Arlington Cemetery Company
Arlington Cemetery Company

Show & Tell: An 18th-Century Cemetery Gun

Arlington Cemetery Company
Arlington Cemetery Company

A special breed of ghoul stalked the cemeteries of North America and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries: the Resurrection Men. Despite the name, their terrors were physical, not spiritual—these men were bodysnatchers paid by doctors or medical students to dig up the cadavers used in dissection classes. Human dissection was, and is, a key component of medical school, but until donating one’s body to science became an accepted practice during the latter half of the 20th century, corpses were often hard to come by. To compensate for the shortage, a shadowy trade in dead humans flourished for several centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Families employed a range of weird technology to guard against unwanted disinterment of their loved ones. They built wrought-iron cages known as mortsafes above graves, set up cemetery torpedoes, and in some cases bought (or rented) cemetery guns to be installed near the graves. As Rebecca Onion explains in a Slate Vault post, “cemetery keepers set up the flintlock weapon at the foot of a grave, with three tripwires strung in an arc around its position. A prospective grave-robber, stumbling over the tripwire in the dark, would trigger the weapon—much to his own misfortune.”

On Friday (January 22), Sotheby's is auctioning off a very rare steel and wrought iron cemetery gun from the 18th or early 19th century. Though made in New York, the gun spent at least part of its life in England, and currently belongs to the Museum of Mourning Art in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. The museum, as Allison Meier explains in Hyperallergic, is the only one in the nation devoted exclusively to mourning art and ephemera—a bigger deal than you might imagine.

The museum recently temporarily closed following the death of its founders, but the administration hopes to re-open it again in another form. As Meier notes, “How the museum will appear in the future depends on what objects are sold” in the auction. The hundreds of items up for sale—not all of which are mourning-related—also include funeral invitations, mourning embroidery, and mourning jewelry. But the cemetery gun has "long been a museum favorite," Meier says.

Despite the best efforts from families, grave-robbers kept up with the challenge offered by cemetery guns. Onion explains, “Some would send women posing as widows, carrying children and dressed in black, to case the gravesites during the day and report the locations of cemetery guns and other defenses. Cemetery keepers, in turn, learned to wait to set the guns up after dark, thereby preserving the element of surprise."

Unfortunately, bodysnatchers tended to prey on the poorest graves (because they were least likely to stir up trouble by complaining)—which means that families who could afford cemetery guns and similar items were the least likely to need them. 

[H/T Hyperallergic]

What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?

Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Stephen Hawking’s Memorial Will Beam His Words Toward the Nearest Black Hole
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

An upcoming memorial for Stephen Hawking is going to be out of this world. The late physicist’s words, set to music, will be broadcast by satellite toward the nearest black hole during a June 15 service in the UK, the BBC reports.

During his lifetime, Hawking signed up to travel to space on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceship, but he died before he ever got the chance. (He passed away in March.) Hawking’s daughter Lucy told the BBC that the memorial's musical tribute is a “beautiful and symbolic gesture that creates a link between our father's presence on this planet, his wish to go into space, and his explorations of the universe in his mind.” She described it as "a message of peace and hope, about unity and the need for us to live together in harmony on this planet."

Titled “The Stephen Hawking Tribute,” the music was written by Greek composer Vangelis, who created the scores for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. It will play while Hawking’s ashes are interred at Westminster Abbey, near where Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are buried, according to Cambridge News. After the service, the piece will be beamed into space from the European Space Agency’s Cebreros Station in Spain. The target is a black hole called 1A 0620-00, “which lives in a binary system with a fairly ordinary orange dwarf star,” according to Lucy Hawking.

Hawking wasn't the first person to predict the existence of black holes (Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity accounted for them back in the early 1900s), but he spoke at length about them throughout his career and devised mathematical theorems that gave credence to their existence in the universe.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a friend of the Hawking family who portrayed the late scientist in the BBC film Hawking, will speak at the service. In addition to Hawking's close friends and family, British astronaut Tim Peake and several local students with disabilities have also been invited to attend.

[h/t BBC]


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