Saw you said that you spent your childhood in New Milford. I spent mine in Sherman! Fun fact about Sherman: Arshile Gorky (famous painter) had a house in Sherman and hung himself in his home. He's buried in the North Cemetery. But as for my question: do you know anything about decapitated heads retaining sight after separation from the body?
Wow! I did not know that Gorky a) lived in Sherman; b) committed suicide; and c) committed suicide in Sherman. I love spooky Connecticut history.
I do, however, know a little bit about the question of whether consciousness persists after decapitation, and I hope to do a proper post on it someday. From what I’ve heard and read (casually), there is some evidence that the head may be conscious for at least a few seconds after decapitation.
Something strange happened to funeral monuments in the 15th century. Across France, Italy and England the long standing practice of carving recumbant effigies in poses of gentle rest was replaced by depictions of rotting corpses.
Michael Kammen Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials University of Chicago Press, 2010. 272 pp.
David Shields and Bradford Morrow, eds. The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death Norton, 2011. 336 pp.
At the scene of his mother’s funeral, Elvis Presley — invincible sex symbol, cocksure performer, the man who changed the world and music forever — was reduced to a pathetic, blubbering mama’s boy. “Mama, I’d give up every dime I own and go back to digging ditches, just to have you back,” he told her body while it lay in repose the night before the funeral. At the service, according to biographer Peter Guralnick,
Elvis himself maintained his composure a little better until, towards the end, he burst into uncontrollable tears and, with the service completed, leaned over the casket, crying out, “Good-bye darling, good-bye. I love you so much. You know how much I lived my whole life just for you.” Four friends half-dragged him into the limousine. “Oh God,” he declared, “everything I have is gone.”
Compare this to another scene, a century earlier: Ralph Waldo Emerson, also a celebrity in his own day, describing the transference of the remains of his mother and son Waldo to Concord’s Sleepy Hollow cemetery:
The sun shone brightly on the coffins, of which Waldo’s was well-preserved — now fifteen years. I ventured to look into the coffin. I gave a few white-oak leaves to each coffin, after they were put into the new vault, and the vault was then covered with two slabs of granite.
It’s hard to say how much emotion lies behind that statement, “I ventured to look into the coffin,” but it’s clear how vastly different this response to a death of a loved one is. Emerson’s mode of grief is more restrained and reflective, and yet the gesture of opening the coffins of loved ones to gaze at their remains seems macabre, a transgression of the sanctity of the dead, alien to our own time.
There are, in other words, two aspects to the phenomenon of death. On the one hand, there is death itself — immutable, the single certainty all of us face, unchanging as it has always been. On the other hand, though, is how we living face the death of others, which is constantly changing, composed of ritual, emotion, and something that each culture and each generation must define — and redefine — for itself.
This blog belies my real relationship with its subject matter. Despite all you’ve seen here, I don’t like death.
It’s probably time for me come out about a few things:
I’ve never seen a dead body. (That’s not counting bog bodies and mummies in museums.)
I have been fascinated with death — particularly its physical aspect — since childhood. Before I settled on my various courses of study in college and grad school, I considered becoming an undertaker, a forensic anthropologist, or a pathologist. I never did, of course. In high school, I took a course on sports medicine and during a slide show of injuries, I blacked out at the sight of a severed hand sitting on a table. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hang with that kind of career, and I’ve been only a spectator ever since.
I am deeply, terribly afraid of dying. This has been an issue for me since childhood, when I used to repeat the sentence “I am going to die” to myself in my head, over and over, in hopes that that would make the truth more understandable. But it never did. It still hasn’t, and I’m 33. I white-knuckle turbulence on planes. Meanwhile, my boyfriend is serene. He knows death is inevitable and doesn’t understand my fear. I know death is inevitable, too. But I don’t feel it, and I’m not ready to accept it yet.
When my father died in 2004, I was halfway across the country from him and wasn’t with him in his last few days. He and my mother didn’t want me to see what was happening to him. I have never asked my mother to tell me what watching him die was like. In my dreams, he keeps showing up, alive, like a logical puzzle I can’t ever solve. I still don’t fully comprehend the fact that he’s dead, even seven years later. I didn’t see it. I wonder if that’s why.
The tomb, poignant and grisly, sheds light on the lives of the soldiers who died in explosions from heavy shells that penetrated the tunnel.
"It’s a bit like Pompeii," Michaël Landolt, the French archaeologist leading the dig, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Everything collapsed in seconds and is just the way it was at the time. This is an extraordinary find."
Archaeologists in France recently discovered the remains of 21 German soldiers from World War I in an underground shelter that hasn’t been touched since the day it was destroyed by French shells 93 years ago. Pocket books and prayer beads tell stories of life in the trenches — but Germany…
No, the curator has not gone completely mad. But when you are working on a stone monument at the cemetery, you feel compelled to talk to Maria and her family. You see, I am cleaning their grave markers. Back in 2005, with funding from the Community Preservation Act, I worked with a stone conservator to clean the stone monuments of the Mitchell family correctly. Unfortunately, people think that bleach is a good idea. It’s not. It eats away at the stone causing irreversible harm. (And by the way, taking rubbings of gravestones is illegal.)
As a way to share the knowledge of properly cleaning a historic stone monument, we opened the process as a workshop – which was underwritten by the Community Preservation Act – during Preservation Month. We had a wonderful turnout, including descendants of the Mitchell family and a professor of microbiology who, while upset we were removing excellent samples of lichens from the stones, regaled us with all the names of the lichens we were removing and all sorts of interesting facts about them.
You see, while a microbiologist might think they are fantastic and that Nantucket’s cemeteries have some of the best lichen growths, a conservator sees lichen as the bane of the stones existence! Growths lock in moisture and help to more quickly erode the facades of the stones.
So, with the beautiful fall weather, I have been back at work cleaning the stones with a special environmentally and conservation friendly cleaner made just for such a job. If you are interested in learning more, or possibly participating in a workshop this spring to learn how to do this, please contact me.
And remember, it’s okay to speak to them – I think they like the visit.
Once laid to rest, the remains of many who died in medieval Europe were not left in peace. As much as 40 percent of graves from the mid-fifth to mid-eighth centuries appear to have been disturbed after burial.
Grave robbers, searching for wealth buried along with the dead, have frequently born…
This article is fascinating. Click through to read the whole thing.
The boundary between life and death has become blurred by new medical treatments, writes Roger Highfield.
Recently, I found myself discussing what makes for a great literary death with my fellow judges of the 2011 Wellcome Trust book prize for medicine in literature, ahead of a debate we’re having at Waterstone’s next month. The contenders ranged from the last moments of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom in John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest to the mawkish demise of Little Nell at the conclusion of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, which reduced the Victorians to sobs and Oscar Wilde to tears of laughter.
As we tried to separate the ludicrous from the lachrymose, I used an example from non-fiction to show how the reality of death can be more intriguing than anything in a novel. You won’t find an everyday deathbed scene in The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger’s account of the disappearance of a swordfish boat off Nova Scotia in 1991. We will never know exactly how the men died – so to recreate their plight, Junger turned to people who had been through similar experiences and survived.
At the end of the chapter in which the fate of the six men on board is sealed, the details of death by drowning are so specific, and so dispassionately drawn, that they feel chillingly true, from the collapse of alveoli in the lungs to the erratic beat of an oxygen-starved heart and the winding down of the metabolism. Junger writes: “The body could be likened to a crew that resorts to increasingly desperate measures to keep their vessel afloat. Eventually, the last wire has shorted out, the last bit of decking has settled under the water.”
Dig a little deeper, and you will find that, just as a watertight definition of life remains elusive, the moment that it ends is equally hard to pin down. One upon a time, you would be pronounced dead if your heart appeared to stop beating. This accounts for many famous examples of people coming “back from the dead”, waking up in coffins and crying out in morgues.
Vivisepulture – being buried alive – is one of the most widespread and ancient of human fears, which is perhaps why an increasing number of people ask to be buried with their mobile phones, just in case. In July, a 50-year-old South African man woke up inside a mortuary one weekend and screamed to be let out – scaring away the attendants, who thought he was a ghost. His family had presumed he was dead when they could not wake him, and rather than ask a doctor, had packed him off to the morgue. Concerned by such cases, a local council in Turkey has built a morgue with a warning system, and refrigerator doors that can be opened from the inside.
Yet death, more broadly, is not what it used to be. In a recent New Scientist, we report on the case of a 55-year-old man, pronounced brain-dead after a cardiac arrest, who was minutes away from becoming an organ donor when he began to cough and show signs of life.
In his case, the boundary between life and death was blurred by cold. Increasingly, doctors treat heart attacks by inducing therapeutic hypothermia, cooling the body to about 33C to minimise the damage to tissues and brain cells caused by oxygen deprivation, and boost the patient’s chances of survival. Yet such cooling also interferes with the brainstem reflexes used to assess brain death – whether the pupils respond to light – and the level in the blood of an enzyme, neuron-specific enolase, that seeps from dying nerve cells.
Adrian Owen, of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, has used brain scanners to investigate the twilight states of consciousness that lie between life and death. He says there has been much discussion about whether doctors need new rules to weigh up the chances of recovery from comas, after hypothermia has been used.
Ethical, moral and religious concerns are also gnawing away at the discussion of how and by whom death should be determined, and contributing to unease about what a patient experiences in a coma or vegetative state. “It is only five years since we discovered that you could use brain scanners to show that some people who appear to be vegetative are not vegetative at all,” says Owen. “Who knows – 10 years from now, we may be using similar technology to decide who’s dead and who isn’t. There may be some surprises…”
Roger Highfield is the Editor of New Scientist.