra effort to see a loved one as dead.

When I consider the families of those lost in this most recent plane crash, I both recognize how tragic it is and I’m slightly thankful that I’ve been privileged to see the bodies of my loved one.

What does is say about us? On the Live Murder of Reporter Alison Parker and Photographer Adam Ward

 

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I admit it. I watched the video. Both videos. I watched the live feed that was broadcast on TV. And I watched the murderers’ video that he would later upload after he murdered Alison Parker and Adam Ward.

Both videos were horrific. Both were extremely sad.

After watching them, I found myself asking “why?”. “Why did I watch the videos of Alison and Adam’s murder?” It says something about me. It says something about us that the video would find its way onto nearly every major news feed and that millions of people were compelled to watch a tragic murder unfold.

But, I’m not entirely sure what it says about us.

We’re all intrigued by death, especially the tragic kind. We want to see what a real life shooting looks like. Does it REALLY look like the stuff we see in the movies, with Dexter-like blood spatter flying everywhere and the victims shouting in agony? Do the murderers engage in an angry soliloquy before taking the lives of their victims?

There’s a healthy tension between the sacred and spectacle of death.   Death is sacred because it’s a very personal chapter in a person’s (and family’s) narrative; but it’s a spectacle because many of us have the desire to funeralize in a public forum. Most deaths tend towards a sacred, private sphere, while some deaths – like the death of Michael Jackson, Whitney Huston, Heath Ledger, Kurt Cobain, Robin Williams, etc., etc., etc. – have such a sweeping public dimension that families and friends are left grasping for privacy amidst the spectacle.

This sacredness of death is the reason so many of us hate the Westboro picketers, who picket the funerals of fallen soldiers, and any other funeral that can grab them some limelight. We dislike what they’re doing because it transgresses one of the most sacred aspects of both our love and our humanity: the grief that comes from the loss of personal love.

Today, broadcast before the world, we witnessed the deaths of Alison Parker and Adam Ward. That is, after all, what the murderer wanted. He wanted his anger and his hatred to steal away the privacy of two individuals, robbing them of a sacred death and instead making their deaths entirely into a spectacle.

He did it.

I bought into it.

We bought into it.

We now know Alison Parker and Adam Ward as the people who were murdered on live TV.

What does it say about me? What does it say about us?

Perhaps it says that “death as spectacle” has become normalized. Perhaps it says that we’ve been robbed of the sacredness of death. Perhaps the death voyeurism that we’re constantly feed by the media, by video games and movies has caused us to move death out of the realm of the sacred and into spectacle. Perhaps we’re more used to death as spectacle than death as sacred.

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