Traveling with the Dead
And I say I’m dead, and I move.
Laura and several others have asked me some variation of the same question: Do dead people ever move?
I’ve talked about rigor mortis and cadaveric spasm before, and how some corpses like to toss things off the embalming table, but this question refers more to old wives’ tales of bodies sitting upright, or otherwise acting like extras in the cold open for a zombie or vampire movie. When I was just a wee deathling, I would often read “Believe it or not”-style accounts of corpses sitting up, usually attributed to the buildup of gas. I’ve personally never had a corpse sit up, no matter how gassy they might be, and every other modern mortician’s account I’ve found debunks that particular myth. Sorry to burst that spooky little bubble.
If it’s any consolation, however, many dead bodies do groan. You may have heard the phrase “death rattle”–that’s the colloquial term for terminal respiratory secretions. As a person nears death, they sometimes lose the ability to swallow, causing saliva and phlegm to build up in their throat and produce a choking or gargling sound as they breathe. Those accumulated fluids remain after death, and that same rattling moan will continue whenever air is pushed through the windpipe. I encounter it most frequently while rolling a body from side to side or lifting their head. It’s definitely an unsettling experience the first few times one hears it.
While the dead may not move on their own, they do have other options available. We have third-party transport services entirely dedicated to making long-distance removals and deliveries, and I’ve dropped off many dead people at the airport. Most of them are embalmed for shipping, but for those whose religious beliefs preclude it, ice packs and a well-sealed container are also an option. Repatriation of the deceased happens less often, but is still a regular occurrence. In cases of international travel, the necessary paperwork takes weeks to process, so thorough embalming is extremely important. Stoker may or may not be right about the dead traveling fast, but he was definitely correct about the legal assistance they require.
I recently learned that a family can choose to transport their own dead. I embalmed a man whose relatives decided to drive him out of state themselves. Given the cost of mileage and airfare, this seems entirely reasonable to me. Mind you, you must work with a licensed funeral provider on both ends of the journey for this to be legal. You can’t just pack Dad up for one last road trip without paperwork.
Another, entirely different Laura asks about people being buried or cremated with personal items like glasses and jewelry. When it comes to burial, grave goods are an ancient tradition, and you can be buried with just about anything if it fits in the casket. It’s fairly common for the deceased to wear their jewelry for a public viewing, and then have it removed and returned to the family when the casket is closed. Some families do choose to inter those valuables with the decedent, however. Exhumation is possible, after all, if someone changes their mind.
Cremation, on the other hand, is permanent. That may seem obvious, but we have to specifically state that during arrangement conferences and have people sign a form, so clearly someone at some point believed otherwise. When it comes to cremating grave goods, the question is simply, will it burn? Photographs, letters, stuffed animals, clothing, cigarettes–these are all things we commonly find being sent along for cremation. Metal is a different story. Medical implants like pins, screws, and joints will be left behind after the cremation process, and are usually sent off for recycling. Things like glasses and jewelry can be placed with the cremated remains if a family so chooses, but don’t belong in the retort. We can bury your uncle with his golf clubs; we cannot cremate them.
What also cannot be cremated are any medical devices that contain batteries–pacemakers, defibrillators, pain stimulators, etc. The battery will explode, and can damage the cremation chamber. These devices must be removed prior to cremation, and are also sent away for medical recycling.*
We don’t expect the general public to know about exploding pacemakers. That’s a niche sort of fact that a person could easily live their life without encountering. However, there are other things that ought not be exposed to open flame. Things like, say, live ammunition. This is why we triple-check everything where cremation is concerned. Very recently a decedent at my funeral home was being prepared for cremation after a visitation, and the crematory operator found some extra personal effects that had been slipped into their pocket. Including a bullet. Dear reader, no one in the funeral home was amused that day. No matter how funny you may think it is to send someone off “with a bang,” funerary staff are fragile creatures who should not be exposed to unexpected loud noises.
* Fun fact: when a pacemaker stops working, it beeps like a smoke detector with dying batteries. We have a box full of them waiting to be recycled. It took me at least a month working in the funeral home before I figured out what that noise was.
The dead hunger for your questions! Submit them through our form at thedeadlands.com, or ask @stillsostrange on Twitter.
Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.