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7 People Whose Death Notices Improved Their Lives

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These folks, falsely declared dead, came out stronger on the other side.

1. Betty Robinson

At the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Betty Robinson, a 16-year-old student from Riverdale, Ill., won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash and a silver medal as part of the 100-meter relay team. But her most impressive athletic achievement would come eight years later, when she staged one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.

In 1931, Robinson was flying in a small biplane with her cousin when they crashed near Chicago. After she was pulled from the wreckage, emergency workers declared her dead. Her body was placed in the trunk of a car and driven to a mortician, who realized that she was still alive. Robinson had suffered a concussion, a broken leg, a cracked hip, and a crushed arm. She would spend a total of seven months in a coma, followed by another six in a wheelchair.

Miraculously, after just three years, Robinson was able to walk again. And before long, she was running. Within three years, she’d resumed training and was up to her previous speed. But because she couldn’t bend her knees enough to crouch in the official starting position, she wasn’t qualified to compete in most races. She could still pass a baton, though. So, at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, she was allowed to be the third runner in the 100-meter relay team. Although the German team led for most of the race, their final runner dropped the baton, and the U.S. team sprinted ahead to win by eight yards. Just five years after she’d been delivered to the undertaker, Robinson won her second Olympic gold.

2. Edward V. Rickenbacker

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Edward Vernon Rickenbacker was an ace fighter pilot and one of America’s most dashing heroes. During World War II, he was sent to deliver a message to General Douglas MacArthur, who was leading the Pacific campaign from New Guinea. But in October of 1942, tragedy struck when Rickenbacker’s B-17 went down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. After weeks of searching for his body, newspapers declared the war hero dead.

Twenty-four days after the accident, Rickenbacker and six of his companions were found alive, floating on a raft in the middle the ocean. Headlines nicknamed the pilot “Ironman Eddie” and “That Indestructible Man of Aviation.” Rickenbacker was thankful to have survived, but the weeks of starvation and dehydration had token a toll on his physical and emotional health. He and his men had to watch, helpless, as one of their ranks died aboard the raft. After Rickenbacker returned to health, he set about making certain that no soldier suffered such pain again. He used his fame to encourage the U.S. Air Force to design new life rafts equipped with radios and emergency supplies. Fittingly, they became known as “Rickenbackers.”

But Rickenbacker’s work was far from over. He also used his influence to gather a group of leading American scientists, whom he charged with finding a practical means of desalinating seawater. They soon developed a pill that would make a small quantity of seawater drinkable, and the U.S. Navy distributed it to all sailors. For the remaining years of his life, Rickenbacker campaigned tirelessly to find a better way to take the salt out of water. “Water is our greatest life-giving natural resource,” he wrote in his 1967 autobiography. “By desalinating water from the great oceans we can, without building huge reservoirs and inundating more land, irrigate the deserts and feed half a billion more people.” Although he’s best remembered as a war hero, Rickenbacker was also one of the world’s first environmental warriors.

3. Sherlock Holmes

In 1893, after six years of writing Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill off his most popular character. “For some while now,” he wrote in a letter to his mother, “I’ve been tiring of my detective creation.” And so, in The Adventure of the Final Problem, Holmes plunges to his death at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in a final struggle with his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.

To say that readers were shocked by the detective’s demise is to put it mildly. Many wrote abusive letters to Doyle; others wore black armbands in mourning. Even Queen Victoria was reportedly offended, personally asking Conan Doyle to bring back the legendary detective. “I was amazed at the concern expressed by the public,” wrote Doyle. “They say that a man is never properly appreciated until he is dead, and the general protest against my summary execution of Holmes taught me how many and how numerous were his friends.”

It wasn’t long before Doyle bowed to public pressure. In 1901, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, a new Holmes story that takes place before the hero’s dramatic downfall. But that wasn’t good enough for the mystery-loving public; fans wanted Holmes alive. Caving once again to his readers’ demands, Doyle resurrected the detective (and received a record sum of money from his publishers in return). In the first of these stories, The Adventure of the Empty House, Holmes explains that he’d flung Moriarty down Reichenbach Falls and faked his own death to escape his enemy’s henchmen. With a satisfied fan base back on board, Doyle continued to write Sherlock Holmes adventures for decades, stopping only three years before his own death in 1930.

4. Samuel Coleridge

In 1813, poet and playwright Samuel Taylor Coleridge was riding a professional high. His play Remorse: A Tragedy in Five Acts was a hit at London theaters, and he was enjoying critical and financial success. But instead of writing a follow-up, Coleridge disappeared for six months.

He was known to suffer from depression and opium addiction, and many worried that the poet was dead. In the spring of that year, a newspaper reported Coleridge’s suicide. According to the story, a man had been found hanging from a tree, and although he had no means of identification, his shirt was marked “S. T. Coleridge.”

A few days later, Coleridge was sitting in a hotel café when he heard the news of his death. When he read the newspaper report, he smiled and quipped that he was probably the first man “to hear of a lost shirt in this way.”

Where had Coleridge been all that time? Uncomfortable with his newfound fame, the poet had retreated into his opium habit. He’d been quietly getting high in the countryside and avoiding his friends and family. But the false death announcement served as a wake-up call, and Coleridge began writing again. Within three years, he’d published his most popular verse, “Kubla Khan.”

5. Nikki Sixx

In the 1980s, Mötley Crüe bassist and songwriter Nikki Sixx was the poster boy for rock ‘n’ roll excess. “I was the only one in the band without a family, a girlfriend, a wife, or any prospects, and I was too smacked out to care,” he said. “I felt like the McDonald’s of rock ‘n’ roll; my life was disposable.” One night in London in 1986, he passed out in his drug dealer’s apartment after injecting heroin and was left for dead. He later woke up, reportedly in a dumpster.

Yet, it would take an even more shocking near-death experience for Sixx to change his ways. After another heroin overdose in December 1987, Sixx was incorrectly declared dead in an ambulance while being rushed to L.A.’s Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

Word of his alleged passing leaked to the press. When he came to in the hospital, a terrified Sixx ripped the tubes out of his nose and fled, wearing only his leather pants. In the parking lot, he found two teenage fans in mourning, who—once they’d gotten over the shock of seeing him alive—gave him a ride home. In the car, he heard reports of his death on the radio that included interviews with his friends and family. Soon after, he admitted to the band that he couldn’t control his addiction, entered rehab, and successfully gave up drugs and alcohol.

Sixx’s experience jolted the rest of the band into sobriety, and ironically, temperance made them bigger rock stars than they’d ever been before. Mötley Crüe peaked commercially with the release of its next album, Dr. Feelgood, in 1989. The band attributed the album’s success to their collective push toward clean living.

6. The Biograph Girl

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In the early years of the movies, one of the most famous faces of the silver screen was “the Biograph Girl.” The star’s familiar smile always brought in the crowds. But in keeping with the practice of the times, audiences never learned her name. Her anonymity was part of a business model pioneered by Thomas Edison, which was designed to keep movie stars’ egos in check and their salaries down.

All of this changed in 1910, when film distributor Carl Laemmle lured the Biograph Girl to his new studio, promising her fame and fortune. Laemmle wanted to turn the Biograph Girl into a proper celebrity, and he had just the publicity stunt in mind to pull it off. First, he sent out a press report saying that the Biograph Girl had died in a tragic streetcar accident in St. Louis. Her fans barely had time to mourn her death before Laemmle sent out a second notice, revealing that the actress was alive and working exclusively for his studio. More importantly, the report also revealed her identity. The Biograph Girl was a 24-year-old, Canadian-born showgirl named Florence Lawrence.

The PR campaign worked like a charm. A week after Laemmle’s announcement, Lawrence made a public appearance in St. Louis, where she was greeted by crowds larger than those that had greeted President Taft there the previous week. But Florence Lawrence’s career wasn’t the only one elevated to new heights by the publicity stunt. Within the next few years, the cinema started attracting great actors from the stage—people who’d previously thumbed their noses at the pictures, including “the Divine” Sarah Bernhardt. And by 1912, producer Carl Laemmle had founded Universal Studios, one of the most successful production companies in history.

7. Mark Twain

In 1897, famed author and humorist Mark Twain was 61, bankrupt, and living quietly in London. He hadn’t had a major success since A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court eight years earlier, and his recent books had received scathing reviews. Rumors of his financial woes had even spread across the pond, prompting one New York newspaper to launch a charity fund in his name. (Twain asked them to close the fund.)

Then, in May of 1897, the editor of a major newspaper in New York heard that Twain was seriously ill, perhaps even dead, and dispatched a young reporter to probe for details. In response to the investigation, Twain famously quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Like a 19th-century Tweet, the line went viral, and newspapers around the world joyously reported the news that both Twain and his sense of humor were still kicking. Once the author was back in the spotlight, people started buying his books again, and Twain’s finances rapidly improved.

Strangely, that wasn’t the last time Twain’s passing would be inaccurately reported. A decade later, The New York Times reported that the author was lost at sea and possibly dead, again. The next day, Twain, who was safely on dry land, wrote in to the paper. “I will make an exhaustive investigation of this report that I have been lost at sea,” he joked. “If there is any foundation for the report, I will at once apprise the anxious public.” For the remaining three years of Mark Twain’s life, no one else falsely reported his passing.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.

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5 Cemetery Road Trips for the Ultimate Taphophile
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Autumn is the best time of year for a road trip. The weather is cooling down, the leaves are turning, and fewer people are on the roads. With Halloween on the horizon, cemeteries are natural destinations. These five journeys are a great way to explore America’s rich and varied history as recorded on its tombstones—and truly dedicated taphophiles (from the Greek for tomb) can combine them into one itinerary covering 22 states and more than 10,000 miles. Tombstone tourists, rejoice.

1. NORTHEAST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Northeast cemetery road trip
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A. Hope Cemetery
201 Maple Avenue, Barre, Vermont
44.2107° N, 72.4994° W

Barre’s Hope Cemetery is a jaw-dropping open-air sculpture garden, featuring locally quarried granite carved into everything from angels to sports cars to life-sized portraits. The cemetery is especially gorgeous when the leaves turn in autumn.

B. Mount Auburn Cemetery
580 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts
42.3752° N, 71.1450° W

Designed by Dr. Jacob Bigelow, the foremost botanist of his day, this breathtaking place may be the most important cemetery in America. Its opening in 1831 signaled a shift from austere churchyards to park-like cemeteries full of trees and flowers. One of the most striking grave monuments remembers Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science.

C. Touro Jewish Cemetery
Touro Street, Newport, Rhode Island
41.48793° N, 71.30936° W

Open only one day a year, the Touro Cemetery is the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in the U.S. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a beautiful poem about the place. Nearby Touro Synagogue offers a brochure to explain the significance of the cemetery to visitors who come to gaze through its gates.

D. Green-Wood Cemetery
500 25th Street, Brooklyn, New York
40.6590° N, 73.9956° W

Lovely Green-Wood Cemetery is the forefather of city parks in America. Full of famous names and one-of-a-kind monuments, the cemetery rewards repeat visits. Among those buried here are Jean-Michel Basquiat, FAO Schwarz, and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

E. Soldiers’ National Cemetery
Gettysburg National Military Park
1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
39.82177° N, 77.23256° W

A Gettysburg postcard from pre-1930
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President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address announced the system of national cemeteries for casualties of federal battles. In Soldiers’ National Cemetery, granite stones marked with the tally of unknown soldiers provide a sobering reminder of the costs of war.

F. Congressional Cemetery
1801 E. Street SE, Washington, D.C.
38.8811° N, 76.9780° W

Originally designed as a graveyard for congressmen who died in office, the Congressional Cemetery became the final resting place for a wide assortment of public servants. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, and march king John Philip Sousa—as well as pioneers in the fights for Native American rights, women’s rights, and gay rights—are all buried here.

2. SOUTH

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A. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change
449 Auburn Avenue NE, Atlanta, Georgia
33.7563° N, 84.3734° W

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rests on the grounds of the Center for Nonviolent Social Change, founded in his name by his widow Coretta Scott King in 1968. After her death in 2006, Mrs. King joined him in a matching sarcophagus. The King Center is undergoing renovation in advance of the 50th anniversary of his assassination, so call before you visit.

B. Bonaventure Cemetery
330 Bonaventure Road, Savannah, Georgia
32.0444° N, 81.0467° W

Oaks draped with Spanish moss surround museum-worthy statuary in Bonaventure Cemetery. When John Muir camped there in September 1867, he wrote that the cemetery was "so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead” [PDF]. More than a century later, the cemetery still makes all the lists of most beautiful graveyards.

C. Tolomato Cemetery
14 Cordova Street, Saint Augustine, Florida
29.8970° N, 81.3151° W

American citizens of Saint Augustine started using this acre of land as a cemetery in 1777, although the Spanish used it as a graveyard even earlier. As such, it may be the oldest European-founded cemetery in the U.S. Although Hurricane Irma did significant damage in September, Tolomato Cemetery remains open to visitors one day a month as its Preservation Society repairs it.

D. St. Louis Cemetery #1
425 Basin Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
29.9608° N, 90.0754° W

A vintage postcard of St. Louis No. 1
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New Orleans’s tropical heat and humidity gave rise to the so-called oven tomb, which can reduce a corpse to bones in less than a year. In the back of each of these tombs stands a receptacle called a caveau, which contains the bones of all its occupants mixed together through the generations.

The most famous tomb in the oldest surviving cemetery in New Orleans may belong to Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. The death date on the tomb is closer to her daughter Marie’s, but since the bones of all the tomb’s occupants lie jumbled together in its central caveau, it’s believed the original Marie rests there as well. After vandalism of the tomb spiraled out of control, the cemetery now opens only to tour groups. Luckily, there are many tours from which to choose.

3. WEST

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A. Texas State Cemetery
909 Navasota Street, Austin, Texas
30.15994° N, 97.43553° W

Conceived as a pantheon to the famous sons of Texas, the Texas State Cemetery is the final home of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, as well as Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who helped impeach Richard Nixon. Also buried here are Governor Ann Richards, Chris Kyle (author of American Sniper), and Stephen Austin himself, all of whom lie beneath remarkable statuary.

B. Apache Prisoners-of-War Cemetery
The East Ridge at Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
34.6960° N, 98.3710° W

After his capture by the U.S. Cavalry, Apache chief Geronimo remained a prisoner of war at Fort Sill until his death in 1909. His grave remained unmarked for many years, but early in World War II, the 501st Airborne took his name as their motto. With the permission of Geronimo’s descendants, paratroopers built the pyramid of stones that now marks Geronimo’s grave. Around him lie men proud to be remembered as his warriors.

C. Riverside Cemetery
5201 Brighton Boulevard, Denver, Colorado
39.4739° N, 104.5733° W

Dating to 1876, the year Colorado attained statehood, Riverside Cemetery embraced African-American pioneers, the first native New Mexican elected to Congress, and the first doctor to theorize that cholera was contagious. The cemetery has struggled since it was closed to new burials, but the Friends of Historic Riverside Cemetery are working to rescue it.

D. Fort Yellowstone Army Cemetery
Grand Loop Road, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
44.9646° N, 110.7002° W

Before the formation of the National Park Service, the U.S. Army guarded Yellowstone from poachers and souvenir hunters. Their sober little cemetery underlines the dangers lurking in one of the most stunning places in America. As reported in Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone, causes of death in this cemetery included drowning, avalanche, being struck by lightning, runaway horses, and grizzly bear attack.

E. Custer National Cemetery
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, Montana
45.5714° N, 107.4332° W

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the federal government demanded access across land it had set aside for the Lakota Sioux. As many as 10,000 Native Americans refused to renegotiate the treaty. In June 1876, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry to attack, only to be wiped out by the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. It took more than a century for the Native warriors to be commemorated here.

4. WEST COAST

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A. Lake View Cemetery
1554 15th Avenue E, Seattle, Washington
47.6341° N, 122.3153° W

High on a hill overlooking the city, Lake View's most famous residents are Bruce Lee and his son Brandon. Also buried here are Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth (who gave his name to Seattle), as well as madams, lumber barons, and politicians—a who’s who of Seattle’s historical figures.

B. Lone Fir Cemetery
SE 26th Avenue, Portland, Oregon
45.5173° N, 122.6446° W

Portland’s pioneer cemetery is glorious in springtime, when its rhododendrons bloom. Full of pioneers, prostitutes, shanghai captains, mayors, and governors, the cemetery also features some unusual modern grave monuments. Vandalism and the weather have been hard on Lone Fir, but its Friends group offers tours to raise money for repair.

C. Fort Ross State Historic Park
19005 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, California
38.5143° N, 123.2485° W

A vintage postcard from Fort Ross cemetery
Author's collection

In 1812, Russia invaded Northern California. Russian pioneers built a fort, married local women, and hunted sea otters along the coast. By 1839, they no longer needed to provision Russian settlements in Alaska, so the fort was abandoned, leaving behind a little graveyard. The California Historical Landmarks Committee took control of it in 1906.

D. Hollywood Forever
6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, California
34.0904° N, 118.3206° W

Once the swankest cemetery in Old Hollywood, Hollywood Forever is now the final resting place of Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, Mel Blanc, Darren McGavin, Rozz Williams, John Huston, Cecil B. DeMille, and many more. Judy Garland joined them earlier this year.

E. Manzanar Cemetery
Manzanar National Historic Site, Inyo County, California
36.7255° N, 118.1626° W

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was the first American concentration camp to open during World War II. At its height, Manzanar imprisoned 10,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens. Although the bulk of the camp was demolished, the cemetery’s Soul Consoling Tower continues to mark the graves of people who died while interned there.

F. Silver Terrace Cemeteries
381 Cemetery Road, Virginia City, Nevada
39.3165° N, 119.6451° W

A vintage postcard from the Silver Terrace cemetery in Virginia City
Author's collection

After the 1859 discovery of one of the richest lodes of gold in history, Virginia City became the largest town between Denver and San Francisco. Of course, this necessitated the largest cemetery district as well. The 22 adjacent graveyards making up Virginia City’s Silver Terrace Cemeteries are now part of one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the country.

5. MIDWEST

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A. Lakewood Cemetery
3600 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota
44.5659° N, 93.1734° W

Modeled on Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Lakewood’s Mortuary Chapel is a spectacular example of Byzantine Revival architecture. Mosaic tiles, some as small as a fingernail, adorn its interior. At Lakewood, politicians with modernist monuments are buried beside names familiar from the grocery store: Charles Pillsbury and Franklin Mars, who founded the candy company that bears his name.

B. Oakland Cemetery
1000 Brown Street, Iowa City, Iowa
41.6697° N, 91.5222° W

Urban legends surround the Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery: if you kiss the statue, you’ll be struck dead; if a pregnant woman crosses its shadow, she will miscarry; if ever a virgin is kissed in front of the statue, it will resume its normal bronze color and the curse will be broken. Strangely enough, this is not the only black angel in Iowa—and the other has legends swirling around it as well. Daniel Chester French’s monument to spiritualist Ruth Ann Dodge stands in the Fairview Cemetery in Council Bluffs.

C. Graceland Cemetery
4001 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois
41.9548° N, 87.6619° W

Known as the Cemetery of the Architects, Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery holds the Carrie Eliza Getty mausoleum, considered one of the first examples of modern architecture. Graceland Cemetery also contains a wealth of magnificent statuary, including Lorado Taft’s Eternal Silence and Daniel Chester French’s Memory.

D. Elmwood Cemetery
1200 Elmwood Avenue, Detroit, Michigan
42.3466° N, 83.0179° W

A vintage postcard from Elmwood cemetery
Author's collection

Practically in the shadow of Detroit’s Renaissance Center, this dramatic garden cemetery stands on ground fought over during the French and Indian War. Elmwood Cemetery is the final resting place of Canadian Club whiskey founder Hiram Walker, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, and Detroit’s legendary mayor Coleman Young, who was a Tuskegee Airman.

Cemeteries are lenses, revealing what their local communities choose to celebrate alongside things that must not be forgotten. This list merely skims the surface—go see what you can discover.

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17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Funeral Directors
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Despite the fact that almost everyone will need the services of the "dismal trade" at some point in their lives, the specific job duties of funeral directors often remain shrouded in mystery. Mental Floss talked to several to learn some little-known facts about the profession, from what happens behind the doors of the embalming room to the real reason you might want to think twice about that “protective” casket.

1. THEY DRIVE MINIVANS.

“The reason you don't see the dead being picked up in your daily life is because we're stealth like that,” Jeff Jorgenson of Elemental Cremation & Burial in Seattle tells Mental Floss. “We are soccer moms and we are legion! Actually, we just use soccer-mom vehicles: Minivans are the transportation of the dead. We rarely drive hearses—those are ceremonial vehicles only.”

2. THAT SWEET LOOK ON THE DECEASED’S FACE TOOK SOME WORK.

Funeral directors say that the most important part of preparing a body for a viewing is the “setting of the features”—creating a peaceful facial expression with a pleasant smile. But while it might look nice at the end, the work creating that appearance can be grisly. Morticians stuff the throat and nose with cotton and then suture the mouth shut, either using a curved needle and thread to stitch between the jawbone and nasal cavity or using a needle injector machine to accomplish a similar job more quickly. Small spiked cups are also inserted under the eyelids to keep the lids closed and the eyes from caving in.

Of course, some bodies take more restoration than others. One mortician says that to prepare a decapitated corpse for an open-casket viewing, he uses a wooden dowel to rejoin the head and body, then sutures the neck back together.

3. THEY MIGHT MAKE A TRIP TO THE DRUGSTORE. 

In her best-selling book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, mortician Caitlin Doughty says: “If the usual methods of setting the features aren’t sufficient to keep the eyes closed or the mouth shut, superglue is a secret weapon.” In Grave Matters, author Mark Harris points out that superglue can also be used to close up any puncture marks from needles on a corpse. Brooklyn funeral director Amy Cunningham of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services tells Mental Floss: “If you need to keep a deceased person’s hands folded neatly at their abdomen, but their arms keep falling down into the sides of the casket, you can gently bind their thumbs with a ponytail tie.”

4. COMPARISON SHOPPING IS KEY.

Sixth-generation funeral director Caleb Wilde, known for his popular blog Confessions of a Funeral Director, shares this story with us: “About a year ago, a husband and wife died about four months apart. The wife knew us, so we buried her, and the husband knew the funeral home in a neighboring town, so they buried him. They both had the same funeral, same casket, vault, etc. The family called us to let us know that the other funeral home charged $3000 more. Same value, different cost. Call around to different funeral homes. Shop. Ask for the GPL [General Price List]. Remember, cost doesn’t always equal value.”

5. YOU MIGHT WANT TO THINK TWICE ABOUT “PROTECTIVE” CASKETS.

Some caskets that have vacuum-seal rubber gaskets are marketed as “protective” or resistant to the “entry of outside elements.” As Harris details in Grave Matters, this creates conditions that encourage the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which break the body down by putrefying it, “turning soft body parts to mush and bloating the corpse with foul-smelling gas … Inside the sealed casket, the result is a funereal version of the decay that’s found in swamp bottoms and the bowels of unturned compost piles.”

6. SOMETIMES CASKETS EXPLODE.

In fact, the aforementioned buildup of methane gas can cause what people in the industry call “exploding casket syndrome,” where the gas will literally blow the lids off of caskets and doors off of crypts. Some casket makers have added Tupperware-style “burping” features to their sealer models to release the accumulated gases. Harris spoke with a former cemetery owner who told him that those “protective” sealer caskets are “routinely unsealed after the family leaves … to relieve the inevitable buildup of gases within the casket.” Staff may also just leave the caskets unlocked, not engaging the seal to begin with, in an attempt to avoid those “fetid conditions inside the casket.”

7. SOMETIMES PACEMAKERS EXPLODE, TOO.

If a pacemaker is left in a body when cremated, “it can explode and can cause upward of $10,000 of damage to the retort [cremation machine],” Wilde says. “So, pacemakers need to be removed before cremation. And don’t worry, the funeral directors/cremationists will do the removal for you.”

8. SOME FUNERAL DIRECTORS RARELY SEE THE DEAD.

Jorgenson says, “The bulk of what funeral directors do is paper-pushing—filing death certificates, getting permits, editing obituaries, and sending them to the paper. [Some] will only see a dead person when they are delivered for a service. In the case of some funeral homes, a [corporate] funeral director could literally go years without seeing a dead person.”

9. THEY SEE THINGS THROUGH ROSE-COLORED LIGHT BULBS.

While the formaldehyde embalmers use does contain a rosy dye to restore color to graying, lifeless flesh, it’s not always sufficient. According to Cunningham, “mortuary schools teach color theory and stage lighting—how to use colored gels over the ceiling lights.” Doughty also mentions that bodies are often set out for visitation displayed under rose-colored light bulbs.

10. IT ALL GOES RIGHT DOWN THE DRAIN.

You’d think all the chemicals and body fluids involved in embalming would be disposed of like biohazard, but it’s industry practice to just wash it all off the table, right into the drain. Harris points out that just one embalming can generate 120 gallons of “funeral waste”—blood, fecal matter, and the former contents of internal organs, in addition to any chemicals in the preservation fluid itself—and it all ends up in the public sewer system, to be eventually released into waterways. Although, as Wilde points out, “Blood isn’t any worse than the other things that go down the loo.”

11. FORMALDEHYDE MIGHT BE DYING A SLOW DEATH.

In addition to causing relatively minor problems, such as sinus issues and rashes (including one called “embalmer’s eczema”), formaldehyde is a carcinogen. The U.S. National Toxicology Program, among other groups, has said that people with high levels of exposure—such as embalmers—are at a higher risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, myeloid leukemia, and other forms of cancer.

Usually, criticism comes from outside the death-care industry, but that’s starting to change. In the May 2016 issue of The Director, the official publication of the National Funeral Directors Association, Carol Lynn Green, the NFDA’s environmental-compliance counsel, writes, “there is no dispute that formaldehyde poses a health risk.” She says that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is gearing up to make their workplace regulations stricter, and recommends that funeral homes start to transition to preservation products that don’t use the dangerous gas.

12. YOU CAN’T REALLY BE BURIED UNDER A TREE.

Some consumers who dislike the idea of embalming, or have environmental concerns, choose a “green” burial. Alongside that often comes a romantic idea about being buried beneath a favorite tree—perhaps a stately oak, for example. Sarah Wambold, an Austin funeral director and green burial expert, tells Mental Floss: “A body must be buried at least four feet from a tree to protect its root system. It’s a bit of an adjustment for people who are committed to the image of being buried under a tree, but that’s not always the most green option for the tree. Wouldn't they rather allow the tree to continue to live?” You can, however, plant new trees or shrubs atop a grave after a burial, and the roots will grow down over the body.

13. AT LEAST ONE FUNERAL DIRECTOR WANTS TO TEACH YOU TO PREPARE DEAD BODIES YOURSELF.

Caitlin Doughty

Doughty, who runs a funeral home called Undertaking LA, told WIRED“I’m a licensed mortician, but I want to teach people that they don’t need me.” She advocates people learning to take care of their own dead at home, and says she wants the public to become comfortable with the way death looks naturally: “A chemically preserved body looks like a wax replica of a person. Bodies are supposed to be drooping and turning very pale and sinking in while decomposing. Within a day or so after they’ve died, you should be able to see that this person has very much left the building. That’s the point. I think dead bodies should look dead. It helps with the grieving process.”

Doughty encourages the idea of home funerals, which are legal in all 50 states (although 10 states require the involvement of a funeral director). For more information, check out the Home Funeral Alliance.

14. IT’S HARD TO BE THEIR FRIEND.

Any friend might disappoint you once in a while, but funeral directors will probably do it more often, according to Wilde. “We might miss your birthday party; we might have to leave in the middle of dinner. Death has this way of keeping an untimely schedule, and as death’s minions, we’re tied to that schedule. Whether it be in the middle of the night, or in the middle of your wedding, when death calls, we have to respond.”

15. NO ONE WANTS TO PROFIT FROM THE DEATHS OF CHILDREN.

“It is a tradition in the funeral industry to provide funerals to the families of stillborn babies and very young infants at cost,” Cunningham says. “Funeral directors do not care to make a profit on the deaths of children, and in fact, the death of a young child saddens the whole firm more than almost anything else.”

The funeral industry also includes a number of charitable projects devoted to helping parents after a child’s death. A volunteer group called Little Angel Gowns makes burial garments for babies out of donated wedding dresses, and provides them at no cost to hospitals and funeral homes. The Tears Foundation assists grieving parents in paying for burial or cremation expenses after losing a baby. Eloise Woods, a natural burial ground in Texas, will bury infants at no charge.

16. YOUR GRANDFATHER’S HIP JOINT MIGHT BECOME A NEW ROAD SIGN.

According to Doughty, families can ask for replacement medical parts back after a cremation, but most do not. Hip and knee implants are often melted down and recycled for road signs and car parts, among other things. Unfortunately, she says, breast implants usually melt all over the cremation machine.

17. SOME FUNERAL HOMES EMPLOY THERAPY DOGS.

A large part of a funeral director’s job is comforting the bereaved. Some use grief-therapy dogs to give the families a furry shoulder to cry on. For one example, check out Lulu the golden doodle.

All photos courtesy iStock unless otherwise noted.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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