Mt Zion 4- A Lurid Shimmering of Pale Light
- photo by Mitch Waxman
Befuddled by the sing song chantie evinced by those horrible children, in whose frog like faces your humble narrator found some nameless dread and whose terrible attention initiated his flight into sylvan Mount Zion, I wandered in a haze of unknowable panic through the 72 acre graveyard. Notions of familiar aspect- the smiling face of “our Lady of the Pentacle”, the friendly greeting of my little dog- Zuzu- kept me grounded and allowed me to ignore some of the macabre details of the landscape. Crazed, however, my racing thoughts began to tangentially ruminate…
Kevura, or burial, should take place as soon as possible after death. The Torah requires burial as soon as possible, even for executed criminals. This means that burial will usually take place on the same day as death, or, if not possible, the next day. Some Reform and other congregations delay burial to allow more time for far-flung family to come to the funeral and participate in the other post-burial rituals.
The traditional practice may have originated from the fact that Israel was, and is, a country with a hot climate. In Biblical times, there were few ways of keeping the dead body from decomposing. Not only would this be generally undesirable, but allowing the dead body of any person to decompose would be showing that person great disrespect. Decomposition would have occurred especially quickly in Israel due to the constant heat. Thus, the custom of burying the body as soon as possible. (Although the practice of embalming and mummification had advanced to a high level in Egypt, this, too, is considered disrespectful, since it involves a great deal of manipulation and the removal of bodily organs.) In addition, respect for the dead can be seen from many examples in the Torah and Tanakh. For example, one of the last events in the Torah is the death of Moses when God himself buries him: “[God] buried him in the depression in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor. No man knows the place that he was buried, even to this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:6)
- photo by Mitch Waxman
My eyes shot from side to side, the tombstones led me to a fortified enclosure, and half remembered minutiae nervously filled my mind…
The tiny stones, often adorned with a lamb, are the graves of children.
Vulnerable to a host of infections which have been conquered by modern science (at least in the west), the large families characteristic of the pre World War 2 era were an insurance policy for a bloodline’s future in a world without antibiotics. Don’t forget, even the son of an American President died in 1862, most likely from Typhoid fever after drinking tainted water. As late as 1963, the son of John Kennedy died from a disease whose mortality is reduced to 15% in modernity. In my own family- Great Grandmother had 13 children, of which only 7 survived to adulthood. Of the 7 survivors- all of whom emigrated to the United States prior to 1920, all of their children (with the exception of one gruesome early death due to a malfunctioning boat propellor) lived into -at least- their late 60’s, and almost all of their grand kids are still around. In the developing world, infant mortality figures are consistent, however, with the larger experience of historical record as represented at Mount Zion.
Some have a custom to visit the cemetery on fast days (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 559:10) and before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (581:4, 605), when possible, and for a Yahrzeit. During the first year the grave may be visited on the shloshim, and the yartzeit.
Even when visiting Jewish graves of someone that the visitor never knew, he or she may place a small stone at the graveside. This shows that someone visited the graveside, and represents permanence. Leaving flowers is not a traditional Jewish practice. Another reason for leaving stones is tending the grave. In Biblical times, gravestones were not used; graves were marked with mounds of stones, so by placing (or replacing) them, one perpetuated the existence of the site. This was also helpful for Cohanim, who needed to avoid spiritual impurity that could be passed on by corpses/graves.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
Trapped in a thanatic trance… eternally staring ceramic eyes accusing me… if only those nightmare children would stop their singing…
Many of the older headstones at Mount Zion, whose creeds list the age of the deceased, indicate a world where life was short. Men dropped off in their middle 40’s and 50’s with a few remarkable individuals who survived into their 60’s. Women were either longer lived- no doubt due to the domestic captivity they suffered which insulated them from the dangerous industrial milieu that typified the manufacturing and agricultural occupations of the males- or died in childbirth (leading cause of female mortality throughout recorded history) due to septic conditions or uncontrollable bleeding.
It cannot be stressed enough, how different the lives of these generations were from our own- and whatever its flaws are- that our age represents something wonderful, unique, and unheralded in the rich pageant of human history.
Odor, color changes, and bloating of the body during decomposition are the results of putrefaction. The lower part of the abdomen turns green due to bacteria activity in the cecum. Bacteria break down hemoglobin into sulfhemoglobin which causes the green color change. A formation of gases enters the abdomen which forces liquids and feces out of the body. The gases also enter the neck and face, causing swelling of the mouth, lips, and tongue. Due to this swelling and misconfiguration of the face, identification of the body can be difficult. Bacteria also enter the venous system causing blood to hemolyze. This leads to the formation of red streaks along the veins. This color soon changes to green, through a process known as marbelization. It can be seen on the shoulders, chest and shoulder area, and thighs. The skin can develop blisters containing serous fluid. The skin also becomes fragile, leading to skin slippage, making it difficult to move a body. Body hair comes off easily. The color change of the discoloration from green to brown marks the transition of the early stage of putrefaction to the advanced decompositional stages.
During the putrefaction stage of decomposition the majority of insect activity again comes from members of the Calliphoridae family, and includes Formicidae, Muscidae, Sphaeroceridae, Silphidae, Lepidoptera, Hymenoptera, Sarcophagidae, Histeridae, Staphylinidae, Phalangida, Piophilidae, Araneae, Sepsidae, and Phoridae. As with the fresh stage of decomposition if the body is on the ground or buried in soil there is also considerable insect activity by the soil-inhabiting arthropods.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
The generations born after Napoleon and after the American Civil War- with their legendary corruption, abhorrent wars of genocide, and brutal subjugation of the ancient East- conversely built the edifice of Modernity. The “system”- university education, compulsory literacy, sewer systems, municipal projects of great scope, the elevation of law and finance over heredity and martial prowess, universal suffrage, the corporations. They are the ones who built it, their kids and grandchildren proved it’s efficacy in the second thirty years war (ww1 and ww2), their great grandkids rebelled against it. We are the ones who live in what’s left of it.
After the body goes through the bloating stage it begins the black putrefaction stage. At this point the body cavity ruptures, the abdominal gases escape and the body darkens from its greenish color. These activities allow for a greater invasion of scavengers, and insect activity increases greatly. This stage ends as the bones become apparent, which can take anywhere from 10 to 20 days after death depending on region and temperature. This period is also dependent on the degree to which the body is exposed.
During the black putrefaction stage of decomposition, insects that can be found living in the body are Calliphoridae larvae, Staphylinidae, Histeridae, Gamasid mites, Ptomaphila, Trichopterygidae, Piophilid larvae, Parasitic wasps, Staphylinid larvae, Trichopterygid larvae, Histerid larvae, Ptomaphila larvae, Dermestes, Tyroglyphid mites, Tineid larvae, and the Dermestes larvae. Some insects can also be found living in the soil around the body such as Isopoda, Collembola, Dermaptera, Formicidae, Pseudoscorpiones, Araneae, Plectochetos, Acari, Pauropoda, Symphyla, Geophilidae, and Protura. The types of insects will differ based on where the body is, although Diptera larvae can be found feeding on the body in almost all cases.
After the body goes through the bloating stage it begins the black putrefaction stage. At this point the body cavity ruptures, the abdominal gases escape and the body darkens from its greenish color. These activities allow for a greater invasion of scavengers, and insect activity increases greatly. This stage ends as the bones become apparent, which can take anywhere from 10 to 20 days after death depending on region and temperature. This period is also dependent on the degree to which the body is exposed.During the black putrefaction stage of decomposition, insects that can be found living in the body are Calliphoridae larvae, Staphylinidae, Histeridae, Gamasid mites, Ptomaphila, Trichopterygidae, Piophilid larvae, Parasitic wasps, Staphylinid larvae, Trichopterygid larvae, Histerid larvae, Ptomaphila larvae, Dermestes, Tyroglyphid mites, Tineid larvae, and the Dermestes larvae. Some insects can also be found living in the soil around the body such as Isopoda, Collembola, Dermaptera, Formicidae, Pseudoscorpiones, Araneae, Plectochetos, Acari, Pauropoda, Symphyla, Geophilidae, and Protura. The types of insects will differ based on where the body is, although Diptera larvae can be found feeding on the body in almost all cases.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
An industrial complex, the purveyors of doomsday tell us that the world is ending, and we greedily consume the news. Our society is failing, and will collapse soon.
A mythology of the “good old days” pervades and poisons, dividing populations over semantic points. A foreign enemy, barbarian savages devoid of mercy, threaten us. Our children are running wild, dispossessed of religious scruple or moral code. All that stands on the line between chaos and order are a self appointed few, lettered oligarchs whose accumen and opinion is never questioned. This environment of fear, a pervasive political meme, is false. It is also quite ancient, as the text above describes Constantinople.
Tonight, both a functional and statistical number of human beings will have food in their bellies when they go to sleep, as opposed to yesterday. More women will survive childbirth today than yesterday. Even the operatic tragedy of modern times, which is the AIDS epidemic in Sub Saharan Africa, is a disease- ultimately- of relative affluence and OVERpopulation. Corpus Mundi, things are not as bad as they seem to be, gentle readers. There’s a lot of bad, but as compared to even a mere 80 years ago, there’s also good.
After the early putrefaction and black putrefaction phases have taken place, the body begins mummification, in which the body begins to dry out. The human carcass is first mummified, and then goes through adipocere formation. Adipocere (grave wax) formation refers to the loss of body odor and the formation of a cheesy appearance on the cadaver. Mummification is considered a post-active stage because there is less definite distinction between changes and they are indicated by reduced skin, cartilage, and bone. Mummification is also indicated when all of the internal organs are lost due to insect activity.
Insects that can be found on the body during mummification include most of the same insects as in putrefaction stage, but also include Acarina, Nitidulidae, Cleridae, Dermestes caninus, and Trogidae. The main soil-inhabiting arthropods include Dermaptera and Formicidae.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
The leading cause of death in the United States in the first decade of this 21st century is Heart Disease, followed by various forms of Cancer. Your humble narrator has some small experience with the first and has resigned himself to the inevitability of the second, as he lives on a continent where Nuclear Testing was conducted.
If all the Atomic tests are considered together when calculating radiation exposure to the civilian population of North America, a full scale nuclear war might as well have been fought here, and the bell curve of nuclear testing lays neatly into the rates of cancer experienced 25-30 years later. Tourist groups may visit the Frenchman Flats testing site- a “national sacrifice zone” for excursions amongst the cratered sites of Atomic detonations, I’d rather drink a glass of that queerly coloured effluviam which flows lugubriously through a crucible of dictatorial capitalism called the Newtown Creek.
Congenital illness, which medicine hasn’t figured out how to deal with -yet- notwithstanding, that which kills you these days is not an infected mosquito bite- or any of the leading causes of death in the 19th century- Pneumonia, Tuberculosis, and Diarrhea – instead its eating too much of the wrong food… which is plentiful.
Back in 1900, life expectancy was 49. Heart Disease was almost the number 4 killer, and strokes were number 5.
Number 5 is “accidents”, today. Life expectancy is almost 80.
When the last of the soft-tissue has been removed from the body, the final stage of decomposition, skeletonization, occurs. This stage encompasses the deterioration of skeletal remains, and is the longest of the decomposition processes. Skeletonization differs markedly from the previous stages, not only in length, but in the deterioration process itself.
The strength and durability of bone stems from the unique protein-mineral bond present in skeletal formation. Consequently, changes to skeletal remains, known as bone diagenesis, occur at a substantially slower rate than stages of soft-tissue breakdown. As the protein-mineral bond weakens after death, however, the organic protein begins to leach away, leaving behind only the mineral composition. Unlike soft-tissue decomposition, which is influenced mainly by temperature and oxygen levels, the process of bone breakdown is more highly dependent on soil type and pH, along with presence of groundwater. However, temperature can be a contributing factor, as higher temperature leads the protein in bones to break down more rapidly. If buried, remains decay faster in acidic-based soils rather than alkaline. Bones left in areas of high moisture content also decay at a faster rate. The water leaches out skeletal minerals, which corrodes the bone, and leads to bone disintegration.
At the dry decay stage commonly found insects include Sphaeroceridae, Acarina, Nitidulidae, Cleridae, Dermestes caninus, Trogidae, Tyroglyphid mites, and the Tineid larvae. The soil-inhabiting arthropods are Collembola, Dermaptera, Heteroptera, Coleoptera and their larvae, parasitic Hymenoptera, Formicidae, Diptera larvae, Pseudoscorpiones, Aranae, Plectochetos, Acari, Pauropoda, Symphyla, Geophilidae, Protura, and Aphididae.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
Still lost in those wild reveries as described above, I found myself moving ever higher in elevation. A significant and curious declination is found in Mount Zion, and as one nears the western edge of the cemetery- near the 58th street side- it becomes obvious. This was an excellent instinct which I followed, as the distance from both Maurice and 54th avenues eliminated the malefic influence of the bizarre children’s song.
Another group of children, wholesome looking urchins whose appearance was a marked contrast to that malign gathering on Maurice Avenue, appeared along the fences. They were dark and wholesome in aspect, with masses of wild black curls. Colorfully dressed, they were laughing cheerfully as they ran back and away from the vast iron gates along 53rd avenue. An odd chemical scent hung in the air and seeking a fresh breeze, I penetrated further westward.
As practiced in the funeral homes of the Western World (notably North America), embalming uses several steps. Modern embalming techniques are not the result of a single practitioner, but rather the accumulation of many decades, even centuries, of research, trial and error, and invention. A standardized version follows below, but variation on techniques is very common.
The deceased is placed on the mortuary table in the supine anatomical position with the head elevated by a head block. The first step in embalming is to check that the individual is in fact deceased, and then verify the identity of the body (normally via wrist or leg tags). At this point embalmers commonly perform basic tests for signs of death, noting things such as clouded-over corneas, lividity, and rigor mortis or by simply attempting to palpate a pulse in the carotid or radial artery. In modern times people awakening on the preparation table is largely the province of horror fiction and urban myth. Any clothing on the corpse is removed and set aside and any personal effect such as jewelry is inventoried. A modesty cloth is sometimes placed over the genitalia. The corpse is washed in disinfectant and germicidal solutions. During this process the embalmer bends, flexes and massages the arms and legs to relieve rigor mortis. The eyes are posed using an eye cap that keeps them shut and in the proper expression. The mouth may be closed via suturing with a needle and ligature, using an adhesive, or by setting a wire into the maxilla and mandible with a needle injector, a specialized device most commonly utilized in North America and unique to mortuary practice. Care is taken to make the expression look as relaxed and natural as possible and ideally a recent photograph of the deceased while still living is used as a template. The process of closing the mouth, eyes, shaving, etc is collectively known as setting the features.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
The aforementioned change in elevation is a morrain feature, whose glaciated sculpting endowed this corner of the Newtown Pentacle with a marshy and swamped character, in its aboriginal form. These were once -what modernity would define as- wetlands, or as the 19th century would define it- waste lands. A muddy filtration system for the Newtown Creek and part of its aquifier, these were once prime hunting grounds for Indian and Dutchman alike.
Embalming chemicals are a variety of preservatives, sanitising and disinfectant agents and additives used in modern embalming to temporarily prevent decomposition and restore a natural appearance for viewing a body after death. A mixture of these chemicals is known as embalming fluid and is used to preserve deceased (dead) individuals, sometimes only until the funeral, other times indefinitely.
Typically embalming fluid contains a mixture of formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol and other solvents. The formaldehyde content generally ranges from 5 to 29 percent and the ethanol content may range from 9 to 56 percent.
In the United States alone, enough embalming fluid is buried every year to fill eight Olympic-size pools or about 20 million liters.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
That’s when another of my “very bad ideas” came to the fore, when I wondered what it is that might be lurking down there, in the wormy mud of the Newtown Pentacle.
all but one of these links lead to wikipedia, and express just a little bit of the chemical recipe that produces an anaerobic broth like that found in the Newtown Creek
Putrescine (sometimes spelled putrescin) is an organic chemical compound NH2(CH2)4NH2 (1,4-diaminobutane or butanediamine). It is related to cadaverine; both are produced by the breakdown of amino acids in living and dead organisms and both are toxic in large doses.
Cadaverine is a foul-smelling molecule produced by protein hydrolysis during putrefaction of animal tissue. Cadaverine is a toxic diamine with the formula NH2(CH2)5NH2, which is similar to putrescine. Cadaverine is also known by the names 1,5-pentanediamine and pentamethylenediamine.
The industrial form of Putrescine is produced using hydrogen cyanide and a compund called Acrylonitrile, which is on the EPA’s list of Volatile Organic Compounds- or VOC’s. As long time readers will recall, VOC’s are amongst the primary pollutants fouling the waters of a nearby cautionary tale called the Newtown Creek.