Disposal Economics

When Public Executions
Were the Crowd’s Delight

Immortality is one of those dreams that would turn into a nightmare if it’d ever become reality. Even without the proverbial zombies roaming the earth, we still need desperately to die on a regular basis.
Not pretty, for sure, but a vow of support to all blessed forms of natural death, the economics of crime and punishment, and the ecology of making sure we dispose properly of the bodies of those who passed on.
According to the Annals of Improbable Research, modern forms of execution went through considerable changes until reaching the efficiency and swiftness of contemporary death rows. Or so that was the plan. Such evolution also reflects changes in our footprint on the planet.
Thus, if ancient Hebrews, living in barren lands, executed people by stoning, Arabs in nearby deserts used a sword to decapitate them. Impaling was an ancient and popular method, and the Romanian Prince Vlad III, likely to have inspired the myth of the Dracula, was an avid adopter. Turks preferred metal spears, but in most of Asia and the Tropics, bamboo was the preferred method to exact justice. To each its own horror theater.

Arguably, few could beat crucifixion as a public spectacle, though. It was the Roman way, and Jesus, its cèlebre poster boy. It even had an opening act where the condemned had to drag his own wooden crossbar to the site of the execution to the crowds’ delight. Romans could be cruel but not free of ecological concerns, though.
They saw how wasteful the method was – not of blood and guts, which there were plenty to go around – but of trees. And soon, an alternative was devised. They’d bend and tie with ropes two trees, and have the arms and legs of the doomed attached on each of them. Then the ropes would be cut, for a clean, quick end, with no waste of timber.
In Medieval Europe, the auto-de-fé, i.e., to burn alive at the stake, was the sanctioned method of execution. It killed Joana D’Arca and countless others, accused of heresy, witchcraft, and other peccadillos.

In the 18th century, a new method made people literally lose their heads over it, and became forever associated with the French Revolution: the guillotine. It replaced the sword executioner and it killed thousands but it could not slay two popular beliefs: it was not invented by Joseph Guillotin and it did not kill him either.
It never caught on in North America, where hanging was the preferred way. Still, forest depletion was a constant concern, so with the Civil War, death by firing squad was a more economical alternative.
With the added convenience of serving to execute more than one person at a time. As we mentioned before, (more)
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moral or judicial considerations aside, waste management was always an important point to consider when choosing an execution method.
The Improbable Research findings apparently chose to overlook the firing squad option, despite its popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries. And so were even more ghoulish solutions, such as the brutal use of gas chambers by the Nazis in Germany.

In the U.S., the Industrial Revolution helped to create the conditions for the invention of the electric chair. It was the answer to those environmental concerns, as fossil oil and coal were readily available to produce the energy required for its use.
Widespread use of the electric chair was brought to an end during the energy crisis of the 1970s. But recently Alabama and Nebraska have returned to it. Still, the current preferred method to carry on death sentences is by lethal injection. The procedure has recently faced challenges, concerning the chemicals used in the injections.
It’s likely that it’ll continue being popular among law enforcement in the U.S. But to many Americans, the quest is not about which method is more humane but when we’ll end the death penalty altogether.

Sanitary concerns and religious beliefs dictate how we voluntarily dispose of our earthly remains, aside from legal issues. As we run out of land for ground interment, such disposal is conditioned to either cremation or burial at sea. Other ideas are getting some traction too.
While most of us have given a thought or two about furnaces and ashes, ours or of a loved one, few have ever considered being dumped on the water by choice. It certainly wasn’t Osama bin Laden’s, but there his body went, to the bottom of the Asiatic Sea.
Obviously, there’s no new way of disposing of a body under the sun. And as many a New Yorker would tell you, ‘to sleep with the fishes‘ has been a popular staple of final destinations for those who dare to cross Mafiosi of all stripes in the eastern seaboard.
Then again, apart from any criminal intent, there’s nothing to fear if the choice appeals to you or a loved one. There are few organizations that take care of all details to conduct a dignified ceremony at sea, and most of them are also environmentally conscious.
The EPA has several rules for such burials, mainly to make sure the body stays underwater and decays quickly without impacting marine life. There are clauses about depth and temperature of the water, type of coffin used, and minimal weight of the body.

Some companies do away with the casket altogether and use a zipped canvas body-bag instead. They follow old American and British traditions of wrapping sailors who died at sea with a sailcloth shroud, using cannonballs as ballast.
If all goes according to plan, bodies decay relatively fast, either in water or soil. And rather than a bigger animal eating the smaller one, once dead, it’s the tiny creatures’ turn to feast on our flesh.
So think about that the next time you wish you could live forever, zombies notwithstanding. In these dark times of plagues and unnatural disasters, you may as well show some appreciation for each day when none of these scourges is out to get you just yet.

(*) Originally published on July 20, 2011.

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