Death + Crime Death + the Law

Dying by the Numbers in New York City

In the City’s Vital Statistics, so Many Ways to Die by Accident
Al Baker, New York Times (February 15, 2010)

Summary of Vital Statistics 2008
Bureau of Vital Statistics, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (January 2010)

‘Tis the Season for Annual Reports on Mortality Statistics. The City of New York has now released its 2008 numbers for all forms of human death. Good news for Gotham: homicides are down and so are accidental deaths. That said, at least one person is killed a week while walking. Make sure and wait for the crosswalk sign.

Here is an interesting section from the New York Times article at the top on the overall mortality rate changes.

In 2008, of the 54,193 people who died in the city, 1,044 deaths (excluding drug overdoses) were classified by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as accidental — an 8.8 percent decline from 1998, when there were 1,145 accidental deaths. In contrast, the number of homicides fell 17.5 percent in that same period. The contrast is more stark going back to 1993: accidental deaths have fallen by 30.1 percent, while homicides have dropped by 73.2 percent…

…There are roughly 6,000 codes used to define deaths by accident, reflecting all types of violence and disorder. People are run over by cars, buses or taxis. There are dozens of codes to define deaths from drug consumption. Some die from the smoke and flames of fires, or they fall at construction sites or in their own backyards. Others are hit by trains, drown at beaches or crash their bicycles.

I understand why Departments of Health compile these statistics because it is useful to know how people are dying in a local area. Lawyers generally like to know these numbers too and a good funeral director can just tell you how people are dying without even looking at the vital statistics. Death by the numbers, as I like to call it, also reminds me of Meg’s recent post on Life Insurance Policies. Mix in bizarre, insane, unbelievable accidents and you basically have the annual Darwin Awards.

But I digress…

If you are a true student of Mortality statistics (and I have some friends who are) then please download the official 2008 report by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Bureau of Vital Statistics.

And if your attention span can’t handle charts, graphs, and brief descriptions of tragedy then please, oh-please, watch these short Public Service Announcements about preventing accidental deaths in the workplace. I am always amazed at what YouTube offers when you really need a solid bit of video:

Death + Crime Grief + Mourning Suicide

The Rest in Pieces

This American Life: How to Rest in Peace
originally aired November 2, 2007.

This episode of This American Life re-aired yesterday, providing me a driveway moment (well… a snow-deranged street parking moment). If you missed it then or in 2007, have a listen online to these three stories exploring how the rest — the living left behind — find peace or stay in pieces.

Examining the emotional impact of the right to die, the last story is particularly striking. A growing old but generally healthy woman prepares herself and her family for her suicide because she fears suffering (and making her family suffer) the dementia that consumed her own mother. Her son is left in the horrible position of wanting to comfort his mother and respect her wishes while being sick with shock and grief about her oncoming death.

Death + Crime

Venezuelan Bone Thugs-N-Burglary

In Venezuela, Even Death May Not Bring Peace
Simon Romero, New York Times (December 10, 2009)

Caracas, Venezuela, has long had a bad reputation when it comes to crime: murder, robbery and kidnapping are commonplace ills, as well as crooked cops who cover things up. Criminals are increasingly targeting a new pool of victims — the dead — immune to murder but not kidnapping and assault.

Vandalized coffins are strewn in front of the mausoleum of Joaquin Crespo, a Venezuelan dictator, in the Cemetery of the South in Caracas, Venezuela. (Meridith Kohut for The New York Times)

Tombs are shattered and graves dug up not for treasures buried with the bodies or even for scrap metal, but for the bones themselves, which are used in rituals for Palo, a Cuban religion. The bones are said to have ancestral energy; the more important the deceased, the more powerful the bones and, presumably, the more effective the ceremony.

Skulls fetch $2000, while femurs get about $450. Meanwhile, police demand bribes from journalists wishing to cover the story and told a grieving man that it’s illegal to close his own parents’ grave (never mind opening it in the first place). Inside it, the man’s mother’s skull had been stolen; underneath her was his father, still intact and susceptible to ransack, which the man hoped to prevent by repairing the tomb.

Check out the Times video for more about Palo and the bone thievery. One palero, or Palo practitioner, claims they “do not get the bones the way people think” but gives no insight into how they do. The guy seems a bit shady, but I still gotta wonder — is Palo alone the reason for this black market of human bones? If not… what the heck is going on?

Death + Crime

Vote or Die… or, “and”

Episode 20: This Ungainly Fowl
Nate DiMeo, The Memory Palace (October 16, 2009)

Poe, painted by Oscar Halling in the late 1860s.In honor of Election Day in the United States and in roundabout follow-up to Edgar Allan Poe’s century-late funeral, check out the above recent podcast from Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace.

Nate describes the circumstances surrounding Poe’s mysterious death, who was found in the street outside a Baltimore tavern, delirious and dressed in another man’s clothes. Taken to the hospital, he floundered in and out of consciousness; unable to articulate what had happened, he died a few days later.

One theory, as Nate relays, is Poe was randomly kidnapped and coerced into a vicious form of voter fraud known as “cooping”: in between quick clothes changes, threats, beatings and drugs, he was carted by thugs around the city to different polling stations and forced to vote.

Listen to the podcast! You know, after you exercise your right and duty to vote, once, not drugged or smacked around, and wearing your own clothes. (It’s short — under 5 minutes. By the by, The Memory Palace has some wonderful treasures… sort of like a This American Life for the 19th Century. Do explore!)

Death + Crime Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

Important Right-to-Die Court Decision in the UK

Debbie Purdy wins ‘significant legal victory’ on assisted suicide
Afua Hirsch, The Guardian (July 30, 2009)

An important turn today for UK Assisted Dying supporters (which is about 62% of the public…). Debbie Purdy successfully argued that it would be a violation of human rights for her to not know whether her husband would be prosecuted for accompanying her to the Swiss clinic Dignitas, where she wishes to die if her multiple sclerosis worsens.

Debbie Purdy and Omar Puente

The Purdy case is important and it will presumably force a change in UK law. As it currently stands, the UK’s 1961 Suicide Act decriminalizes suicide if you kill yourself. But any person whom:

aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.

What that aiding, abetting, counseling, and procuring entails is really ambiguous. It is all so unclear that UK Prosecutors have been declining to press charges against families that accompany, say, a loved one to die in the Dignitas Clinic.

For an extremely thorough history on the Assisted Dying debate in the UK, see the Guardian’s Assisted Suicide page.

I discussed much of this information a few weeks ago in a Death Reference Desk post about the recent deaths of Edward and Joan Downes.

Since the Downes’ deaths and that discussion, I came across the following article: ‘Romantic’ death may idealize suicide: critics. Maybe. But I’m not so convinced. If anything, what Edward and Joan Downes chose to do was die and to die together. It was an act of love, to be sure, but I’m not ready to call it romance.

They chose death over a biological life neither one of them wanted to live.

It is absolutely acceptable to choose death. And family members and/or friends who want to assist in that choice should be able to do so without fear of the law.

But LOOK OUT: Scotland might beat England to the punch. Scottish MPs are discussing a change to Scotland’s own assisted suicide laws.

And Scottish MP Margo MacDonald is leading a fierce charge.

Cemeteries Death + Crime

Emmett Till: Forgetting to Remember

As an English major undergrad, I plowed through reams upon reams of literature and literary critique, cultural studies tomes and other articles and books. Nearly a decade later, one of the readings that struck me and stuck with me the most is John Edgar Wideman’s “The Killing of Black Boys.” Originally published in Essence in 1997, the essay describes the nightmare within Wideman’s nightmares: the battered, ruined face of Emmett Till, the black youth murdered in Mississippi in 1955.

Emmett TillTill’s crime? Being from Chicago and aged fourteen, removed from his city-slick, less racially tense environment, Till was tragically ignorant of other people’s ignorance, prejudice and devastating cruelty. This baby-faced, dapper teen, showing off for a clutch of country boys, made a pass at a white woman. For that, he was abducted, mutilated and murdered.

An all-white jury found his accused killers not guilty; the two men later admitted to the slaying and described it in detail for a magazine article. Outrage over Till’s death and the swift, sham acquittal helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in suburban Chicago, Till was briefly exhumed in 2005 in hopes of finding more clues to his murder; he was then reinterred in a different coffin.

Chicago, the nation and world have been shocked to learn of the recent and possibly years-long scandal at Oak Burr. Four workers are accused of digging up and dismembering bodies then dumping the remains in shallow, mass graves. Freshly vacant plots were then resold with the families of the deceased new and old equally unsuspecting.

While the perpetrators of this scheme thought better than to disturb Till’s grave, they did leave his original coffin to rust amidst rubble in a shack, despite collecting donations to create a lasting memorial. Considering the flocks of tearful families searching for loved ones’ graves, it hardly takes the addition of Emmett Till to make this transgression more disturbing, maddening and deeply sad. After all, for those with the depravity to disinter and tear apart bodies for profit, shoving the dilapidated coffin of some old civil rights’ icon in a shed would barely seem like a crime at all.

But it is, and it hurts. It abuses American history, as twisted and painful it already is. It hurts that for many, Emmett Till is a hazy memory if not a total unknown. And it hurts that he had to be further forgotten—conned and disgraced—to be remembered again, and for some, learned of for the first time.

Whether or not you’re familiar with Emmett Till’s story, I encourage you to read Wideman’s “The Killing of Black Boys” (this linked copy is clearly transcribed; forgive the handful of typos). It is more a personal narrative than a rendering of history; off the scholarly track, perhaps, though the history we remember, how it affects us and how we choose to tell it is just as powerful and revealing. The essay can also be found in the book, The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative, edited by Christopher Metress (find in your local library). For more general resources, the Emmett Till Wikipedia article has a number of readings and external links.

Death + Crime Death + Humor

Cannabis Corpse

The AP reported that on Monday, police discovered 70 marijuana plants in the attic of the Helena Funeral Chapel. I didn’t intend to post this because eh, it’s Montana — who’s surprised, and who cares? Lo and behold, a couple of days later in Dallas, 100 pounds of pot were discovered in a casket during a traffic stop.

I know death is chronic, but seriously folks.

(To my surprise but-not-really, Cannabis Corpse is in fact the name of a band, not be confused, of course, with Cannibal Corpse.)