Extreme Unctuousness

Texas Morticians believe so fervently in embalming for one reason: money. That’s why they’re fighting over your dead body.

May 1981By Comments

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 that embalming is required by law. In actuality, no state mandates universal embalming, although many do require it if a body is to be shipped or held for more than a day or two.

In this regard Texas has followed a typical course. The Legislature voted in 1903 to establish a State Board of Embalmers (now the Board of Morticians) to license practitioners of the newly popular technique. Over the year, funeral directors (who do not necessarily participate directly in embalming) and funeral homes also fell under the board’s licensing authority. Then, in 1951, the State Board of Health adopted regulations designed to bring Texas’ embalming practices in line with those of other states. The rules required embalming of persons who had died of communicable diseases, who were to be transported by airline or other common carrier, or who were to be buried more than 24 hours after death. Since it is nearly impossible to arrange a funeral in 24 hours, and since the law forbids cremation until at least 48 hours has elapsed, the rule made embalming mandatory for all practical purposes. The Board of Health did recognize refrigeration as an acceptable alternative, but virtually no funeral homes owned cold-storage units, so the choice was moot.

Nobody thought to question this status quo until the sixties and early seventies, when consumer watchdogs began agitating over the sleazy and duplicitous sales tactics used by many funeral homes. That trickle of criticism swelled into a torrent, and health officials began to reevaluate embalming. By January 1979 the Texas Department of Health was talking about abolishing its 28-year-old regulations. Instead, it decided to let the 66th Legislature tackle the issue.

The legislators might never have chosen to deal with the subject at all, except that in 1979 the Board of Morticians came up for Sunset review. The Sunset staff wanted to dismantle the morticians’ board and put the industry under the Health Department’s jurisdiction. But funeral directors weren’t about to surrender any of their professional prerogatives without a fight, and they certainly weren’t going to welcome the authority of an agency that wasn’t wholly in favor of embalming. The man charged with forestalling those calamities was Johnnie B. Rogers, a long-time insurance lobbyist also employed by the Texas Funeral Directors Association (TFDA). To play TFDA water carrier in the Senate, Rogers tapped Democrat Grant Jones of Abilene, and for a House sponsor he recruited Lynn Nabers, a Brownwood Democrat and a twelve-year veteran of the Legislature.

Senator Lloyd Doggett of Austin, one of the Legislature’s few fighting liberals and a champion of the Sunset process, met the TFDA and its lobbyist head on. For allies, he turned to the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society (AMBIS), one of a nationwide federation of groups that advocate immediate burial or cremation as alternatives to the ubiquitous open-casket funeral, and the Consumers Union, a public-interest law firm associated with Consumer Reports magazine. But perhaps Doggett’s most energetic—and potentially effective—confederate was James Reveley, a robust 37-year-old mortician from San Antonio. Reveley had spent a decade in the funeral industry learning to despise it, then spent much of the following decade campaigning—before the Legislature and Congress—against what he saw as its shabby treatment of bereaved customers. In the process, he won the undying ingratitude and occasionally the open enmity of his colleagues. In 1978 Reveley, who by then was also practicing dentistry, opened his own San Antonio mortuary—equipped with one of the few refrigeration units in the state—to conduct simple, low-cost funerals with no embalming and no cosmetics.

Each side in this blackly humorous drama treated legislators to quite a show: when the TFDA regaled them with slides of decomposing bodies, Doggett’s team countered with a Federal Trade Commission videotape of a funeral director pressuring an indigent widow to go into hock so her husband could enjoy an elaborate funeral. Remarkably, in the face of such scare tactics, what emerged from the session was a workmanlike compromise. The Legislature retained the Board of Morticians but added lay members to its ranks, spelled out stringent consumer protection measures, and prohibited any state agency from requiring embalming unless the agency found that the public’s health was at stake.

Doggett and company already knew that the Health Department considered embalming medically useless, so they concluded that forced embalming was legally dead. Just to be sure, however, health officials asked Attorney General Mark White to clarify whether the law automatically rescinded the regulation. After pondering this thorny problem for nine months, White in July 1980 issued a ruling so opaque that each side read it and claimed victory. By the time White had untangled the controversy in late November—finally agreeing with the Health Department that the old rule was unenforceable—the 67th Legislature was nearly upon us. And in March Nabers and Jones introduced the TFDA’s latest legislative efforts, bills that would incorporate the now defunct regulation directly into the statute. Whether or not the TFDA succeeds in resurrecting what Sunset interred, the fight will be worth watching, both as a case study in how the lobby works to circumvent the public interest and as a barometer of how significantly this Legislature differs from its predecessor.

Not even the TFDA claims anymore that embalming is necessary in the interest of public health; morticians justify the current legislation on the grounds that it will avoid aesthetic unpleasantness and possible lawsuits against the profession. One of their fellows, they like to point out, got caught between two warring factions of a family—one side wanted the dear departed embalmed, the other didn’t—and wound up getting sued. And how many such cases are likely to arise? Perhaps one a year, according to the president of the TFDA. Of course, funeral homes and common carriers can make their own rules about the conditions under which they will deal with an unembalmed body—or to refuse to deal with one at all (although morticians can deal effectively with problems like odor, even without embalming). So the question is: do Texans want to adopt a law that will restrict their choice of funeral arrangements in the interest of protecting one hypothetical mortician per year from a hypothetical lawsuit?

A suspicious mind might see even darker consequences lurking in the proposals, which say that a body may not be “in transit” more than 24 hours after death unless it is embalmed or refrigerated. That provision, strictly interpreted, would conceivably forbid transportation from a refrigeration unit to a cemetery. The TFDA and its allies staunchly deny that that is their intent, but the ambiguity could leave morticians like Reveley open to legal action by the Board of Morticians that would put them out of business.

The funeral directors may or may not be out to squelch Reveley, but there’s no doubt that morticians across the country are fighting desperately to stop the erosion of their trade. Growing demand for immediate interment and cremation has got them running scared, and they know they must hold on to embalming if they’re to hold on to everything else. It is, as one candid mortician admitted, “the very foundation of mortuary science—the factor which has made the elaborate funeral home and lucrative funeral possible.”

So what are the TFDA’s chances? Pretty good—for reasons that have to do with both historical patterns and current political fashions. For one thing, a funeral director is a lot like a car dealer: he sells a product people can’t do without, he knows everyone in town (including his legislator), he takes care to cultivate his image as a pillar of the community. And that collective image will carry a lot more weight than even the $28,000 the TFDA’s political action committee (called MortiPAC, believe it or not) doled out during last year’s legislative races. Then too, there’s the marked pro-lobby tilt of this Legislature; Senator Ike Harris’s Economic Development Committee—which reported the Senate bill favorably in April—is the most conspicuous example. And last, Doggett’s overworked staff is already embroiled in major Sunset battles with doctors and dentists.

Other than legislators’ natural reluctance—if any—to pass such a bad ol’ bill, the anti-embalming forces can count two factors in their favor: first, the severe crowding of the calendars in both houses, which may prevent any number of bills from seeing the light of day, and second, a possible ace in the hole in the person of Jim Kaster, the governor’s legislative liaison. Kaster, like Reveley, is a funeral director and embalmer who has absolutely no use for most of his colleagues. In the event that a TFDA-backed bill does reach Clements’ desk, at least one voice at the governor’s elbow will be urging a veto. But even if the TFDA loses, don’t look for the funeral industry to give up. A good many Legislatures may pass away before Texans can consider embalming laid to its eternal rest.

It’s Your Funeral

If you want the “traditional” extravaganza—embalming, cosmetics, viewing of the body, and other costly extras that can drive the price well beyond $2000—you’ve got no problem. But if you’d rather choose immediate burial or cremation, perhaps followed by a memorial service, you’ll have to hope your relatives can withstand the mortician’s sales pitch—or arrange the affair in advance yourself. Some 7500 Texans have done just that with the aid of one of the state’s eight memorial societies, listed below. The role of these nonprofit organizations differs somewhat from city to city, but they all aim to help their members secure simple, inexpensive funerals, typically costing about $500. Some of them contract with a local funeral home to provide the desired services; others simply supply information and advice. For details, contact the society nearest you:

Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society, Box 4382, Austin 78765 (no phone).

Dallas Area Memorial Society, 4015 Normandy, Dallas 75205 (528-3990).

Golden Triangle Memorial Society, Box 6136, Beaumont 77705 (833-6883).

Houston Area Memorial Society, 5210 Fannin, Houston 77004 (526-1571).

Lubbock Area Memorial Society, Box 6562, Lubbock 79413 (792-0367).

Memorial Society of Bryan-College Station, Box 9078, College Station 77840 (696-6944).

Memorial Society of El Paso, 3313 Diamond, El Paso 79904 (751-6670).

San Antonio Memorial Society, 777 San Antonio Bank & Trust Building, 771 Navarro, San Antonio 78205 (no phone).

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