The Plague Pyre

I wanted my triumphant return to this blog to be more personal, or at least more peppy: a zippy analysis of grief and ritual in outer space (see: Guardians of the Galaxy and Covenant), intergenerational relationships connecting at a nexus of death in popular media (a.k.a., the return of Twin Peaks), a narrative about using social media to stay connecting with the ailing and the grieving… but, due to circumstance, this is instead an extremely didactic post about misconceptions about HIV/AIDS and the funeral arts in the year 2017.

The premise is innocent enough. In one of the popular death and death care forums founded by one of the prominent and popular death professionals on social media, someone asked a series of basic questions about embalming, including “What about HIV or aids? How do you handle that? With the aids/HIV thing, or any disease, does it continue to live after the host has died? For how long?”

Such charming responses included:

As far as HIV/AIDS both people I know who died from the disease had to be cremated, embalming and burial were not an option due to their diagnosis. I imagine it depends on local laws and policies.

It’s mandatory to seal the coffin if the deceased died of aids

In the case of both of these, these are cruel myths.

The debate of open casket vs. closed casket has been challenged on several occasions on the basis of discrimination over the course of decades all around the world. Some attempts at establishing formal opinion and practice, such as an Irish tribunal in 2001, have been left with ambiguity and leave individuals and institutions to improvise on a case-by-case basis. For a time, particularly in the plague years, it was rumoured that some families would even shipped their loved ones’ bodies to other countries that didn’t impose restrictions on viewing.

Historically, some funeral homes have tried to push expensive sealed glass caskets onto vulnerable mourners, to facilitate the urgency of ‘safety’ while satisfying the desire to see their beloved one last time. But mostly, homes would either cite arbitrary prejudices as legal cause to necessitate embalming procedures with unfounded upcharges or simply outright refuse to participate in the disposal of the body. Mark E. Wojcik accounts for all of these and more in his paper, “Discrimination After Death.”

Most of the aforementioned links are cited to 2001 or earlier, several years after HIV/AIDS-related contractions and casualties and hit crisis levels which finally demanded political and civic attention. So why are we still seeing serophobia and stigma in highly developed countries all around the world in the 2010s?

HIV/AIDS education has largely shifted attention away from the fatal aspect, to, rightly so, uplift persons who contract the virus by demonstrating evidence that they are capable of living long, happy and healthy lives, and that their partners are at minimal risk of contracting the infection through sexual contact with the use of medical prevention interventions such as PEP or PrEP. There is also a largely optimistic and ambitious movement to eradicate HIV altogether, as well as research focused on curing the existing infections.

There is also education about the life and dormancy of the virus once removed from the body or when retained in the body post-mortem, as well as about the durability of the virus in extreme weather environments and unique climates. A lot of it! However, without the optimistic approach, this goes largely unnoticed. Yet this information could be hugely beneficial when explaining the minimal risks that are posed by a body that contracted the virus, especially when proper safety and protocol is practiced.

Shockingly, no new restrictions exist for a body that hosts HIV or AIDS that didn’t exist in life. An HIV+ cannot donate blood nor donate organs post mortem, but if it’s safe, even encouraged, to be in the intimate proximity of a living person with HIV or AIDS, then why would that familiarity have to end with death?

Ultimately, the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association hits it right on the money:

Is it possible to have a traditional funeral if someone with AIDS dies?
Yes. Death because of AIDS is no different than any other cause of death.

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