December 4, 2013
"He was alone in a room with me, he was without his trousers, and he was very, very dead."
The victim of the first big mistake I ever made was a gentleman to whom I had never been properly introduced (and whose name I still do not know) but who was possessed of three singular qualities: he was alone in a room with me, he was without his trousers, and he was very, very dead.
How can you not read on?
Simon Winchester writes about his summer working in a mortuary to earn money for passage to Canada to see his girlfriend.
The Last Letter of a Loving Mother
From Letters of Note, Your Loving Mother
On January 22nd of 1919, during her freshman year at college, 19-year-old Margaret Mitchell received word that her mother had fallen ill as a result of a deadly flu pandemic that was sweeping the globe, along with instructions from her father to return home. A few days later, she did just that, only to be greeted at the train station by her brother with the tragic news that their mother had succumbed to pneumonia the day before. As they travelled home from the station, he passed her the following letter.
January 23, 1919
I have been thinking of you all day long. Yesterday you received a letter saying I am sick. I expect your father drew the situation with a strong hand and dark colors and I hope I am not as sick as he thought. I have pneumonia in one lung and were it not for flu complications, I would have had more than a fair chance of recovery. But Mrs. Riley had pneumonia in both lungs and is now well and strong. We shall hope for the best but remember, dear, that if I go now it is the best time for me to go.
I should have liked a few more years of life, but if I had had those it may have been that I should have lived too long. Waste no sympathy on me. However little it seems to you I got out of life, I have held in my hands all that the world can give. I have had a happy childhood and married the man I wanted. I had children who loved me, as I have loved them. I have been able to give what will put them on the high road to mental, moral, and perhaps financial success, were I going to give them nothing else.
I expect to see you again, but if I do not I must warn you of one mistake a woman of your temperament might fall into. Give of yourself with both hands and overflowing heart, but give only the excess after you have lived your own life. This is badly put. What I mean is that your life and energies belong first to yourself, your husband and your children. Anything left over after you have served these, give and give generously, but be sure there is no stinting of attention at home. Your father loves you dearly, but do not let the thought of being with him keep you from marrying if you wish to do so. He has lived his life; live yours as best you can. Both of my children have loved me so much that there is no need to dwell on it. You have done all you can for me and have given me the greatest love that children can give to parents. Care for your father when he is old, as I cared for my mother. But never let his or anyone else's life interfere with your real life. Goodbye, darling, and if you see me no more then it may be best that you remember me as I was in New York.
Your Loving Mother
Can a parent give a greater gift then to leave such a letter behind for each child? What comfort Margaret Mitchell must have taken from this letter.
November 26, 2013
Obituaries of note: Mavis Batey and Joy Johnson
Mavis Batey -Mavis Batey was Bletchley Park codebreaker whose Enigma breakthrough proved crucial to the success of D-Day
Mavis Batey, who has died aged 92, was one of the leading female codebreakers at Bletchley Park, cracking the Enigma ciphers that led to the Royal Navy’s victory at Matapan in 1941. She was the last of the great Bletchley “break-in” experts, those codebreakers who found their way into new codes and ciphers that had never been broken before.
Mavis Batey in 1999.
Mavis Batey also played a leading role in the cracking of the extraordinarily complex German secret service, or Abwehr, Enigma. Without that break, the Double Cross deception plan which ensured the success of the D-Day landings could never have gone ahead.
Joy Johnson, oldest woman to run New York City Marathon, dies at 86
Johnson, of San Jose, Calif., completed her 25th run in the marathon on Sunday. She stumbled and hit her head near the 20th mile, but still managed to complete the race and carry out her annual interview with the 'Today' show's Al Roker the next day. '
Joy Johnson, the oldest woman to compete in the ING New York City Marathon on Sunday, died in her sleep the next day, her sneakers still laced on her feet…..said she wanted to die running.
Joy Johnson, 86-year-old runner in the NYC marathon.
The Great Legacy of the ''Prison Angel'
Mother Antonia became a nun at age 50 and called Tijuana's most notorious prison, La Mesa Penitentiary, home since 1978.
Mary Brenner was married and divorced twice and had seven children before she decided to become a nun. She founded a new order called Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour for older women who want to serve the poor.
Brenner didn't hesitate to intervene in thorny conflicts at the prison, which is marred by a history of violent clashes, including one in 2008 that left about two dozen inmates dead.
'I'm effective in riots because I'm not afraid, I just pray and walk into it,' she told The Associated Press in 2005. 'A woman in a white veil walks in, someone they know loves them. So silence comes, explanation comes and arms go down.'
Brenner also counseled and supported prison guards and police, creating Brazos Abiertos, or Open Arms, a group that provides financial support and holiday meals to families of slain Tijuana police officers.
She lived as any other inmate, sleeping in a 10-by-10-foot cell, eating the same food and lining up for morning roll call.
She would walk freely among thieves and drug traffickers and murderers, smiling, touching cheeks and offering prayers. Many were violent men with desperate needs. She kept extra toilet paper in her cell, arranged for medical treatment, attended funerals.
Guards and inmates alike started referring to her as the prison angel. In the cellblocks she was known simply as "Mama." "There isn't anyone who hasn't heard my lecture on victims," she said in a 2002 Times story. "They have to accept that they're wrong. They have to see the consequences. They have to feel the agony. … But I do love them dearly."
Brenner often visited her family in Southern California, where she would regale her more than 45 grandchildren and great-grandchildren with stories about her charity work. "She was a tiny woman with a little fire and a lot of passion," Christina Brenner said. "We called her the Eveready battery. She wouldn't stop. She was always going."
One was in 1989. The police raided the cells of drug traders, active with drugs even while they were behind bars. Prisoners began throwing coke bottles at the police and the police fired their guns. Mother Antonia walked in, right in the path of the bottles and bullets, with her hands raised high over her head. The policemen and inmates yelled for her to stay away, but she kept on walking, saying, "Mis hijos, mis hijos ['my sons']. Stop this. You must stop this now." Astonishingly, the dozens of police and guards and hundreds of rioting inmates put down their weapons.
The second riot in 1994 took place on Halloween when one prisoner overpowered a guard and took his gun.
Mother Antonia, coming back home from an errand, was stopped by the assistant warden, who told her that she could not enter, that it was too dangerous. She persuaded him to telephone the warden, who at first told her the same thing. She argued with him that it is her mission to be inside with the inmates. The warden knew that there was the possibility of a massacre and that the prisoners listened to her. He finally ordered the prison personnel to let her in.
Inside, it was dark because the guards had turned off the electricity before they left. She made her way to the punishment cells on the third floor. She heard the cells' inmates and called out to them. She came upon an inmate she knew as "Blackie." She fell to her knees, pleading with him. "It's not right that you're locked up here, hungry and thirsty. We can take care of those things, but this isn't the way to do it. I will help you make it better. But first you have to give me the guns. I beg you to put down your weapons."
"Mother," Blackie said softly, looking down at her. "As soon as we heard your voice, we dropped the guns out the window."
Even while ministering to inmates of La Mesa Penitentiary, Mother Antonia founded a women's religious order, the Servants of the Eleventh Hour, designed to give older women a way to dedicate their lives to working with the poor. The normal entry age is 45 years to 65 years, and divorce in one's life is not an impediment to entry.
Mass grave on NYC Island
It may be just a stone's throw away from the mass urban sprawl that is New York, but nobody lives there and just an abandoned prison and empty lunatic asylum remain as evidence that the island was ever inhabited. New York's mysterious Hart Island is, however, home to up to a million graves - many of them poor and unidentified, others interred there because of unfortunate circumstances.
The city's authorities have been using the island, which is technically part of the Bronx district, as a city graveyard, burying bodies in plain pine boxes piled on top of one another and marked only with a number, since 1868.
The Department of Correction, which is in charge of the mass cemetery, estimates that there are between 750,000 and a million people buried on the island, which is visible on Google Maps but not included on the Subway line. The last public ferry to the island completed its final journey in 1976.
In 2010, some 695 adults and 504 babies were buried there by prisoners from Riker's Island. Adult bodies are stacked three high with each grave containing up to 165 bodies and hidden from the world by 36 inches of dirt.
A picture taken in 1990 shows a large trench dug ready for hundreds of bodies to be buried. Pine boxes used as coffins can be seen at one end of the trench
A separate grave for stillborn babies and fetuses contains as many as 1,000 miniature boxes. Among those buried there is the first child to die of Aids in New York - one of the few to be afforded an individual grave marked SC B1 1985 (standing for Special Child, Baby 1, and the year of death) - as well as famous writers and actors including Bobby Driscoll who played Peter Pan in the 1953 DIsney movie.
Driscoll died in 1968 and his body was found in a deserted tenement by two children playing. His body could not be identified and when it went unclaimed he was buried on Hart Island. The following year his mother contacted Disney in the hope of reuniting Driscoll with his desparately ill father before he died. But an NYPD fingerprint search located his body on Hart Island. His name appears on his father's gravestone at a California cemetery, but his remains are still on Hart Island.
Young people die too
Two very sad deaths of young adults. May they rest in peace.
Two months after she was crowned champion in the Formula 2 category at the World Water Ski Racing Championships in Spain, 20-year-old Sarah Teelow was in a high speed race raveling 80 mph on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney when she hit the wake of another boat. She fell breaking her vertebrae and her helmet filled with water keeping her submerged for minutes before being rescued, She died in hospital surrounded by family.
Chandler Webb, a healthy 19-year-old student, had a bad reaction to a flu shot he got in preparation of a Mormon mission. After violent episodes of vomiting and debilitating headaches, he fell into a coma, was put on life support, but died within a month from swelling of the brain so severe it crushed his brain stem. He died in his mother's arms.
Chandler's medical team, which included six neurologists at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, tested him for every conceivable illness - including Lyme disease and sexually transmitted ones.
'They checked every virus, every fungus, ever tick, west Nile they even checked for rabies,' said Lori. 'And they can't find anything…it was the most senseless, senseless, death.'
'This was his first flu shot,' Lori said. 'He’d never had one before. 'I hate this. 'I hate that I have to bury my son.'
November 25, 2013
"Dying without hospice would be like having surgery without anesthesia."
The stays in hospice remain far too short despite their amazing benefit to patients and families. One surgeon said, "Dying without hospice would be like having surgery without anesthesia." One cause of delay in hospice referral is the Medicare requirement that all curative attempts be stopped on entry into hospice. Medicare has been delayed in initiating a trial to allow continuation of curative attempts while in Hospice. It remains understandably hard to make the mental and emotional switch from the curative mode to the comfort measures only mode.
Many are unaware that their insurance plan may offer hospice benefits under the age of 65, and also pre-hospice benefits may be available for those wishing to continue curative efforts.
One of the newest specialties in medicine is Palliative Care - those who take a holistic view of the patient, focus on symptoms and comfort measures while taking into account all the variables like spiritual beliefs, other specialties involved, family dynamics, etc
November 21, 2013
Jim's Last Group Run Jim Kelley got many to the finish line. Then they returned the favor.
My friend Jim died this month while out on a run, doing one of his favorite things in the world. A car struck him as he was crossing the street.
Jim was amazing and selfless. He placed in the top three in his age group 90 percent of the time. He loved to run, more than anybody I know, whether by himself or supporting others.
He was at all the races, cheering everybody on, always running somebody in. He would often sacrifice his own goals and run a race with somebody so they could meet their goal. If he were running for himself, he could have gone a lot faster.
I was one of Jim’s pallbearers. When it was time to go to the cemetery, the funeral director had this idea. The cemetery was only a mile away, he said to us. Instead of vehicles following behind, would we want to honor Jim by running behind the hearse?
It was a genius idea.
November 20, 2013
“Life is a creeping tragedy,” the minister used to say. “That’s why we must be cheerful.”
Sir John Tavener’s final broadcast on the BBC's Today programme brought home with force the truths of faith.
I listened with unusual interest to Start the Week (Radio 4) on Monday. In January, the programme’s presenter, Andrew Marr, though only in his early fifties, suffered a stroke. He has recently returned to broadcasting. His post-stroke speech has the vocal equivalent of a very slight limp. On Monday, this made what he had to say the more affecting.
Marr told his audience that he is not religious but that, as he has convalesced, he has found himself reading religious poetry and listening to religious music. He has encountered “the possibility of sudden death”, and it has changed him. He reads the 17th-century poems of George Herbert and listens to the cantatas of JS Bach. Why might this be, he wanted to know. Why, in a culture which seems less and less interested in the formal teachings of religion, do many people feel that religious poetry and religious music matter more than ever?
Sir John explained that he had recently had a near-death experience. Since he had been ill, he had been looking back on his life a lot. Although he had moved from the Presbyterianism of his childhood, through Roman Catholicism, to a rather unorthodox version of eastern Orthodoxy, he remembered fondly a Protestant pastor of his youth. “Life is a creeping tragedy,” the minister used to say. “That’s why we must be cheerful.”
At first, Sir John’s illness had “shut everything down. God seemed to have vanished”; but then, as he recovered strength, his belief in God and his capacity to compose music – which, he said, had always gone together – returned. Now his music had become “more essential; more terse”.
Tavener complained that there was “a notable lack of joy in modern art”. He had just set three of Herbert’s poems to music (they will be performed for the first time next year). He quoted Dante: “All my thoughts speak of love.”
John Drury read out one of Herbert’s most famous poems, Love (III). It takes the form of a dialogue between the unworthy soul and Love (who is God, though not so named). The soul is inclined to refuse Love’s invitation to sit at his table, but Love, the perfect host, persuades him. In the dialogue, said Dr Drury, “Love has fewer words, but they are sprightly. In the end, it is Love that matters.” On Tuesday, the end came for John Tavener.
George Herbert, though high-born and ambitious, eventually chose the simple life of a parish priest. He wrote his poems, but never attempted to publish them in life. As he was dying, he asked them to be given to a trusted friend, saying that they were “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts which have passed between God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master”. He asked him to read the book and “if it may turn to the advantage of any poor dejected soul, let it be made public”; if not, he should burn it.
For Herbert, that dejection he referred to was important. It was a horrible thing, but also a grace. In one of his most famous and beautiful poems, The Flower, Herbert compares his formerly depressed self to the plant that seems to die, but doesn’t: “And now in age I bud again,/After so many deaths I live and write;/I once more smell the dew and rain,/And relish versing: /Oh my only light,/ It cannot be/That I am he/On whom thy tempests fell all night.”
[I]f people do not believe what religion says, why do they turn to its utterances when sick or dying or in fear?
The obvious, cynical, but not completely wrong answer is “Any port in a storm”. But I would argue that something else is going on, too. The chief message of 21st-century Western culture is one of self-empowerment. With technology, money, know-how, rights, medicine, problems can be solved: “You can do it!” Often this is true. But an encounter with really serious things – and nothing is more serious than death – tells you that ultimately you cannot. When you realise this, the paradoxes that are central to the great religions (especially to Christianity, which is the most paradoxical) come home with unique force. When I am weak, then am I strong; you must die to live.
In our culture, millions of people only think about these things too late, if at all. So the people who think about them all the time are helpful – and brave. Which is good reason to give thanks for the life and work of Sir John Tavener.
Sir John Tavener, who has died aged 69, was one of the leading British composers of the day; his predominantly religious and contemplative music — dubbed “holy minimalism” by some critics — was as passionately admired by large numbers of listeners as it was derided by others.
On the occasion of Tavener’s 50th birthday in 1994, the BBC honoured him with a four-day festival of his works on Radio 3, with broadcasts from Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and the Barbican.
A striking figure, 6ft 6in tall, with long, flowing hair and the ascetic face of a monk, Tavener was received into the Orthodox faith in 1977. Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun, was not only his spiritual guide but also the librettist of several of his works
November 16, 2013
Memorial alert is the name of a new product designed to combat thefts of tombstones.
Amid a rash of tombstone thefts from cemeteries in Johannesburg, a company will be offering relatives of the deceased a high-tech solution: microchips that can be inserted into the memorial that will sound an alarm and send a text message to their cell phones if it is disturbed.
Nearly 20 marble tombstones are stolen monthly from the city's 36 public cemeteries, despite security guards and perimeter sensors.
The city already allows microchips to be placed inside graves to help families locate their loved one's final resting places in the vast grassy spaces. Now, with thefts often carried out at night and the recycled marble or granite tombstones winding up in the hands of crooked stonemasons, authorities are taking technology a step further to foil those who take "graveyard shift" a little too literally.
"This is peace of mind for the family," said Buff. "Tombstones are the property of the owner which is the family member, and you'll find you cannot insure a tombstone or it's too expensive for many. By doing this, it is insured."
November 14, 2013
Don't Honk at Funerals
A solemn occasion turned into a violent attack on Tuesday after mourners beat a driver who honked his horn outside a church where the funeral was to be held.
A witness caught the incident outside La Iglesia de Dios in Mount Holly, New Jersey on camera.
Emotions were already running high when the driver of a red Chevrolet, irritated at funeral-goers who were holding up traffic, honked his horn.
Footage shows a group of eight or more young men, some wearing memorial t-shirts, swarming the car angrily.
Several of the men slam the car with their fists, and another runs up and begins to lay into the driver through his open car window.
The man appears to land at least five hits on the driver of the red car before he is pulled away by fellow mourners.
Other mourners approach the group of men and appear to by trying to calm them down.
No matter frustrating the traffic is, don't honk at funerals. Take a deep breath and contemplate the shortness of your life.
Police, "Are you serious. This is a joke isn’t it,"
The woman was at a cemetery in the suburb of Ferraz de Vasconcelos, Sao Paulo, when she heard faint noises then noticed the earth moving in a grave close by.
'I was terrified to see a man, who I thought was dead, trying to get out of the grave,' said the petrified woman, who asked not to be named.
'He had his head and hands out and was moving his arms around, trying to get out.'
The woman first ran away screaming, but returned and called the emergency services, who found the man half buried in a plot of earth. She claimed that when she called police they did not believe her, and accused her of wasting their time and playing a joke.
'They kept questioning me asking: "Are you serious. This is a joke isn’t it,"' she said.
Eventually, unable to convince the authorities, she went to the cemetery office to plead with them to confirm with police that her discovery was real.
The man is now recuperating in the local hospital in Ferraz de Vasconcelos. A hospital source said he is 'coming back to life'. He will also be subjected to psychological tests.
Police believe the man, said to be a former city hall worker, was involved in a fight in another part of the city, where he was badly beaten by his attackers until he passed out and was taken to the cemetery by his assailants.
It is believed they then threw him into a empty grave which was partly filled with earth.
When the victim regained consciousness, he began making groaning noises which alerted the woman who found him.
November 12, 2013
Hundreds attend the funeral of a veteran they didn't know
Harold Jellicoe Percival, who was known as Coe, served as ground crew on the famous Dambusters raids carried out in May 1943 by 617 Squadron.
Mr Percival, who died last month aged 99, never married or had children.
The funeral home organizing the service put an advert in a newspaper appealing for people to attend.
Mr Percival's nephew, Andrew Colyer-Worrsall, said the attendance was "just remarkable".
"He was a quiet man, he was an ordinary man who did his duty and served in the war and to see so many people turn up, it's just overwhelming," he said.
"I can only say thank you so much to everybody.
"We thought there would just be two or three of us, so to see this many hundreds of people turn up is stunning."
About 100 people were inside with another 400 standing silently outside in the rain.
The Dambusters March played as Mr Percival's coffin was carried into Lytham Park Crematorium at 11:00 GMT on Armistice Day.
A two-minute silence was observed around the coffin to mark the anniversary of the World War One armistice before it was carried into the crematorium.
November 11, 2013
Remembering the Dead of World War 1
Born in England, Wilfred Owen, a soldier in World War I and a poet, was killed in action on November 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice. He is one of 16 of the Great War poets commemorated in Westminster Abbey's Poet Corner. The inscription on the slate is Owen's, "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."
Pat Barker's novel Regeneration, the first of a trilogy of novels on the First World War, describes the experience of British army officers being treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Dr. William Rivers, an army psychiatrist, treats the traumatized officers so they can be returned to battle, among them Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, both poets.
In an interview referenced in the Wikipedia article about the book, Pat Barker said, "The trilogy is trying to tell something about the parts of war that don't get into the official accounts".
Barker states that she chose to write about World War I "because it's come to stand in for other wars, as a sort of idealism of the young people in August 1914 in Germany and in England. They really felt this was the start of a better world. And the disillusionment, the horror and the pain followed that. I think because of that it's come to stand for the pain of all wars."
The book was made into a fine film, titled Behind the Lines, which you can find on Netflix. It closes with this stirring rendition of a poem Wilfred Owen wrote.
The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.