Morticians have been taught that embalming is the foundation of the funeral business.  That without embalming … we’d be buried.  During the modernization of America and at the beginning of the “American way of death”, embalming was the foundation.  But we no longer exist in a modern paradigm, we exist in plurality and fragmentation with “American ways (!) of death”.

I don’t think the funeral profession’s survival depends on embalming nor do I think embalming is the pinnacle of a good funeral. England, Canada and Australia are examples of industries that exist without the centrality of embalming.  And it would be very neocolonialist of us to assume that our way of embalming represents the best and only way for healthy funeralization.

Despite this preface, I do believe embalming and restoration is valuable.  Here’s some short history of the practice as well as some possible benefits of embalming and restoration that I’ve observed.

One. Children.  

The fact that my wife and I are infertile has — for some reason — made me extra sensitive to the sight of dead children … or at least that’s the reason I give for the sickness I feel when seeing a child’s corpse.

He was three years old.  An all too young victim of cancer.  I returned from the Children’s Hospital with his withered corpse and found my grandfather — dressed in his embalming gear — awaiting me in the morgue.  That day we had a couple death calls and I had other work to do, so I left my grandfather alone to embalm this young body that had been emaciated by the cancer and the chemo.  In fact, I didn’t even offer to assist my grandfather because I knew the embalming experience would put me in a horrible mood for the rest of the week.

Two hours later I stuck my head in the morgue to peak at my grandfather’s results.  And what I saw was nothing like the boy I had brought back from the hospital.  His skin, which had been a greenish tone, was now a healthy looking flesh tone.  All the indentations on his face from the breathing machines, all the tube and machine imprints that had marked his body had been worked out by my grandfather’s expert work.  Even the boy’s weight looked more natural, as the embalming filled out the weight the cancer had taken.

Two.  Accidents, Cancer Emaciation and Tragedies.

For the most part, we’re able to restore various degrees of accidents, cancer emaciation and tragedies.  It helps.  It helps to see your loved one in a restored state.

Three.  It helps make the symbol of death look pretty.

Dr. Erich Lindemann (grief management pioneer) says that a defining characteristic of persons dealing with complicated bereavement is that they never saw the dead body of their loved one.  Although his observation isn’t based on any clinical studies, I think most funeral directors have recognized the weight of Dr. Lindemann’s statement.

An embalmed body helps the symbol look good.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s a good thing.  In fact, at times it’s a beautiful thing.

Certainly, embalming isn’t necessary AT ALL to see the dead body.  But, it can help.

Four. War.

The emphasis on embalming the corpse for aesthetic purposes finds its popular beginning in the American Civil War.  As a humane token to the grieving families of soldiers who were killed in action, an attempt was made by the armies to return the bodies home for proper burial. To avoid the cruelty of shipping home (often by train) a decomposing body, “field embalmers”, comprised of civilian physicians and some undertakers, began offering families the option of having their sons embalmed. Those that had the “bodies of their relatives returned from the war theaters … could give testimony to the effectiveness and desirability of the chemical embalming by injection” (Habenstein and Lamers 1955: 336).

While refrigeration, etc. can keep persons KIA from decomposing, embalming and restoration can allow the family to see their son or daughter in a restored condition one last time.  In some circumstances, this makes embalming invaluable.

Five.  When the Body Has to Wait …

On the other side of the coin, maybe there’s a person deployed in the foreign field.  Or maybe one of the deceased’s sons lives in China.  And the quickest they can get home is in three weeks … and they feel they MUST see the deceased.  It’s possible to keep the deceased in refrigeration for three weeks unembalmed, but with a three weeks wait, embalming would be the much preferable option in this case.

Six.  Sometimes DIY Isn’t the Best

There’s a lot of “death hacks” and DIY options that all but eliminate the need for a funeral director.  But, this doesn’t mean funeral directors are outdated and unneeded.  Like taxes, wedding planning, buying a house or even giving birth, there’s a range of symbiotic DIY options and professional involvement.  While it’s usually possible to have a DIY funeral, funeral directors are beneficial during the death process.

And while it’s possible for a family to prepare a body for a home funeral, it’s not something everyone wants or can do.  We’re here, if you want us.  Some of us are VERY good at embalming and restoration and can help your loved look more like the person you remembered in life.

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