In a 2006 newsletter on the subject of "Why Do People Choose a Mausoleum?," the Funeral Ethics Organization summarized a typical sales promotion pitch this way: "Mausoleum crypts are clean, dry ventilated chambers which protect precious remains from the chill dampness of the ground." Few people, especially those recently bereaved, wish to dwell on the details of what happens to the human body after death, preferring to turn over responsibility for the dignified care of their loved ones to the funeral industry. In recent decades, though, a spate of lawsuits and news reports focusing on serious problems involving human remains entombed in mausoleums have brought some common problems to public attention.
Many people believe that embalming preserves a body in perpetuity but in fact, it only delays the decomposition process. A common problem in mausoleums involves the leakage of body fluids, which rot caskets from the inside and can seep down through cement floors, up walls and out through the front of vaults. The odors attract phorid flies (also called corpse flies and death gnats), which infest the caskets, feed on and breed in the remains and then disperse, seeking out moisture in the eyes, noses and mouths of visitors. Many families opt for sealed caskets in the belief that remains will be better protected but if the gases from decomposition that build up are unable to escape, explosions may occur. Often, mausoleums prop "sealed" casket lids open an inch or two without the knowledge or consent of families to prevent chances of this happening.
The funeral industry consists of funeral homes and their employees; monument dealers; cemeteries and mausoleums; and manufacturers of caskets and other supplies, all with their own agendas, jurisdictions and responsibilities. When counseling bereaved families, many funeral directors feel that there is a fine line between enough and too much information about what happens to a body after death and why mausoleum entombment should take this into account. Casket salespeople are in business to provide clients with what they want, not correct misconceptions. If mausoleums promote crypts as "clean and dry" alternatives to burial, they leave little room to raise issues of leakage, insect infestation and the need for proper casket ventilation. After gruesome mishaps occur, it is often left up to courts to rule on questions of negligence and liability.
Body fluids, whether they come from the living or the dead, are undisputed bio-hazards. According to Environmental Protection Systems, a company that installs containment systems for cemeteries and mausoleums worldwide, if decomposing bodies are not safely sealed off from their surroundings, toxic fluids may seep out of caskets and crypts, make their way down into the water table and from there, enter the food chain. Although the issue is not often discussed in the public forum, it is a matter of great concern to public health authorities, the company says.
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