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September 19, 2014

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Everything you want to know about death in Las Vegas

Image

Steve Marcus

A view of Woodlawn Cemetery Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. Opened in 1914 on 10 acres of donated land, Woodlawn, the oldest cemetery in Las Vegas, is coming up on its 100th anniversary.

Todd Noecker has organized a funeral with a live mariachi band, a bingo-themed service with programs that doubled as bingo cards and a memorial in which members of a biker gang revved their hogs in a synchronized salute as their comrade was laid to rest in a motorcycle-shaped casket.

“Las Vegas funerals are definitely not cookie cutter,” said Noecker, general manager of Las Vegas’ Davis Funeral Homes. “Because people come from all over, it’s different every time.”

Dying in Las Vegas, in many ways, is as unique as living here. Tourists come from across the world to sprinkle their loved ones’ ashes on the Strip. Locals celebrate their deceased in style, shooting cremated remains into space and compressing them into diamonds. The valley is the cremation capital of the nation, and even people who chose other hometowns in life opt to make Las Vegas their final resting place.

“There’s more of an independent spirit here,” Noecker said. “All the cultures intertwine. It’s just a mix, and I think a lot of that drives folks to be a little different. It’s exciting, and it keeps our work exciting.”

Todd Noecker has organized a funeral with a live mariachi band, a bingo-themed service with programs that doubled as bingo cards and a memorial in which members of a biker gang revved their hogs in a synchronized salute as their comrade was laid to rest in a motorcycle-shaped casket.

What it costs

Funerals, and their price tags, can be as varied as the people who need them.

CASKETS

• Low end: $695 for fiberboard with a white crepe interior.

• Average: $2,000

• High end: $39,995 for oak, cherry or polished bronze with custom velvet interiors.

URNS

• Low end: $95 for fiberboard laminate containers.

• High end: $1,295 for poplar, mahogany, bronze, copper or granite containers with custom engraved artwork.

MISC.

• Embalming: $695

• Dressing, casketing and makeup services: $295

• Bathing and handling of unembalmed deceased: $200

Source: Palm Downtown Mortuary and Cemetery

Themed funerals have been held in the valley for years. Caskets can be customized to reflect a person’s passions or hobbies and printed with sports team logos, playing cards or left blank for loved ones to sign. Nationally, there’s a growing trend of staging the dead doing what they loved in life, propping them up at card tables or sitting them in vehicles.

Death “has become more of a communal experience — people want food so they can share, music so they can dance, a theme because the (deceased) was part of a club or team,” said Larry Davis, general manager of Palm Downtown Mortuary and Cemetery.

Noecker estimates that about 60 percent of customers at Davis’ three valley locations request nontraditional funerals.

People today “don’t have the same beliefs that their grandparents had,” he said. “Nowadays, we’re seeing a ‘celebration of life’ rather than ‘funeral service’. Let’s just say it: It puts some of the ‘fun’ back in funeral.”

Locals also increasingly are choosing cremation over burial, both for environmental and economic reasons.

Seventy percent of people who die in Las Vegas choose to be cremated, compared to 35 percent nationally, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Twenty years ago, 60 percent of Las Vegans chose to be buried.

The shift is largely due to the valley’s transient population and the economic downturn. The cost to fly a body to someone’s hometown can be astronomical. It’s much easier and cheaper to transport a container of ashes.

Many people also choose to spend their money on memorials and services rather than caskets and burial plots, though unique vessels to hold remains are increasingly popular as well. Ashes can be stored in Pandora jewelry lockets or blended into concrete reefs placed in the ocean, among other options.

Clark County, which used to bury most indigent people who died, also has saved at least $600,000 a year since switching to a majority of cremations in the mid 2000s.

As more people put down roots in Las Vegas, residents increasingly are requesting to have the remains of their relatives moved from their hometowns and reinterred in Las Vegas to keep families close. Buried remains can be disinterred and shipped, or, more commonly, cremated and relocated to a family home or nearby cemetery.

Davis spoke of a local woman who, after her mother’s death in Las Vegas, had her father’s remains cremated and shipped here from a cemetery in the Midwest so her parents could be buried together.

An East Coast woman even opted to make Las Vegas her husband’s home in the afterlife, burying him here even though the family lived elsewhere — and giving her a great excuse to come visit.

“For many people, where home was has changed,” Davis said. “Twenty years ago, I don’t think anyone viewed Las Vegas as ‘home’ so much as ‘I just moved here.’ But when we’ve lived here, raised children here, gone to school, church, are involved in the community, this becomes our home.”

Who deals with dead bodies?

How it's done

• Before the dirty work begins, cleaners document the scene, taking notes and photographs and identifying exactly what needs to be done. Test are performed to see if fluids have seeped into sub flooring, and levels of ATP, an enzyme found in all cells, are scanned and recorded to determine where and how much biological matter is present.

• The team establishes three decontamination zones: the control zone, where the biological material is; the buffer zone, used to prevent cross-contamination (this is where crew members change clothes); and the clean zone, outside the path of contamination.

• Personal property is removed and inventoried, based on whether it needs to be cleaned or trashed.

• Surfaces are cleared of nails and other protruding objects, and cleaners map out a grid of the space. Working in small areas along the grid, they remove biological material, then pull out flooring, walls and other surfaces as needed. Full sanitization follows, with cleaning agents that sit for at least 10 minutes. Degreasers remove fatty tissue; absorbent chemicals turn liquids into gels for easier scooping.

• The site is deodorized to remove chemical smells from cleaning and any lingering odors from the biological material.

• A second test of ATP levels is done to make sure the space is clean. A certificate of treatment is given to the homeowner.

• Cleanups can take a few hours or a few days. Local certified technicians charge about $223 an hour, with assistants costing $173 an hour. Medical waste transport and disposal cost more.

• The toughest scenes to clean involve long-term decomposition, seen most often with hoarders and suicides. Biological materials become more pervasive and penetrating as time passes.

Source: Aftermath Services

In his own words

“A big misconception people have is that what we do is a regular mop and bucket, that you just throw some bleach down, slop it up and be on your way. Make a couple of bucks. But there’s a lot more to it.

In SWAT situations, they’ll launch in tear gas, send in a robot, and they’ll just rip apart the house inside. Then they’ll call us, and we repair everything — drywall, baseboards, tear gas remediation, whatever needs to be done.

We deal with a lot of hoarders and elderly folks, too. Especially here and in Florida. Their health might not be the greatest, and they’ll get into those hot tubs with high blood pressure, and they end up passing away. And then they don’t get found for a few days or a week, and the bodies bloat, and it becomes a real nasty soup inside this sauna.

Dealing with the gruesomeness when you first get started is tough. The psychological stress is overwhelming. Especially for me, when there’s children involved. I have to turn furniture around so my technicians and I don’t have to see certain things. For my wife and my daughter, it’s anything to do with animals. It gets pretty nasty. And you can’t take that work home with you.”

— David O’Brien, trauma scene cleaner and owner of the Crime and Trauma Scene Decontamination Training Academy in Las Vegas

For the past 10 years, David O’Brien has schooled students on how to scrub brains, blood and rotting flesh from the floor of a stranger’s living room.

O’Brien is a trauma scene cleaner and teaches students from across the country his trade. An online course offered through his Crime and Trauma Scene Decontamination Training Academy culminates in three days of hands-on training in Las Vegas. If students can stomach it — and pass a 165-question, five-essay final exam with a score of 70 percent or better — they walk away certified trauma scene waste management practitioners.

The work ain’t pretty, but in the wake of the economic downturn, it’s a lucrative business, with the potential to earn tens of thousands of dollars on a single job. O’Brien teaches up to a dozen 12-person classes a year, made up of people looking to jumpstart new careers and biohazard company employees seeking additional training.

O’Brien’s classroom is a home in northwest Las Vegas rented from a woman who uses the income to pay her mother’s medical bills. The house is steeped in animal blood and guts and strewn with live maggots. O’Brien instructs students to take a whiff of a corpse-tainted cushion taken from a real homicide scene to ensure they’re acquainted with the smell of death.

“This isn’t a job for just anyone,” O’Brien said. He estimated the average crime scene cleaner works an average of only two years in the field. “You’ve got to be in it for more than the money.”

O’Brien has worked as a delivery man, booking agent and exotic dancer. But cleaning trauma scenes has been his most fulfilling work, he said.

“You have no idea how rewarding it is unless you do it,” he said. “When a mom has tears in her eyes and her son just blew his head off, they’re weak. Their mind is gone. And when they come up and put their arms around you and just say, ‘Thank you, I don’t know what we would’ve done without you,” there’s not a feeling like it. Because you know it’s true. We’re their knight in shining armor coming to their emotional rescue.”

How bodies get back home

The Bellagio fountains. The Mirage volcano. The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. Of all the destinations on a tourists’ must-see list, the Clark County morgue doesn’t typically stack up.

But with 40 million tourists coming through town each year, it’s inevitable that the Strip will be some visitors’ final destination. Losing a loved one unexpectedly is difficult enough to deal with; navigating the complex legal and logistical terrain of arranging for someone’s remains to be transported, sometimes thousands of miles away, can seem near impossible.

That’s where local funeral directors step in. The Clark County Coroner’s Office keeps six valley mortuaries on a weekly rotation to handle the remains of out-of-state visitors.

“It’s not like on TV,” said Larry Davis, director of the Palm Downtown Mortuary and Cemetery. “On TV, someone dies, and the next scene, everyone’s at the funeral. People expect it to be like that in real life, for everything to happen quickly, and it’s just not that simple.”

Depending on the location, transporting a body can take weeks. Todd Noecker, general manager of Davis Funeral Homes, has sent remains to almost every country in the world. He said his staff typically transports more than 20 bodies out of state and five to seven bodies out of the country each month.

• The body arrives at the funeral home. The local funeral director reaches out to the next of kin and coordinates with mortuary staff in the destination city.

• Mortuary staff obtain a copy of the death certificate, signed by a doctor or the coroner, and apply for a burial-transit permit.

• If a body is being taken out of the United States, the mortuary must work with the destination country’s consulate. Because regulations and paperwork vary and documents may need translation, this step can be arduous, particularly if the person died from infectious disease.

• Nevada law requires bodies to be embalmed before leaving the state. If someone’s religion or culture forbids embalming, mortuary staff must get approval for alternative preservation means, such as specially designed cold packs.

• Mortuary staff make flight or other transportation arrangements. Most major carriers have specific rates and shipping containers for bodies. Remains often are sent on cargo planes and collected by funeral home staff at an airport’s cargo terminal.

See below for a map of some of the locations where bodies have been recovered in Southern Nevada, based on information from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

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