Tag Archives: dying

The Aftermarket for (Human) Spare Parts

Male and female mannequins In storage
Mannequins in Storage via Wikimedia

For many, it seems like an easy choice: You check the donor box on your driver’s license and feel a vague sense of philanthropy. “If anything happens to me, at least what’s left will be used in a meaningful way.”

Two Reuters reporters traced what happens with those “donated to science” bodies. It’s gruesome and predatory and largely unregulated.  Stop here if you’re squeamish.

Outside Southern Nevada’s suburban warehouse, the circumstances were far from comforting. In the fall of 2015, neighboring tenants began complaining about a mysterious stench and bloody boxes in a Dumpster. That December, local health records show, someone contacted authorities to report odd activity in the courtyard.

Health inspectors found a man in medical scrubs holding a garden hose. He was thawing a frozen human torso in the midday sun.

This is the “body broker” market. It’s different from the federally regulated tissue and organ donor market — the market that provides, say,  a liver to a waiting patient.

The body broker market is a for profit industry selling body parts for medical training.  Brokers often source those bodies — body parts, really — from the poor, offering partial cremation in exchange for the opportunity to sell off what’s left.

The industry’s business model hinges on access to a large supply of free bodies, which often come from the poor. In return for a body, brokers typically cremate a portion of the donor at no charge. By offering free cremation, some deathcare industry veterans say, brokers appeal to low-income families at their most vulnerable. Many have drained their savings paying for a loved one’s medical treatment and can’t afford a traditional funeral.

“People who have financial means get the chance to have the moral, ethical and spiritual debates about which method to choose,” said Dawn Vander Kolk, an Illinois hospice social worker. “But if they don’t have money, they may end up with the option of last resort: body donation.”

Few rules mean few consequences when bodies are mistreated. In the Southern Nevada case, officials found they could do little more than issue a minor pollution citation to one of the workers involved. Southern Nevada operator Joe Collazo, who wasn’t cited, said he regretted the incident. He said the industry would benefit from oversight that offers peace of mind to donors, brokers and researchers.

“To be honest with you, I think there should be regulation,” said Collazo. “There’s too much gray area.”

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How Much is Too Much to Save a Dying Cat?

Max Oppenheim/Getty

s.e. smith | Longreads | November 2017 | 17 minutes (4,363 words)

The veterinarian looks anxious as she enters the room, clearly dreading the conversation she must have many times a night on the late shift at the emergency clinic.

Yes, your pet is dying. No, I’m afraid there’s not much we can do, she is bracing herself to say.

Her scrubs are a rich maroon, coordinating with the jewel-toned surroundings of the hushed exam room in the swanky clinic. Thick doors block the sound from outside, the interstitial space where they’ve left me alone in an echoing silence with a grim steel table and a box of tissues after the technician rushed my cat to the back, somewhere in the bowels of the hospital. The last time I saw her she was gasping for air, eyes huge, expression: betrayed.

I wonder if I will see her again.

It’s the largest veterinary clinic I’ve ever been in and it feels more like a spa, down to the powder blue polo shirts the receptionists all wear. The stack of euthanasia authorizations left out on the counter are the only sign this place is perhaps not what it seems. I have driven a long way to come here, because it is Easter weekend and my vet isn’t in the office, but this cannot wait.

Oddly, I find myself wanting to reassure the vet, to tuck her loose strand of hair behind her ear and offer her a cup of tea from the space-age machine out in the horrifically depressing lobby, filled with people sitting in little clumps with strained faces.

“I know,” I say as she sits opposite me, searching for words, and her shoulders slump in relief. “I knew the cancer would spread eventually, but is there anything we can do to make her comfortable?”

On my way in, struggling with the weight of my cat’s carrier and my bag, I passed a couple carrying one of those cardboard boxes they use to send cats home from the shelter, the takeout container that is supposed to presage many years of happy life together, cartoon kittens and puppies stenciled along the sides. It swung with a peculiar, empty lightness, bouncing in an almost sprightly way that felt at odds with the stricken looks on their faces.

There is a stark finality in the empty cat carrier.

You can take this, your cat won’t be needing it anymore.

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Cory Taylor Answers Your Questions About Dying

Celebrated Australian novelist Cory Taylor was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. Rejecting the taboos that prevent humans from talking openly about death, she goes on the record with her answers to some of the most typical questions people have asked her about dying. In her piece at The New Yorker, she talks about her regrets, fears, priorities, what she’ll miss most, and how she’d like to be remembered. Taylor passed away on July 5th, 2016. Her book, Dying: A Memoir was published in the United States on August 1st, 2017.

A few months back, I was invited to take part in a program for ABC television called “You Can’t Ask That.” The premise of the show is that there are taboo subjects about which it is difficult to have an open and honest conversation, death being one of them. The producer of the program explained that I would be required to answer a number of questions on camera. She said questions had been sent in from all over the country, and the ten most common had been selected. I wasn’t to know what these were until the day I went into the studio for the filming.

It turned out that the producer of the program herself had a need to talk about death, as she had recently lost her father to cancer, and was struggling to cope. This is so often the case with people I talk to about my situation: they listen for a while, then they tell me their own death story, but always with a vague sense that it is shameful, that the whole sorry business is somehow their fault. In taking part in “You Can’t Ask That,” I wanted to do my bit to change things around, to win back some dignity for the dying, because I don’t think silence serves the interests of any of us.

The questions, as it turned out, were unsurprising. Did I have a bucket list, had I considered suicide, had I become religious, was I scared, was there anything good about dying, did I have any regrets, did I believe in an afterlife, had I changed my priorities in life, was I unhappy or depressed, was I likely to take more risks given that I was dying anyway, what would I miss the most, how would I like to be remembered? These were the same questions I’d been asking myself ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, back in 2005. And my answers haven’t changed since then. They are as follows.

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Death Doulas to the Rescue?

Photo by John Moore / Getty Images

Is dying alone the worst possible thing that can happen? At The Baffler, Ann Neumann reports that with the onset of death doulas, you need not impose on friends and relatives in your inevitable decline or suffer the shame of kodokushi, the Japanese term for ‘“lonely death,” meaning the quiet but messy end of a solitary life.’

Need someone to “be present” for your final hours? Need music, aromatherapy, reiki? A death doula will, for a fee, swoop into your home and help you navigate the end of your life, from your spiritual needs to the arrangement of the furniture in your sickroom. Awkward, Americanized, consumer-focused forms of Buddhism have long since taken over our exercise (yoga), our offices (mindfulness), and our homes (feng shui). Now, with doula programs popping up like mantras in the mind, they’ve come for our deaths.

Which is, we’re told, a good thing, since a death without warm bodies is practically taboo. On my trips to various end-of-life care facilities as a reporter or a volunteer, I have heard the same belief over and over again, breathed into my ear by the cooing, pastel-wearing do-gooders who have taken on grieving as their life’s salvational work. What they say is, “No one should have to die alone.” What they mean is that dying alone is a character flaw—an imperfection growing somewhere deep inside of you that, provided it is caught in time, can be rooted out or zapped away.

A doula-assisted death is a bespoke affair. Through made-to-order rituals, your death can be propelled into the realm of the unique, just like everyone else’s.

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The Rise of Embalming

Embalming supplies. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, it was this desire to be close to the dead that ultimately helped usher bodies out of the home. Embalming—which advanced as a science around the same time as the Civil War—allowed for the corpses of men who had died on far-off battlefields to return home for some semblance of the Good Death. “Families sought to see their lost loved ones in as lifelike a state as possible,” Faust writes, “not just to be certain of their identity but also to bid them farewell.” And when it came to preserving some false spark of life, none of the available alternatives (the Staunton Transportation Case “portable refrigerator,” for example) could match embalming. In 1861, the preserved body of a Union colonel killed in Virginia was honored at the White House to great fanfare. (His embalmer went on to preserve more than 4,000 bodies and became a rich man.) And at the close of the war, the embalmed body of Abraham Lincoln traveled 1,700 miles from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, with many stops along the way for Americans to pay their respects. Around the turn of the century, undertakers would often bring their scalpels, tubes, needles, forceps, eye caps, and other supplies to the house of the deceased and perform the embalming there, sometimes with relatives watching.

But eventually embalming moved out of the home and into places of business—death, in general, was increasingly processed outside of any residence. Advances in science lowered the death rate and made hospitals the primary places of dying. An increasing number of people lived in urban areas and in small apartments, where large home funerals were difficult to host. And as the Victorian era passed, and cultural practices changed, the formal parlor was replaced with the more informal and aptly named living room.

A Hospital Chaplain Reflects on Poetry and Dying

Photo by freaktography

A few weeks later, my friend sends me a copy of Dunn’s poem “A Coldness.” The speaker says about his sick brother, “From then on he was delusional, / the cancer making him / stupid, insistently so, and lost. / I wanted him to die. / And I wished his wife / would say A shame / instead of God’s will. Or if God / had such a will, Shame on Him.”

I’ve found the lines about cursing God, “Shame on Him,” to be true. My supervisor had told us—me and my fellow chaplain interns—that we might find it appropriate to tell a patient that it’s all right to be angry at God. It takes me a while to say this to someone because a lot of my patients believe that to question God is to curse her very nature. They believe it’s God’s will for them to suffer. Some refuse pain-alleviating medication because they believe God wills them to suffer like Christ. “Sometimes, God sucks,” I eventually tell one woman around midnight before she goes into surgery the next morning for a cancer.

Win Bassett, in an essay for Poetry magazine, on his summer working as a hospital chaplain.

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