The human picklement: so a mordant wit might call embalming. The universal human picklement—well, not universal, really, for it is a peculiarly American custom, shooting up the dead with preservatives. Have you thought about it? Does it comfort you, this image of your mortal remains lying in state with all the timeless splendor of a laboratory specimen, a marinated frog? No? It repulses you, violates your sense of life’s dignity—and death’s? It downright frightens you? Well, don’t worry: it is but a brief illusion. Whether you are embalmed or not, the grave will make quick work of you.
Sure, the embalmer and all his craft can keep you odorless and bloat-free long enough for your cousins from Schenectady to fly in for one last loving glimpse. And embalming does allow your grieving family to buy you a special burial suit, lay you in a bronzed, silk-lined coffin, flank you with banks of hothouse posies, and install you in the hushed stateliness of the viewing chamber, where they can gaze upon you to their heart’s content. All this, embalming will accomplish. It is the well-spring of funerary pomp and ostentation. Without it, what need have you for bronze and silk, for cosmetics and vaults, for rooms in which to be displayed? Without it, your burial might cost no more than $500, rather than the customary $1700-plus—as morticians well know. That’s why they’re busy pressuring Texas legislators to make the practice mandatory, or nearly so.
But what a world of difference divides the silken sheets and hushed tones of the mortuary’s viewing room from the cold steel of the embalming table. You don’t want to know about it? Yet it is a performance not to be missed: the embalmer is an artist, and you are his canvas—or, if you will, his clay. Come, see a masterpiece in the making.
First, the blood. Now that it no longer courses through your veins, it has drained into a stagnant pool, staining your back a dusky purple. Solemnly the embalmer steps to his task. Snip, he opens a neat incision—at the throat, beneath the arm, or in the groin—exposing both vein and artery. It’s quite simple: he just slips a needle into the artery and pumps in the embalming fluid, which pushes the blood before it, out of the severed vein, into the table’s gutter, and thence down the drain. Merrily the pump—looking absurdly like an oversized Cuisinart—chugs along; merrily your lifeblood rushes away into the city sewers. When the work is done, when every capillary is saturated with formaldehyde, the runoff turns clear and the pump is silenced. How improved you look! Your flesh is firm yet pliable, your skin tinged with a rosy, dye-induced glow.
But now comes the trocar, a tool of gleaming precision but no delicacy: two feet of tubular steel, tapered to a wicked, perforated point. It rends, it sucks, it spews. Poised for action, the embalmer raises his spear above your swelling belly. Lightning quick the lance descends, then—with a change in direction and another thrust—pierces your stomach. Suction, please, and the detritus of your last supper goes the way of all bodily fluids: into the sink. After your tummy, in quick succession your lungs, heart and bowels disgorge their contents at the trocar’s oh-so-ungentle insistence. Then the suction reverses, shooting in preservatives. And if some trace of bodily fluid remains, so much the better: it’s laced with urea and soon reacts with the injected formaldehyde to make a plastic resin. What could be neater—a plasticized corpse.
Yes, the worst is over now. All that’s left is for death’s craftsman to sew shut your jaws with a few judiciously placed stitches through your gums. (Do your teeth protrude? He knocks them out. Are your cheeks shrunken? He stuffs them with cotton.) And he’ll not forget to pop the plastic caps beneath your eyelids, the ones with the little barbs to hold upper and lower lids together. Now comes the true art, the painting and rouging, the powdering and glossing, until death’s pallor recedes beneath a glowing mask: the pièce de résistance.
And now? Wait, and sniff, and hope. Did he use a strong enough fluid? This is a calculation of some importance: too much preservative will turn you leathery; too little could mean even less pleasant results. Is that a trace of puffiness about the jaw, a whiff of something other than perfume? Won’t your laggard relatives ever get here? Many an embalmer has sagged with relief as one of his creations was interred—not a day too soon.
But surely, you say, embalming must be more than hollow vanity, more than a puny gesture in the face of death. Surely we also must embalm the dead to protect the health of the living. In this assumption you are not alone. It is a notion that funeral directors have been pushing with great success ever since the ancient art was revived by enterprising morticians during the flush days of the Civil War.
In fact, however, scientists have long suspected that embalming is both medically useless (because it does not sterilize the body) and unnecessary (because modern cemetery engineering prevents contamination of nearby lands and water supplies). The Texas commissioner of health, for one, has said unequivocally that there is “no clear medical reason . . . to believe that an unembalmed body presents a realistic risk of the transmission of disease,” an opinion seconded by the World Health Organization, the federal Center for Disease Control, the American Association of Pathologists, and the American Medical Association.
Still, until recently embalmers enjoyed the singular good fortune of serving a public that was sure its own best interest lay in precisely the kind of funeral—embalmed body, open casket—that most profited the funeral director. Even today more than 90 per cent of Texas funerals conform to this “traditional” ideal—a tradition invented out of whole cloth over the course of the past century. Most people, if they think about it at all, probably assume