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