Cemeteries Death + the Law Monuments + Memorials

Going Extreme to Fix Arlington Cemetery

At Arlington Cemetery, Army Ready for Drastic Measures
Michael E. Ruane, The Washington Post (July 1, 2010)

The situation at Arlington National Cemetery keeps getting more and more complicated. I wrote last week about the mismanagement of Arlington’s burials and you can find that post here: Fixing Arlington Cemetery. To its eternal credit, the Washington Post has doggedly followed the story and the above article ran today.

As it reports, the burial problems at Arlington are so severe that military officials are willing to publicly discuss mass dis-interments and DNA testing. This is the last scenario that I know anyone in the entirety of the United States government wants to happen but Arlington’s problems are probably that bad. My hunch is that the entire scope of what’s wrong is a lot worse than even the cemetery investigators comprehend.

Arlington National Cemetery has over 330,000 graves. The already identified problem areas are a smaller piece of the entire cemetery but if the situation grows and grows then the US Military (particularly the Army which handles the cemetery) will have an unprecedented debacle on its hands.

Cemeteries Death + the Law Monuments + Memorials

Fixing Arlington Cemetery

In Debt to an Arlington Whistleblower
Dana Milbank, The Washington Post (June, 20 2010)

Over the weekend, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank published a column on the debacle at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. There is a reason that I am interested in Milbank’s column but before I explain why, here’s a brief recap of Arlington’s current problems: 211 unmarked graves, misplaced headstones, and the dumping of human ashes in dirt, along with speculation that there are up to 15,000 instances of such desecrations, all brought to light by whistleblower Gina Gray.

Milbank’s column follows on from over a week’s worth of reporting about all of these problems and more. I’ve listed many of those articles below. The first report to come out was by Mark Benjamin at and you can find it below too.

The point, I think, is this: Dana Milbank and everyone else got information from a person who saw what was going on at Arlington and blew the whistle. Gina Gray, whom Milbank names, worked for a short time at Arlington until disagreements with her superiors caused her to be fired. She also served in the Army and it seems clear that her sense of duty to the dead soldiers overrode any sense of job preservation. She could have kept quiet about the problems that she saw but she didn’t. She contacted reporters until the issue finally made its way to the Inspector General’s office. It’s worth noting, I think, that Mark Benjamin’s reports appeared in Salon on July 16, 2009. Almost a year ago now. I don’t actually see this as a situation where the Inspectors moved too slowly. Instead, it seems as if the situation quickly unwound and became a lot more complicated than initially expected.

Regardless, Arlington National Cemetery will see these problems fixed. That’s not much comfort for families who are not sure whether or not their dead loved one is affected and it never will be.

The problems being reported are a serious situation and they will be studied for some time to come as examples of the worst things that could happen to a cemetery.

A brief compendium of articles:

Christian Davenport, The Washington Post: Arlington headstones found lining stream

Christian Davenport, The Washington Post: More burials will be checked

Michael E. Ruane, The Washington Post: Arlington graves sat unmarked

Yeganeh June Torbati, The New York Times: Inquiry Finds Graves Mismarked at Arlington

Mark Benjamin, Grave offenses at Arlington National Cemetery

Mark Benjamin, At Arlington Cemetery, Wrongly Marked Graves, Mismanagement

Burial Cemeteries

Bodies Misidentified at Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC

Army: Bodies Misidentified at Arlington Cemetery
Anne Flaherty and Pauline Jelinek, Associated Press (June 10, 2010)

This is a breaking story which I just got from the Washington Post via the Associated Press. In short, an investigation at the Arlington National Cemetery has revealed that despite strict protocol for US military funerals and burial, the bodies of at least 200 soldiers have been improperly identified or even misplaced. It’s hard to say much more at this point until more details emerge, but I’ll be keeping an eye on this development. Stay tuned!

Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law

How Dead Bodies are Supposed to be Repatriated

How Do You Repatriate A Body from the UK?
BBC News (April 7, 2010)

In response to last week’s incident at Liverpool John Lennon Airport wherein two women tried to take a dead man’s body on the plane because he “…was sleeping…” the BBC has helpfully explained the proper dead body repatriation procedure. I wrote about this case in all its Weekend at Bernie’s glory here.

There isn’t much more to say about this situation other than it is a bad idea to just show up at an airport with a dead body. A really bad idea.

The BBC helpfully asks and answers its own question:

But what is the proper procedure if the unthinkable happens and the body of a loved one needs to be transported from the UK? The most important step is to consult a doctor to confirm the person is deceased and provide a death certificate. This fulfils the need for the death to be registered in the country where the person passed away, which is a legal requirement.

So there you go. Make sure and get a note from the local doctor. Somethings never change.

Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law

Weekend at Bernie’s at Liverpool John Lennon Airport

Women Try to Take Body on Plane at Liverpool Airport
BBC News (April 6, 2010)

Two Women Arrested with Dead Relative at Airport
Pair told staff at Liverpool John Lennon airport that 91-year-old dead relative was sleeping
James Meikle, The Guardian (April 6, 2010)

Straight out of the Dead Body Stories You Can’t Make Up (DBSYCMU) file comes this gem. Two women tried to board a dead relative, sunglasses-clad and propped in a wheelchair, onto a plane at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. According to The Guardian, the women told anyone who asked that the man was sleeping.

Now, anyone with a keen sense of history will automatically recognize the uncanny similarities between this news item and the HILARIOUS 1980’s film Weekend at Bernie’s. And since the interweb is always there when you need it, even Weekend at Bernie’s has its own Wikipedia page. Again, DBSYCMU.

For those who don’t remember the movie, it goes a little like this: Bernie Lomax is a crooked CEO who invites two unsuspecting employees (Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman) to his beach house to have them killed by mobsters because McCarthy and Silverman are snooping around the company’s finances. Bernie is double crossed by the mob, ends up dead himself, and the two low level employees party hard with Bernie’s corpse. The film was so funny that it warranted a sequel and, apparently, a third installment is in the works.

I’m going to guess that what happened at John Lennon Airport had nothing to do with mobsters and partying at beach houses but it never hurts to dream.

In all honesty, what this entire Liverpool incident needs is a little Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman action. Least of which to help revive their film careers.

But I digress. Perhaps the moral of this most recent dead body story can be located in the tagline for Weekend at Bernie’s: He may be dead…but he’s the life of the party!

Here is the movie’s trailer to help jog some memories:

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 + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Stephen Colbert Discusses Dead Bodies Having Sex

Body Worlds Plans Cadaver Sex Exhibit
Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report (September 16, 2009)

Oh Gunther von Hagens, you are the gift that just keeps on giving and giving and giving to the Death Reference Desk. But this time, dearest Dr. von Hagens, you have truly achieved a pop-cultural milestone. None other than Stephen Colbert, he of The Colbert Report and clearly deserving namesake of a new wing on the International Space Station, dedicated two whole minutes to discussing your plastinated bodies posed in sexual positions.

Sure sure, Death Reference Desk overlord Meg broke the story and I produced my own necro-analysis last week.

Stephen Colbert

But it is safe to say, I think, that achieving a two minute commentary from the one and only Stephen Colbert means that you, yes you GUNTHER VON HAGENS, have arrived. Now, the only question is when you will finally jump the shark…but that is a different pop-cultural discussion for another time.

Until then Herr Professor Doktor von Hagens, mull over these wise words from Stephen Colbert himself:

This major breakthrough ends one of science’s enduring mysteries: what does it look like when zombies do it?


(special thanks to my book editor’s assistant for sending me the Colbert link…that’s just how I roll…Thanks Beth!!!)

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Body Worlds Plans Cadaver Sex Exhibit
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Death + Art / Architecture Death + Humor Death Ethics

Dead Bodies Having Sex: the Backstory

Cadaver Exhibits Are Part Science, Part Sideshow
Neda Ulaby, National Public Radio (August 10, 2006)

Death Reference Desk technical guru Meg posted an article on the newest planned exhibition by German anatomist and showman, Gunther von Hagens. This would be Gunther von Hagens of Body Worlds fame. The article discusses von Hagens’ plans to exhibit dead bodies posed in sexual positions.


There is a fascinating backstory to this corpse-a-palooza sex show and it all begins in 2006….

In August of that year, NPR featured a report by Neda Ulaby on Gunther von Hagens. You can listen to that interview by clicking on the link at the top of the page. On the whole, the report is about the Body Worlds phenomena sweeping America during that summer.

Then, as if by MAGIC, intrepid reporter Neda Ulaby drops this dead body bomb:

Recently, [Gunther von Hagens] sent a questionnaire to 6,500 people who he says have agreed to donate their bodies to him after death. They were asked a number of provocative questions. For example, would they consent to their body parts being mixed with an animal’s, to create a mythological creature? Would they agree to be “transformed into an act of love with a woman or a man?” Von Hagens says that on the sex question, the majority of men liked the idea, while the women did not.

Talk about burying the lead…or burying something. Wowza: that double entendre works on a number of levels.

Plastinated Bodies
But it is all true. Gunther von Hagens plans on fusing dead animals and dead humans together (because, of course, humans aren’t animals….) to create Mythological Creatures. Or, as one former student once proclaimed: “You mean like centaurs and stuff.” Yes yes. I do mean centaurs and stuff.

But the magic doesn’t stop there. Oh no. Von Hagens was clearly making plans to pose dead bodies in sexual positions by at least 2006 (if not earlier). Well, actually, von Hagens says “…transformed into an act of love…” and when you listen to the NPR report, it’s really creepy sounding.

Magical Centaur

Thus began my own personal obsession with tracking every new exhibition by von Hagens to see when he would finally, finally show dead bodies having sex. It seemed fairly obvious that von Hagens would create this exhibition since I GUARANTEE that it (meaning dead bodies doing it) will make MORE MONEY than any of von Hagens other shows. And that is saying a lot, since Body Worlds recorded its 28th million visitor in July 2009. The mythological creatures will most certainly appear at some point but only after a small mint is made with the corpse sex.

And so it has all come to pass. On May 7, 2009, Gunther von Hagens opened a new Body Worlds exhibition in Berlin, Germany (the Berlin link is gone so I am using a Zurich, Switzerland link). In one section of the exhibition, entitled Cycle of Life, von Hagens placed two different pairs of bodies having sex on display. In a statement released by von Hagens, he explains that the exhibit “offers a deep understanding of the human body, the biology of reproduction, and the nature of sexuality.”

He is also making it clear on the Body Worlds website that he wants to bring the copulating corpses to London. I know. The Brits will beat down the door to see it. Here is the full “look out London, here we come” pitch by von Hagens.

At least at the end he wished everyone best wishes.

Sadly, the London Body Worlds exhibition closed at the end of August. The last time I checked, von Hagens never did move the dead bodies having sex to the O2 bubble. But rest assured, I will keep track of this situation for one and all.

And what would this post on dead bodies having sex be WITHOUT at least a short video clip from YouTube. This gem is entitled Copulating Corpses from from Von Hagen[s] Exhibition and it features an awesome song by the band Evanesence.

Enjoy…the darkness…

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.