I was up and gazing at caskets and sipping my first cup of coffee. Maybe my second. We were leaning towards incinerating Dad. I have had a preferences for the kiln ever since I read a long time ago, or at least I think I read it, about some cemetery becoming unearthed during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1993 and when the people, the living that is, began to recover the coffins, occupied or not, they noticed that something atrocious like 25% of those interred were actually alive when the dirt was tossed on the wooden lid of the box and that this was evident because scratch marks from desperate finger nails were found on the inside. Is this one of our most primal fears, as writer Jan Bondeson put it in his book on the subject? Quite possibly, and doubly so because it has actually happened…and not so rarely. Confirmation of this occurrence can be found in places like Snopes, a website not partial to falling for legend. While 25% might exceed the number I recalled, there have been reports of 2% of the deceased and encased in a casket actually suffering from a state of suspended animation rather than crossing the River Styx.
Stories, and apparently true ones, of screams from within or sudden stirring to life can be found in chronicles throughout the centuries. And while the now common custom of embalming is seen as a determiner in ensuring no one quite makes it back the world of the living, it’s not required by law and, in some cases, triggers other previously unforeseen scenarios. I say this knowing full well that there is probably nothing less predictable than coming to and discovering all of your acquaintances and family, as well as some pretty negligent members of the medical sector, have deemed you, beyond any reasonable doubt, expired and have stuck you six feet underground to spend your final moments suffocating and feeling rather disappointed with your choice of friendships over the years.
Did you know, by the way, that there are still coffins sets which include systems for the deceased to alert the living, lest the former should suddenly resuscitate? Some corpses are even supplied with cell phones. One can only hope that they device hasn’t been pin locked. Can you just imagine preparing a roast chicken for dinner and being interrupted by the phone ring whose tone has been set to the tune of Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” and bark, “Honey, call the undertaker. Your Dad is asking to be brought up to the surface.”
And that’s if we even get to stage; there have been cases where the postmortem revision turned out to be place of discovery, like the time they opened a corpse’s chest and realized the heart was still beating. Unfortunately, the rather large incision put a stop to that. Or, my favorite, the born-again patient whose sudden and, so they say, violent reaction to being poked at by the pathologist, caused the man to fully return to his former state and the doctor to keel over and die. Now that’s what I call a twist of fate.
Being declared dead can occur for a number of reasons. One may be that you are simply no longer reachable. Missing, as they say. Legally it’s known as in “in absentia”, and it applies to people whose whereabouts can no longer be accounted for, and due to the circumstances, can be assumed dead. This was the case with people like Henry Hudson who, along with his teenage son and several sick crew members, was callously booted off the mutineed ship he captained in the bay that would eventually bear his name and they were left to fend for themselves in the wilderness of northern Canada. Chances of survival were remote and the fact they were never heard from again pretty much confirmed that prediction. In any event, that occurred in 1611 and we can safely assume they won’t be appearing at any local convenience store trying to cash in a lottery ticket.
Actually, there can be nothing more inconvenient than disappearing when issues concerning money come into play. Of the many tragedies surrounding the Titanic, or just Titanic (that annoying tendency to remove the definite article just to sound more like an expert makes me want to puke), one had to do with a young but very, very wealthy Spanish couple -the were wrapping up 18 months of honeymoon traveling- who had essentially snuck on the ship without their families realizing it. The husband had ordered his butler in Paris to send home a postcard every day just so his mother thought they were in the city of lights. Anyway, the ship as we all know sank in record time. The young wife and her handmaid were put on a lifeboat and survived but the man presumably drowned. I say presumably because no one really knew for sure, and while the authorities were quick to declare the missing as deceased, in Spain not only did they require physical proof, when none can be produced, a person had to wait an astounding 20 years! That’s a long time to keep people on the edge. Especially when someone’s mindboggling inheritence is at stake. So, if a body was what they wanted, a body is what they got. The woman’s family sent an envoy to Canada where the cementary is, located an individual of similar features, said, “That’s him.” and returned with the cadaver which they used, I assume, to cash the windfall.
Even if the body is available, the whole process can become muddled. Even in our day. Just how is it possible to look and feel dead but not actually be it? Why are their cases of people kicking from inside a body bag sending morgue personnel scattering? One good reason migh be body temperature. Cold temperature reduces the effect a stopped heart can have on cells, which means, people may appear to be dead, but organ failure, especially in the brain, has not taken effect. To think that if my father had suffered his stroke in Antartica, he might well have had time to allow the doctors to remedy the problem. Sultry Connecticut in August didn’t help matters. Another reason might a nervous disorder called catalepsy, which provokes the body to stiffen up, the heart to decrease and the nerves to exhibit a reduced sensitivity to pain. So traditional methods to test if a person is alive, like sticking a needle underneath a fingernail, just might not be enough.
Dad needed to be cremated, that was that. Like an ancient Roman emperor. Like a wise Native American medicine man. Like a venerable judge for humanity. Dust to dust.