Thursday, March 6, 2014

Wanted Dead or Alive

Eugene Delacroix, The “gravedigger scene” (1839)
What to do when you wake up in a body bag? Start kicking, but not the bucket. That’s what happened to someone named Walter Williams who had been declared dead and found himself waking up in the embalming room of the Porter & Sons Funeral Home in Lexington, Mississippi. CNN reported that the Holmes Country Mississippi coroner Dexter Howard had placed Williams in a body bag when he found that his pulse had stopped (“Dead Mississippi man begins breathing in embalming room, coroner says,“ CNN, 3/2/14)  It should come as no surprise that this is not the first time something like this has happened. CNN reported that “Mike Murphy, the coroner for Clark County, Nevada, and past president of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners, said he couldn’t comment on this specific case without knowing all the details, but he’d read news reports of people returning to life at funeral homes ‘from time to time.’” A number of economic, moral and ethical questions arise from this incident. The most obvious is, who is responsible for the expenses? Both the coroner and Byron Porter from Porter & Sons brought the body to the funeral home. Do they still get paid for the delivery? And what happens to people who are further along? Let’s say you’ve been declared dead and find yourself awakened in a casket or even a grave. Can the casket be returned? Does the funeral home hold it until such a time as you actually do die and are there warehousing fees? If you are buried alive, are you responsible for the interment costs? In the case of cremation, the issues actually become more complex, as the beginning steps of incineration can create a whole new set of medical issues. But let’s take the case of movement being discovered in a person already declared dead, who then asks his funeral director to continue on anyway. It might seem like a no brainer to members of the Hemlock Society and especially for those like the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian who believed in the right to die but this could easily be considered assisted suicide. While it’s always nice to hear that someone declared dead is actually alive, it can pose some tricky moral and ethical issues for the funeral director who's asked to pretend he doesn’t see anything.

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