November 12, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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You’re dead 

Do you know where your body’s going?

It's really no surprise. You knew it was coming all along. Perhaps it got here sooner than you expected, or maybe not soon enough. At least you're not alone. Roughly 6,500 people die every year in Monroe County. And now you're one of them. You're dead.

            However, between here and the eternity of your choice, your body has to go someplace. And whether it's to a research hospital, in the ground, up the chimney, or doled out to lucky folks who need new parts, your body is going to require the help of several people before reaching its final resting place. They will determine how you died and if you're, well, actually dead. They will carry you off, clean you up for display or research, dispose of your leftovers, and memorialize your time on earth. And they're all gonna die. Just like you.

            Between now and their own exit, folks who work close to death deal with it on a much grander scale, everyday. It's their humor, candor, compassion, and rationality that helps them handle the details of your recent demise, and cope with the inevitability of their own.

            Though fear of death and all its uncertainty has plagued mankind forever, this is something you no longer need concern yourself with. You're dead, after all. But let's make sure.

"You look for post-mortem changes," says Bob Zerby, chief investigator for the Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office. "You look for lack of pulse. You look for lack of respiration. You look in the pupils to see if there's any reaction. Any post-mortem changes like rigor mortis or decomposition; if that's there, it pretty much confirms it."

            And then there are those sketchy circumstances.

            "If in the course of the investigation of the scene circumstances don't necessarily appear to be what they seem, or appear to be suspicious in nature, typically we'll call for an autopsy," Zerby says.

            So determining whether or not you're dead is fairly straightforward when post-mortem criteria are met or the situation is obvious, like, say, decapitation.

            "If they were all that easy, that'd be nice," Zerby says.

            Whatever happens next is really of no consequence to you. Planning your funeral or fulfilling your final wishes is up to your loved ones. Perhaps, in order to alleviate this anticipated hassle, you thought ahead and pre-planned your final arrangements, a trend on the upswing according to Jose Luciano of Metropolitan Funeral Home.

            "I see it happening in the over-50s," he says. "They've attended arrangements for family members and they've learned what the whole procedure is and how difficult it is for family members when they don't know things."

            "There are a lot of things associated in funeral planning," says Tom Kelly, a cemetery sales counselor at Riverside Cemetery. "If you pre-plan, most of that stuff is addressed in advance. Then you know if someone wants to be cremated. You know if they want to be near a family plot in the ground, or if they want a mausoleum crypt, or if they want to be buried with their wedding ring, or a ceremonial robe, or something that has a religious connection."

            Cemetery plots are, in essence, tiny bits of real estate. Their value appreciates with inflation just like big lots. "People who pre-pay lock in at today's prices," Kelly says.

            Besides eliminating the guesswork, pre-planning can serve as a place for seniors to stash cash.

            "People on Medicaid, they're living off government funds and they're still trying to save," Luciano says. "And they get to a point where they have too much money. So instead of the government cutting off their checks, they are allowed to put money in a burial trust account."

Whether your arrangements were pre-planned or not, someone wants a piece of you. And unless you fell into a wood chipper, chances are some of your parts are salvageable and of use to someone still living.

            Your kidneys, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, intestines, eyes, and various tissues can all be passed on to someone if you leave a simple signature on a pledge card or the back of your New York State driver's license.

            Removal of your eyes must be done within 12 hours of your death. Other tissues can be retrieved up to 24 hours after.

            Annually in this area, roughly 500 people donate their eyes and 100 people donate other necessary tissues, according to Linda Fraser of the non-profit Rochester Eye & Tissue Bank.

            "For our recipients, it's a wonderful thing," she says. "And I would say, in fact, that most of our donor families feel like they're extending the life of that [deceased] person, particularly if it's a young person."

            So, hopefully, if you wanted to share, you put it in writing.

            "Law says that the family cannot contest once the person has a duly signed card," Fraser says. Death can obviously be an uncomfortable topic to consider ahead of time. "That may be why a lot of people haven't dealt with it," says Fraser, who has signed a pledge card.

            If you didn't make your wishes known ahead of time, the Eye & Tissue Bank will approach your family.

            "If they're not sure what the person wanted, then we ask them what they think that person would have wanted," Fraser says.

Maybe science would be better served by the donation of your whole enchilada, as a cadaver for medical training. You'll need to get there within 24 hours for embalming.

            Roughly 120 bodies a year roll through the door at The University of Rochester Medical Center's Anatomical Gift Program, according to Director Dr. Diane Piekut.

            "They're used for anatomy classes for medical students, anatomy classes for physical therapy students, and in third- and fourth-year and resident programs to review anatomy," she says. "The program is really critical for the training of doctors and residents."

            And the gift program wants all of you.

            "Standard stuff like appendix and tonsils [removal] is fine," Piekut says. "If somebody had a major operation, or if they wanted to donate organs, because there is such extensive surgery after death for those, then they probably wouldn't be eligible for our program."

            Eye donation is acceptable. Things like missing limbs are a judgment call. "Generally we want the whole cadaver," says Piekut.

            Whereas your survivors can approve organ donation, body donation is strictly your call.

            "We only accept donors who consciously decide to donate their bodies," says Piekut. "We truly want it to be someone who has consciously wanted to do this."

            The University will study your body for approximately two years before it's cremated. The remains are returned to your family or buried on a site in South Bristol.

            Your choice between organ and whole-body donation can be based on any number of factors. But age tends to play a role.

            "Most of our [whole-body] donors are elderly people," says Piekut. "Many of their organs may not be useable for other things."

            Every day across the US, 16 people die waiting for organ transplants. The training of future doctors is crucial as well, and often more appropriate for these older donors.

Whatever your initial destination on this final trip, the transfer of your earthly remains is generally handled by a licensed funeral director. One phone call will get you in that black moriah and on your way.

            "When the death happens, whether it's at home, in a hospital, or in a nursing home, you need to contact a funeral director," says Rick Harris of Harris Funeral Home. "That's the best way of handling it, because the funeral director will take care of everything."

            Harris has been a funeral director for over 30 years. And it was when he recently lost his father that he truly realized the importance of his job.

            "You know, we do this everyday," Harris says. "And when my father died, I was numb and I couldn't really think or function. And I said 'I need a funeral director.' I tried to do it myself. I tried to get the paperwork together, things like that. And forget it, I couldn't do it."

            This is Harris's calling. "It's not for everybody," he says. Harris's father started the business in 1946 after first owning a grocery store and a tavern.

            "We always lived above the funeral home growing up," he says. "It's just like people growing up above grocery stores. It's no big deal to them. It's just a way of life."

            Once you're in the care of a funeral home, the next step is usually embalming --- simply "removing the blood and replacing it with a formaldehyde-based embalming fluid," Harris explains. Embalming disinfects and preserves you. In the case of Jewish funerals, where tradition prohibits embalming, direct burials, or cremation, embalming is not necessary.

            But if people are going to gather around you and tearfully reflect, your body is going to need to be embalmed. And though you're incapable of biting or sneezing, you can still pose a threat to a funeral director.

            "We're exposed to a lot of things," Harris says. "Ever since AIDS came about, we have had to make universal precautions to treat every body as if it had AIDS. I've been exposed to TB. They said if I get tested, I'll show positive all the time now."

            Viewing may also require a little freshening up.

            Beverly Gaines, who also does hair for the living, has been doing hair and make-up for the deceased since 1977, when she was first asked to do a friend's late mother.

            "I press the hair, curl it, cut it, and add weave to it if need be, then make-up," she says. Gaines may ask your family for a recent photo. If one isn't around, she just "goes with what I think would look nice on them. It makes me feel good knowing that, especially a person who was sick for a long time, now looks really nice to the family."

So you're cleaned up, dressed up, made up, and laid out. Thus begins the mourning.

            Traditions in grieving vary depending on your ethnic origin, religious preference, or odd predilections. In general, Harris has noticed that funerals aren't quite as bleak as they once were.

            "They're more casual these days," he says. "Years ago you used to have to dress in black. And God forbid anybody ever laughed in a funeral home. Now I think they're more of a celebration of life."

            And this is about the extent to which funeral directors have to deal with you. But they still have to handle your family's grief and assorted needs.

            "When a family calls us, we get kind of protective of that family," Harris says. "If they need graves, we help them find graves. We'll help them with the newspaper. We'll help them with the church. We walk them through every step of the way." And despite the help, nobody really wants to be there.

            "Nobody's happy to see you," he says. "And you can't blame 'em. You can't blame 'em for not wanting to be here and not wanting to deal with me." Constantly dealing with people in grief can wear anyone down. And the grief is something that stays with certain undertakers.

            "It's always with me," Luciano says. "It's something you just can't turn off like a light switch."

            "I think you take it home virtually every day," says Parsky Funeral Home Director Doug Ruhl. "If it didn't bother you, if it wasn't on your mind, you shouldn't be in the business."

            And let's face it, all the pomp and ceremony surrounding your big adios is for the survivors, not you.

            The same goes for cemeteries.

            "I think a lot of their purpose is for the living," says Kathe Finucane of Holy Sepulchre. "I believe in the teachings of sacred ground and I think it's important to be buried in a holy place. But I also believe the family needs to continue their relationship with their loved one beyond the grave."

So you've opted for burial. There are several cemeteries in the Rochester area to choose from. And your choice will likely depend on availability, cost, and accessibility.

            You could join the roughly 250,000 folks in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, but the plot has to be purchased by a Catholic. You could nestle in with 375,000 in Mt. Hope Cemetery. Or if you want a little more elbowroom, you might try Riverside Cemetery with only about 75,000 occupied plots.

            Your plot, if not already purchased, will be sold by cemetery sales counselors like Kelly, who has sold graves for three years.

            "When I first started, I cried probably once a week," he says. Kelly empathizes especially with the first timers.

            "The people who have the hardest time with it seem to be the younger folks who have not been touched by death before," he says. "They know how to plan the wedding day, but they don't have any idea how to plan the funeral."

            You will be buried six feet deep in a 3-by-10-foot plot. Yes, this move is forever.

            "A cemetery is perpetual," says Nancy Hilliard, director of cemeteries for the city of Rochester. "Once it's a cemetery, law says you can't change that. It will always be a cemetery. In the eyes of the law, a burial of human remains is a permanent, dignified, respectful execution."

Having a hard time saying goodbye to the material world? You can take it with you. And funeral directors like Luciano are happy to oblige.

            "We never refuse anything," he says. "I mean, it's their last wishes; as long as it's not going to hurt anyone, as long as it's within legal means. I've buried people with a cigarette in their hand. Cigars, blunts, weed, if that's what makes them happy. At least it's safe and is going to be buried. What are they gonna do? Dig up the body and prosecute them?"

            Your casket will be placed in a concrete vault to maintain ground integrity and keep you and all your goodies safe forever.

            From start to finish, the average funeral runs approximately $5,000 to $7,000. Hey, it's your funeral.

            But if you don't feel like taking up so much space or spending that much cash on cemetery services, you can opt for cremation at one of the several crematoriums in the city.

            "It pretty much looks like a big oven," Harris says. "The body is placed in a container. It takes about three hours for the body to be burned and reduced to bones. Those remains are put into a machine that actually pulverizes the bones into ashes."

            So now you're more compact, lighter, and capable of spending eternity anywhere. Well, not quite anywhere.

            "Legally, ashes are not supposed to be spread in public areas," Harris says. Some folks, like an old lady who Finucane dealt with, want to spend forever in a favorite spot.

            "'Honey,' she said, 'I'm going to be cremated and scattered on the golf course. I'm gonna golf through eternity,'" Finucane says.

            And, of course, you're going to want to be remembered.

            Joe Tedone has run Marrion Monuments for 25 years and does about 300 gravestones annually. From flat stones to family monuments, Tedone will put in stone (granite, to be precise) anything you or you family wants associated with your life. You won't be limited to the standard religious idolatry, either.

            We've done motorcycles, playing cards, bingo cards, houses," he says. "All kinds of things that were related to that person's life that they feel is special and of note."

So the people who have dealt with your remains do so staring directly at the finality of it all. They didn't deal with your dying process or concern themselves with your comfort. Nor are they necessarily concerned with your spiritual change of address.

            Being in the same boat, these people handle the promise of their own demise with peaceful resignation and acquiescence. Some, like Harris, take frequent vacations. Luciano, who has a bar built out of a coffin in his rec room, has a subtle sense of humor. The day he dies, he says, he'll still show up at work. Others, like Kelly, occasionally find themselves in tears. In facing death everyday, Ruhl acknowledges the weight and finality surrounding his profession and his own mortality. "I'm not afraid of it. I'm not looking forward to it. It's a long nap."

            So that's it: You're dead. See you when we get there.

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