Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Deceased as Action Figures

Recent posts about dismemberment, “waxidermy” and necromancy have put your humble blogger in a morbid frame of mind.  Are there any contemporary examples of the macabre depicted by H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, or Clark Ashton Smith?  Well, of course there are.  Unlike science fiction, which takes decades and even centuries before its predictions become reality, the speculations one finds in horror entertainment are conveniently and almost instantaneously transmuted into everyday life.  Or death.

“El Muerto parao” is a trend in funeral services that is gaining in popularity, at least in some communities.  Thought to have originated in Puerto Rico, (at least its most recent manifestation), “dead man standing” involves propping up the recently deceased in an upright and lifelike pose, so that he or she can be eye to eye with those who have come to pay their respects.  In a few cases, the recently deceased had requested premorbidly that their remains be positioned so that they could look down on the guests at their funerals, the opposite of what is typically the case.  Thus death is literally elevated above the living, in a kind of familial idolatry.

The Los Angeles Times reported in June of a Puerto Rican family who tied the corpse of their son, a victim of a homicide, to a wall in their house.  Many visitors were impressed, and indicated they would like a similar arrangement for their own funeral.  Evidently the embalming process involves a unique and closely guarded secret formula.  Two other similar funerals followed shortly afterwards. 

The local association of funeral parlor owners lobbied the Department of Health to make a rule requiring that viewings display cadavers arranged horizontally in the coffin.  The association was afraid that these spectacular  “El Muerto parao” displays would siphon off business from more traditional undertaking establishments.  Because many customers want their remains displayed in the vehicles that conveyed them during life—motorcycles, buses, cars—The Los Angeles Times quoted one funeral home operator as saying, “I guess then we'd have to conduct the wake in the parking lot.”  The funeral home owners association lost their battle, and the practice of “El Muerto parao” continues to grow in popularity.     

Some readers may have seen the article in The New York Times, also in June, that profiled the 132 year old Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home and one of its unique services, (“Rite of the Sitting Dead: Funeral Poses Mimic Life”).  The funeral home specializes in creating life-like dioramas in which the recently deceased are arranged in attitudes resembling their favorite avocations. 

A dead boxer is displayed standing in the corner of a draped boxing ring, wearing gloves, a hoody, and sunglasses, a single votive candle burning center ring.  A deceased woman sits at a table, as if about to opine on some subject, a can of beer to her right, photos of her favorite baseball team in view, and an unlit cigarette in her left hand.  A dead biker is towed to his final resting place astride his Harley-Davidson.  Though unusual, these affairs in most cases would seem to convey affection, respect, and appreciation to the recently dead.  

In each case the pose is life-like, a tribute to the deceased person’s individual style and interests—and sustained at the center of a funeral service that surrounds the morbid tableau.  Evidently, many potential customers in New Orleans, where the funeral home operates, would prefer to stand during their funerals, or at least be sitting—no small feat given the circumstances.  Similar funeral home services are increasingly available in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  In that town, a deceased paramedic was recently posed behind the wheel of his ambulance, and another gentleman was made up to look like Che Guevara, cigar in hand.

It is impossible not to see this as an instance of “thinking outside of the box.”

The funeral home director in New Orleans has generated considerable criticism from his professional peers, who consider his practices inappropriate, unethical and sacrilegious.  The practice of arranging the dead in life-like poses appears to have begun in Puerto Rico back in 2008—at least as a commercial venture.  A funeral director in San Juan defends the procedure, explaining that families suffer less when they see the deceased love one in a setting they would have enjoyed while alive. 

Another concern: because there is often an underworld connection to some of the deaths, there is the potential for encouraging a contest among the bereft to put on the most outrageous funeral.  Puerto Rico passed a law in 2012 that legalized the posing of cadavers—presumably just one at a time—“as long as the position is not immoral.”

The notion of posing the recently deceased in an attitude that resembles life is not a new idea.  (Strictly speaking, there are no new ideas.)  Until the 17th Century, gibbeting the live or dead bodies of criminals for prolonged public display was a common practice in many parts of the world. Gibbeting was chiefly used as a deterrent to others who might follow in their tracks.  Ironically, “el Muerto parao” appears to accomplish the opposite effect.  Some—though not all—of the arranged dead are violent gang members; here the artful undertaker has glorified their life in death, and, along with their remains, embalmed their challenge to authority.

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