Sunday, May 2, 2010

Motorcycles and Mamas: Together Forever, Part 2

This week, the web was abuzz with photos of a man embalmed on his motorcycle in Puerto Rico. Debate about the tastefulness, respect and even the legality of this type of embalming have been a subject of conversation among funeral service providers all over the world. Is it ethical to display a dead man frozen into a posture of riding a motorcycle? If so, what would be the limit to this type of display? Even if a family asks, and demonstrates that it was the wish of the deceased, should a funeral home agree to embalm a person holding a cigarette? a TV remote? a gun? an obscene gesture?
At a certain point, you're sure to upset some of the public and face serious questions about respect for the dead. It may be well and good for the family, if they believe it was truly appropriate, but a funeral home has a role to play in setting the appropriate level of respect paid to the deceased.

ritual death

In November, 2008, I posted a story about a similar situation. A family having lost a mother and a sister asked that they be buried together in the same casket. The mother had cared for her profoundly disabled daughter through adulthood when both died within a day or two of one another. The first funeral home they asked refused to do it. They assumed it was illegal, and thought it was inappropriate.
The family, however, knew what they wanted, and went to another funeral home. After researching, the directors found that it was indeed legal. Not only that, it was the right thing to do for the family. It was a great comfort to them to know that mother and daughter were together as they had been in life.

In September of 2009, a friend of mine, Skip Johnson passed away after a long battle with cancer. Skip's daughter gave me two photos to accompany the obituary, and asked me to pick one to use. Both were nice, but I knew right away that Skip would want me to use the one showing him sticking his tongue out. I knew that his many friends would also appreciate seeing Skip stick his tongue out at death on the obit page. One of the local papers refused to run the picture. They said it was sacrilegious and disrespectful. Another ran it without question. I knew I might take some heat for this- and I got a little, but I knew it was the right thing to do. In fact, in looking back at all the ways, small and large, that I have found to make services meaningful, I would put my choice of photo up there among the most important.

ritual death
Last week, the directors I work with and I were faced with a heart breaking situation. A young mother and her baby son had died tragically. Like the first family, they wanted them to be together. It took a group of us to do the embalming work. Not because we needed that many hands all the time, but to support one another emotionally in this very difficult situation. No one should have to be alone to do this kind of emotionally taxing work. With a group of us working together, it was possible to keep every one's spirits up to concentrate on the work instead of falling into a cycle of sad and disturbing thoughts. I was able to keep my composure throughout the work, but at the end, when we placed the baby into his mother's arms, adjusted into a natural and loving embrace, I finally lost it.
The sadness and tragedy were palpable, but what became emotionally overwhelming, was the beauty and peace we saw with mother and child together. This image didn't fix anything. It didn't change the circumstances. Some might say that it was stagecraft, a falsehood, a gruesome manipulation of two dead bodies. But for the family, and for those of us who were involved, it was beautiful, and appropriate, and the right thing to do.

ritual death
So, what should we do or think about a man embalmed into a position riding his motorcycle? Is it tacky? Is it a publicity stunt? Is it a legal liability?
Should funeral directors refuse to perform manipulations like this? Well, I'm not a lawyer, I'm an Undertaker. I say follow your heart. If it's the right thing to do, you'll know it.


Tammi Thiele said...

I love this post! I think that when a person passes from this realm they should be allowed to go as they lived. What is politically correct should not even be an issue! The wishes of the lovd ones shou;d be what matters most.

Charles Cowling said...

These are beautiful, heart-wrenching stories!

What of more outrageous requests? I suppose there will always be a tension for undertakers between giving families the funeral they want and giving them the one they need. Humane and intelligent undertakers will listen to their clients and kindly but dispassionately hold up a mirror to their requests, showing them what their likely impact will be. This has to be an essential part of the service, yes? The alternatives, either going along with any request regardless of consequences and accepting no responsibility, or refusing any request which offends the values of the undertaker, will result in a poor service for families - as you demonstrate.

I guess the family of our dead but expertly embalmed motorcyclist will have been well pleased with the result, as will his friends. And I think that any undertaker should forgiven for saying to such a family, "I respect your right to ask for this, but I'm not the person to do it. Here's someone who will..."

It's values that inform the work of the best undertakers. The downside is that the intelligent ones may become paternalistic, the less intelligent self important. But to accede to anything at all, especially procedures designed to shock, smacks of amorality or worse. Everything should always be checked against values. In my opinion!

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.