death (un) ltd.
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Death (un) Ltd.
April, 2012, Page 226
Photos by Kristen Wright
Examination tables await fresh donors at Banner Sun Health Research Institute’s Brain and Tissue Bank in Sun City.
What happens to your body after death? Probably what you expect – but then again, this is Arizona, so maybe not.
The pathologists wheel you out of the elevator and place you on the examination table. Respectfully, but not gently. One of them makes a steady, confident incision across the back of your skull. Another cuts a large Y-pattern over your torso, revealing subcutaneous fat of a creamy yellow tint you’ve never seen before. Soon, your body is a painter’s easel of vivid and alien colors and exposed organ structures. You begin emitting smells that offer no polite comparison. Your brain is removed, weighed, photographed and sliced into pathological cutlets that will be shipped to labs all across the world. Your other major organs are similarly broadcast. Going out into the world. To advance knowledge. To do good. You died all of 67 minutes ago.
Dying in Arizona isn’t terribly different than dying anywhere else in America, circa 2012. If you’re a perfectly average Arizonan, you can expect to live 79.9 years, which is slightly longer than the national mean. Your chances of contracting some lethal form of cancer – even skin cancer, surprisingly – are somewhat lower across the board in sun-drenched Arizona than elsewhere in the United States; then again, your chances of being murdered are about 30 percent greater. Our heart disease rates are about average.
As elsewhere in the United States, your length and quality of life are largely predicated on your cultural background and area code; for example, if you live in Apache County, where inferior health services and widespread smoking and alcohol consumption conspire against longevity, your life expectancy is about six years less than the state mean. Again, this doesn’t make Arizona special. Every state has its Apache County, its Compton, its Ozarks.
The point being, you never know. All you do know is that we all die. It’s an inescapable, all-equalizing universal axiom that probably should give us comfort and perspective, but rarely does.
If dying in Arizona lacks singular quality, one cannot say the same about the fate of your corpse. The Valley, in particular, is an exceedingly interesting place for the dead. You could be rushed to the world’s biggest “brain bank,” a cutting-edge Alzheimer’s research facility in Sun City where your still-living neurons will facilitate a cure for a disease that afflicts 26 million people worldwide. Or you may choose to have your cryopreserved corpse packed into a stainless-steel tank at sub-zero temperatures; years later, given specific scientific advances, you’ll live once again.
To walk. To talk. To root for the Suns. You can’t do that in most places – even California.
Or, your cremated remains could be fashioned into a diamond ring. (This one’s not specific to Arizona, admittedly, but more of us do it than you think.)
To be sure: Death is different in Arizona. We’ve made it opaque and complex, and if you scrutinize it long enough, and focus your eyes beyond its black horizon, you’ll surely see possibilities.
Mortuary professional Bill Gabriel displays one of the cardboard boxes used during cremation at his look-in crematorium in El Mirage. Cremation accounts for more than half of all dispositions in Arizona.
Cryopreservation or brain donation isn’t in the cards for most of us. We’ll die and embark on one of the more mundane, customary journeys of final rest: burial or cremation. But even as we do so, we make a choice that says something about us as a culture. And that fact hasn’t escaped Bill Gabriel.
For a guy who spent the morning cleaning a crematorium, Gabriel is eerily well-groomed: pressed slacks, white dress shirt, smartly-knotted necktie, and not even a whisper of ash. In fact, the only clue that Gabriel recently spent an hour sweeping pulverized human remains out of a bus-sized oven is the thin sheet of perspiration that never quite leaves his brow. “You learn how to stay clean in this line of work,” he says with a bashful grin.
Gabriel loves his work. And with his retiring temperament, reassuring smile and hyper-vigilant attention to detail, he’s quite good at it. The former cable TV installer enrolled in mortuary school in the late 1980s and ultimately hooked on with Sunwest Cemetery near the retiree sprawl of Sun City, rising to the position of funeral director for both the cemetery and its associated cremation service, the Cremation Society of Arizona. Gabriel is something of an outlier in the mortuary industry. For starters, he’s a self-described “hard-line liberal” in a field that tends to swing conservative. He’s also a maverick innovator, finding new ways to tap the end-of-life market in a part of Arizona where the end of life is a way of life.
There are several avenues for a dead body to find its way to Gabriel’s care. A person could pass away from “natural” – i.e. unsuspicious – causes and come directly to the funeral home via hearse. Gabriel gets a lot of those, often freshly trucked in from the many hospitals and hospice-care facilities in the Sun City area. Other corpses take a more circuitous route. Any suspicious or unwitnessed death, especially in individuals 65 years and younger, is referred to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner (ME) and its team of investigators. About 5,000 bodies pass through the ME’s Forensic Science Center in Downtown Phoenix annually; of those, roughly 60 to 70 percent receive a full autopsy, according to sources familiar with the ME. For the remaining 30 to 40 percent, the ME performs an “external examination” in which investigators look for evidence of physical trauma and withdraw blood for toxicology panels. If your spouse poisons you with nerium oleander from your backyard, presumably this is where the crime would be exposed.
Suffice to say, most bodies that come to Gabriel from the ME perish under less exotic circumstances – a drug overdose, perhaps, or a congenital heart defect that went undetected. If the corpse has been autopsied, and the family wants an open-casket burial, it can be problematic for Gabriel; any arteries or cardiovascular structures damaged during the autopsy will curtail the effectiveness of the machine he uses to bilge blood from the corpse and replace it with embalming fluid. In such cases, Gabriel must painstakingly stitch the arteries back together, as if repairing a doll.
Gabriel has no particular preference for the expensive, chemically-intensive process of preparing a corpse for an open-casket service; in fact, he was the first funeral director in the Valley to offer a “green” burial option, a cheaper (about $6,000) and more environmentally-neutral disposition in which the decedent is laid to rest in a four-foot hand-dug grave, sans embalming fluid or any other toxic agent. “No shoes, and the clothing is biodegradable,” he says, toeing a piece of the remote, gravel-strewn plot at Sunwest that he reserves strictly for green burials. There are no headstones or obvious grave markers here. The burials are marked solely by small steel ID tags hidden in the grass. The bodies themselves are placed in simple, instantly compostable cardboard boxes.
The Cremation Society of Arizona’s five-ton crematory
Gabriel says green burials haven’t caught on in Arizona, but “they’re really popular in Washington and Canada and other places with a tradition of eco-mindedness.” The main objection people have, he says, is the impossibility of an open-casket service. Arizona law stipulates that corpses must be embalmed for open viewings.
The human desire to gaze one last time upon a departed loved one led to another Gabriel innovation – the Valley’s first mourner-friendly crematorium. Located in a nondescript freestanding building behind the main funeral home, the Cremation Society of Arizona sounds like a social club, and it smells like one, too – strawberry air freshener greets mourners as they pass through the main entrance into a cozy foyer lined with tasteful urns of various sizes and price-points. A double-paned, curtained display window dominates the far wall. With the click of a button, the curtain retreats on a mechanized track to reveal a foundry-like chamber. In the center of the chamber rests the five-ton cremator oven that will incinerate your corpse after your survivors bid farewell to your body from behind the reinforced window.
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