Bring the Meteor to the Skeleton
Christopher asks, “In modern times, what precautions are taken to ensure that someone is not buried alive?”
Very few, I’m afraid. None of our standard caskets come with emergency bells or breathing tubes, and the cement vault or grave liner would impede rescue. For the typical modern burial, the person will probably sit in refrigeration for a day or three before being embalmed. While waking up in our cooler might not be a pleasant experience, it would be preferable to waking up on the table. Once I get my hands on your carotid artery, you’re definitely not being buried alive. For decedents whose traditions call for rapid burial without embalming… In those cases, we must put our trust in modern medicine and hope for the best.
Jeremy wants to know: “How important, or what a distraction, [is] smelling things is in your line of work. … Do you need to be able to detect smells, to do your job properly?”
One’s sense of smell is definitely much abused in a mortuary. Decay, putrefaction, blood, urine, feces, and harsh chemicals are the primary culprits. Mostly a functional sense of smell is just a small misery. I become temporarily nose-blind to a certain level of stench an hour or so into a shift, only to eventually step outside and realize how much of the prep room is still clinging to my clothes. Some smells are bad enough that I never become inured to them.
There are a few instances, though, where a sense of smell is useful. I’ve mentioned tissue gas before: Clostridium perfringens, the nasty little bacteria that accelerates decomp and can’t be killed by normal embalming fluid. Tissue gas has visual and tactile markers that morticians use to identify it, but those aren’t always obvious. The smell, however, is very distinctive. Once you open the jugular, you’ll know.
Bedsores are another distinctive and profoundly unpleasant smell. (Everything about bedsores is profoundly unpleasant.) A decubitus ulcer on a decedent’s tailbone might be missed when we first look them over, but once they’re on the table, the odor is quite noticeable. If I’m ever staring at an otherwise fresh corpse wondering why I smell rot, the answer is nearly always a bedsore.
I’m fairly acclimated to embalming fluid by now, but I still notice an excess. If the ventilation system isn’t working properly, the prep room will become markedly “spicy.” If I smell cavity fluid (helpfully cinnamon-scented, you may recall) after I’ve finished suturing my incisions, I know the person is leaking somewhere.
Adam asks, “How can I become a skeleton?”
Never fear, the power was inside you all along! The power is inside all of us!
The trick, of course, is to keep all your bones accounted for and articulated. That part is more complicated. It also depends very much on whether you want to be an educational skeleton or an heirloom skeleton.
Becoming an educational skeleton is fairly straightforward. There are many types of anatomical donation—your remains can go to a body farm, or be embalmed to later be dissected by gleeful medical or mortuary students. You can also specify osteology donation, whereby your bones will end up at a museum, university, or other facility for scientific research.
According to the website of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in New Mexico: “Through a weeks-long maceration process that takes place at the Office of the Medical Investigator, the soft tissue is removed from the skeleton. Once fully skeletonized, the remains are moved to the Laboratory’s repository, where each individual skeleton is housed in an archival-grade box.” Maceration, in this context, is a form of controlled putrefaction, the stage of decomposition where proteins are broken down by anaerobic bacteria. As opposed to decay, which is aerobic decomposition (“aerobic” meaning that it requires oxygen, not Jazzercise). I don’t know if any facilities use dermestid beetles to clean human skeletons, but I hold out hope.
If you want to become a skeleton but not a teaching assistant, I don’t have helpful answers. Human remains are legally considered quasi-property in America, for purposes of disposition, and forms of disposition are very limited. Options are slowly broadening to include processes like alkaline hydrolysis and human composting, but right now there aren’t any legal avenues of which I am aware to willing your skeleton to your family or loved ones. If I learn of any, I’ll let you know. (Please do not attempt to skeletonize your own relatives. Even if they ask you nicely.)
The necromancer welcomes questions from all future skeletons! No need to cast your own bones—submit them through our portal at thedeadlands.com, or to @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.