June 22, 2010

Last Meals

On death row, the last menu is up to you. In all other cases, it's up to fate.
Let's look at some famous (and not-so-famous) final repasts.

Death Row
Ted Bundy declined to make a request for food before his execution, so he was offered a traditional breakfast. Illinois prison officials asked a local restaurant to prepare the last meal for John Wayne Gacy, and Gary Gilmore was served meat & potatoes with milk and coffee.

On the fictional end of death row, inmate John Coffey requests this comfort food in this book by Stephen King. (Watch clips from the movie.) And in one episode of "The Simpsons," Homer opts for beer, doughnuts and fried chicken.

The Last Supper
Jesus took his last meal with his disciples, as famously depicted. (It's possible that over time that meal has been supersized.) Lord Buddha's last meal was sukaramaddava, though just exactly what it consisted of is somewhat open to speculation.

RMS Titanic
While the doomed Titanic's first-class passengers had a book written about their extravagant final dinner, the second-class passengers' meal wasn't too shabby either. (What about third class?)

World LeadersMahatma Gandhi ate a modest last meal before he was shot and killed on the way to a prayer meeting in 1948. President John F. Kennedy had breakfast at his hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, before flying on to Dallas just hours before his assassination in 1963. Former French President Fran├žois Mitterrand indulged in a now-legendary last meal in 1996.

Poisonous Animals
According to legend, Cleopatra enjoyed some figs that concealed death for dessert. One famous Japanese kabuki actor (what's kabuki?) died after eating this poisonous fish

Famous Writers
Ernest Hemingway
reportedly ate one of his favorite dinners the night before he committed suicide. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas apparently succumbed after a surplus of liquids.

CelebritiesEveryone knows where Elvis Presley was when he died, but you may not know these sweets were the last thing he ate. Flamboyant entertainer Liberace's last dish was a little more mundane than you might expect. (How did he die?) Comedian John Belushi ate a nourishing light supper at this famous Hollywood restaurant the night he died. Glamour icon Marilyn Monroe reportedly ate a not-so-glamorous meal before she died.

Famous Chefs

Several notable chefs shared their ideal farewell noshes in this book. Anthony Bourdain would forgo the ant eggs for this. Not surprisingly, Mario Batali would postpone the inevitable with 8-10 courses. Lidia Bastianich would keep it simple, and Gordon Ramsay would opt for classic British fare.

March 13, 2010

The Business of Death

Now, when someone dies, we depend on the local mortuary to care for and, for a lack of a better term, dispose of the body. It's very clinical, clean, and shut away from the public. Morticians, and funeral directors, are the people who we depend on to care for our dead. These people are willing to do what the general population is not. Most people can not imagine being this close to death and see it as "gross", and"creepy". To most, death is something off in the distance, something better not thought about, something macabre.

At the turn of the last century, death was looked at in a very different way. The Victorians saw death as natural, and inevitable. They embraced death when it came to call, and saw mourning in public and death rituals as a very acceptable thing to do. To them, death its self wasn't something to fear, but not properly mourning their loved ones was more of a taboo.

Prior to the 20th century, the family often cared for the deceased. The body was washed, and dressed, and put on ice, to stop decomposition. A coffin was often made by the local wood worker or cabinet maker. The body was then laid out in the family parlor for a short time. The local livery would move the dead to the grave yard. Mourning wasn't something done in private, and caring for the dead wasn't looked upon as something taboo.

Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War believe it or not, helped to start the modern way of caring for the dead. Embalming and preserving the body in modern times, came about when soldiers were dying on the battle field, far from home, and not only needed to be transported to their families for burial, but to stop the decomposition process. Dr. Thomas Holmes, a captain in the Army Medical Corp is accredited with embalming over 4,000 soldiers.
Embalming didn't catch on, however, until Lincoln's assassination and the technique was done to his body. Lincoln was put on a train and was taken home to Springfield for burial. There were numerous viewings of his body on the way and millions looked upon his well preserved corpse. The mass public began to accept the idea of embalming their loved ones.

The tradition of having the family care for the body turned into a commercial enterprise, over time, that was done by someone who specialized in embalming and funeral arrangements. With embalming their loved ones the families now had the time to plan funerals,  and memorials for their loved ones, with out the immediate worry of decomposition. Families started to look outside the home to have their dead cared for. At the turn of the century, eventually funeral service were handle by one person or one business, the mortician and mortuary was born.

Morticians, now have to be licensed in the art of embalming. There are now colleges that specialize in mortuary science. These colleges teach wannabe morticians, not only how to embalm a body effectively and safely, but also business management, restorative arts, and how to work with distrait and grieving family members. Mortuary Science degrees are often obtained in 2 to 4 years, including a year of apprenticeship.

Caring for the dead is now very much a business ranging from small town funeral homes to large corporations such as Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary in California. Coffins have turned into caskets, which are made, for the most part, by large companies, such as Batesville Casket Company. We no longer depend on the local livery to transport our dead, they are driven in beautiful funeral coaches like the ones manufactured by Eagle Coach Company. The dead aren't just buried in the local crowded church yard anymore, but spacious green cemeteries, or memorial parks, can be found all over the world. They are designed to resemble spacious parks complete with water fountains, and sculptures.
The business of death is necessity in today's society but there are alternatives ways to care for and bury our dead that are starting to become more popular. Green and home funerals, are starting to become in favor versus a traditional funeral.

Green funerals are designed to lessen the impact on the earth's resources than a traditional burial and funeral. The body is often not embalmed, wrapped in shroud and either buried directly in the earth, or put into a biodegradable basket, or green coffin. There are green cemeteries that one can be buried in. These cemetery don't look like cemeteries at all, rather they look like open fields. The traditional headstones are gone, often no markers used. To located a person, the cemetery relies on a global positioning system.

Funerals are starting to be hosted at home again. Home funerals put the family in control, much like it use to be at the turn of the last century. The family often prepares the body and hosts the funeral at their home. Not only is this a less expensive option, but also the family has more time to say goodbye.

You can check out these websites to find out more about funerals, embalming, cemeteries, hearses, and green funerals.

Grave Addiction
Photos of cemeteries

Information and photos of burial places of celebrities.

Information on planning funerals

Coffin It Up
Handmade custom coffins

Mr. Ed's Hearse Pictures

Awesome, awesome, (Did I say Awesome yet?) pictures of retro hearses.

National Museum of Funeral History

Green Burial Council

Graveyards of Chicago
One of my favorite sites! Awesome photos of historical Chicago cemeteries.

National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, Inc.
Membership association of professional funeral directors and morticians and embalmers.

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