William Faloon is a Licensed Funeral Director and Embalmer (Florida license number: F042784)
Human beings are largely unaware about the gruesome nature of “death”
Humans also shy away from the mutilation that occurs during hospital surgery.
Hollywood films portray cryonics in a glamorous high-tech manner that makes it appear that one’s body can easily be placed into a capsule and frozen for future revival.
Reality is that cryopreservation involves complex surgery whereby tubes are inserted into major arteries and veins in order to deliver special anti-freeze solutions into the brain. The purpose is to reduce or eliminate freezing damage and other types of damage to brain cells. The process involves introducing stabilizing drugs and a special solution in the field and a major procedure in an operating room.
There’s nothing pretty about human cryopreservation, but as you’ll read, the alternatives are truly ghastly—and every alternative involves the head eventually separating from the body.
We deceive ourselves
When I worked as a licensed embalmer, I was quite talented at taking horrific human remains and making them look good temporarily. In order to do this, a tremendous amount of mutilation was done to each corpse.
First step is to wire or sew their mouths shut. Incisions are made in the neck, groin and other areas to access arteries to insert tubes that were used to force formaldehyde in. Veins are accessed (raised) to push blood out.
While formaldehyde delivered through blood vessels preserves tissues of the body, it does little to keep cavities (such as the stomach, bowels, lungs and cranium) from putrefying. To keep the body from decomposing before burial, we used a device that resembles a thick hollow sword to repeatedly penetrate the body cavities to vacuum out as much of the liquid contents as possible. We would then reverse the process by pouring formaldehyde directly into the thoracic and abdominal cavities and sometimes the brain. Sometimes the same sword (trocar) used to evacuate the bowels was shoved up the nose through the sinuses to suck out cerebral-spinal fluid in the cranium.
When I learned how to do this in mortuary school, I thought how undignified the entire process is. Without embalming, however, the outcome is even worse.
It’s frightening how quickly a living, breathing, thinking person can be transformed into a rotting, stinking corpse. A few days at room temperature and the stench can become so bad that it can never be removed from the house, car or clothing.
When picking up a decomposed body, it was not unusual for its arms to literally be ripped off when trying to move the remains into a rubber pouch. Skin slips right off the body after a few days making the removal of a “decomposed subject” a challenge.
A decomposed corpse is often severely bloated with intestinal and “tissue” gas, discolored beyond recognition, and carries the most horrific of odors. The challenge is to dump enough preservative powders and liquids into the rubber-pouch encased corpse and then place the pouched corpse into a sealed casket and hope that no foul aroma leaks out.
Those who don’t like the thought of being “embalmed” sometimes mandate in their will that no embalming is to take place. They are thus condemned to grisly decomposition in the ground or tomb.
Cremation is no escape
The process of preparing corpses to look like living individuals laying in a coffin is less common than in the 1960s, when virtually every corpse was embalmed for a “viewing”.
More people nowadays opt for direct cremation, where the body is refrigerated temporarily and then placed into a furnace. The flames ignite the body fat which can sometimes be seen exiting the corpse in little rivers. In order to incinerate the brain midway through the cremation process, a small door is opened into the furnace where a steel poker is rammed into the skull to “pop out” the brain tissues.
After all the soft tissues have been burned away, the skeletal remains are taken out and ground into smaller pieces which become the “cremains” or ashes.
During the cremation process, needless to say, the head becomes separated from the body as the flames burn through the spinal cord and other connective tissues.
Considering this was a functioning human being only a day or two before, there certainly is no dignity with this process. As with embalming and decomposing, cremation is quite “gruesome”.
Autopsy—the ultimate mutilation
The meticulous dissection of a corpse known as an “autopsy” is the most intentional and egregious form of mutilation that one can imagine.
Your odds of having this horrific process done to you are higher than you may think, as most counties autopsy anyone who dies under suspicious circumstances.
As you read this, just imagine someone taking a scalpel and carving a huge “Y” stretching from the top of both your shoulders and then meeting at the bottom of your breastbone. The incision continues to the bottom half of the “Y” down to your pubic area. A steel saw is then used to cut open your breastbone, your ribs are separated. Every one of your organs are cut out and sliced in many different pieces for “examination”.
The next step is to make an incision using a scalpel across the back of your head. Another saw is then taken to cut open your skull so that your brain can be removed, sliced and “examined”.
My first reaction to an autopsy was that is was so grotesque that it should be banned. From a practical standpoint, however, autopsies allow doctors to learn from their mistakes by seeing what actually was going on while their patient was dying, though this practice has declined dramatically over the past 40 years.
Autopsies nowadays are mostly performed by county Medical Examiners to determine the cause of death when there is no attending physician, or where a death occurs under suspicious circumstances.
Autopsies provide a lot of good data that benefits the living, but at the cost of horrendous mutilation to what was once a human being.
As an embalmer, putting together the pieces of an “autopsied case” took about four times longer than a regular case.
What happens after burial?
As I said earlier, I was darn good at taking corpses that were severely disfigured by degenerative disease and temporarily making them look good for a few days in the funeral home.
My work experience includes disinterring bodies that had been embalmed and buried years in the past. These cases arose when a family member wanted the buried body moved to a new city or cremated.
In rare cases, a corpse that had been in the ground for ten years or more was still “viewable” with a little cosmetic help. When this occurred, I would call the family and say, “if you want to see Dad again, he is in pretty good shape”.
In most cases, however, the remains here horrifically deteriorated. One case I will never forget reminded me of the original Frankenstein movies. The cemetery people opened the grave and I was supposed to meet the removal service company at 4:00 PM during the time of the year when the sun set early. The removal company was late and the cemetery people insisted that I get the body out of the ground before closing.
The top of the concrete burial vault was removed, exposing a deteriorating coffin. I went down into the grave, straddling myself by putting one foot on each side of the burial vault top for leverage. I ripped open the top of the coffin and saw one of the scariest looking corpses ever. The tissue literally had deteriorated in a way that resembled a thin layer of hot wax covering the skull. It truly looked frightening even to me.
My paid help was running late so I had to pull this deteriorated cadaver out of the ground by myself. I grabbed one arm and one leg, hoping to pull it out of the rotting coffin. The arm ripped off and the body fell back in. I tried other angles, but body parts kept separating from the torso. As body parts piled up around the grave, the removal service finally arrived and we lifted the entire body out of the buried coffin. Staring at this disfigured corpse in the eye, with body parts coming off left and right, as darkness was setting in was downright eerie.
Sometimes when doing a disinterment, there is virtually no body. One time we opened a fairly well preserved coffin to see only perfectly clean dentures, eye glasses and musty clothing. The reason for this was that flies had gotten into the corpse’s nostrils before burial and laid eggs. When the maggots hatched, they ate the entire body and possibly the bones. There were piles of dead maggots in the coffin, indicating they thrived quite well until they consumed their food supply, i.e. the corpse.
Needless to say, the head of virtually every buried remains will at some point separate from the body. Once the soft tissues disappear through deterioration, the bones simply fall apart.
So when you look at well kept cemeteries with meticulously cut fresh grass, remember the customers interred below are not doing so well.
Cable TV has science channels that show real operations occurring in the hospital setting.
Doctors narrate how challenging it is to do these surgeries without killing the patient. I view these programs with amazement from the standpoint that patients undergoing invasive surgery often look like they may be on death’s door, but then a week later they are shown playing basketball with their grandchild.
One procedure I recall was a patient being operated on to remove the parathyroid glands in the neck. A disease called primary hyperparathyroidism causes the excess secretion of parathyroid hormone that damages the body. The cure is meticulous surgery to identify and remove all of the parathyroid glands. If one is missed, the patient may have to undergo another grueling surgery. One woman had the bottom of her neck cut and the neck skin pulled over her face for what appeared to be hours of meticulous dissection of her neck tissues to remove all the parathyroid glands. To me, the women looked virtually dead, but she made a rapid recovery as seen on TV.
Cryo-preservation—Less gruesome and not abusive
One may remember movies of a perfectly sculpted Sylvester Stallone (and other actors) elegantly traveling through time in a frozen state and being revived in perfect condition.
Real world human cryo-preservation involves a complex surgical procedure followed by a long term of suspension in a stainless steel storage unit at a temperature where virtually no molecular motion exists. Nothing alluring about it, and when viewed out of context, may appear “gruesome”.
Most people are in denial about what will happen to their bodies when they die. They over react when they hear of someone’s head being surgically and chemically treated to protect brain cell injury during cryo-preservation. Overlooked is that any other form of disposition results in far more ghastly results for the victim of death.
Words like “gruesome” and “ghastly” are being used to describe the cryo-preservation of baseball legend Ted Williams. As stated in the beginning of this essay, what happens to a human body after death is undeniably horrific. Cryonics is merely less gruesome than anything else that is done to a corpse.
I hope this essay helps put cryo-preservation in perspective with more mutilating and appalling forms of disposition that deceased humans are exposed to every day. It should serve to educate the media that ALCOR patients are not being mutilated or “abused” by the complex protocols that are used to provide them with the best scientific opportunity of future revival, whatever the probability may be.