Thursday, February 21, 2008

Green Funerals: Old Peruvian Style versus New Mayo Clinic Style

Human bones on display in the San Francisco catacombs in Lima, Peru
Photo by Nancy Manahan
We are spending a week in Lima, Peru visiting Nancy's brother Jim Manahan, who is on assignment here for four months. (More on that in another blog.)

We’ve made the rounds of several museums and historic sites including the Church of San Francisco built in 1674. This church is famous for its vast underground catacombs containing the bones of 75,000 people.

In this first cemetery of colonial Lima, bodies were laid in pits and covered with quicklime to hasten decomposition. We walked past boxes with femurs organized in herringbone patterns and deep pits with thousands of bones and skulls artistically arranged. Hundreds of skulls are stacked on shelves cut into the earthen walls.

Another museum in Lima contains twenty-five-hundred-year-old mummies from the pre-Inca era. Given the arid Peruvian climate, it was a perfect way to preserve bodies. Both the catacombs and the mummies are precursors to the modern concept of green funerals. (See below for our earlier blog, "Green Funerals 101.")

All this put us in a receptive frame of mind for an article we discovered in London’s prestigious newspaper, The Guardian. “What Really Happens When You Die?” features interviews with six professionals who handle corpses. They detail the procedures of autopsying, embalming, burying, and cremating a body--the modern ways of death.

The most interesting part of the article is a description of an environmentally-friendly alternative to
Photo by Nancy Manahan
conventional burial or cremation: resomation. According to Dean Fisher, the Director of the Mayo Clinic’s Body Donation Program, this new technique uses “water, potassium hydroxide and steam heat to dissolve the body.” What’s left at the end of the process is “nitrogen, phosphate, proteins, amino acids, salts and sugars,” the basic elements that comprise our bodies. Fisher says that this “innocuous fluid” can be “safely disposed of or used on land as a fertiliser”! The remaining bones are pulverized, as in cremation. There are no toxic emissions like mercury released into the atmosphere.

According to Fisher “there are only a few resomation chambers in operation in the world, all of them in the US” including one at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

This environmentally-friendly method of dealing with our bodies may be the wave of the future. For more information about this greener alternative to cremation and burial, visit Resomation Ltd.

Hundreds of years from now, North and South American tourists may pay to tour museums formerly known as cemeteries!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Locks and Illumination

Self-reliance coupled with ingenuity makes for creative repair work in Costa Rica. Last year, for example, the lock on our car door broke. We could have driven to the Nissan dealership in San Jose, an unwelcome 2- hour round trip. We didn’t know if a part was even available for our 1991 Pathfinder.

We had noticed a locksmith sign down the road from our apartment. The young locksmith, whose open air shop is in his driveway, examined the door and said, “No problema!”

Jose disassembled the door, took the broken rod over to his work bench, rummaged around for a piece of metal, and bent it in three places. He slipped it into place and turned the key in the door, locking and unlocking it several times to make sure it worked. It’s been fine ever since.

In the States, we would have ordered a new part, waited for several days, and paid for the part plus a minimum labor charge. In Costa Rica, our door was repaired in ten minutes. The cost? $8.50.

I thought of Jose the other night when we put new batteries in our flashlight. We got a beam of light only if we pressed on the battery cover. Obviously the connection needed to be tighter. I remembered seeing a shiny little washer in the driveway the day before. Nancy slipped it into the cover plate, and viola: Light!

We avoided sending the flashlight to a landfill, and making a trip to the store to buy a new one. We appreciate that Costa Rican culture encourages us to be creative, to make do, and to slow down—all ways of living more simply and, we suspect, more fully.