Embalming: When Science Goes Rotten
By Jason Gencher
If there is one thing that every single one of us has in common, it is that one day, we shall cease to live. Death, the great equalizer as it has been called, is something we all fear and try best not to remind ourselves of. There should be no surprise then that Death has become an industry, with many businesses competing for your remains, and subsequently promulgating some of the most rebarbative and pseudoscientific practices imaginable.
In 1963, investigative journalist Jessica Mitford released her exposé on the American funeral industry entitled, The American Way of Death (which I could not recommend any higher). She later revised it towards the end of her life, in 1996. The book reveals the shocking transformation of a simple human ritual into highly profitable business, accompanied by interviews with many experts in the industry, segments of articles in published funerary magazines, and a look at what actually happens to us, when handed over to an undertaker (or as they prefer to be called, Mortician).
The procedure of embalming a body, of which Mitford dedicates a significant number of pages to, deserves some scientific skepticism. An inquiry into the procedure details some questionable methods. To quote Mitford:
“The preparation room in any of the better funeral establishments has the tiled and sterile look of a surgery, and indeed the embalmer/restorative artist who does his chores there is beginning to adopt the term ‘dermasurgeon’ [my italics] to describe his calling. His equipment – consisting of scalpels, scissors, augers, forceps, clamps, needles, pumps, tubes, bowls and basins – is crudely imitative of the surgeon’s, as is his technique, acquired in a nine or twelve-month post-high school course at an embalming school. He is supplied by an advanced chemical industry with a bewildering array of fluids, sprays, pastes, oils, powders, creams, to fix or soften tissue, shrink or distend it as needed, dry it here, restore the moisturizer there. There are cosmetics, waxes, and paints to fill and cover features, even plaster of Paris to replace entire limbs. There are ingenious aids to prop and stabilize the cadaver. A VariPose Head Rest, the Edwards Arm and Hand Positioner, the Repose Block (to support the shoulders during the embalming), and the Throop Foot Positioner, which resembles and old-fashion stocks.”
Seen plainly, the process of embalming begins to look very much like an actual medical procedure. This seems decent, even sanitary; have we forgotten that the object undergoing it no longer breathes? Any notion of sanitation goes out the window when we delve further into the procedure
“About three to six gallons or dyed and perfumed solution of formaldehyde, glycerin, borax, phenol, alcohol, and water is soon circulating through Mr. Jones, whose mouth has been sewn together with a ‘needle directed upward between the upper lip and gum and brought out through the left nostril,’ with the corners raised slightly ‘for a more pleasant expression.”
“The next step is to have at Mr. Jones with a thing called a trocar. This is a long, hollow needle attached to a tube. It is jabbed into the abdomen and poked around the entrails and chest cavity, the contents of which are replaced with ‘cavity fluid.’ This done, and the hole in the abdomen having been sewn up, Mr. Jones’s face is heavily creamed (to protect the skin from burns which may be caused by leakage of the chemicals…”
A litany of other procedures exists for various conditions in which a body may be brought to an embalmer, with solutions just as gruesome as described above. Not to mention what is done with the drained fluids (I dare say the comparison to a hospital ceases to stand at this point). As the French say, ‘il faut souffrir pour etre belle.’
Of the arguments in favour of embalming thrown around by undertakers, and supporters, a common claim is that it clears a body of its ability to carry infection. Indeed, the procedure of embalming became widespread when HIV-AIDS had begun to take root in the United States. The truth of the matter is that this is not the case. Comparing a body which has been buried without embalming, and one with; exhuming the bodies after two months, we see that there is very little difference between the two. More so on the body that has been embalmed, there is generally more mold, and greater decomposition. As for the spread of communicable diseases, this point can be debunked with the common sense notion that dead bodies have the advantage of not being able to perspire, and thus spread agents of infection. An embalmed body does no better at preventing the spread of an infectious agent than an embalmed body, and what has shown to be the most effective way of containing the recently deceased and any possible pathogens is the location of the cemetery. One might try to learn from the past, and avoid placing cemeteries near drinking water, or town centers.
Funerals, and the wishes of deceased loved ones is an extremely personal subject. The above information notwithstanding, some people proceed to embalm. It is neither my wish nor my intention to prevent anyone from carrying forward with such plans. In so much as I have written about the procedure, I feel it important that we are collectively aware of what happens to those who undergo the process. Those in the funeral industry have a tendency to manipulate truths, and take advantage of the bereft. The cost of a funeral, according to the funeral industry itself has risen from $750 in 1961 to $7,800 in 1993 in the U.S. This can hardly be a result of inflation, and it is with reasons like this, that we must remain skeptical of the funeral industry.
It is said that Alexander the Great was preserved in wax and honey, Charlemagne embalmed and dressed in imperial robes sitting upright in his tomb; some form of embalming for Canute too; Lord Nelson was transported from Trafalgar back to England in brandy. The Jews consider it sinful to embalm, and so did the early Christians. There is quite obviously a divergence of views on the subject, and in the end, all we would like for our deceased is to remember them with fondness and love;
Here lie I, Master Elginbrod.
Have mercy on my soul, O God,
As I would have if I were God,
And thou wert Master Elginbrod.