WTF Fun Fact 13176 – A Mortician’s Job Title

The funeral industry has a number of job titles. But what was once known as an “undertaker” wasn’t getting enough interest back in the late 19th century. That’s when the industry decided to change its name to “mortician.” A mortician’s job title was the result of a PR campaign and a magazine plea.

The term mortician was invented as part of a PR campaign by the funeral industry, which felt it was more customer-friendly than “undertaker.” The term was chosen after a call for ideas in Embalmer’s Monthly.

A PR boost for a mortician’s job

According to Mental Floss (cited below), the more customer-friendly “mortician” came after a plea for new ideas on renaming the undertaker’s position in the 1895 edition of the trade magazine The Embalmers’ Monthly. If you’re missing that particular issue, Mental Floss can fill in the blanks.

It appears that the job title of mortician was believed to be “more customer-friendly than undertaker, which originally referred to the contractor who undertakes all the funeral arrangements, but had become tarnished by its centuries-old association with, well, death.”

But there was more to a mortician’s job than just a name change. As embalming became more widespread, those who had the skill wanted to distinguish themselves from “the undertakers of the past…”

Mental Floss notes that “Embalmers’ Monthly put out a call for suggestions. The next month they declared mortician the winner: It elegantly combined the Latin root for death, mort-, with physician, referencing embalming’s scientific, high-status connection with the medical profession. Of course, everyone except the morticians hated it.”

Grammarians hated the fact that it was an unattested word in Latin (one made up from pieces of the language and never used in the ancient world). The Chicago Tribune even banned the use of the word. And yet, today, we use it without thinking.

Eventually, people simply forgot it was a made-up word.  WTF fun facts

Source: “How Morticians Reinvented Their Job Title” — Mental Floss

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WTF Fun Fact 13123 – Aquamation

Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as aquamation or water cremation may be the next frontier in the death industry. Researchers say it’s one of the most sustainable options for treating human remains.

What is aquamation?

In 2021, aquamation became a subject of interest after the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who requested that his remains be disposed of in this eco-conscious manner. Now, it’s a popular choice in the “green burial” movement.

The goal of aquamation is to avoid the use of non-biodegradable materials and promote the natural decomposition of the body. During the process, the body is liquified under pressure. Then, the bones are dried and turned to ashes in an oven. It reduces the need for ostentatious caskets and the greenhouse gases produced by traditional cremation by fire. It also cuts energy use.

Smithsonian Magazine (cited below) explains in more detail:

“During alkaline hydrolysis, a human body is sealed in a long, stainless-steel chamber, while a heated solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent sodium hydroxide passes over and around it…The process dissolves the bonds in the body’s tissues and eventually yields a sterile, liquid combination of amino acids, peptides, salts, sugars and soaps, which is disposed of down the drain at the alkaline hydrolysis facility. The body’s bones are then ground to a fine powder and returned to the deceased person’s survivors, just as the bones that remain after flame cremation are returned to families as ash.”

Choosing a “green burial”

While you may not have heard of water cremation, there are dozens of American companies that build machines for it. It’s legal in at least 26 states as well as throughout the world.

The process itself has been around for a long time, but it’s still not mainstream. However, it’s likely you’ll hear more about it as nearly every industry strives to become more sustainable.

There are states that still ban the practice because of concerns over the effects of residue in the water supply. It appears not to have any negative effect on water, but regulating it is still a challenge since aquamation’s use is still relatively rare.

According to the Berkeley Planning Journal, the chemicals and materials buried along with bodies in conventional American burials “include approximately 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete.” Fire cremations in America “release an estimated annual 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as toxic materials like mercury.”

Smithsonian notes that “Alkaline hydrolysis consumes approximately 10 percent of the energy required to cremate a body in flame, its equipment runs on electricity rather than fossil fuels, and it emits no greenhouse gases.”

Once people get over the suspicions that come with novel new burial practices, experts believe the industry will grow.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Could Water Cremation Become the New American Way of Death?” — Smithsonian Magazine

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WTF Fun Fact 13004 – You Are More Likely To Die Around 11am

“Fun” fact: Because of a gene linked to our circadian rhythms, humans are more likely to die around 11am than at any other time of day.

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In 2012, a study published in the Annals of Neurology reported on a gene variant that affects our circadian rhythms. And that variant, it seems, could also predict the time of day you will die. And that time is around 11am.

According to a write-up in The Atlantic (cited below), the study’s authors “realized through their research that there seems to be one DNA sequence that determines, essentially, how each of us relates to time itself. And data analysis — poring through 15 years’ worth of sleep and death patterns collected from subjects in an unrelated sleep study — helped them to make the realization.”

Why do we die around 11am?

A lot of this work has to do with the ways in which we are no longer beholden to a strict social schedule as we age.

Our external environment affects our inner circadian “clocks,” which regulate our bodies’ functions This includes elements like work schedules and daylight exposure. But there’s also a genetic component to the time of day we’re most active and alert.

According to another Atlantic piece on the research that studied the phenomenon: “Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston borrowed data that had been collected 15 years ago from a sleep study at Rush University in Chicago…First, its subjects had worn a device, called an actigraph, that provided detailed information about their sleep-wake patterns. Second, the subjects were all over the age of 65 when the study was originally done. So by the time the Harvard researchers got to them, many had passed away. They had all also agreed to donate their brains to science. Because of this, the researchers knew their precise times of death. Finally, in the course of the many physical and psychological evaluations undergone by the subjects, they had also had their DNA sequenced.”

The researchers compared data from over 500 participants, looking at genetics and the time of death. They found a piece of DNA that was linked to sleeping and waking hours.

People with a more common gene variant tended to die in the late morning, around 11am.

But this doesn’t mean 11am is a more dangerous time of day. The study participants had largely died of natural causes. So the issue is that their circadian rhythms affected their bodies in a way that late morning was the most common time for them to expire.  WTF fun facts

Source: “You Are Most Likely to Die at 11 a.m.” — The Atlantic

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WTF Fun Fact 12815 – Is A Hammer Used When a Pope Dies?

The death of the pope is a pretty big deal to the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world. But there’s lots of mystery surrounding the traditions that take place when the pope dies. One common belief is that Vatican staff bumps him on the head three times with a silver hammer to ensure he’s dead and not just taking a really solid nap. But is it true?

Is it really such a strange question?

Ok, first let’s dispense with the joke of it all. While it may seem silly, the Catholic church has many millennia-old rituals that they carry on simply for the sake of tradition.

At the start of the papacy, it’s not totally out of the question that there would be some sort of way to guarantee a man that important was truly dead.

And, frankly, we wouldn’t put it past some papal dynasties (we’re looking at you, Borgias) to use the hammer to *ahem* ENSURE someone was dead (even if they didn’t start out that way).

All we’re saying is that who knows what people were doing in late antiquity and the Middle Ages? But this doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

Do we know what happens when the pope dies?

So, we’re not surprised that there’s a ritual to ensure the pope is truly dead. But what is it?

These days, we’re pretty sure technology is employed to make sure there is no brain activity in the body. That’s what we do for almost everyone else.

Even Snopes – the revered fact-checkers and rumor-killers – took on the task of trying to find out if this is all bologna or not. And they couldn’t make a determination.

Investigating the legend

According to Snopes (cited below): “Disagreement exists as to whether such a procedure is part of the parting process. We do know that once a Pope appears to have left this world, a pronouncement is made in Latin that he is dead, with this news certified by a physician. The camerlengo (chamberlain) calls out the pontiff’s baptismal name three times over the corpse in an effort to prompt a response. Failing to get one, he defaces with a silver hammer that particular Bishop of Rome’s Pescatorio (Ring of the Fisherman), along with the dies used to make lead seals for apostolic letters. The pope’s quarters are then sealed, and funeral arrangements are begun by the camerlengo.”

Ok, so here’s where we get the silver hammer part. The ring and his seals are destroyed to avoid any fraud on behalf of the dead pope. That makes sense, even if there are now better ways to render these pieces of metal unusable.

The rumor that the hammer then meets the forehead appears to have been popularized by Stephen Bates, a journalist who wrote an article in The Guardian on rituals associated with the pope’s death.

But here’s the kicker. There’s only one source that fully denies the rumor is true. It’s a correction from The Guardian a few weeks later, stating:

Yet The Guardian ran the following correction a few weeks later:

“The article below included the assertion that the corpse of a Pope is ritually struck on the head with a silver hammer to ascertain that there is no sign of life. According to the Vatican, this is a myth.”

There’s no identification of the source at all.

Since the so-called denial, which is impossible to check, there have been more articles asserting that the ritual is real. Or, at the very least, it was up until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

But who knows? The Vatican isn’t one to share its secrets – that’s why people keep writing books about them.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Is a Deceased Pope Tapped with a Silver Hammer to Verify He’s Dead?” — Snopes

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WTF Fun Fact 12658 – An Independence Day Coincidence

The 4th of July may just be the most common day for U.S. presidents to die.

As America celebrated 50 years of independence on July 4, 1826, it also mourned the passing of two of the men responsible for it. 83-year-old Thomas Jefferson and 90-year-old John Adams died just hours apart on that day. And despite their advanced ages, it came as a shock to people, who found it very suspicious (apparently, we didn’t need the internet to start conspiracy theories).

People didn’t necessarily suspect foul play – they were not anywhere near one another at the time. In fact, some people found it to be the work of the divine. In a eulogy, Daniel Webster called it “proofs that our country and its benefactors are objects of His care.”

It is a bigger coincidence than one might normally feel comfortable with, however. It’s one thing to die on the same day and quite another for that day to be such a momentous occasion.

If there was another other going on, it may have simply been that both were very ill and on the verge of death but tried their best to hang on to see that 50th anniversary.

If you’re a fan of weird coincidences, you may also be interested to know that James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States, also died on July 4 (but in 1831). And Zachary Taylor is presumed to have caught cholera on July 4th immediately following the holiday festivities in1850 (though he did not die until July 9th). WTF Fun Facts

Source: “Two Presidents Died on the Same July 4: Coincidence or Something More?” – History.com

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