Embalming 101, With A Polish Master

Adam Ragiel at work
Adam Ragiel at work
Robert Robaszewski

WARSAW – Plasdopake is produced in Whitchurch, Hampshire, a small town 90 kilometers west of London.

Plasdopake is a chemical solution that contains 18% formaldehyde. It is perfect for embalming the bodies of people who have died young – it gives them a fresh and natural look, making them look alive in their coffin. Obviously, this embalming solution won’t be of much use for people who have been burnt in a fire or are bloated due to drowning.

Adam Ragiel, one of the most famous Polish embalmers and medical examiners gives embalming classes at funeral homes in Olsztyn, northeastern Poland. He is a tall, self-confident and articulate man, always on his mobile phone. He wanted to be a doctor but didn’t make the cut. His brother-in-law worked in stone work and helped him to get a job at the cemetery – carrying coffins at funerals.

The company he worked for also drove out to accident scenes, transporting the bodies back to the medical examiner’s office. On day, he had the opportunity to watch a post-mortem exam, and immediately, he knew that this was his calling. After studying to be an autopsy technician in Poland, he went abroad to train in embalming, post-mortem cosmetology and body reconstruction. Today, he is still working, but mostly he runs his own training institute, organizing courses in five Polish cities. His lifetime ambition is to open the first Polish Embalming Institute. There is also one in France.

Embalming 101

Bodies are embalmed to disinfect them so the family of deceased can say goodbye safely. Embalmed bodies have less bacteria than living bodies, so mourners should not think twice about touching their loved ones, or even kissing them.

Bodies are also embalmed to prevent putrefaction. Thus prepared, a body does not rot, it simply dries up. Also, embalming protects the body from insects and vermins.

And finally, bodies are embalmed so that they can look nice during viewing.

Embalming in Poland isn’t really popular. In Olsztyn, only 5% out of 1,437 decedents were embalmed last year – even though the price of this procedure is not that high: about 90 euros.

There are about 40 embalming professionals in Poland. Ragiel says a course in post-mortem cosmetology (make-up) costs about 250 euros, while a full embalming course costs 2,500 euros.

If you are going to take the course, says Ragiel, he recommends that you go there on an empty stomach – just in case.

Today the course takes place at a funeral home near the Olsztyn City Hospital. There’s nothing to indicate we are in a funeral home and not someone’s house. There is a couch, a TV, a few chairs and a table. Some of the trainees are finishing their breakfast, others are taking a break before the next 10 hours of classes.

There are Polish people, but also a lot of foreigners. The course lasts for four months: 32 hours of theory and 200 hours of practice, with a final exam at the end. Families of the deceased who give permission for trainees to work on them, do not have to pay for embalming.

Twenty-eight refrigerators

When class begins, the first thing trainees do is to examine the body. Then, keeping in mind the instructions given by the family, trainees can begin to wash the body, cut the nails, dry the hair, shave men, etc. Then, the embalming fluid is injected through arteries so it is being distributed to the whole body.

When it’s done, the skin is no longer a bluish green. Embalming lasts for about one and a half hours. After that, if the family has brought clothes, you can dress the body and apply make-up. If not, the body goes into one of the 28 refrigerators of the funeral home.

There are a lot of additional options offered by embalmers, depending on what the families request. For example, a deceased can be made to cry. A special fluid is injected under the eyelid, which after some time, starts to seep. You can also opt for the deceased to smell like wild strawberries or to smile.

People want to see their dead relatives as they were when they were alive. At funerals, they often look into the open casket to see if the person has changed after death. Even after serious accidents, reconstructions have incredible results. Silicon can restore the natural outline of the face, and to restore limbs, embalmers use prosthesis out of foam.

In the past, only heroes and leaders of communist countries were embalmed. They couldn’t just pass away – they had to stay there, to remind their citizens to continue to uphold their ideals. Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-sung and Joseph Stalin were all embalmed after death and installed in mausoleums for all to view.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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