After Death

Social Engagements with Death and Dying

The Post-Mortem Visual Body

Heather Burich

 

A few weeks ago, a few friends and I were comparing stories of the “kids say the darndest things” kind as a way to pass time before a club meeting. My friend Emma had a pretty morbid story to share: at her grandfather’s funeral this summer, her toddler cousin asked why everyone in the room was watching his Papa sleep. Our awkward laughs were colored with the realization that the boy did not understand his loved one had passed away and this was a service to remember his life. Though we joked about his naivety, you can’t blame the kid: for all intents and purposes, his grandfather probably looked very much alive to him compared to the image of death kids encounter in cartoons and movies. Instead of gaunt cheeks and ghost white skin, an embalmed body mimics a healthy complexion and expression of one peacefully asleep. Preservation of a body for funeral services has developed as a kind of mortuary art in the United States, transforming a recently deceased corpse into a quote-unquote “beautiful memory picture” that loved ones can keep in their memories to aid the grieving process.[i] The practice has held a commonplace in funeral services for several generations, yet some critics argue that modern embalming is archaic and financially exploitive, outweighing any intended emotional benefits. How has embalming evolved over time? What caused it to gain prominence in American culture? Why does the post-mortem visual body shock us, and can the grieving process really be aided by surgical and cosmetic procedures that mimic life? This podcast will explore embalming and its impact from a humanistic perspective to offer a fresh take on corporal choices after death.

The history of embalming and cosmetic restoration exists within the religious and spiritual beliefs of ancient civilizations around the globe. Egyptian rituals of mummification were a way to honor and preserve societies’ elite for their trip to the afterlife.[ii] Ancient undertakers washed the body in natron, a harvested salt mixture that absorbed moisture in the skin, to enhance spiritual safety. Holy oils overpowered the stench of decay as organs were removed or filled to preserve a lifelike appearance that they believed was necessary to ensure immortality.[iii] In ancient Egypt, the human body was still a vessel for existence, a belief that vastly differed across the Mediterranean. Ancient Greeks and Romans buried their dead in limestone sarcophagi to quicken decomposition[iv], and Jews of the Middle East found embalming to be violation of god’s will.[v] Early Christianity quickly condemned the practice as a pagan custom, a belief that continued despite the adaptions and various denominations that formed within the Church. Puritans viewed a corpse as a symbol of human sin and corruption: once the blessed soul had departed for heaven, the body left behind was just flesh, undeserving of any special treatment – thus puritans did not approve of embalming, let alone elaborate funerals or extravagant tombs.[vi] Spiritual beliefs aside, the natural devices of bodily decay are quite gruesome.

The first stage, commonly known as the Fresh stage[vii], involves blood sinking to the lowest parts of body as the heart no longer pumps it. The underside of body becomes discolored and bruised while the upside becomes the signature “deathly” white. Muscles stiffen before growing flaccid as they break down. The bloat stage[viii] occurs after a week as bacteria in the intestinal tract produces gas that inflates the abdomen and cheeks. The skin turns black as blisters appear with stage three, putrefaction and decay[ix], until the body eventually liquefies completely. The ghastly description would cause anyone to squirm, which is often why embalming is preferred. Since most viewings are from the waist up, embalmers concentrate on the face and hands, finding ways to reshape sunken features. Plastic forms go under the eyelids, which are then sewn or glued shut. Some embalmers use cotton padding in the cheeks and throat for fullness, if not a plastic mouth former. After the lips are sewn shut, the face has to be covered with a cloth to prevent the corpse from exhaling microorganisms when moved. For male corpses, facial hair is shaved and an arterial chemical applied to firm the skin. Even women and children are shaved to remove the fine “peach fuzz” we all have on our faces. This is done to prevent the makeup from collecting on the hair and making it more noticeable.

Puritan colonization in the United States ensured embalming was not a standard post-mortem procedure. It was not religious, but practical concerns of body preservation, that arose hundreds of years later during the American Civil War, in which the massive death tolls on both sides led to unexpected separation and loss. Grieving families wished to say a final goodbye to the young boy they sent off to war, not the bloody, emaciated soldier who had been killed in battle. Corpse preservation consisted of refrigeration, an unreliable and temporary approach, especially when the body was being embalmed for transport. The discovery of formaldehyde in 1859 made transportation more feasible. Formaldehyde coagulates protein, making the muscles and skin firm and more sturdy.[x] It is also a powerful disinfectant. Embalming offered families a way to combat at least some of the threats of the war posed to the principles of the good, or noble death in wartime.[xi] To imagine the loved one sleeping was a means of defying death’s terror, if only temporarily.

The embalming business took off as this sentiment was shared by devastated people across the country. Advertisements were posted in popular press and shop windows. Dr. F. A. Hutton took a full page of a 1863 Virginia newspaper to advertise his services: “Bodies Embalmed by us never turn black! But retain their natural color and appearance…so as to admit of contemplation of the person Embalmed, with the countenance of one asleep” pledging “particular attention paid to obtaining bodies of those who have fallen on the battle field”.[xii] Embalmers advertised their services by exhibiting preserved bodies as well. To transport bodies from the battleground back to their homes, bodies were drained of their fluids, divested of their organs, disinfected and preserved with formaldehyde, enclosed in in a coffin, and shipped for a heavy fee. In fact, after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, however, his body was embalmed and placed in a casket for a two-week train ride to Springfield, Illinois.[xiii]  Not only did it survive that, but the train also stopped in each town along the way so officials could open the coffin for the people to have a look.  Some seven million people viewed the preserved corpse, which influenced how embalming took hold in the country. More contemporary examples of popular embalming include the ninety-year experiment of Vladimir Lenin’s corpse. Generations of scientists and embalming surgeons have researched and tested preservation techniques to maintain the public display of the Soviet Union leader.[xiv] Millions of people have visited the exhibited corpse at the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow and are shocked and delighted by its maintenance. But not everyone in history has condoned embalming as a gift to the grieving process.

Examining the past of funeral embalming demonstrates that the post-mortem visual body continues to hold significance in our country. Our senses make it difficult to make a distinction between body and consciousness: the visual body, the body we can see, is associated with the totality of the person we know and love. Consequently, the corpse, pale, colorless, sunken, and bruised, becomes the physicality of death and loss. Those who choose to be embalm or be embalmed understand that it extends the illusion of life, not life itself. But sometimes we need that brief continuation of the person’s body we once held, touched, and kissed. It’s not preserving the body; it’s preserving the memory of life. In the United States, we have choices for our after-death care, a privilege not every nation can claim. I hope this podcast has informed you of the benefits, consequences, and ideologies behind embalming from a humanities perspective. Thank you.

[i] Barbara K. Harrah and David F. Harrah, Funeral Service: A Bibliography of Literature on Its Present, and Future, the Various Means of Disposition, and Memorialization (New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1977), 12.

[ii] Harold Schechter. The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), 46.

[iii] Ibid, 45.

[iv] Ibid, 46.

[v] Ibid, 46.

[vi] Ibid, 46.

[vii] Harold Schechter. The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), 14.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Drew Gilpin Faust, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (California: Vintage Press, 2009), 92.

[xi] Ibid, 93.

[xii] Ibid, 94.

[xiii] Ibid, 101.

[xiv] Hsu, Jeremy, “Lenin’s Body Improves with Age,” Scientific American, April 22, 2015, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/lenin-s-body-improves-with-age1/.

[xv] Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited (New York: Knopf Press, 1998), pg #.

[xvi] Jessica Mitford and Howard C. Raether, “Should funeral homes be regulated?,” U.S. News & World Report 80, May 10, 1976: 45-46.

[xvii] Harold Schechter. The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), 77.

[xviii] “Statistics,” nfda.org, last modified January 11, 2017, http://www.nfda.org/news/statistics

[xix] Ibid.

Bibliography