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The Professional Mourners of Arlington Cemetery

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The stranger couldn't help herself. Attending the funeral of an Iraq war veteran at Arlington National Cemetery in 2006, she leaned over and gently kissed the forehead of the fallen soldier's widow and mother.

For the woman who sensed palpable grief, it was a natural thing to do. But as an Arlington Lady, an official representative of four United States military arms dispatched to military funerals, it was a breach of policy. After the service, she was reprimanded by her supervisor. The Arlington Ladies have a very specific role. They are not there to grieve or console, but to make certain no soldier is ever buried alone.

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Hoyt Vandenberg, Chief of Staff for the United States Air Force, was driving to his office in the Pentagon in 1948 when he noticed a funeral being conducted at Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery. There was no sea of crisp uniforms or sobbing family members. Aside from the chaplain and the Honor Guard, there was no one there at all.

Vandenberg didn’t like it. Soldiers, he felt, deserved the presence of at least one civilian to bear witness to their burial. His wife, Gladys, agreed. She set about recruiting friends and wives of the enlisted to begin attending Air Force funerals, even though many of the deceased were complete strangers. They called themselves the Officers Wives Club and acted as both military representatives and as proxies for family members who might not be able to afford to travel to Arlington for services.

By 1973, the Army had formed its own version. In 1985, the Navy followed suit. And in 2006, the Coast Guard organized a group of their own. (The Marines send a Commandant representative to funerals.) Collectively, the roughly 150 women are known as the Arlington Ladies.

Participation is usually by invitation only, with the group largely made up of ex-military members or their spouses 40 years and older. If a woman is invited to join, she is first instructed to sit at funerals as an apprentice, observing the customs of the role depending on which branch of service she’s been assigned.

Naval Ladies are given a sheet that details the deceased’s biography, rank, service awards, and passing. They’re allowed to briefly introduce themselves to family prior to services; after the widow or other attendee is given the folded American flag, the Arlington representative approaches the bereaved to offer condolences and two cards—one from her, and one from the Chief of Staff. When they’re finished, they walk backwards; turning their back on the flag is prohibited.

Their duties don’t end there. If a family member is unable to attend, a Lady will write a letter offering details of the service—what was said, what the weather was like, and what she felt during the proceedings. They’ll also extend an opportunity to tend to the deceased’s grave by placing flowers on it on anniversaries or holidays.

If family members are present, the Lady is a welcome sight: although they have a dress code (no slacks or loud colors), they help ease the tension of a highly structured military funeral. If no members are present, then the Lady acts as a surrogate witness to a soldier being laid to rest.

The Ladies are expected to maintain their composure, however difficult it may be. The organization’s chair, Margaret Mensch, told The Washington Post in 2007 that she tries her best not to tear up, even when it’s a former Honor Guard escort of hers that was being buried. "You are still," she said. "You just don't cry. When I got there, I thought, 'Just concentrate on that leaf on that tree over there.' A military funeral is very dignified. Very precise. It may sound cold, but that's the beauty of it."

A mourner typically volunteers one day a month. With more than 30 funerals at Arlington a day, she might attend up to six during a single shift. Doreen Huylebroeck, whose late husband was a chief petty officer, has attended more than 500 since beginning work in 2009.

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Getting an Arlington Lady to discuss her duties on the record can be daunting. Most are averse to publicity, wary that someone might think of them as self-congratulatory. A portion of the Army's contingent, however, had to endure some recognition in 2015, when Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno held a reception to acknowledge the Ladies for their selfless service.

"There's no more important time than when a family is going through the incredible grief of loss … that they understand the Army is there for them and you all make that a little easier by what you do," he told the women. "By letting them know that we do care about them, so for me this is very important for us to have you here to thank you for helping our soldiers, past and present, as they continue to serve through difficult times."

The Ladies were cordial, but the session was brief. Seven funerals were still scheduled for that day.

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Interactive Map Shows Where Your House Would Have Been 750 Million Years Ago
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iStock

Your neighborhood traveled a long way over several hundred million years to reach the spot it occupies today. To trace that journey over the ages, check out Ancient Earth, an interactive digital map spotted by Co.Design.

Ancient Earth, a collaboration between engineer and Google alum Ian Webster and Paleomap Project creator C.R. Scotese, contains geographical information for the past 750 million years. Start at the beginning and you'll see unrecognizable blobs of land. As you progress through the ages, the land mass Pangaea gradually breaks apart to form the world map we're all familiar with.

To make the transition even more personal, you can enter your street address to see where it would have been located in each period. Five hundred million years ago, for example, New York City was a small island in the southern hemisphere isolated from any major land mass. Around the same time, London was still a part of Pangaea, and it was practically on top of the South Pole. You can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through the eras or jump from event to event, like the first appearance of multicellular life or the dinosaur extinction.

As you can see from the visualization, Pangaea didn't break into the seven continents seamlessly. Many of the long-gone continents that formed in the process even have names.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
11 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.

1. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CALLED IT THE "WORM" OF THE BOWEL.

The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."

2. THE APPENDIX SHOWS UP IN LEONARDO DA VINCI’S DRAWINGS.

The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.

3. IT'S ABOUT THE SIZE OF A PINKY FINGER.

The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.

4. CHARLES DARWIN THOUGHT IT WAS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN …

The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.

5. … BUT THE APPENDIX PROBABLY EVOLVED TO HELP IMMUNE FUNCTION.

The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.

6. ABOUT 7 PERCENT OF AMERICANS WILL GET APPENDICITIS DURING THEIR LIFETIMES.

For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.

7. APPENDECTOMIES ARE ALMOST 100 PERCENT EFFECTIVE FOR TREATING APPENDICITIS.

Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.

8. AN INFECTED APPENDIX DOESN’T ACTUALLY BURST.

You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.

9. SURGEONS CAN REMOVE AN APPENDIX THROUGH A TINY INCISION.

In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.

10. AN APPENDIX ONCE POSTPONED A ROYAL CORONATION.

When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

11. THE WORLD'S LONGEST APPENDIX MEASURED MORE THAN 10 INCHES.

On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

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