Tony Soprano’s death (yeah, I think he got whacked) has been on my mind. Which lead to death being on the brain which led to a few internet surfs, which turned up the following…
In 2006, Mexican consulates across the US recorded 10,622 shipments of bodies for burial back home. In Arkansas, immigrants can purchase the “Hispanic Package”: for $2,300 and a $500 contribution to the Mexican consulate, they receive a body pickup, embalming, dressing, coffin, and transportation back to Mexico. While vendors profit handsomely, families that splurge for the Hispanic Package are demonstrating how much the dead meant to them.
And yet in New Mexico, medical investigators have not performed an autopsy for the Navajo Nation in more than a year because of unpaid bills for their services, bills that total $250k. This means that public health agencies on the nation’s largest Indian reservation are in a holding pattern; the tribe doesn’t know whether meth deaths are rising or falling. Their justice system has also slowed to a halt as the Navajo prosecutor has 10 cases that are depending on those autopsy results. No autopsies also makes Navajo Nation a great place to commit a crime.
In New Orleans, 21 months after the levees broke, 100 bodies are still waiting in a warehouse — 70 to be claimed and 30 to be identified. The city’s coroner is trying to raise $1.5 million to build a memorial in the swirling shape of a hurricane, a memorial that would include a group of mausoleums for the dead. So far, he’s raised $250k. As the second anniversary of Katrina approaches, it is unlikely the bodies will have a final resting place anytime soon.
I have an odd fondness for the dead, one that was somewhat quenched by “Six Feet Under,” though I wish they had spent more time with their silent clients. Of my favorite characters was played by Illeana Douglas. She breezed through the shop as a whiz-bang of an embalmer and firmly believed the dead were more fascinating than the living.
Our dead are lavished, disputed, abandoned – how is this more fascinating than the living? I think, because no matter the circumstance, there is a sameness in death that Douglas’ character – and I suppose myself – find interesting. Or reassuring? That, no matter the container the body is in (urn, coffin, Bernie’s car), a body is a body, a collection of limbs and joints and bones that are basically the same from person to person. The LA Coroner’s office has a place that’s just for spare body parts found along the way – a couple of toes, a thumb or two, maybe an arm. Not enough to merit an investigation (you’d need a torso for that), but parts that are important enough to keep. I haven’t seen it, but I sort of imagine a plastic bin full of body parts not unlike a bin full of the pieces you’d use to decorate a Mr. Potato Head.
Some morgue workers like the dead because they don’t talk back. I knew a man who took the dead’s silence as a constant agreement to his ideas. It had also been his job to scoop up bodies from scenes; he had wanted to be a cop but didn’t make the cut and liked being on the fringes of law enforcement. He loved his family but couldn’t wait to get to work.
There are deaths in our lives every day – Leslie Mann’s speech in “Knocked Up” about the death of her dreams and hopes – really the death of her youth – springs to mind. There’s a certain universal truth to that. Yet how we live our lives can separate us dramatically, through divorce, or custom, religion or geography. But in corporeal death, we are all alike, united by the pieces that make us up, together in sameness no matter what the living think or do on our behalf.