Muñecos, or how Panamanians die every New Year’s Eve

You may not know this, but I grew up in the Canal Zone, in Panama.    Every Christmas break when I lived there, seeing as we were 90 minutes from amazing beautiful beaches and had two weeks free, we’d spend at least a few days up in the native country enjoying nature, warm beaches, and the scenery.

And part of that, as we drove up the PanAmerican highway to the beaches, was seeing the muñecos lining the roads.  These life-sized dolls were usually fairly primitively constructed, but would be dressed in local style, usually with a hat on, positioned either standing or sitting out beside the road.  Some enterprising folks would even run strings from their muñeco’s hand through a tree branch or fence pole, and back to their house or porch chair–making it possible for their muñeco to wave at passing traffic!

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Photo credits: Clyde & Terry Coles

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The muñecos are specific to the western (Pacific) coast of Panama, specifically in the Chame/San Carlos region, but have spread over the years to various other locations.

 

 

The muñecos serve a specific purpose in Panamanian tradition, as explained by local realtor Cynthia Lehman

At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve the life size mannequins, muñeco, as they are called, are exploded – some people burn them but exploding seems more fun – symbolically saying goodbye to the old year. It is to keep the fights, the gossip, the evil and memories in the past. The muñecos can symbolize people they love or don’t care for; famous people, politicians, a family member or friend…

Burning the old starts the New Year with a clean slate making it fresh and new again.

 

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All muñeco photos courtesy of Clyde & Terry Coles
Along the Gringo Trail

In many ways, I think the muñecos tradition is a beautiful memento mori.  What could be better to remind you that you’re dying and that you need to seize the day every day than symbolically cremating your worst habits and the negative things you’d like to release ahead of starting a new year?

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Merry Christmas! The Family’s All Here, So Let’s

TALK ABOUT DEATH!

Only kidding….

Well, kind of.

It may seem macabre, but when better to have the conversation than at the holidays, with all the family present?   From advanced directives, to living wills and organ donation, and all the way through estate planning and your funeral wishes–you need to talk those through now, while there’s still time.

It’s the surest way to make sure there are no surprises, and that everyone is on the same page–and what better gift for the holidays, than to have end of life wishes documented, legal, and understood by all, saving grief and misunderstanding later?

Need help starting the conversations?  Try these for the upcoming holiday gatherings, courtesy of my friends at The Conversation Project

 

An opener for casual chitchat with the girls, maybe?

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Beefcake not your style?  Dinner can be the perfect opener:

 

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And if you’d rather wait until the Bowl game season:

 

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Okay, okay, but seriously:  some families have these talks naturally, without hesitation.  Others need help getting comfortable with them.  But no matter what, the conversations are essential to have, openly and honestly, while there’s still time.

Need help facilitating and documenting your discussions?  I do that!   Give me a call or send me a note, and let’s plan to plan.

Somebody went to Bali, and all I got…

 

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were these super cool shots of a village’s cremation festival!

It gets amusing now and again, working in the funeral space, because I’m the go-to person in my sphere for talking about anything death related.  Whenever a new death product or issue makes headline news, I get it shared with or sent to me 10 times over.  Additionally, in real life, I get to hear and see lots of cool stories that made people think of me and my work, like this village cremation procession in Bali shot by a friend on vacation.

 

My friend explained that in Bali, all bodies are cremated (it frees the spirit from the body), but often regular folks can’t afford the whole affair and ceremony that goes along with the cremation.  So after death, non-royalty/laymen are buried to await the combined village cremation ceremony.

Once the cremation festival date draws near, the bodies which will be cremated are disinterred and prepared, along with the floats and clothing and cremation necessities.   Then, the bodies are placed securely inside the ornate floats, and are paraded through the area until they come to rest at the cremation location–where they are lit aflame to finish their journey.

 

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My friend and her husband were lucky enough to be in this particular town during this festival, and were able to observe and document the cremation processional, so my souvenir for her visit are these gorgeous pictures!

It is cool to be me…

 

(If you’re curious, you can read more about Ngaben, the Balinese cremation ceremony, and see many more pictures–including of the cremation portion itself–here.)

 

Alkaline Hydrolysis, The “Other” Cremation

I’ve been really clear forever that, should I have to make the deathcare decisions for me or my husband, we’d be burned up like a marshmallow in a campfire before you can even blink–I’ve long liked the idea of not being buried in a traditional sense, not leaving a legacy of expenses and toxic choices and permanent maintenance behind.   Cremation has been especially attractive because of the low cost and fuss.

(This, incidentally, is *thisclose* to changing.   I still love the idea of being sprinkled in meaningful places, but natural burial and The Urban Death Project are really turning my head these days!)

I, however, am mom to two teenagers.  And I’m equally clear that if I were faced with making deathcare decisions for them now, I could not choose to have their precious bodies, the shells I housed and grew for them, consumed by violent jets of fire.   (Sounds lovely, right?)

For their bodies, natural burial would be the most obvious option, because of the peace and care of it, the harmony of the process.  But what if I moved away in the future, or became unable to keep their spot at Eloise Woods up?   What about memorial jewelry or sprinkling in special locations or keeping a portion of their bodies with me still–all of which, I think, would help me heal, none of which would be possible without cremation.   But how to get cremation’s benefits without the fire?

Enter Alkaline Hydrolysis.

Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as bio cremation, behaves much like flame cremation, in that it dissolves the liquid portions of the body, and returns only the parts that remain–in this case, bones processed to a powder in much the same way as remains from flame cremation.    Alkaline hydrolysis mimics and expedites the natural decomposition process using water, hotter temperatures, and alkaline solutions in a specially designed chamber, rendering the body into bones and a soup of sterile liquid that can easily and safely be disposed of in standard sewer systems, no more risky than other liquid household waste.

 img_1741-300x225Photo credit:  Gail Rubin, A Good Goodbye

Alkaline hydrolysis, like all new technology, has faced a bit of an uphill climb in gaining adoption in the US, hampered in no small part by resistance from the traditional industry providers, exacerbated by state regulations that continue to protect the burial-and-flame-cremation-only status quo.

Slowly, though, acceptance and more widespread use are coming.   Alkaline hydrolysis is legal in 10 states now, with laws under consideration in many more.   Joining the University of Florida and the Mayo Clinic, UCLA Medical School has recently converted from using flame cremation to alkaline hydrolysis for its cadavers and research donations.

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Alkaline hydrolysis may be costly to implement, especially for funeral providers who already have their own flame-cremation units, but providers may find it far cheaper to operate long term, which  should help to speed implementation.

Beyond the more gentle process, the environmental benefits of alkaline hydrolysis are compelling.  Flame cremations in the US use enough energy to travel to the moon and back eighty three times, every single year.  All those fossil fuels, all the emissions and vaporized chemicals, spewing into the atmosphere every time someone is cremated–all could be avoided by using alkaline hydrolysis.

Burial or flame cremation only?  There is a better way, probably several better ways.   Is alkaline hydrolysis what you would choose?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But it’s time that the holders of status quo get out of the way and allow the innovation, to open up the largest range of options possible for everyone.