Reef Balls: An "Environmental" Option for the "Hippie" Generation?

“An Eternal Reef combines a cremation urn, ash scattering, and burial at sea into one meaningful, permanent environmental tribute to life”, states the Eternal Reef’s website; one of several companies that manufacture and deliver reef balls containing human remains into the ocean. Whilst being buried at sea has never seemed like an enjoyable or desirable disposition option, these companies are making the idea seem more and more appealing. Eternal Reef describes a four-day process of “casting” the remains into the concrete reef ball, followed by a day of setting and preparing the ball, with the viewing held on day three and the placement and dedication on day four. Families and friends are highly encouraged to participate, by placing handprints and handwritten messages on the reef ball itself, and attending the dedication on a boat provided by the company (for a fee per person, of course). This industry bills itself as an environmentally-friendly option to help rebuild underwater ecosystems in coastal areas such as Florida and the Gulf. The Reef Ball Foundation is a nonprofit set up to promote and implement these artificial reefs, although they do not involve themselves in the human remains aspect of the industry. Their website shows pictures of large concrete structures with holes placed in the concrete to allow for fish and other animals to form homes within them.

Reef ball         

However, there have been debates about just how environmentally-beneficial these reef balls may be. A Hawaiian neighborhood board recently voted against supporting a reef ball project, due to statements by scientists from the University of Hawaii that there would be no benefit to the ecosystem. These reef balls may just be another way for us to feel superficially “good” about ourselves; we damaged the environment during our lifetime, but that will be okay because we will help it in death! The commercialization of philanthropy has been a growing business practice (“buy a pair of shoes from us and our company will donate a pair to a poor child”), but this is one of the first ways it has reached the death industry. This form of memorialization doesn’t come cheaply, either. The body must still be cremated first (which has serious negative environmental impacts in itself), then the reef balls can run from $3,000 to $7,500. The dedication ceremony involves serious travel expense, which the company can facilitate for an additional fee. If the environmental impacts do turn out to be as beneficial as the companies claim: fantastic. However, if they fall short, reef balls may just be another method for the death industry to play into the hands of consumers who want to be conscious, and are willing to spend a lot of money to do so.

Charley Connor

Orchestra Pit at the Met Showered with More Than Just Cheers

Spooky things usually tend to happen around Halloween. Well, for some opera fans, Halloween was certainly in the air during an afternoon performance of Rossini's "Guillaume Tell" at New York's Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, October 29, 2016.

A 52- year-old man, who was seated in the first row, decided to sprinkle a powdery substance into the orchestra pit during the second intermission. According to John Miller, the New York Police Department's deputy commissioner in charge of intelligence and counterterrorism, the man, who has now been identified and is from Dallas, told other members of the audience that he was there to sprinkle the ashes of his mentor, a fellow opera lover, during the performance. 

New-York-Metropolitan-OperaMet officials were forced to cancel the rest of the "Guillaume Tell" performance on Saturday, as well as an evening performance of "L'Italiana in Algeri," so that the police could investigate the scene. Audience members were left in the dark, having originally been told that there was a technical issue during the intermission, as the Met officials decided how to proceed once the powder substance was found. Ultimately, nearly 4,000 spectators were told to leave, but as they exited, they noticed the counterterrorism unit entering the building, which was a bit alarming for some of the opera enthusiasts. Other audience members were disappointed that they did not get to experience the final Act, especially considering the fact that this opera had not been performed at the Met in more than 80 years before this season. The Met is offering refunds to the audience members that were forced to evacuate from the performance and is supposed to be open as of Monday, October 31. 

The police are still in the process of actually testing the powder that was found in the orchestra pit to determine if the powder is in fact human remains. Miller was quoted saying that while the disposal of ashes at an opera house may violate city codes, he doesn't "believe at this point that we see any criminal intent here." The Met General Manager said that this was the first time he has seen this happen in eleven years. But, Miller said in his experience, they have seen this in many public places, including monuments, stadiums and other venues, in attempts to honor their loved ones.

For an opera lover, the chance to have their ashes sprinkled at the New York Metropolitan Opera seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, or rather the after-lifetime, but obviously this poses some public health concerns, which is why the Met does not condone the continuing of this practice, as much as they appreciate those who love their performances and art. 

Alexa Gaudioso

Texas' New Fetal Remains Rules Implicate Legal, Religious, and Cultural Tensions

Just after Thanksgiving, Texas joined Indiana in requiring aborted fetuses to be cremated or buried, regardless of gestational age. The new rule, championed by Governor Greg Abbott and promulgated by the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, bars disposal of fetal remains in sanitary landfills.

After receiving considerable pushback, the commission clarified that the rules do not apply to abortions or miscarriages that occur at home, and do not require birth or death certificates to be filed. Still, opposition to the new measures is sizeable. Activists argue that requiring burial or cremation is expensive and that such costs will necessarily be passed on to patients. As such, opponents allege, the requirements are nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to restrict women’s access to abortions statewide.

These issues are complicated, for they implicate the perilous nexus between strongly held religious and cultural beliefs, on the one hand, and the law, on the other. At what point does a fetus stop being simply a mother’s tissue and become a living thing with all the requisite rights accorded to it? And, if the fetus is not yet anything more than tissue, what control may a woman exercise over it? Unfortunately, the law provides does little to resolve these uncertainties.

The issue is further complicated in that neither human tissue nor human remains are considered property in the typical sense of the word. If not property, what are they? Can they be owned? If so, by whom? The law, again, is of little guidance. As Professor Tanya Marsh noted, “[t]he question of what we own of ourselves – what is the legal status of biological material that’s been removed from us – there’s very little law about that, except to say that it’s not ours.”

Thus, it appears as exists no definite solution to the controversy in Texas. For if there exists presently unresolved legal ambiguities, what hope is there for reconciling associated religious and cultural tensions?

Mickey Herman

Cremation and the Perception of Death: The Vatican States that Cremated Remains should be Stored in a “Sacred Place”

Image result for catholic cremated remains

In recent years, cremation has become increasingly popular as a means of disposing of human remains. Cheaper than burial, cremation is more accessible for lower income families. As a result of increasing popularity, there are more cremated remains (“cremains”) than ever before. The question of how cremains should be treated after cremation often leads to difficult decisions by family members. Among other things, cremains may be buried, kept by family members, scattered in a meaningful place, preserved in pieces of jewelry or other mementos, or even grown into a tree. The question of how loved one’s cremains should be treated is a deeply personal question that reflects the family’s and the deceased individual’s perception of death.

The Vatican has recently chimed in on how Catholics should treat cremated remains. In 1963, the Vatican stated that the burial of deceased bodies should be the norm, but that cremation is not per se anti-Catholic, and Catholic funeral rites should not be denied to cremated individuals.  In response, however, to the growing popularization of cremation and the creativity with which cremains have been treated, the Vatican issued a statement declaring that cremains should be kept in “sacred place,” such as a church or cemetery. Treatment of cremains in other ways, such as incorporating the cremains into jewelry or scattering the cremains, is sacrilegious. This statement is a reflection of the Vatican’s dissatisfaction with changing views on the perception of death. In essence, the Vatican feels that the manner in which cremains are often treated in modern society reflect secular notions of death or other “New Age” perceptions of rebirth.   The new guidelines promulgated by the Vatican state “[b]y burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity.” As a result, individuals wishing to conform to Vatican guidelines must have special permission from a bishop to keep the cremains of a loved one at home.

The Vatican’s stance on the treatment of cremains reflects the shifting views related to the connection between the treatment of human remains and personal perceptions of the meaning of death.

Maria Collins

Abandoned Ashes Piling Up in Minnesota

As the popularity of cremation has risen, Minnesota’s funeral establishments have found themselves holding thousands of abandoned cremated remains.  This problem arises most often when the family members of the deceased are grieving, unwilling to accept their loved one is gone, or uncertain what to do with the cremated remains.  While most of these remains are collected within a few months some get abandoned at the funeral home or cremation facility for decades.  One funeral home owner estimated that there are 200-600 containers of deserted ashes at his 16 funeral homes, while another has remains that have gone unclaimed for over 60 years.

Under Minnesota law the funeral home must hold any unclaimed cremated remains for 30 days after the inurnment.  If, after that time, the remains remain unclaimed the funeral home must provide written notice to the person with the right of sepulcher.  This notice must inform that person that the remains are unclaimed and must also make a request for further release directions.  If after 120 following the mailing of the written notice there is no further directions, the establishment holding the cremated remains may dispose of the cremated remains in any lawful manner deemed appropriate.  Many funeral homes across Minnesota continue to hold the remains in case someone comes for them while others place the remains in a mausoleum so they are accessible in the event someone does come to claim them. 

Other states have similar statutory schemes that permit the disposition of unclaimed cremated remains.  In Ohio, a funeral home may dispose of unclaimed cremated remains in a grave, crypt, or niche if the remains are unclaimed after 60 days and there is no final stated disposition plan for the remains.  In Illinois, the funeral establishment in possession of unclaimed cremated remains may make a final disposition of the remains if no person entitled to legal custody of the remains has made a proper request for them within one year of the date of death.  While these statutes authorize funeral establishments to dispose of the cremated remains, many do not simply because someone someday may try to claim them.  One solution offered by a University of Minnesota mortuary science instructor is that funeral directors need to address the topic during the first meeting with the family and inform them what will happen to the remains if they are unclaimed for a specific period of time.  This might alleviate the burden felt by funeral homes to hold these cremated remains for an excessive period of time.

Elliott Harry

Oops, a Corpse! A Tale of Death, Garages, and the Law

On September 9, 2015, eleven days after the death of Reverend Anton Godfrey, those tasked with cleaning out his garage were in for a rude awakening when they uncovered four human bodies "in various states of decomposition," along with a box of cremated human remains and a (still yet-to-be-identified) bag of organs.  The family of one of the deceased, Brigitte Godfrey, is now suing Living Waters, the funeral home they paid $1,800 to cremate and "take care of" their loved one's body, on eight counts of negligence.  At least one of the other recovered bodies had also been previously released to Living Waters.

Per the Illinois Department of Financial Regulation, the reverend had been fined and served on multiple prior occasions to "cease and desist his in-home mortuary practices," and for running an "unlicensed practice of funeral directing and embalming."  By all accounts, however, Living Waters funeral home was in full compliance with the necessary requirements and regulations.  So how did we get here?

Presumably, the bodies released to Living Waters were entrusted to the reverend.  The Illinois Funeral Directors and Embalmers Licensing Code requires all licensed persons be "employed by or contracted with a fixed place of practice or establishment devoted to the care and preparation for burial or for the transportation of deceased human bodies."  Unlicensed persons may help in the transportation of remains "to assist in the removal," but only under "immediate, direct supervision of a licensee…"

To protect public interest and concern in the preparation, care, and final disposition of the deceased, Illinois law is particularly detailed when it comes to the practice of funeral directing.  Illinois law provides many avenues under which criminal action may be pursued against an individual or individuals who desecrate a grave or improperly disinter or abuse a corpse, but here, the individual in question is dead and the action is being pursued against the funeral home under a civil action for the tort of negligence.  The Illinois board of examiners in has in the past justly suspended the licenses of the funeral directors responsible for the employee, a decision upheld by the court in Biggs v. Dep't of Registration & Educ., 388 N.E.2d 1099 (App. Ct. 1979).  This sets the stage for a successful negligence action against Living Waters.

In other words…if you ask me, Living Waters's chances of prevailing are dead on arrival.

Jilliann Sexton

Why should time with your pets be limited to your life? In New York, your time can now be FURever

As a pet owner and an animal lover, I have come to know that over their short lifetime, pets become a member of your family. When a pet dies, even if your family later decides to adopt a new pet, the void is never truly filled from your beloved friend. Approximately 62% of American households own a pet, so this grieving process is fairly widespread. People grieve the loss of their pets in many ways and have turned to various methods of memorializing them postmortem. Many people decide to cremate their pets after they have passed, keeping the ashes nearby in their home, but the question has remained as to what to do with the pets' cremains when the owner eventually passes.

072315_PlaqueMaker_NewItems_cat-granite-headstone-1On September 26, 2016, Governor Cuomo helped to answer this question by signing legislation that allows New Yorkers to be buried with their pets' cremains in not-for-profit cemeteries. The new bill (S.2582/A.2647) allows pet owners the option to have their domestic pets' cremains buried with them, so long as they obtain the cemetery's written consent, but this legislation does not apply to cemeteries owned and operated by religious associations and societies. The interment of the pet cremains needs to be incidental to the burial of the human remains; they can be placed in a niche, crypt or a grave with their human. Not-for-profit cemeteries now will need to provide customers with an itemized list of charges pertaining to their pet's burial and any payments that are made for the pet interment are to be deposited into the permanent maintenance fund of the cemetery. 

This new legislation does not come without a lot of mixed emotions from New Yorkers. While animals cannot be buried by themselves in the human cemetery, many people do not like the idea that animals can now be buried in a plot next to where their loved one is at their final resting place. Other people are concerned with the cost that can be attributed to the addition of the pet, since the price of a burial is expensive as it is. Ultimately, there has been overwhelming support for this legislation considering that people now feel, as pet owners and lovers, their final wishes can be honored.

Alexa Gaudioso

Who pays for the mistake?: What Happens When the Wrong Body Gets Cremated

A recent story on a Boston local news channel reported that the family of a decedent who was cremated by mistake has filed a lawsuit against the funeral home and crematory who picked up and cremated the body for infliction of emotional harm.  The State of Massachusetts has also filed a complaint against the funeral home and crematory.

The mix up occurred when Casper Funeral Home arrived at the medical examiner’s office to pick up the body of Thomas Hickey, who was supposed to be cremated.  Apparently, the funeral home’s employees managed to pick up the body of Frannie Hickey, who was supposed to be buried, instead.  Unfortunately, by the time someone realized a mix up had occurred, Frannie had already been cremated.

But is this really something to sue over?  That depends on who you ask.  Some commenters on the story are appalled that the family is bringing suit, accusing them of seeking to profit from the funeral home’s mistake.  Others are sympathetic, noting that the funeral home’s negligence has adversely impacted the family and the funeral home should not get off the hook.

The actual wrong in this situation appears to be depriving someone of the right to determine the place and method of disposition of the body.  But to provide a cause of action for that right being violated, don’t we have to know whose right it is in the first place?  Is it the decedent who has been deprived of having his or her wishes fulfilled? Or is it the living members of the family?

Massachusetts regulations provide that a funeral establishment should first give effect to the wishes of the deceased as to disposition, which have been expressed in a written document.  Only if there is not such a written document does Massachusetts law appear to permit a decedent’s kin to make a decision about disposition.  So here, it appears that it is the decedent, not really the family members, who is being deprived of a legal right. If the decedent’s rights are being violated, should family members really have a claim for emotional harm when it is not their right that has been violated?  On the other hand, absent a statutory remedy, are they left without any recourse against the funeral home and crematory?

In my opinion, the answer is that we have to let the legislature decide.  State legislatures should work to have a clear statute with a clear remedy in place so families know what sort of claim to bring when mistakes like this happen.

Donald C. Morgan

Danger Zoning: Denial of Crematory Plans by Local Planning and Zoning Commissions

A town zoning commission in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania recently denied a local funeral home owner’s proposal to establish a crematory inside the town.  The story in the Citizen’s Voice, a local newspaper, reported on the denial.  This is not the only instance in which a town has denied a plan to establish a crematory inside a city.  For example, in Peters Township in Pennsylvania, the city planning commission sent a recommendation to deny a request for a special exemption for a crematory (the planning commission also denied a proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance that would have allowed the crematory).  See Andrea Zrimsek, Planning Commision Votes to Deny Crematory, Zoning Ordinance Amendment, Peters Patch (Mar. 16, 2011) 

Often, these proposals are opposed, not just by zoning commissions, but by local residents.  In fact, in both of the cases mentioned above, it appears that one of the driving factors in the commissions’ decisions was public opposition from local residents. While residents express a variety of concerns, the largest concern generally seems to be air quality and emission issues.  In addition to emissions concerns, residents are often worried about the possibility of mercury being released into the air, which can occur when a corpse with mercury amalgam dental fillings is cremation.

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Is Smoking Cremains Abuse of Corpse?

Keith Richards,   dad,   1983 NYC cliffIn a 2007 interview, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards admitted to mixing his father's cremains with cocaine and snorting them.  He told the interviewer, “I snorted my father. He was cremated and I couldn’t resist grinding him up with a little bit of blow.  My dad wouldn’t have cared, he didn’t give a shit. It went down pretty well, and I’m still alive.” 

After the story was reported, Richards and his publicist claimed the story was taken out of context and was just an illustration to show how close Richards was to his father.  However, in his autobiography Richards comes clean saying, ‘The truth of the matter is that after having Dad’s ashes in a black box for six years…I finally planted a sturdy English oak to spread him around. And as I took the lid off of the box, a fine spray of his ashes blew out on to the table. I couldn’t just brush him off so I wiped my finger over it and snorted the residue. Ashes to ashes, father to son. He is now growing oak trees and would love me for it.”

Similarly, members of Tupac Shakur’s band, Outlawz, smoked his ashes to pay tribute to the lyrics in Tupac’s song “Black Jesus.” 

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