CASE STUDIES IN ADOPTION

Note: Unless otherwise specified, the photographs below are for illustration purposes only and are not connected to the case studies provided. Examples and links to specific adoption agencies are provided for reference and not as an endorsement or condemnation of any particular agency.

AdoptiveFamilies.com

The concept of adoption has a generally positive aura. Indeed, it’s easy to find articles like Why Adopt? 23 Reasons to Adopt a Child (amerianadoptions.com). But frankly my experience of adoptions via family and friends is a mixed bag. 

The good news for writers: good, bad, or unclear outcome, adoptions are fertile ground for characters and plots.

Case 1: Desire to Adopt a Stepchild

When my husband and I married, he was a widower with a three-year-old daughter. I (foolishly) thought that by that marriage, I became his daughter’s mother. Wrong! To be her legal parent, I had to adopt her. We lived in Upstate New York, and at the time a child with a living biological parent could be adopted only if the biological parent gave up his/her parental rights.  The upshot was that my hubs signed away his parental rights and then we both adopted her!

This was an incredibly successful adoption. I told my parents, my husband’s parents, AND our daughter’s maternal grandmother that any and all of our children had to be treated equally. We subsequently had two more daughters. Words like step-mother, half-sister, etc., never crossed anyone’s lips—and I don’t think crossed anyone’s mind. When her elementary school class made family trees, hers had three branches: her biological mother, her father, and me. 

Writers note: consider such a case that did not go so well.

Case 2 A, B & C: Desire to Help a Friend or Family Member Who Isn’t in a Position to Raise a Child

2A – the biological mother of two children was murdered, and neither of the fathers was known. The maternal grandmother and her husband adopted the grandchildren. Although a financial burden, no one seemed to regret the decision.

2B – the biological parents of the child were drug addicts. The paternal grandmother went to court to get custody and eventually adopted the grandson, who grew up to be an admirable and ambitious young man.

2C – the biological parents were unmarried teenagers, not financially viable, and not psychologically well balanced enough to care for a special needs child. The paternal grandmother first won custody and then adopted her. The adopted daughter struggled through special education classes, therapy, and at age eighteen, vocational training for a sheltered work environment. The child/young adult was a constant and severe stress on the paternal grandmother and her husband’s marriage.

Writers note: consider that a biological father came forward in A; consider how the relationship between the biological parent and the grandparent might evolve in cases B & C.

AFamilyForEveryChild.com

Case 3 A & B: Desire to Give a Child Born in Another Country a Chance to Thrive

3A – the adoptive father had been a U.S. soldier who served in Viet Nam. He and his wife had three children (sons) but wanted to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. In the event, the Vietnamese orphans were so weak and sickly that the international agencies weren’t placing them. They suggested adopting a Korean orphan, and that is what they did. As adults, the children have good relationships. Although differing in political perspectives, the adoptive parents and daughter are emotionally close.

3B – the parents decided to adopt a child from a country where the majority of the population is of a different race, practices a different religion, and speaks a different language. The boy was four years old when he was adopted. The relationship between the parents and the child never settled into a comfortable family pattern. When he turned eighteen, the adopted child returned to the country of his birth and changed his name back to the one he’d had in the orphanage. The parents have not seen him since and have only occasional online contact.

Case 4 A & B: Desire to Choose the Child’s Gender

4A – a Caucasian couple had two sons. Wishing for a daughter, they conceived several times over the years but all of those pregnancies ended in miscarriages. They chose to adopt a mixed race (Irish and African American) baby daughter. The adoption was simply a part of the family structure. The child and her biological mother saw each other occasionally. The birth mother being known, there was quite a bit of info available about health issues, for example. The adoptive parents made a conscious effort to expose their daughter to African American culture and experiences.

Writers note: count the ways this might go awry as the adopted daughter goes through teenage rebellion, or is the only non-white face at family gatherings. What if one or both sons marry women who are more or less racist?

4B – a couple had two daughters. After eight years of repeated pregnancies and miscarriages, the wife had a medically necessary hysterectomy. The husband wanted a son “to carry on the family name.” They didn’t want to wait two years to adopt an infant and so applied to adopt a ten-year-old boy. A month younger than the elder daughter, he was in the same class in school as the younger daughter because his biological parents had never enrolled him in school. There was a “trial year” before the adoption could be finalized. It quickly became apparent that the boy shared no interests with the husband, nor his need for achievement. The wife resented the burden of a third child while her health was so fragile, and was fearful that the boy would replace the daughters in her husband’s affection.  The daughters acted to protect the boy from their mother. The boy’s attitude was “hunker down and get by,” because the home he’d been adopted into was much better than his previous situation. At the end of the year, both the couple and the boy agreed to finalize the adoption. In the meantime, the boy had been in school for a year under his birth name. When the husband asked whether the boy wanted to change his name, the boy said he didn’t care, that he wouldn’t be any more a member of the family one way than the other. His name wasn’t changed.

Writers note: what are the long-term implications???

Case 5 A & B: Due to Infertility or Other Reasons, a Parent Cannot Have a Biological Child

5A – After several years of marriage and extensive fertility treatments, a couple was unable to conceive. They decided to adopt.  The adoption wasn’t easy because of the adoptive parents’ ages. They decided to adopt a brother and a sister together, although they’d been told that the children were developmentally behind their ages. The adoptive mother was a psychologist and attributed that developmental lag to their early lives. As the children grew, the boy appeared to be average or a little below in intelligence. The girl suffered microcephaly. The marriage failed. The children remained with the adoptive mother. As the boy developed, she couldn’t handle him and ended up paying a lot of money to enroll him in a military school. As the girl grew, she became ever more aggressive and defiant and was expelled from school. The mother tried therapy, including residential therapy. The girl was living in a residential facility and was on her way to see a psychiatrist (as she had requested), when she said she didn’t want to go to that hospital, jumped from the back of the van, broke her neck and died immediately. The boy married and had a child and had a relationship better than ever with the adoptive mother.

5B – the adoptive mother was a single woman who wanted a child but had no desire to give birth or to involve an unnecessary man. She adopted an infant from South America and raised the girl to be Catholic, fluent in Spanish, and knowledgeable of her native country’s history and culture, in accordance with the biological mother’s wishes. The girl grew up surrounded and supported by her adopted mother’s parents and siblings. She did well at home and in school until about halfway through high school. Then, she got involved with drugs, was in and out of abusive relationships, had three children by unknown fathers, and is now serving time while her adoptive mother has custody of the children.

Writers note: where/how might these events have developed differently?

HowtoAdopt.org

Case 6 A & B: The Couple “Just Wants To”

These two will be treated together because they are related. The women are sisters, the twelfth and thirteenth children in the family. They were exceptionally close growing up. For unknown reasons, neither had a child and they and their husbands each adopted a son. The older sister’s adoption was a great success. The son thrived, both academically and professionally, married and had a daughter they named after his adoptive mother. The younger sister’s adopted son was a ne’er-do-well. He was sporadically employed, had many brushes with the law, driver’s license revoked, time in jail, drank heavily, tapped his mother for financial support, and in the view of the extended family, exploited her financially to her detriment. She never rejected him. And that was a source of tension and distance between the formerly close sisters.

Writers note: fertile ground here! Throw in Parkinson’s or some equally debilitating disease? Why not have children of their own, when all their older sisters had done so?

AdoptConnect.com

Adoption Process

The actual process of adoption varies widely among agencies and countries. However, there are some fairly consistent requirements:

  • The adoptive parent(s) must demonstrate financial stability, a permanent home, psychological maturity, etc.
  • If the adopting parents are married, there is usually a minimum amount of time they must have been married before being allowed to adopt.
  • If there are other children in the home, there is sometimes a requirement that a minimum number of years separate the biological children from the adopted children.
    • Many adoption agencies recommend not adopting a child who is older than the oldest biological child so that birth order is not disrupted.
    • The youngest child in the home is often required to be at least two or three years old before the adopted child will be placed.
  • Parent(s) must be at least eighteen years older than the adopted child.
  • Most adoption agencies perform home visits and individual interviews with each member of the family. Some require character references from friends or employers.
  • Because of the different needs of adopted children, especially older adopted children, many agencies require prospective adoptive families to attend training seminars.
  • Guides for raising adopted children and helping them adjust can be also be found online.

Summary: in my experience, adoption typically isn’t about helping a mother who (for whatever reason) must give up a child. Nor is it about giving a loving home to a child (stranger) who needs it. As a writer, consider the motives of the the adult(s) seeking to adopt. And consider all the ways those motives might be frustrated.

GOOD FEET, BAD FEET

Red feet, Blue feet!

How much thought have you given to your characters’ feet? And shoes? Feet and shoes tend to go together, and both can be valuable as character details, plot devices, and sources of conflict. But let’s start with the basics. Are bare feet good or bad? Yes!

Health Concerns

The Upside of Bare Feet: 

  • Uninhibited flexibility, greater strength, and mobility of the foot.
  • Some research suggests that walking and running barefoot results in a more natural gait, allowing for a more rocking motion of the foot, eliminating hard heel strikes, generating less collision force in the foot and lower leg.
  • Many sports require going barefoot: gymnastics, martial arts, beach volleyball, and tug of war.  Rugby in South Africa is always played barefoot at the primary school level. Other sports have barefoot versions: running, hiking, and water skiing.
  • People who don’t wear shoes have a more natural toe position, not squished together.

The Downside of Bare Feet:

Hallux valgus, bunion
  • Losing protection from cuts, abrasions, bruises, hard surfaces, and extremes of heat or cold.
  • Constantly being barefoot increases likelihood of flat feet, bunions, and hammer toe.
  • Because feet are so sensitive, toe locks and striking the bottoms of the feet are often used as punishment.

Climate and Weather:

  • With no environmental need for shoes, Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, and various African nations have historically gone barefoot.
  • Even when it isn’t necessary, people in such climates often wear ornamental footwear for special occasions.

General Symbolism

  • Baring one’s feet shows humility and subjugation.
  • Going barefoot symbolizes innocence, childhood, and freedom from constraints .
  • Bare feet are often a sign of poverty.
    • The assumption of ignorance and poor hygiene often accompanies the poverty of bare feet.
  • From Roman times on, footwear signaled wealth, power and status in most of Europe and North Africa.Shoes that are impractical or inhibit movement often signal enhanced status, such as Italian chopines, Chinese “Golden Lotus” bound feet, armored German sabatons, Polish crakows, and everything worn by Victoria Beckham.
  • Forbidding shoes marks the barefoot person as a slave or prisoner under the control of others.  Keeping prisoners barefoot is common in China, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Uganda, Iran, Pakistan, India, Congo, Malawi, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, and North Korea.

Cultural Aspects

Religion:

  • Some religious sects take a vow of poverty, including obligatory bare feet.
  • Many Buddhists go barefoot as a reminder to be concerned for Mother Nature, to lead people in the path of virtue, and to develop the Buddhist spirit.
  • Roman Catholics show respect and humility before the Pope by kissing his feet. 
  • In Judaism and some Christian denominations it is customary to go barefoot while mourning.
  • Anyone entering a mosque or a Hindu temple is expected to remove his or her shoes. Stealing shoes from such a place is often considered a desecration.
    • Hindus show love and respect to a guru by touching his bare feet. 
    • Lord Vishnu’s feet are believed to contain symbols such as conch, fish, and disc.
  • In many spiritual traditions, body and soul are connected by the soles of the feet.

Europe:

  • Wearing shoes indoors is often considered rude or unhygienic in Austria, UK, Ireland, Netherlands, and Belgium.
  • In Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, wearing shoes indoors is expected.

Asian Countries:

  • Showing the soles of the feet is seen as an insult because the feet are seen as unclean (“You are lower than the soles of my feet”).
  • Shoes are seen as dirty and so are removed before entering a mosque, temple, or house.

China:

  • Take your shoes off when entering a house.
  • The practice of foot-binding began in the 10th century as a sign of wealth and beauty. It was outlawed by Empress Dowager Cixi in 1902 (though this was largely ignored) and successfully outlawed by Sun Yat-Sen in 1912.

Japan:

  • Never cross your feet in Japan.
  • Students take off their street shoes when entering school and wear uwabaki, soft-soled clean shoes, to the classroom. Street shoes are stored in special lockers by the school entrance.

Thailand:

  • A prisoner must be barefoot in court during penal proceedings.
  • Because the feet are the lowest part of the body, they are considered filthy.
    • Showing the soles of your feet is extremely rude, a big taboo at any time.
  • Remove your shoes before entering a school, temple, or home.
  • In some houses or schools, inside slippers (never worn outside) are allowed.

India:

  • Shoes are considered impure, so it is customary to remove footwear when entering a home or a temple.
  • Charanasparsha is a very common gesture of respect and subservience made by bowing and touching the feet of the (always superior in age and position) person being honored.

Australia:

  • It’s common for people, particularly young people, to go barefoot in public. In some regions, students attend school barefoot.

New Zealand:

  • Many people, of all races and cases, conduct daily business barefoot.
  • Barefoot is more common in rural areas and some seasons.

South Africa:

  • Walking barefoot in public is common among all ethnic groups, in rural and urban areas.
  • The National Guidelines on School Uniform lists shoes as an optional item.
  • Barefoot people are common in public, shopping malls, stores, and events.

Canada:

I assume everyone in Canada wears these all the time.
  • Take off shoes when entering a home.
  • Elementary schools require students to have indoor shoes and provide a place to store outdoor footwear. Outdoor shoes are worn in high schools.
  • Some medical facilities require patients to remove shoes for reasons of cleanliness.
  • Office workers usually wear indoor shoes in winter, outdoor shoes in summer.

United Kingdom:

  • Mostly in rural areas, children and teenagers are accepted.
  • Some schools encourage barefoot participation in indoor and outdoor physical education.
  • The National Health Service encourages people to go barefoot or wear open-toed sandals in hot weather to avoid sweaty, smelly feet.

United States:

  • Many children in rural areas, and/or those in poverty go barefoot.
  • More commonly, people wear shoes both outdoors and indoors.
  • Businesses that don’t prepare or serve food can determine dress codes that prohibit or allow bare feet.

Miscellaneous:

  • Fairies and magical creatures in several cultures leave no footprints. Checking for footprints is a common method of identifying supernatural creatures and avoiding mischief.
  • Before a baby learns to walk, stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl up. After the baby learns to walk (and for the rest of their pedestrian life), stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl down.
  • Ancient Egyptian believed that stepping forward with the left foot trod out evil so the heart could proceed.
  • The foot chakra is one of the most important, as it helps pass the Divine Energy to Mother Earth, making powerful grounding .
  • Having a foot fetish or kink means being sexually aroused by feet or certain parts thereof, such as toes, arches, ankles, etc.

Bottom line for writers: What are your characters’ attitudes and behaviors regarding feet and shoes? And why?

HERE’S TO HELLEBORES!

“Why hellebores?” Well might you ask. Because they are my favorite! And because they can be useful for your characters and plots.

When we moved to Ashland, Virginia, we bought an 1858 Greek Revival house on a double lot with old trees and daffodils and not much else. I searched for shade-loving, blooming, evergreen, low-maintenance plants. Voila! Hellebores. They are all of that plus, as a bonus, the blooming happens in winter and early spring.

Behold Hellebore niger, aka Christmas rose, a welcome sight come December. It’s pretty and reliable! The opening picture is from this year, New Year’s Eve. The picture just above is from 12/21/18.  Hellebore niger is the earliest blooming hellebore I’ve found.

Close on the heels of the Christmas rose is the Lenten rose (aka Hellebore orientalis) and its various hybrids. Please note: despite being called Christmas rose and Lenten rose, hellebores are only distantly related to the rose family. This picture of purple and double white hellebores is from March 3, 2019.

Although the flowers and foliage of most hellebores are similar, the Stinking hellebore (Hellebore foetidae) is distinctively different. Its leaves are narrow and knife-like, and cluster at the ends of stalks. The flowers are smaller and droopy, and mostly a pale green.

Hellebores bloom throughout the spring, in a riot of colors. They bloom until the heat of June or July do them in. At that point they drop seeds, and where they are happy, they spread into lovely clumps.

Although they need water during droughts, they are low maintenance. Prune browned-off leaves and dry flowers at will. There are supposed to be a couple of insects and a fungus or so that can attack them, but I’ve never had either. Animals—deer, rabbits, etc.—usually don’t chomp on hellebores because of the (dis)taste of the leaves.

So no wonder I (as well as real gardeners) love hellebores!  But why would a writer care?

All parts of all hellebores are toxic! 

Smart rabbits eat only non-toxic plants in your garden!

Somehow, this did not come to my attention when I wrote My Poison Garden last fall. (How could that have happened?)

Although poisoning is rare, it does occur through ingestion of large quantities, and it can be fatal.

  • Symptoms can include any of the following 
    • Burning of the mouth and throat
    • Excess salivation
    • Vomiting
    • Abdominal cramping
    • Diarrhea
    • Nerve system dysfunction
    • Possibly even depression!
  • The roots contain cardiac glycosides.
  • Leaves and sap contain high levels of ranunculin and protoanemonin.

How might a character be induced to ingest large quantities of a foul tasting plant? 

All you can eat ranunculin and protoanemonin!

Dermatitis is fairly common, caused by handling the plants without protection.  Contact with leaves, stems, flowers, and sap can cause irritation and burning on the skin. Minimal exposure should cause a mild, short-lived irritation and can be treated by washing with soap and water. How might a scene be affected by a character suffering contact dermatitis?

This is a hellebore that is black, not a Black hellebore.

Although hybrids that look nearly black have been developed, historically Black hellebore is another name for Hellebore niger, the white blooming Christmas rose. Black hellebore was used by the the ancient Greeks and Romans to treat paralysis, gout, insanity, and other diseases.  Beware: it can also cause tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, difficulty breathing, vomiting, catharsis, slowing of the heart rate, including collapse and death from cardiac arrest. Not quite so serious: can cause burning of the eyes, mouth, and throat; or oral ulceration, gastroenteritis, a hematemesis. Could the toxicity of hellebores create an illusion of a chronic disease or disorder of unknown origin?

Folklore and legend vary from the sacred to the dark arts. Could your plot take elements from these?

  • According to legend, a young girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem wept, and her tears falling into the snow sprouted the Christmas rose.
  • Witches are reputed to use hellebores in summoning demons.
  • Heracles/ Hercules killed his children in a fit of madness but was cured by using hellebore.
  • Greek besiegers of Kirrha (585 BC) used hellebore to poison the city’s water supply, overcoming the defenders weakened by diarrhea.

Bottom line for gardeners and writers: get thee hellebores!

Poisonous flowers make lovely Christmas cards!

BRACE YOURSELF! IT’S FRIDAY THE 13TH!!

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.

Friday the 13th is widely considered bad luck in Western superstition. According to The Sun, UK Edition

  • 55% of Brits consider themselves superstitious. 
  • 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
  • Spilling salt
  • 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.

In Hispanic and Greek cultures, the bad luck day is Tuesday the 13th. On the other hand, in Italy the bad luck day is Friday the 17th.

My relatives sometimes said, “If I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all!” Not that that’s particularly relevant, but it’s been running through my thoughts as I wrote this blog.

Bottom line for writers: create your own Friday the 13th disaster, or a character who is irrationally fearful of Fridays, 13s, and Friday the 13ths.

VEGETARIAN, PESCATARIAN… HUMANITARIAN?

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.
    • Armin Meiwes is now a vegetarian.
  • 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.

Does this count as autocannibalism?
  • Make sausages with your own blood.
  • Fry meatballs in your liposuctioned fat.
  • Pair up with a buddy to fry and eat each other on live television.
  • Boil and eat fingers severed in a vehicle accident.
  • 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.

Even the word “cannibal” was created as a form of linguistic propaganda. It comes from Columbus’s misunderstanding of the Carib people’s name for themselves. Columbus reported that the Canibales were rumored to eat human flesh, and the name stuck. When Queen Isabella declared in 1503 that non-cannibalistic tribes could not be enslaved, all those reports of “those guys over the hill who have Soylent Green picnics” became very useful. Suddenly, just about any indigenous population of an area Europeans wanted to colonize was absolutely guaranteed to be cannibals.

Eating the bodies of criminals during a famine is just good resource management.
Engraving by Theodor de Bry

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.

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

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!

Cannibal Claus is a real movie. This picture was not photoshopped or altered in any way.

WHOSE BODY?

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

2. Children

3. Mother or father

4. Brothers or sisters

5. Grandchildren

6. Next of kin entitled to inherit under state law

7. Creditors

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.

But not illegal to own a lot of bodies, apparently.

 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.

It is recommended that you not dispose of vital organs while you are alive, unless they are made of rubber and used for EMT training.

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 the informed 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.)

Selling Your Body—Say, what?

According to Reuters:

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.

No worries!

INSIDE A MIND WITH PTSD

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.

This is basically what the inside of my mind looks like.
(It’s actually the Soul Cairn from the Dawnstar plug-in to Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim by Bethesda.)

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.

Common symptoms of PTSD. As soon as I can cultivate a substance abuse problem, I’ll have BINGO! (That’s how it works, right?)

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.

What it feels like to walk down the street.
  • 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.

This is perfectly normal.
  • 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.

It doesn’t look quite as cute when I do it.
  • 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.

He still can’t change the printer cartridges.
  • 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.

SIX FEET UNDER – OR NOT (ILLEGAL EDITION)

In my last blog, I explored ways in which human corpses can legally be disposed of before they start to get whiffy. Or after they’ve gotten a bit whiffy. But what if a body needs to be disposed of without attracting the attention of certain authority figures? Never fear! There are plenty of options available for what I’m sure is your perfectly legitimate reason for secretly removing a corpse.

Why Dispose of a Body Illegally? 

  • To prevent, hinder, or delay discovery of the body
  • To prevent identification of the body
  • To prevent autopsy
  • To avoid causing changes in things lie pension payments, social security, insurance payouts, etc. that may be affected by death or the cause of death (e.g., suicide or illegal activities)

Animals Love People

Never Trust a Pig Farmer

To quote Snatch’s Brick Top, “[Pigs] will go through bone like butter.” You can find lots of stories online about pigs eating their owners who collapsed inside the pig enclosure, and of serial killers who disposed of victims this way. Pigs offer both speed and thoroughness. How fast and how thorough? An average American man is 5’9” and carries 195.5 pounds of flesh and bone. For a hungry pig, that’s a week, maybe a week and a half of munching.

With impeccable table manners, of course!

How long it takes for the body to be turned into unidentifiable pig manure depends on the size of the dead body and of the pig. A general estimation for how much food a pig eats is about 5–6 pounds per 100 pounds of pig every day. The weight range for a domestic pig is around 110–770 pounds, but the heaviest recorded pig tipped the scales at 2552 pounds. So the range is 5–150 pounds a day.

Taking the average of everything—the average human body weighs 137 pounds, the average pig is 440 pounds, eating 5.5 pounds per 100 pounds of body-weight, means 24.2 pounds consumed per day—yields 137/24.2 = 5.66 days for the average pig eating an average amount consuming the average human body. But according to a Canadian agriculture development agency, fully grown boars don’t eat nearly as much as lactating sows, which can eat 10-14 pounds in one sitting.


To be as efficient as possible (and kind to the pigs) remove the parts they can’t digest: hair and teeth, and cut the body into pieces.

Feed it to the ‘Gators

That’s a watermelon, not blood.

Another animal that can be quite helpful for disposing of a body is the alligator. Like pigs, alligators have no problem eating any kind of meat they can get their teeth on. Because alligators are cold-blooded, their feeding habits and digestive rates vary with the temperature outside, so this method of illegal corpse removal is largely limited to very hot regions of the world.

Although alligators are much less likely to attack humans than Hollywood would like you to believe, they are perfectly happy to eat meat that stays still. When available, human carrion suits them just fine.

As with pigs, it is safest to remove identifying markers like teeth and hair, as well as bits that are most likely to break off and wash up where they can be found (hands and feet, fingers and toes). Chop up the rest into chunks an alligator can swallow in one gulp, and toss it all into the scrum.

The movie based on the life of Joe Ball,

Perhaps the most notorious criminal to use this particular method of hiding the bodies was Joe Ball, eventually known as the “Bluebeard of Texas” or simply “Alligator Man.” In the early part of the twentieth century, he is known to have killed at least two and possibly as many as twenty women and fed their bodies to his pet alligators. Joe Ball shot himself rather than be taken in by the police, so the exact details remain speculative.

But he’s not the only one! In 2018, a woman in Fort Bend, Texas was convicted of trying to feed her victim’s body to alligators. A Spring Break partier was abducted and allegedly dumped in an alligator swamp in 2009. Her body was never found.

Illegal disposal of bodies in water—to dispose of the evidence?

Underwater Sculpture by Jason deClairs Taylor
(Not actual mafia hits)
  • Dumping in a river, hoping it will wash away, is the method most likely to be quickly discovered because the body gets washed up on the river bank or hung up on some obstacle—or is seen just floating.
  • A large lake or ocean is more likely to hide the body, if it is properly weighed down. Even so, the body may wash ashore, get caught in fishing nets or lines, or be discovered by divers.
  • Swamps have the double benefit of being largely impassable and having a plethora of bacteria and scavenging animals to aid in decomposition.
These are the cement shoes they’re always talking about, right?
  • Weighing bodies:
    • the Mafia is infamous for encasing the feet of victims in concrete;
    • a variation on that is attaching concrete blocks to the body;
    • the Chicago overcoat involves wrapping heavy chains around the victim;
    • in Venice, barrels filled with a human body and concrete are sometimes found in the canals.

Methods of illegal disposal used in actual cases and in fiction (according to Wikipedia):

  • Illegal use of conventional methods, commonly burial in a place unlikely to draw attention, or water disposal (e.g. Cleveland Torso Murderer)
  • Dissolution was used by Jeffrey Dahmer, smashing or dissolving the skeleton
  • Cannibalism (e.g. Jeffrey Dahmer)
  • Grinding into small pieces for disposal in nature, disposal via a sewer system, or use as fertilizer
  • Boiling (used by Futoshi Matsunaga and Dennis Nilsen)
  • Encasing in concrete (e.g. murder of Junko Furuta)
  • Hiding in trash or landfill (e.g. murder of David Stackdisappearance of Natalee Holloway)
  • Feeding to animals (e.g. pigs or flesh-eating insects; used by Ted Bundy and Robert Pickton)
  • Abandonment in an area where the body can degrade significantly before being discovered, if ever, such as a remote area (e.g. West Mesa murders), cave, abandoned well, abandoned mine, or a neglected or hazardous third-party property (known as a dump job); sometimes dropped in an easily discovered but out-of-the-way location to obscure the identity of the murderer (e.g. Fountain Avenue, Brooklyn)
  • Dropping into a destructive or impassible natural hazard, such as a volcano, quicksand, or crevasse
  • Destruction by industrial process, such as machinery, chemical bath, molten metal, or a junked car
  • Injection into the legitimate body disposal system (e.g. morgue, funeral home, cemetery, crematorium, funeral pyre, cadaver donation) or killings at a health care facility (e.g. Ann Arbor Hospital Murders and Dr. X killings)
  • Burning, often in a building (e.g. possibly the Clinton Avenue Five)
  • Disguising as animal flesh (e.g. abattoir, food waste, food; as Katherine Knight did)
  • Attachment to a vehicle travelling to a distant place
  • Creating false evidence of the circumstances of death and letting investigators dispose of the body, possibly obscuring identity
  • Indefinite storage (e.g. in a freezer or refrigerator, as in the murder of Paul Marshall Johnson, Jr.)
Surveillance footage allegedly showing two people dumping the body of a third on a street in Harlem.

When I started this blog, I envisioned a few headings, each with a few bullets below. But it just grew! I hope it held your personal interest and/or generated some plot ideas!

In Scotland, cadaver dogs are trained to sniff out corpses underwater. Don’t try dumping bodies in Loch Ness, because this fluffy giant will find it. And you.

SIX FEET UNDER—OR NOT (LEGAL EDITION)

“Fantasy Coffins” are currently a very popular method of burial in Ghana.

Death is a big deal, both in real life and in fiction. And where there is death, there is (usually) a body to be disposed of. Most of us have a pretty clear idea of what happens when someone in the family dies.

In my family, the body is taken from the hospital to a local funeral home. It is embalmed and displayed in an open casket, sometimes a half casket. Relatives and friends gather to reminisce and grieve together during viewing hours at the funeral home. A memorial service is held at the funeral home or the deceased’s church, according to religious preferences. Everyone is then invited to proceed to the cemetery for a brief graveside service and burial in a family plot.  Friends and family are often invited to gather at a relative’s home to eat, drink, and be memorializing.

Fluffy white collars are the standard uniform at medical schools today.
(The Anatomy Lesson by Dr. Sebastiaan Egbertsz by Aert Pietersz)

But families differ. My father-in-law, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law all donated their bodies to medical schools. There was a memorial service near the time of death. When the cremains (cremated remains) were returned to the family (maybe as much as two years later!), there was a graveside service when the ashes are buried in a family plot, attended by immediate family and intimate friends.

I’ve also been involved in scattering the ashes of two friends, one on Cape Cod and one on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In both cases, there was a memorial service soon after death and the ashes were scattered weeks or months later.

There is a growing trend in some places (Puerto Rico and New Orleans, for example) for “Extreme Embalming.” Rather than being laid out in a casket, the deceased is dressed and posed to be as lifelike as possible. These elaborate presentations are often the main attraction at huge, rowdy parties celebrating the deceased.

Party on!

In my personal experience, dead bodies have been disposed of in pretty unspectacular ways.

But Wait! There Are Options!

The first option comes before the body is actually disposed of: the body can be taken home until time for permanent disposal, as long as it can be kept cool, for example using dry ice.

WAYS TO DISPOSE OF A BODY LEGALLY

Artificial reef made with human ashes.

Watery Graves

  • Burial at sea, traditionally, meant a body wrapped in sailcloth and tied with weights to make sure it sank. Modern whole body burial at sea still occurs, and it involves the entire un-embalmed body being sunk in the ocean to great depths. Laws vary by jurisdiction.
  • Ship burial is a form of burial at sea in which the corpse is set adrift in a boat.
  • Reef casting, for example using Eternal Reefs, involves  mixing ashes with environmentally safe concrete. The resulting reef is placed in the ocean, where it becomes a habitat for sea life. Reefs range in price from $3,000 to $7,500, and there are locations for reef casting along the east and gulf coasts of the U.S.

Cremation And Its Alternatives

  • Traditional cremation is king, in the US and internationally. Although rare in the developed world until the late 19th century, it gained popularity following WWI. The body can be taken directly from the place of death to the crematorium. After the cremation, there are numerous options. Cremains can be scattered, buried, or neither (see below). 
  • Alkaline hydrolysis (aka water cremation): boiling water washes over the body constantly until the flesh, muscle, and organs liquefy. A chemical catalyst, usually potassium hydroxide, causes the decomposition. When complete, bleached bones and liquid human runoff remain.  After the body has been dissolved, the remaining bones are crushed into ash and returned to the family, much like the remains are returned after traditional cremation.  The system is 100% pollution free. It uses 1/10th the electricity of a traditional cremation. Because nothing is burned during the procedure, no toxic gases or air pollutants are produced, according to the Mayo Clinic, which uses the procedure in their anatomy department in Rochester, Minnesota. Check for current availability by state. For example, this option will be available in California in 2020.
Watch your loved ones explode!

Ashes To Ashes… Or To Something Else

  • Cremains from either method can be sent heavenward at a specified place in a biodegradable balloon. The balloon freezes at about 30,000 feet and bursts, releasing the ashes.
  • Cremains can be mixed with gunpowder for fireworks.
  • Bodies donated for medical education benefit physicians, dentists, nurses, and physical therapists. In addition, medical researchers use cadavers to develop surgical procedures. To the best of my knowledge, when the educational possibilities are exhausted, the remains are always cremated.
  • One can chose a facility that recycles heat generated by cremation to generate electricity.
  • Ashes can be launched into space if one has enough money and doesn’t mind contributing to space junk polluting the atmosphere.
Cremation art and jewelry from artists at Sands of Time
  • A portion of the cremains can be heated and pressed to make a diamond, costs varying by size, color, and cut of the stone. 
  • Turn human ashes into a vinyl record for about $3K. AndVinyly will use music or audio of your choice, with or without a photo on the cover.
  • Ashes can be incorporated into handcrafted glass art: jewelry, sun catchers, paperweight, etc., with or without ash showing.
  • Ashes can be stored in an urn or sculpture that looks like the dead person. 
  • Special tattoo techniques will allow a person to embed the ashes of a cremated loved one under their skin.
  • Artists can mix the cremains with paint or graphite to create portraits or murals honoring the deceased.

Buried, But Not Traditionally

  • “Burial” above ground is called immurement. For example, in New Orleans the high water level precludes ground burial; bodies are entombed above ground. But immurement occurs across the country in mausoleums.
  • Burial on private land is legal, but check local zoning laws. A funeral director is usually required to oversee the burial. If the person died of a contagious disease, embalming may be required.
  • “Green” or natural burial means the un-embalmed body is interred in biodegradable coffins or shrouds. There are no headstones, crypts, or even landscaping. Unlike a traditional burial, there are no plastic cushions, metal coffin parts, or embalming chemicals. Many green cemeteries even require metal tooth fillings, screws or plates on bones, pacemakers, etc. to be removed from the body.
  • Un-embalmed bodies can be buried in a suit made from mushrooms and other biodegradable organisms, allowed the corpse to become compost, with zero waste. You can get the suit or the shroud for $1500 or so and be buried in a biodegradable coffin or no container at all.
  • The remains of a cremated body (traditional or water cremation) might put into a biodegradable urn that is then buried with a tree seedling: dig a hole in a sunny place, fill with soil, wood chips, and the seedling. If you use Living Urn’s BioUrn, the urn comes with a proprietary growth agent and the seedling of your choice. Compatible trees include olive, birch, cherry, eucalyptus, and oak.
  • Promession—coming soon? Patented by a Swedish company and touted as an “ecological funeral,” it involves freezing the body with liquid nitrogen, vibrating it into small particles, freeze drying the particles, separating any metals, and placing the dry powder remains in a biodegradable casket in top soil.

Not Buried At All

  • Bodies donated to a body farm (aka outdoor forensic anthropology lab) for research purposes are sometimes not buried at all, but left to decompose naturally above ground. When they are buried, it’s likely to be atypical: for example, wrapped in plastic. The results of their studies help law enforcement agencies determine time and manner of death. They are also used to train cadaver dogs and search and rescue teams. There were seven body farms in the U.S. as of 2017.
  • Plastination is a process by which the body’s water and fat are replaced by plastics, which results in total preservation (i.e., the body doesn’t decay). Such bodies are often used in medical education, much as described above. Recently, hoards of people viewed the exhibit BodyWorlds.
  • Having the body cryonically frozen includes the possibility that, when medical science advances enough, the person can be thawed and revived.
  • Sky burials let animals eat the body. Dead bodies are placed on a mountain top to be eaten by scavenging animals or to decompose naturally. Traditionally practiced by some Native American groups using wooden scaffolding or tree limbs, it is currently common in parts of China, Tibet, Nepal, and parts of Northern India. Vajrayana Buddhism follow this practice because adherents believe the body has no use after death and might as well feed animals.
  • Composting a human body involves putting the body in a mix of wood chips, allowing thermophile microbes to decompose the flash and parts of the bones. At the time of this writing, in the U.S. it is legal only in Washington State.
Talk in class, and he may open the closet door.
  • Taxidermy is chosen by a few people: for example, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who had his dead body stuffed. His head, however, was mangled in a botched attempt at New Guinea mummification techniques and is now stored separately from the body. In accordance with his will, Bentham’s stuffed body (with a wax head) was posed and kept in a closet at University College of London.

Historic Means Of Disposal

Roman Catacombs
  • Mummification
  • Dismemberment, in which the body is divided. Historically, this was a form of execution, but sometimes body parts were separated and disposed of individually.
    • Catholic saints were occasionally dismembered so that multiple holy sites could store a piece of the saint’s body, usually in finely crafted reliquaries.
    • Members of the Habsburg royal family were entombed in the Capuchin Crypt with hearts and heads often stored separately.
    • Several ancient catacombs, including those under Paris and Rome, separated skeletons after death and stored bones by type.
  • Mass graves resulting from war, genocide, or natural disasters.
  • Plague pits to try to stop the spread of disease.

Be Aware Of Restrictions

Jewish funeral law requires that every corpse be buried.
  • Various religions and cultures have funeral rites that govern the disposal of a body. For example, some require that all parts of a body are buried together. Among other things, members of these groups cannot be organ donors.
  • Many jurisdictions have laws regulating the disposal of human bodies. Although it may be legal to bury a deceased family member, the law may restrict the locations in which they can be buried. In some cases, burials are limited to property controlled by specific, licensed institutions.
  • In many places, failure to properly dispose of a body is a crime.
  • In some places, it is a crime to fail to report a death and to fail to report the disposal of the body.

Bottom Line for Writers: Before you kill off a character, consider how you’ll get rid of the body. When I started this blog post, I envisioned a few headings, each with a few bullets below. But it just grew! I hope it held your personal interest and/or generated some plot ideas!

Coming Next Week: How to get rid of a body illegally!

FUNNY FIXATION OR OCD?

OCD, like love and hate, is a label thrown around pretty loosely, often for humorous effect. People with fixations on organization, precise routines, hygiene, perfectionism, etc. are frequently referred to as “acting so OCD” or “showing their inner OCD.” Marketing campaigns turn OCD into a punchline to sell products like Obsessive Christmas Disorder pajamas or Khlo-CD organizational apps.

Hilarious, no?

There is a significant difference between people with odd quirks and people who have a diagnosable mental illness. Both can be useful characters for writers, albeit in very different ways. Characters who have fixations, quirks, rituals, or habits that interrupt a scene or cause awkward situations can be a source of amusement for writers. Characters who actually have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be a source of tension, tragedy, or demonstrated compassion for writers, but the actual mental illness is not amusing.

Confusing retail workers is a sign of having too much time on one’s hands rather than having a debilitating mental illness. (Disclaimer: This blog is not affiliated with any retail chain or candy brand.)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions that s/he feels the urge to repeat over and over). The line between having a personality quirks and a mental disorder can be hard to find, but it generally comes down to quality of life. Dr. Steven Brodsky points out that actual OCD will “impair social or occupational function or involve frequent excessive distress” in the lives of those suffering from it.

  • Obsessions—repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images—are private, and thus no one knows about them but the person unless they’re talked about. These uncomfortable thoughts cause anxiety.
  • Compulsions are typically (but not always) public, as is any behavior that happens the presence of others. The repetitive behaviors are an attempt to deal with the anxiety the obsessive thoughts create.

Could you benefit from an O and/or C character? Although people/characters can exhibit symptoms of obsessions, compulsions, or both, thoughts and behaviors typically occur together. See the end of this blog for specific prompts.

Detective Adrian Monk from Monk, Physicist Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, and Chef Monica Geller from Friends

Consider Monk, The Big Bang Theory, and Friends. All three shows feature characters who exhibit signs of obsessions and compulsive behaviors, usually to the sound of the laugh-track. All three characters are referred to by others as “obsessive,” “OCD,” or some variation thereof, but none experience the pain that comes along with mental illness (which I can only imagine would be heightened by hearing laughing crowds).

Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors become part of a vicious cycle in the minds of people with OCD. Most people with OCD realize that their thoughts and behaviors are irrational, but they are unable to break the cycle. Children often don’t perceive their abnormality; symptoms are noticed by parents and/or teachers.

In contrast, “neat freaks” and people with fixations often enjoy performing the behavior in question (such as alphabetizing books), enjoy the results (such as having a tidy apartment), have had the behavior drummed into them (such as rewinding video tapes after working at Blockbuster for years [I realize that I’m dating myself]), or out of practical necessity.

An over-organized closet may be a necessity for a working mother of two, saving endless headaches on school mornings.

Most People with OCD Fall Into One of the Following Categories (in no particular order)

  • Washers are afraid of contamination. They usually have cleaning or hand-washing compulsions. Many refuse to wear anything someone else has worn, take their own sheets to hotels/motels, etc.
    • Washing your hands before and after eating is just being extra hygienic; washing your hands until they are raw and cracked is a probable sign of OCD.
Artwork by NeverStayDead
  • Checkers repeatedly check things (motion-sensor lights turned on, car locked) they associate with safety. They might keep guns or other weapons that are checked for accessibility, condition, etc.
    • Jiggling the door handle after locking it could be a funny quirk; checking the lights, the thermostat, the window latches, and everything else repeatedly until you’re late for work is a sign of unhealthy compulsion.
  • Doubters and sinners are afraid that if everything isn’t perfect or done just so something terrible will happen or they will be punished. Dressing, undressing, bathing, eating must be done in precisely the same way, for example. Or furniture cannot be moved. Cars must always be the same make.
    • This can also take the form of rituals that must be completed regardless of convenience or safety, such as always taking seven steps at a time or touching every surface in a room, including the hot stove top.
  • Counters and arrangers are obsessed with order and symmetry, perhaps including superstitions about certain numbers, colors, or arrangements. For example, counting all the angles in a room, or the number of furniture legs.
    • Being unable to enter rooms painted blue or walk without counting sets of four steps sounds amusing… until the door out of the burning house is in a blue room five steps away.
  • Hoarders keep things they neither need nor use. They fear that getting rid of anything will cause something bad to happen, or it will be needed later. These people are often co-diagnosed with other disorders, such as depression, PTSD, ADHD, compulsive buying, or kleptomania. They might engage in skin-picking.

OCD symptoms may come and go over time. Added stressors increase symptoms.

It’s a vicious circle: obsessive thoughts trigger anxiety, which leads to compulsive behavior to try to curb the anxiety, and the behavior is followed by temporary relief.

Writers consider the following:

  • A person who actually is threatened in some way while others dismiss the anxiety and precautions as being silly fixations
  • A character whose compulsive behaviors are humorous and the source of derision/ joking among coworkers or friends/ acquaintances
  • A character whose compulsive behaviors embarrass children or other family members
  • A person whose compulsive behaviors put the family in financial jeopardy
  • A person whose compulsive behavior leads neighbors, classmates, and others to ostracize the person AND his/her family
  • A character who keeps obsessive thoughts private, doesn’t act on them, and the strain leads to withdrawal from intimate relationships
  • A character whose obsessions get them into medical or legal trouble
  • A character whose OCD has become so severe that they are unable to leave the house or keep a job

Bottom line for writers: OCD characters can provide tension, tragedy, and plot development; fixated or quirky characters can provide humor. There is a big difference.