Victorian Death, Memento Mori, and the Stop and Gawk Factor

I don’t know about “useful” or “reliable,” at least not today, but I’m sure fascinating would be an appropriate adjective.

I know that I’ve more than a passing interest in history- especially the Victorian era and the 1940’s- but as I was watching (yet another) documentary on Abraham Lincoln I learned where some of America’s most bizarre funerary traditions come from.  Being the curious sort that I can be (especially on the macabre or just plain weird) I decided to research a bit more.

Embalming is not a new science, and wasn’t a new science in Victorian times either.  The ancient Egyptians and some other desert cultures were into embalming due to their beliefs concerning the afterlife, but until the 19th century it was seldom practiced in European cultures.  In the US, embalming was a common practice during the Civil War (a whole industry sprung up around preserving dead soldiers so they could be sent home and buried) and even President Lincoln   was embalmed (the only way he would have survived the train ride back to Springfield in sort of one piece) but it fell out of favor here in the US until the early 20th century, when open casket funerals became popular.  Some of the chemicals used in 19th century embalming would certainly not be looked upon favorably by today’s regulatory agencies.  Arsenic was one of the more popular preservatives.

The Victorians were big on postmortem pictures too, which if nothing else, to the modern eye are nice little reminders of the concept of memento mori (remember your own mortality.)  It’s hard enough for us today to grasp the concept of mortality because most people die shoved off into a hospital or nursing home.  It would offend most modern sensibilities to go around taking pics of dead people.  Why the open casket funeral – a custom I find distasteful- is so popular in a culture that denies the reality of death, I’ll never know.  Jessica Mitford offered her insight on the subject in the book, The American Way of Death, which I highly recommend.

Most of us find the idea of taking pics of dead people to be creepy, but if you couldn’t afford to take a pic of your loved one when he/she was alive, you’d find the scratch to have someone take the pic when your loved one died, because that would be the only tangible memory left.  Hopefully the photographer would make it before the loved one started to rot.  Some photographers were very skillful in the art of “restoration”- retouching the pictures to make the subject look a little less dead, while others weren’t so good.

The eyes!!!!  Zombie Baby’s gonna eat me!

I think some photographers tried to feign “life likeness” by the angle of the shot, etc.  I can’t tell if this little girl is dead or not:

If she is alive, she’s not too thrilled about having her pic taken.

For me these kind of visuals are in the same category as the impulse to stop and gawk when driving by an accident on the freeway.  Everyone does it.  It’s not a phenomenon reserved for Central Ohio during rush hour.

I live just down the road from a Moose club, a VFW and two bars.  I get to witness DWI busts every freaking weekend (and sometimes during the week) from the comfort of my front porch.  Last week the cops nabbed some poor dude in a Chevy Cobalt who had gotten stuck in the small ditch just a few yards from my house.  Cobalt Dude was so blitzed he couldn’t touch his nose with his finger, (let alone walk the line) and upon inspection he had a pocket full of drug paraphenalia that was splayed across the decklid of the cruiser and photographed.  It was the same cop who, a few years ago, had dragged Steve-o in at 2AM- the one who’s about 6’8″, and I’d say a good 300#, and has a bit of an attitude.  So it was no surprise when Officer Titan asked this unfortunate lush and/or stoner to lean up against the cruiser, then to hold out his right hand (promptly cuffed) and then his left hand (brought together with the right and also promptly cuffed.)  Cobalt Dude not only got to ride in a police car, he got to go to jail too.

Arguing with Officer Titan is a Bad Idea.

I need a video camera, though I’ve not bothered to acquire one. The temptation to film Jerry in his oft-performed role as Tipsy Mc NumbNuts is irresistable, and if I had the camera I would do it.  Cruel and inhumane as it may sound, it would be a blast to record his incidents for posterity, as well as the DWI busts I get to witness right in front of my house.  My life is surrounded by YouTube gold.

Which reminds me, I need to try to find a replacement for the magazine tube for his .22 that he lost whilst attempting to clean it while completely effed up.   I tried to tell him that it’s not appropriate to attempt to clean one’s gun after chugging the better part of a NattyPack (30 twelve ounce beers) but what the hell do I know?

Drunks-n-guns: It never turns out good.

It Wasn’t Always Better Back Then, Senile Agitation, and Slightly Macabre

Let’s just give old, agitated, belligerent, senile Gramps some Thorazine! That will calm his wrinkled ass down!

Never mind that:  Chlorpromazine (the generic name for Thorazineis not for use in psychotic conditions related to dementia.  Chlorpromazine may cause heart failure, sudden death, or pneumonia in older adults with dementia-related conditions.

Apparently, barring the possibility that a lot of old people back then were on Thorazine to treat tetanus,  this stuff must have killed off a few geezers back in 1960-whatever. Today we know better.  We get them hooked on Oxycontin now.

Tetanus does not look like it would bring a “peaceful death.”  Unless you’re a contortionist.

That reminds me, I probably should get a tetanus shot.  The last one I had was when I fell on the coffee table back in 2003 and had to have a buttload of stitches to fix the gash in my knee.  It left a pretty funky scar, and after the Lidocaine and stitches I couldn’t give a rat’s ass less about one more needle stick.  That was before I ended up diabetic and had to give myself shots every day.  That will put you off the fear of needles with the quickness, though I will grant that insulin shots are given subcutaneously (in the skin) and with a tiny, tiny short pen needle, so that’s no big deal anyway.

I’ve not encountered as many angry old people as I do angry young people.  Perhaps their type-A personalities kill the angry/disgruntled/perfectionist type people off young, so that the odds of living to be both old and pissed off at the world aren’t so good.  I’d like to think that age (and having more resources) can buy one a certain ability to forgo social interaction to a large degree, so the genuine piss ants out there quarantine themselves.  I know of one evil old bitty that was exactly like that.  She lived across the street from my parents when I was a little kid.  The only reason I was aware of her existence (and her seething rage) was that she subscribed to the newspaper.  Back then the kids that ran the paper route also had to collect the payments- usually once a month, but some people were so cheap you had to go collect every week.

The local paper was $1.35 a week.  Some asswipes made us chase them down every week- for $1.35.  Then again, today no parent in his/her right mind would let their kids go door to door to collect money for any reason, but those were more innocent times.

Thankfully Mrs. Crotchety paid by the month, but it was begrudgingly, and you had to listen to her tirade about how hard it was for her to wander the four feet from her chair to answer the door, how the paper is really crappy for how much you have to pay for it, and that whoever was delivering papers that day (either me or my sister- not the sadist, the almost normal one) had better be sure to put her paper in a plastic bag on the porch right next to the door because she wasn’t going to pay for a wet paper.

Mrs. Crotchety also had a bad habit of screaming out the door at neighborhood kids in the winter if they would dare to scoop up a handful of snow from her yard (even if obtained from the sidewalk) to throw a snowball.   If you did that, you risked having Mrs. Crotchety screeching out the door at you: “Put back my snow!  Right now or I’ll call the police!”

Don’t you brat kids go stealing my snow again!

The only good part of her threats was that she must have had the police on speed dial, because I think they learned to ignore her.  Then again, even in a real emergency, the police response time wasn’t so hot.  Not too long after Mrs. Crotchety died, my best friend almost got killed by her psycho boyfriend. It took the cops 23 minutes to show up after I called 911.  Had she not clobbered him with a hair spray can and knocked him through the shower door, he would have stabbed her to death.  At least 80’s hair was good for something.

Who would have thought?  Aquanet saves lives!

Anyway, old Mrs. Crotchety never had any visitors.  Her husband had died years and years earlier, and her kids had gotten the hell out of Dodge even before that.  The only time anyone came to her door was my sister or me, when we were collecting for the paper, and the unfortunate meter reader for the water company.  By the time Mrs. Crotchety died- by then she had to have been 90 at the very least- though I would guess about 115- my sister and I had long since moved beyond delivering the paper, so we were thankful not to have to encounter her.

Let’s hope someone took the “open casket funeral” off the table for Mrs. Crotchety.

It was the poor meter reader who smelled something funky.  It was about this time of year- high summer- when the health department finally investigated the house and discovered Mrs. Crotchety’s extremely decomposed corpse.  The entire house had to be gutted, and the health department had to have a HazMat crew come in to fumigate the joint.   Time of death?  The coroner opined that she probably expired sometime that previous February.  Since the furnace had stopped working, either she froze to death, or she died and then the furnace stopped (who knows?) so she didn’t really start to rot real good until April or May.

Nobody noticed mail piling up, because she had a slot in the door.  I’m sure the only mail she got was bills and her SS checks.  The only way anyone would have noticed mail piling up is if her entire living room would have filled up with mail.  I’m somewhat surprised the mailman didn’t smell something weird, but he was an incorrigible lush (sometimes you would find him napping propped up against a tree, or sitting in his truck) and a pervert who liked to read other people’s magazines (namely mine, as I would get supposedly “new” magazines defiled with peanut butter fingerprints all over them.)  I don’t think he noticed anything.  Perhaps the combo of rotgut liquor and a guilty conscience over defacing my National Lampoons killed off his olfactory faculties, or maybe he smelled worse than a rotting dead body.  I do know he was replaced eventually- when he got popped for DUI while driving the mail truck.

If you die alone and rot, it will leave a mark.

Mrs. Crotchety died before the days of the “I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up” buttons.  If she’d had one of those it would have saved the health department a lot of work.  Maybe that’s where that technology came from, because health departments across the country were tired of having to peel dead old fossils off the carpet.

Oh, and back in the day:

Did you know Ovaltine could make you wake up gay?