Un­der­tak­ers get ques­tions at Halloween

Record Observer - - Senior Satellite - By RYAN HELFEN­BEIN

When it comes to Halloween, my fam­ily has al­ways been the go-to source for unique cos­tumes. Per­haps it’s due to our line of work, or sim­ply the fact that this in­dustr y breeds cre­ative thinkers. What­ever the rea­son, the Helfen­beins often end up cre­at­ing the neigh­bor­hood kids’ cos­tumes. It is also com­mon dur­ing this time of year for peo­ple to ask ques­tions about my fam­ily’s pro­fes­sion.

Hol­ly­wood has cer­tainly done its part to raise un­usual ques­tions, and the tales we tell around the camp sim­ply ex­ac­er­bate th­ese vi­sions. “Do you be­lieve in ghosts?” is a com­mon one, and I can as­sure you that if I did, I wouldn’t be an un­der­taker. “Are you scared of the dark?” Well, my wife says that I am. “Do dece­dents frighten you?” As my fa­ther has al­ways said, “It’s the liv­ing you need to worry about.” Fi­nally, the ever so pop­u­lar, “Can in­di­vid­u­als sit up af­ter they pass away?” I’ve heard that one more times than I care to count.

Whether it is a grave­yard as the source of Franken­stein’s brain or a cof­fin for Drac­ula to rest in, the un­der­taker has al­ways had some sort of role to play when it comes to scary movies. Hol­ly­wood loves the ev­erso-pop­u­lar act of a “man ris­ing out of cas­ket.” As a mat­ter of fact, it is not un­com­mon for peo­ple out­side of Hol­ly­wood to have re­ported this oc­cur­ring. Just re­cently, dur­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion, a woman told a story of see­ing this with her own eyes. In ad­di­tion, a fra­ter­nity brother of mine told a sim­i­lar story of the same thing hap­pen­ing when he was a child. With this said, in the over 100plus com­bined years my fam­ily has spent in this in­dus­try; we have yet to see such lev­i­ta­tion. Nor have any of my fam­ily mem­bers come in con­tact with an un­der­taker who has seen it in “real life.”

How has this myth be­come so in­grained in movies and folk­lore, or bet­ter yet, why do so many peo­ple state they’ve seen this oc­cur? Maybe it’s a tall tale that dates back to the days be­fore mod­ern prepa­ra­tion (em­balm­ing) or even mod­ern medicine? This could be true as there were many mech­a­nisms cre­ated for the preven­tion of a pre­ma­ture burial. Maybe it is a case of mind over mat­ter, as the re­peated im­ages in scary movies cre­ate sug­ges­tions in our minds. Or, as some peo­ple say, “Per­haps it is due to air build up or even rigor mor­tis.” Maybe that’s it. Rigor mor­tis takes place in the body af­ter death and can cause the mus­cles to tighten, per­haps even con­tract, mak­ing the in­di­vid­ual sit up. But wait a minute here, ac­cord­ing to the book “Foren­sic Taphon­omy: the Post­mortem Fate of Hu­man Re­mains” by Wil­liam D. Haglund, “... rigor mor­tis does not cause mus­cu­lar con­trac­tion and, Hol­ly­wood movies to the con­trary, dead bod­ies do not sit up, grasp ob­jects, or walk about due to rigor.”

Looks like that the ques­tion is fi­nally an­swered. Or is it? It was re­ported a few years ago that just prior to a fu­neral, a dece­dent in Brazil sat up, turned to the as­sem­bled mourn­ers, asked for a drink of water, then laid back down. Ac­cord­ing to the Chris­tian Post News, the dece­dent in ques­tion was rushed to the hos­pi­tal where he was pro­nounced dead -— for a sec­ond time. It may well be that the in­di­vid­ual was not de­ceased the first time. One thing that’s cer­tain, the fam­ily must have had a dif­fi­cult time do­ing the ser­vices for a sec­ond time, be­cause that fu­neral direc­tor most likely turned in his li­cense, headed out of town and is now far re­moved from this line of work!

So a body can­not sit up af­ter death. Then what about hair and fin­ger­nails? Don’t they keep grow­ing af­ter death? Be­lieve it or not, this is an­other ques­tion I’ve often heard. But again, this is an­other pop­u­lar mis­con­cep­tion. What gives the im­pres­sion of hair and nails grow­ing is the fact that the skin shrinks a bit af­ter the em­balm­ing process is com­pleted. This is due to de­hy­dra­tion that oc­curs shortly af­ter the pro­ce­dure is fin­ished. So, an­other myth ex­posed.

As the cos­tumed trick or treaters ar­rive on your doorstep this year, per­haps you’ll find your­self think­ing of other ques­tions con­cern­ing the art of un­der­tak­ing. But let’s hope that rather than con­jur­ing up eerie thoughts of what may or may not oc­cur af­ter death, you’re think­ing, “Wow! I won­der if the Helfen­beins made that cos­tume too?”

RYAN HELFEN­BEIN

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