No news here: January is named for the ancient Roman deity Janus.
Although the date on which the new year “begins” has bounced around a bit (including Christmas, March 1, March 25, and Easter in the Christian calendar) the month of January has always been associated with Janus, the personification of transition and reflection.
In Ancient Rome, Janus was associated with doorways, gates, arches, and temporal transitions. Two faces on a single neck, facing opposite directions, represent his ability to see both past and future. His double face has also been seen as representing the end and the beginning of the year.
Another symbol of the new year from Roman and Greek mythology is the image of Jupiter/ Zeus slaying his father Saturn/ Kronos with a scythe. In doing so, according to legend, he freed his siblings and allowed a new generation of gods to assume control.
In short, there is a long tradition of the transition to a new year being an occasion to review the year(s) past and contemplate the year ahead.
Writers: consider the character who mourns the loss of the year past, who dreads the year ahead—or both. By its very nature, a transition involves uncertainty, vulnerability, and promise.
Recently, my youngest daughter texted, “I’m not a big fan of resolutions. (In my mind they always seem to a passive aggressive indictment of who you are—you should be better!) But I do like to look back on the past year and set goals for the next. I guess it’s semantics, really.” Semantics or not, I think it says a lot about how one approaches the new year: a time to fix, repair, improve or as an opportunity to accomplish something(s).
And that brings me to the Sankofa bird. (There is a second symbol of Sankofa, a stylized heart, but here I will focus on the bird because of its parallels with Janus.) Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates loosely as “Go back and get it.” The basic elements of the Sankofa bird symbol are a plump bird whose body and feet face forward, long swan-like neck burns the head backwards, and an egg either on the bird’s back or in its mouth.
Even the loose translation from Twi can be interpreted several ways:
Go back and get it
Look, see, and take
Learn from the past
Looking back to look forward
Recognizing the knowledge and experiences of those who helped you achieve what you have
It is not an abomination to return and take what you forgot
All of these have basically the same meaning: gather good lessons from the past and use them to achieve future goals.
Bottom line for writers: Possible transitions for your characters are infinite: new job, relationship, location, loss of a loved one, landmark birthday, etc. Most years are a mix of good and bad: which weighs more heavily in your character’s review? Is s/he approaching the new year (or the time ahead) with hope and energy? Is s/he learning from the past or stymied by it?
2020 seems a perfect time to bring Janus and Sankofa into your characters’ lives!
We in the U.S. are highly aware of greeting cards at this time of year—both the receiving and the sending. Dunbar and Hill (2003) conducted a study on social networks by studying Christmas card lists. They found that each household receives about 150 Christmas Cards, and sends an average of about 68 cards. Clearly, people are receiving more than they give! (Don’t ask me to explain how those numbers work.) The study did not include cards for Hanukkah, Solstice, Yule, Kwanzaa, and New Years, but all of these together make for a very busy Postal Service throughout December.
Since holiday-specific greeting cards are so widespread in the US at the moment, it’s worth taking a moment to think of how they might feature in your writing. If you’re already sick of holiday cheer, just wait for St. Valentine’s Day to be shoved down your throat!
Motivation Behind Christmas Cards
According to my reading, Sir Henry Cole (see above) resorted to creating Christmas Cards because he had too many friends to write individual notes. I venture to assert that the time crunch is still a major factor in sending a greeting card rather than a letter. But that leaves open the question of who gets on someone’s card list in the first place. I seem to recall that once upon a time, cards were for people seldom seen—and thus unavailable to greet personally. Today?
Residents of nursing homes or hospitals
Members of social groups
Those who sent cards last year
That one person you don’t really like but gets a card just so you can use up the last of the 12-pack of cards you bought
This increasingly vague list leaves plenty of room for confusion and accidentally hurt feelings. Consider someone who sends a card but doesn’t receive one in return. Consider a child arguing with a parent over whether online cards are a suitable replacement for paper cards. If you really want to jerk some tears, consider an elderly character sending out cards to peers and seeing the list shrink a little more every year.
What Type of Card?
There is a huge variety of cards available, and the type of card sent could reveal as much about a character as the people they send those cards to. Religious ones, humorous ones, nature scenes, musical ones, pop-up ones. The first personalized Christmas card was sent in 1891 by Annie Oakley. She was doing sharp-shooter exhibitions in Scotland and sent cards back to friends and family in the U.S. featuring her picture—wearing tartan!
Should a character send a generic card with vaguely wintry scenes and vague wishes for general well-being? What about a character sending explicitly religious cards to recipients of a different faith or no faith at all? Why would a character choose to make dozens of cards by hand rather than grabbing a box off the drugstore shelf? Some families include newsletters with the card, letting friends and families know what they’ve been doing since last year’s holiday card. Why would a character send newsletters or photo collage cards?
Meaning of Holiday Cards for the Recipient
When I was growing up, my mother, aunts, etc., knew exactly how many cards they received and how many they sent—sort of like being able to cite how many trick-or-treaters came by on Halloween. Christmas cards were typically displayed on stair banisters, windowsills, archways, mantels, etc.
Could receiving holiday cards be a bad or unpleasant experience? What about a character receiving a card from someone they dislike? How about siblings or friends who see messages of boasting and rivalry in personalized cards? What might a character think after sending out dozens of cards and receiving none in return? How would someone who hates the entire holiday season react to all those reminders in the mail?
According to anthropologists, the number of holiday cards you receive reflects how many people care about you. That’s the premise of a 2003 study of social network size carried out by evolutionary anthropologists Robin Hill of the University of Durham and Robin Dunbar of Oxford and published in the journal Human Nature. “In Western societies…the exchange of Christmas cards represents the one time of year when individuals make an effort to contact all those individuals within their social network whose relationships they value.”
Maybe I’m just being defensive, but I refuse to measure my circle of caring family and friends by the handful of seasonal greetings I receive. Just saying.
Holiday Cards are Big Business
Getting a definite count is tricky, depending on the year and what cards are included in the count. For example, one study asserted that 6.5 billion greeting cards are bought each year, at a total cost of more than U.S. $7 billion. On the other hand, sales of holiday cards in the U.S. dropped from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 1.5 billion in 2011. Christmas Cards account for 61% of seasonal greeting card sales, followed by St. Valentine’s Day at a distant second of 25%.
And that doesn’t even include the USPS revenue! Imagine what a postal worker, especially a letter carrier, thinks about all that extra volume moving around the country. Both of the holidays most frequently celebrated with extra paper and postage happen during some of the most unpleasant weather. Do the holiday bonuses outweigh the extra weight in the satchel?
And FYI: only 15% of cards are bought by men. Millions of dollars are raised for charities by Christmas Cards each year. For example, UNICEF launched their charity Christmas card program in 1949. Schools, research institutions, hospitals, food banks, and lots of other community organizations raise funds by selling holiday cards.
Some organizations also send cards to donors to encourage continued support the following year. Does it really count as a holiday greeting if it’s a reminder to send a check?
Well, I seem to have been caught up in a seasonal issue. But bottom line for writers: what are your character’s attitudes and behaviors regarding holiday greeting cards? Any phenomenon as ubiquitous as this can contribute to your characters and/or plots.
For centuries, the Christian holiday of Christmas was celebrated as a season rather than a single day. Beginning at sunset on Christmas Eve and continuing through the Eve of the Epiphany, the Twelve Days of Christmas were a time of parties, feasts, and gifts of milkmaids and birds.
In predominantly Catholic countries (e.g., Spain, Mexico, Poland, and Italy), Midnight Mass is the most important service in the Christmas season. To celebrate the end of the Advent Season and its vigilant fasting, families often share a large Christmas dinner after the Midnight Mass Service. In other countries (e.g., Belgium, Finland, Lithuania, and Denmark), the meal is eaten before the Midnight Service.
Tradition carried over from pagan days dictated that greenery such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe should only be brought into the house on Christmas Eve. Burning a Yule log, kissing under mistletoe, and guarding the house from evil spirits with holly are all pagan customs that have become entwined with Christmas.
In some European countries (e.g. Serbia and Slovakia), the Christmas tree is brought into the house and decorated on Christmas Eve, as well. In Norway, the decorating of the tree is traditionally done by the parents behind closed doors while the children wait outside. “Circling the tree” follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and they walk around it singing carols. Gifts are distributed afterwards.
In Germany, the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) was traditionally decorated by the mother, in secret, with lights, tinsel, and ornaments. It was lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts, and gifts under it.
In the United States, the decorating of trees, houses, lawns, and people begins weeks before Christmas.
Another wide-spread custom is the hanging of Christmas stockings, preferably on the fireplace, since that’s where Santa Claus is supposed to enter. Traditionally, Christmas stockings are filled on Christmas eve.
Even the Smithsonian can’t trace the origins of hanging stockings, but clearly it was well-established by the time Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”). In Tuesday’s blog, I mentioned the legend that St. Nicholas provided dowries for three pious but impoverished sisters. One version of that legend has St. Nicholas coming down the chimney at night and putting a gold ball in the toe of each girl’s stocking, recently laundered and hung by the fire to dry.
Of course families have their own traditions of activities, food, and decoration passed on from generation to generation. But one that is nearly universal is that the bringer of gifts now does so on Christmas Eve.
P.S. I have focused on Christmas Eve from the Western Christian perspective. I urge you to explore more broadly, including Eastern celebrations and Jewish Christmas traditions!
Here in the US, we tend to associate the entire month of December with celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Bodhi, and other holidays celebrating family, giving, and the days finally getting longer again. But there are a lot of other holidays in December! Some are international, like World AIDS Day (December 1st), and some are relatively local, National Illinois Day (December 7th).
Many of the major religious holidays celebrated in December feature lights, reminding us to hope for spring in the northern hemisphere. Yule logs are burned, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah candles are lit, Christmas trees are wrapped in strands of LED bulbs, just like in days of yore. In the southern hemisphere, similar holidays take place in June. Some anthropoligists estimate that Australian Aborigines may have the been the first people to recognize and celebrate the turning of the seasons in June.
You can also celebrate your favorite causes or interests all through December. Not only is December International Human Rights Month, it is also Stress-Free Family Holiday Month (seriously?!) as well as Quince and Watermelon Month.
There are plenty of serious holidays and observances in December. There are too many to list here, but this is a sampling from around the world.
International Day for the Abolition of Slavery (December 2nd)
Pearl Harbor Remembrance (December 7th)
Kazakhstan Independence Day (December 16th)
South African Day of Reconciliation (December 16th)
Remembrance Day for Roma and Sinti killed by Genocide (December 19th)
Ideally, a gift has no strings attached: there is no expectation of payment or anything in return—with the exception of thank-you notes. But we all know that ideal doesn’t always apply. For one thing, there is often an expectation of reciprocity. In addition, there are numerous customary “gift giving occasions” when the expectation of a gift makes it awkward or rude not to give something. The list of such occasions seems to grow yearly. Gift giving is a great plot/character device—the feelings of the giver and receiver, the gift chosen, the circumstances. What follows is an exemplary, not exhaustive list.
Potlatch (Pacific Northwest tribes)
Feast of St. Nicholas
Feast of St. Basil (Greek Orthodox Christians)
Eid al-Fitr (Muslims)
Hanukkah (American Jews)
Diwali and Pongal (Hinus)
Kwanzaa (African Americans)
Baptisms and Christenings
Graduation or passing an examination
Gift exchange between host and guest
St. Valentine’s Day
And, of course, Christmas
If the above list doesn’t meet your gift-giving inclinations, you can always observe any number of National [Insert Holiday Here] Day dates throughout the year.
National Be Kind to Lawyers Day (2nd Tuesday in April)
World Veterinary Day (last Saturday in April)
Teacher’s Day (May 6)
Grandparent’s Day (first Sunday after Labor Day)
Mother-in-Law Day (October 26)
4th of July
Administrative Professionals Day (last week in April)
National Video Game Day (September 12th)
International Nurses’ Day (May 12th)
National Siblings Day (April 10th)
Cousins’ Day (July 24th)
Although in the U.S. we think of gifts as coming packaged, with a ribbon, and probably a card, consider alternatives. Can a phone call be a gift? How about a service, such as weeding the flower bed? Transportation to an appointment? Offering to edit a colleague’s document? What constitutes a gift of the heart?
Promotional gifts are given to customers, clients, or employees. Mostly they serve provide advertising and/or goodwill purposes. AND they are tax deductible as business expenses.
Writers, consider dangerous gifts
Are there legal issues for gifts? Of course there are. Legally, a gift must be given as a gift (no expectation of reciprocation) and delivered to the recipient. In the U.S. (along with some other countries) gifts beyond a certain monetary amount are subject to a gift tax. In the U.S., that monetary value is $15,000 from one person to one person in a given year. Anything above that value means that tax issues must be considered, if only in terms of paperwork.
There is no limit on number of such gift can be given per year. But there is a lifetime exclusion (meaning all gifts to all people) of $11.58 million as of 2020. If this matters to you, “Congratulations!”
But, writers, consider your characters!
And consider when a gift can be considered a bribe. If there is an explicit or implicit understanding between the giver and the recipient that the recipient will do something—often illegal or against company guidelines—because of the “gift,” we’re talking bribery, even if it isn’t actionable. Government agencies and some businesses have strict rules concerning gift giving/receiving. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of avoiding the appearance of impropriety.
Unwanted gifts can occur in any category, for any occasion. Such gifts are often regifted, donated to charity, or thrown away. An unwanted gift that is a burden to the recipient in terms of care, maintenance, storage, or disposal costs is a a white elephant.
Sometimes unwanted gifts are returned or exchanged. The day after Christmas is the busiest day for this. And estimated $3.4 billion was spent on unwanted Christmas gifts in the United States in 2017. Surprisingly, the value of unused gift cards purchased in the U.S. each year is estimated to total about a billion dollars. Why? How could a gift card be unwanted?
Writers: what about your plot or your character would lead to unused gift cards? Could it be a clue? A character note?
As the biggest gift-giving occasion of the year, Christmas gives us (and us writers) the opportunity to consider myriad possibilities for the POV character, whether giver or recipient.
Every year has at least one Friday the 13th, but more often two or three. The longest possible interval between Friday the 13ths is fourteen months, the shortest is one month. Today is the second in 2019. Interestingly, the 13th of any month is slightly more likely to fall on a Friday than on other days of the week.
Superstitions about Fridays and 13s emerged centuries ago, certainly by the Middle Ages, maybe even in Biblical times. The Biblical connection is the belief that there were 13 people present at the Last Supper. According to the Hebrew calendar Passover began on the 14 of the month of Nisan that year, meaning the seder (the Last Supper in Christianity) was held on the 13 of Nisan; Jesus was crucified the next day, which was a Friday. Since then, bad things that happen on Friday the 13th have garnered particular attention.
1 in 6 believe those days pose the greatest risk of bad luck striking.
22% worry what might befall them on these days.
In the U.S., 25% are superstitious, with younger people being more so than older people.
According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, NC, 17 to 21 million people in the. U.S fear this day.
The Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health has held kansallinen tapaturmapäivä (Accident Awareness Day) on Friday the 13th every year since 1995. Public awareness campaigns encourage people to pay more attention to their surroundings and fix potential hazards around the home, workplace, and on the road.
The fear of Friday the 13th is paraskevidekatriaphobia. The word was coined by Dr. Donald Dossey who told his patients that “when you learn to pronounce it, you’re cured!” Of course, people are superstitious about many things. Suffice it to say, any of the bad happenings are worse on Friday the 13th.
Walking under a ladder
Breaking a mirror
Having a black cat cross your path
Opening an umbrella inside the house
Stepping on cracks
Lighting three cigarettes with one match
Leaving a white tablecloth on a table overnight
Superstitions about Fridays and about the number 13 long preceded the connection of the two, which dates from about 1869. Fear of the number 13 is “triskaidekaphobia.” The ancient Code of Hammurabi omitted a 13th law from its list of legal rules. Many hotels have no floor labeled 13, ditto seat rows in airplanes.
Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and frequent consumer of baby noses, bellies, fingers, and toes.
Amid the recent discussions on this blog of ways to dispose of a human corpse, both legal and not-quite-so-legal, one rather significant possibility has been left out: chow down! The technical term for eating humans is anthropophagy. I’ve heard that livers, in particular, are quite tasty when served with some fava beans and a nice chianti.
Warning: The images originally associated with this blog were disturbingly graphic and so have been replaced with pictures of babies eating toes and eating baby toes. Mostly.
Warning: The embedded links provided in this article may include details that will turn you vegetarian. Follow links at your own discretion.
Don’t Do It!
Cannibalism would fall under the category of illegal methods of body disposal. Even when eating someone doesn’t require killing them first, the act itself is usually covered under laws against corpse desecration or disturbing the dead. Multiple justice systems have recently had cause to issue rulings on the subject.
German courts declared that Armin Meiwes was guilty of manslaughter for killing and eating Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes in 2001. Because of video evidence that Brandes had volunteered and willingly consented, Meiwes was sentenced to only eight years in prison.
Public outcry and a legal appeal caused the court to retry Meiwes in 2006, at which time he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Detlev Guenzel was convicted of a very similar crime in 2015, also in Germany. He met Wojciech Stempniewicz in a cannibal chatroom, they discovered their shared interest, and Stempniewicz met Guenzel in Hartmannsdorf-Reichenau for the express purpose of being killed and eaten.
Arif Ali and Farman Ali were arrested in 2011 for eating a human corpse dug up from a nearby graveyard in Pakistan. Shortly after being released from prison in 2014, the two were arrested again for digging up a corpse and making curry.
During the Holodomor Famine in Ukraine in 1931-1932 and the Siege of Leningrad of 1941-944, many people were reported to have turned to cannibalism of the dead in the face of mass starvation. Some are even reported to have cut off and eaten parts of their own bodies to survive. Survivors were afterward charged as criminals and executed or sent to gulags.
In addition to being illegal, eating humans is not actually very healthy. Humans can have all sorts of nasty, wiggly things crawling around in our flesh. Hepatitis, HIV, and The most well-known is the kuru virus, which is found in the human brain and transmitted through consumption.
Human flesh is also comparatively lacking in nutritional value, having far fewer calories per pound of meat than boars or bison. The effort required to subdue and dismember another person for food is enough to make all but the most avid anthropophagist give up and go for the supermarket. Eating already dead corpses carries the risk of catching whatever disease killed them.
If you want to be absolutely sure the meat is safe and no one will object, you could always try munching on yourself (except in Idaho, where consuming human flesh of any kind is illegal). Autocannibalism requires chopping off bits of yourself or possibly sucking out bits off yourself.
Invite friends over for tacos made from your own foot.
If you want to know what people taste like without chopping off your own foot, the taco chef has provided a detailed description.
Everyone Else Does It!
According to anthropologist (not to be confused with anthropophagist) William Arens, rumors of culturally sanctioned cannibalism have been greatly exaggerated. In 1979, he published The Man-Eating Myth, arguing that culturally accepted cannibalism is not nearly as wide-spread now or in history as people assume.
Evidence of whole societies of people eating each other relies heavily on statements from one group telling researchers that those weirdos next door will gnaw your face off. The next-door neighbors killed children and ate them, so they must be invaded. Their armies devoured fallen enemies, so be sure not to lose in battle. With the exception of funerary rituals, documented cases of socially accepted cannibalism are few and far between.
The fact that Europeans, up through the early 20th Century, practiced medicinal cannibalism adds a gruesomely hypocritical twist to this bit of etymology. Powdered skulls in your beer cured headaches. Drinking blood would balance your humors. Rubbing human fat on a wound might speed the healing. If you wanted to get fancy, you could even try bloody marmalade made by Franciscan friars. None of this was considered cannibalism, of course. Only uncultured savages and starving people were cannibals. Taking pulverized mummy pills with your morning tea is just following doctors’ orders.
If you want to write about cannibals, make sure you check the facts first. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians argue amongst themselves about how common it is or ever was. Hic Dragones, a press and organizer of conferences on “the weird, the dark, and the strange” held a Cannibals Conference Programme in 2015, with presentations from religious scholars, historical dietitians, pathologists, and psychologists. There are a lot of facts, many of them contradicting each other, but cannibals make an excellent addition to murder or horror stories. No holiday is complete without cannibals!
Recent blogs have discussed ways to legally or illegally dispose of a body but overlooked one important point: who has the legal right to dispose of a dead body? Who owns your body when you die?
According to Barker Evans Private Client Law, the answer is no one. It is not possible to legally “own” a body, but certain people have authority to dispose of it—although not necessarily the people you might think. The deceased’s “personal representatives” have the right to dispose of the body. If there is a Will, that would be the executor(s) of the Will.
When my mother died, my sister and I were co-executors of her will and we, along with our brother, planned her funeral—and it went very smoothly. But what if we had disagreed about the disposal of her body?
“Virginia law determines who can make decisions about funerals and body disposition — that is, burial or cremation — after someone dies. This right and responsibility goes either to a person you name in a signed, notarized document or your next of kin.” (Virginia Code § § 54.1-2825 and 54.1-2807(B).)
Writers take note! The possible ramifications are endless. If there is no Will, whoever is entitled under state intestacy laws to administer the estate would be in charge. Here it’s important to know the laws in the state where the person lived, because according to Nolo (publisher of plain-speak legal guides and online articles):
It’s up to the probate court to appoint an administrator if one is needed. But how does the court, without guidance from a will, choose someone? The answer is found in state law. Every state sets out an order of priority for judges to follow when appointing an administrator. For example, here is the priority list for serving as an administrator in Oklahoma:
1. Surviving spouse or a person the spouse nominates
3. Mother or father
4. Brothers or sisters
6. Next of kin entitled to inherit under state law
8. Any legally competent person
So when an Oklahoma resident dies without naming an executor, the surviving spouse is first in line to be appointed as administrator. If the spouse doesn’t want the job or isn’t able to do it, he or she can nominate someone—in essence, the surviving spouse stands in the place of the deceased person. (58 Okla. Stat. Ann. § 122.)
If the survivor doesn’t name someone, then the court moves on to the children, then the parents, and on down the list. Courts do not, by the way, automatically appoint the oldest sibling as administrator. All children of a deceased person on are an equal footing.
Some states don’t go into nearly so much detail. New Jersey, for example, provides this short list:
1. Spouse or domestic partner
2. Other heir (person entitled to inherit under state law)
3. Any other person
TL;DR – Without a Will, the court decides who can have the body. Laws prioritize survivors differently everywhere.
Suppose some family member/character really wants to be administrator. What could go wrong? Again, according to Nolo:
Certain people who would otherwise be entitled to serve as personal representative are disqualified under state law. (The same factors apply to persons nominated in a will.) Here are some factors that may or may not serve as reasons for disqualification:
~ Age. No state allows persons under 18 to serve as a personal representative; many set the minimum age at 21.
~ Criminal history. Some states forbid persons convicted of serious crimes from serving. (See, for example, Washington Rev. Stat. § 11.36.010.) Others require only that anyone who has been convicted of a felony inform the probate court. (For example, Oregon follows that rule. Or. Rev. Stat. § 113.092.)
~ Business relationship. In Oklahoma, if the deceased person was a member of a partnership at the time of death, the surviving partner must “in no case” be appointed as administrator.
~ Residence. All states allow persons who don’t live in the state, under certain circumstances, to serve as personal representatives. A few states allow this only if the person is a close relative. Many others require a non-resident to post a bond or appoint an in-state agent for service of process (that is, to receive communications from the court).
~ Citizenship. There isn’t much law on this, but the courts that have considered the question have ruled that noncitizens may serve as executors. Courts are usually more concerned about who’s actually a resident of the state; the court wants to be sure is has jurisdiction over the personal representative. (See, for example, the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in In re Estate of Fernandez, 335. So. 2d 829 (Fla. 1976).)
Apart from such detailed grounds for disqualification, probate court judges commonly have a lot of discretion about whom they issue letters to. In the states that have adopted a set of laws called the Uniform Probate Code, judges can disqualify anyone they find “unsuitable” in a formal proceeding. Usually, a court finds someone unsuitable if there is credible evidence of serious dishonesty, substance abuse, or mental disability.
TL;DR – Some people aren’t allowed to be in charge of making decisions for a dead person. Specific laws are different everywhere.
Writers note: when more than one person is equally eligible, the court may choose only one administrator. Whoever is chosen, the situation is ripe for tension and conflict. But consider other possibilities: would creditors simply take the least expensive option possible?
Duty to Dispose of a Body
A person who is in lawful possession of a body has a right or duty to dispose of it. Who other than executor/administrator?
the owner of a building where a person died
coroner when an autopsy is required
local authority if there is a risk to public health or public decency
Giving Your Body Away
First and foremost, you cannot will your body to a person because it is illegal to own a body.
If you want to donate a body there are three choices: donate to a university, to a state agency or to a non-transplant tissue bank, which includes brokers who sell the bodies. The brokers make money by providing bodies and dissected parts to companies and institutions that use them for training, education and research.
As long as you are alive, your body parts are your own. Don’t inadvertently make a tissue donation when you have surgery. If you negotiate the terms with your doctor, hospital, and tissue banking system in advance, you can retain possession of removed body parts, such as tumors. If you do not make a clear contract before your tissue is biopsied or dissected, your ownership of it will be compromised, and it will be at the medical center’s discretion whether you will be able to access it. Recent lawsuits between patients and hospitals over who owns tissue have been ruled in favor of the hospital. Read theinformed consent forms prior to biopsy and surgery extremely carefully and have a lawyer look at it if possible. If there is anything that doesn’t sound right to you, do not hesitate to bring it up with your doctor. (Rebecca Skloot, “Taking the Least of You,” The New York Times Magazine, April 2006.)
Q: So it’s legal to sell whole bodies and their parts, even heads and limbs? A: It’s illegal to sell human fetuses. Otherwise, yes: In almost every state, it’s legal to sell the human remains of adults. One misconception promoted by some brokers is that it is illegal to sell body parts and that people who distribute them may only be reimbursed for processing, shipping and other expenses. In most states, such laws only apply to transplant organs, such as hearts and kidneys, and to tissue, such as skin and bone. But in almost every state, these laws do not apply to whole cadavers or to parts, such as torsos, shoulders and heads. Reuters found that some brokers conflate rules for transplant organs with those for non-transplant body parts in order to create the impression that they do not profit from body donations. Q: Is it legal to sell your own body to science? A: Legal experts disagree. Some lawyers contend that it is not possible. That’s because a person’s property rights to his or her body cease at death. But others note that a person who donates a body to science may receive a free cremation in return, which could be construed as a form of payment. What’s not disputed: Federal law clearly prohibits the sale of one’s own organs and tissue for transplantation.
The Bottom Line here is ironic: you own your own body while you are alive, but you cannot sell parts for transplantation. On the other hand, once you are dead, no one owns your body but your executor/administrator can sell it whole or in parts.
Today’s blog is written by a fellow writer who wishes to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.
Among the many odd things I’ve done in my life, one that has had the most lasting impact is being a linguistic and cultural ambassador posted to a country that shall remain nameless here. Because of various regional disputes, a massive prison outbreak, less-than-polite national elections and regime changes, and a general culture of aggressiveness, I found myself living in conditions that were much more dangerous than I’d been led to expect.
When I eventually returned home, among the souvenirs and keepsakes I brought back with me, I found in my luggage a serious case of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). As Vivian’s blog is for writers and writing, I thought perhaps a guided tour inside the warped and broken mind of a person with PTSD might be of interest to you all.
Please keep hands and arms inside the cart at all times, and don’t feed the negativity gremlins as we go past.
Very Important Disclaimer: Neither Vivian Lawry nor this guest author are psychiatric professionals or are qualified to provide medical assistance. The information contained herein is not intended to be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes in any way, shape, or form.
Before the ride begins in earnest, you can look to your left for some basic information about PTSD. The most common association people have with PTSD is of veterans of military combat, but it can result from many different experiences, including natural disasters, abusive relationships, assault (sexual or otherwise), prolonged insecurity, traffic collisions, and so on. People can even develop second-hand PTSD from witnessing these events in other people’s lives. A patient may develop PTSD immediately after an event, but sometimes symptoms don’t appear until well after the event itself.
With all of these possibilities, there are loads of ways in which the inclusion of a character experiencing PTSD can enrich, complicate, drive, or drive, or even resolve your writing. There is a lot of information available about the causes and effects of PTSD, but remember that each case is different. Every person will have different triggers, coping mechanisms, involuntary reactions, etc.
You may notice the cart shaking violently as we enter the tunnel; this is simply the result of uneven neural pathways, nothing to be alarmed about.
As a writer and a reader, I’ve found myself thinking of ways in which my warped thoughts and behaviors could fit in with other common narrative techniques. I have also found some absolutely infuriating stories out there in which a character has a traumatic experience (usually rape or sexual assault) simply so the hero can come to the rescue or to establish a villain as a villain… and victimized character goes right back to skipping through the tulips. Don’t be that writer!
If you look out on either side of the cart, you may be able to make out (through the erratic strobe lights and general gloom) a few of the ways common behaviors of characters with PTSD could be very useful in your writing. Please remember that these are only glimpses from one mind and do not necessarily reflect every patient. Also, hold on to the lap bar as there are some sharp curves coming up.
Unreliable Narrator: What I see and hear is always filtered through the PTSD in my mind. If a story is told from the point of view of a character with PTSD, this is a good way to demonstrate the disconnect from reality. If another character is getting information from a character with PTSD, it could skew everyone’s opinions and affect the plot moving forward.
Social interactions are a minefield of side-stepping physical attacks (handshakes, hugs, pats on the back).
Random strangers only ever approach me with violent intentions, such as petting my dog, asking me to reach something off a high shelf, or walking past me on a narrow sidewalk.
People waiting in parked cars are obviously armed, most likely on the lookout for potential victims.
Anyone who stands in a doorway must be trying to block the exit or prevent escape.
An approach from behind must be someone trying to sneak up on me, and anyone who surprises me from behind is an attacker and will be punched.
This isn’t helped by chronic sleep deprivation giving me the same symptoms as early-onset Alzheimer’s: How can I be trusted to provide accurate information when I lose time and forget everything?
Mistaken Motivations: Objectively, I know there is nothing wrong with mental illness, nor should there be any shame attached. Still, I try to hide it or play it off as no big deal. As a result, family, friends, and strangers all have reason to assume my coping behaviors are something very different. Having a character reveal midway through or near the end of a story that their actions were motivated by coping mechanisms could be a plot twist, a clue for investigators, a reset of other characters’ attitudes, or plenty of other ways of adding narrative interest.
Friends frequently ask if I’m cold because I can’t stop shaking.
Constantly scanning for threats and possible exits sometimes makes me look like I’m trying to find someone or looking for an excuse to leave a boring conversation.
Being hyper-vigilant in general makes me look twitchy, itchy, over-caffeinated, or paranoid, depending on who is providing their opinion.
My brother thought he’d done something to offend me when I repeatedly moved away from him or left the room when he entered.
After I repeatedly panicked and cancelled plans at the last minute, many friends thought I was just blowing them off.
Arriving late to social gatherings, hiding in the corner, and leaving early have all led acquaintances to assume I’m too stuck-up to mingle.
To make it through particularly important events that I cannot miss, I’ve sometimes taken extra doses of anti-anxiety medication. My slurred speech, unfocused gaze, less than ideal balance, and inability to follow conversation looks an awful lot like I’ve shown up to the baptism or wedding drunk as a skunk.
I escape to the bathroom a lot when things get overwhelming, sometimes for extended periods of time. Most of my family now thinks I have severe digestive issues.
Affects in My Life: In order to be diagnosed as a disorder (the D in PTSD) a patient must have symptoms severe enough to disrupt their ability to live a normal life. A character who develops PTSD midway through a narrative would almost certainly show changes in behaviors. These are some of mine.
Chronic insomnia and nightmares: Years later, I still sleep in a separate room from my spouse, with the lights on, with distracting or soothing music playing… and I still manage to wake the household at least once a month by screaming in my sleep.
My ability to concentrate and complete tasks on time severely impacted my job. Twice, I responded to a coworker trying to get my attention by panicking and attacking them. Going into the office grew increasingly difficult as it became harder to leave the house. I am now unemployed.
Weeks at a time go by when I cannot leave my house, even to go into the backyard. I feel threatened every time I open the door.
Side effects from different medications I’ve tried have included weight gain, headaches, heartburn, memory loss, drowsiness, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. These could also be examples of mistaken motivations!
I no longer participate in hobbies I once did, especially anything that involves leaving the house or interacting with other people.
Suicide and suicide attempts are very common among patients with PTSD.
Anxiety Attacks, Panic Attacks, and Flashbacks: These can be triggered by almost anything, depending on the person and the situation. Smelling cigarette smoke, walking on an icy sidewalk, being in a room of people speaking another language I only halfway understand… any of these can send me spiraling. Being under stress increases the chance that something will hit that switch.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we’d like to remind you at this time that motion sickness bags can be found under your seats and to hold on tightly.
Anxiety or Panic Attack: It’s really bizarre to be terrified and not know why. Why is my heart racing? Why can’t I breathe? Why can I not stop screaming? When I have an anxiety attack, I don’t think rationally but I can speak and respond to people around me. When I have a panic attack, it feels like I’m about to die. I can’t feel anything but the absolute terror that completely takes over my body. Usually, I am able to leave a situation when I feel one of these about to happen so that I can mentally implode in the peace and quiet of a public urinal.
Flashback: These are even more bizarre. Anxiety attacks often segue into flashbacks. I am completely unaware of my surroundings and respond to threats that are long gone. I’ll switch languages to talk to people who aren’t there; I’ll be able to smell the food or feel the cold from specific memories. Sometimes, I have flashbacks that aren’t tied to precise events, more an amalgamation of similar threats that get lumped together in my head. It’s very embarrassing to come out of it and realize that I’m hiding behind a clothes rack in Target, desperately fighting off the attack of a stiff coat sleeve.
Treatment Options: There are many different types of treatments for PTSD, with varying degrees of accessibility, cost, success, and side effects. I’ve tried just about everything: some worked, some did not, some worked at first and then stopped. I can’t stress enough that every person will respond differently to different treatments. The information here is simply what undergoing the treatments felt like for me.
Therapy Animal: My dog trained himself to be a therapy dog because he was just that awesome. Before I was eventually laid off, my boss let me bring my dog into the office with me. He learned to impose himself between me and anyone getting too close to my personal space. When I had anxiety attacks, he’d put his head in my lap and nudge my hand until I pet him. Focusing on the feeling of his fur, his cold nose, his super stinky breath worked to calm me down and remind me that I was safe. He passed away in April, and it felt like going through all the trauma again.
TMS (Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation): It felt a bit like sitting in the dentist’s chair while a woodpecker tapped on my head. I went every day for three months, and the only side effect was a minor headache when I first started.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): My eyesight is so bad that I couldn’t do the actual eye movement part of it; I held a buzzer in each hand and felt the vibrations in alternating hands at different speeds. In each session, I relived particularly traumatic events over and over while the therapist guided me through sense memories and varied the speed of the buzzing. By the time the hour was up, I was usually an exhausted, damp, shaking mess running to the bathroom to vomit.
Medication: I think by now I’ve tried every different medication type on the market. I can’t even pronounce most of them and have to stutter and hope at the pharmacy. Most gave some relief for a little while and then stopped working.
There is now a way in which doctors can send a sample of your DNA to a lab, where people in white coats and shiny goggles can magically determine which medicines will or won’t work for you. I have no idea how they do it; I assume it involves cauldrons and eyes or tails of newts.
Ketamine: I was very hesitant to try this method because there have been so few long-term studies. When I started, I went in every day for a week and a half. After that, I went in every three to four weeks depending on how the doctor thinks I’m doing. Ketamine treatment is available through aerosol or intravenously. I sit in a comfy chair with a needle in my arm for about an hour while geometry loses all meaning and everything becomes either fascinating or hilarious. Everything in the universe swirls in front of my face, and the feeling of my hair is the most amazing sensation I can remember. According to the nurse, I tend to wax rhapsodic about how much I love every person who comes through the door. For some reason, they won’t let me drive afterwards!
Healing Crystals/ Salt Lamps/ Essential Oils: I had a lumpy pillow, a pink wall, and everything tasted like lavender.
PTSD is expensive!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour through the mess inside my head. Please wait for the ride to come to a complete stop before unbuckling safety harnesses. Be sure to gather all personal items and take them with you as you exit down the ramp to your right. Don’t forget to check the photo booth for a hilarious souvenir memento of your trip. You can also find resources for actual help; as I’m sure you remember, this has just been an example of some personal experiences for your writing toolbox.