Embalming: a matter not of if but when

Charles 4 Comments

Nobody I can think of would dispute the assertion that it’s good for the bereaved to spend time with their dead, contemplating their absence – what I like to call their very present absence.

There is a debate about how dead a person should look. Some people want to spend time with an embalmed, cosmetised body; others reject this with some force, the more so when they find out what embalming entails. In the funeral industry itself there are two camps, the routine embalmers and the default refrigerators. When routine embalmers seek to make embalming a condition of viewing, they often do so from the best possible motives. Many of them rank among the industry’s best and most dedicated funeral directors. But that doesn’t necessarily make them right. At the same time, any holier-than-thou blanket rejection of embalming is going to fail those who would benefit from it. As Maggie Brinklow says, you can only make good decisions on a case-by-case basis. It may be mutilation to those who reject it, but it is not to those who do not. It is certainly not mutilation in the eyes of the best embalmers, whose gentleness confounds any such condemnation.

In an interesting article on AlterNet, Frankie Colman quotes Gary Laderman on the very high value of embalming skills as a professional attribute: “Without this procedure, funeral directors would have had a difficult time claiming that they were part of a professional guild, and therefore justified as the primary mediators between the living and the dead from the moment of death to the final disposition.” It is observable that in the UK, where the whole embalming-casketing-visitation caboodle never took off, the status and prosperity of funeral directors does not ride half as high as it does in the States.

When the funeral reform movement in the States took off in the 60s, with Jesscia Mitford as its most vocal spokesperson, Laderman observes:  “Funeral directors were arguing forcefully against charges that their mediation between the living and the dead translated into social obstruction that barred the stricken from facing death with maturity, realism and honesty.” But, Coleman asks funeral director Shaun Newburn, in what condition does the body need to be? “Newbern believes his clients don’t want any odor or leakage of body fluids during the wake and is concerned that it could happen if the deceased is kept at home.”

It is when funeral directors say things like that that you want to strangle them. It’s the sort of fright-thing some of them say in this country to clients interested in a cardboard coffin: “Oh, no, we can’t have one of those. Your Dad died of cancer, you see, there is likely to be considerable leakage…” leaving a picture in the mind’s eye of Dad falling through the sodden bottom.

Jerrigrace Lyons, the eminent US home funeralist, tackles this business of leakage and odours, and here I learned something I didn’t know about the properties of dry ice – and which you may well not know either: “For three-day wakes we generally use dry ice. It is extremely cold (minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit). We place it under the torso of the body and a small piece on top so it freezes the fluids in the lungs and stomach. We have rarely seen any fluids coming from the mouth or nose because of this. Even when the deceased has purged a little brownish fluid from the mouth (again rare) it has not upset anyone. Families often deal with far more fluids and other matter released from the body when their loved one is in the dying process.”

For Jerrigrace and her kind it’s the subtle changes that take place in a dead body over days that impart psychological and emotional value and underline the irrevocability of death. Others, though, are grateful for the unchangingness of the stabilised, embalmed body. It’s an effigy, if you like, a devotional object, and this is what they need.

Funeral directors are taught that they are the custodians of the bodies they look after. Actually, they are not: they are agents for the custodians, for the dead belong, by law, to their people. They can become very proprietorial about their role, act as gatekeepers to the body and forbiddingly dissuade people from spending time with their dead if they think they will be upset by what they see. These undertakers need to read the study Viewing the body after bereavement due to a traumatic death: qualitative study in the UK by A Chapple and S Ziegland, published on the BMJ website. Its conclusion is as follows:

Even after a traumatic death, relatives should have the opportunity to view the body, and time to decide which family member, if any, should identify remains. Officials should prepare relatives for what they might see, and explain any legal reasons why the body cannot be touched. Guidelines for professional practice must be sensitive to the needs and preferences of people bereaved by traumatic death. The way that relatives refer to the body can be a strong indication for professionals about whether the person who died retains a social identity for the bereaved.


  1. Charles

    I think people need to spend time greaving to be able to return to normal. I think if people pretned that nothing has happened they can be carrying a weight around with them for years.

    When itc comes to sorting out servcies like probate before the person has died it is improtant to leave your family in a good state and in as little stress as possible.

  2. Charles

    May I be controversial?

    I don’t know that it is automatically good for the bereaved to spend time with their dead.

    Of course, if they want to, then every opportunity should be made for them to do so and for as long as they want (not the feeling of someone hovering by the door, waiting for you to come out), but I don’t know if it’s something I’d bother with again.

    I’m speaking from purely personal experience here, rather than something learned during my time dealing with bereaved people, but when my mother died, I went to see her in the chapel of rest.

    Each circumstance is different, I know that. In Mum’s case, I (with other family members) had been with her when she died, so we had experienced that. Maybe it was because she looked a bit too “made up”. Maybe it’s because she had been ill for quite a while, and so we had had the opportunity to come to terms with her impending death, to say all we wanted to say, etc (yes, we were very lucky in that respect).

    But, for whatever reason, the experience of seeing her “laid out” has left me with the feeling that I wouldn’t have a strong need to do it again, with someone else that I loved. To me, Mum had already gone, and what was left was a shell that meant little to me as Mum was no longer in it.

    Sorry – this is perhaps a very personal post, and is certainly a personal opinion, but what is death, if not personal?

    I repeat, I would agree that everyone should have the opportunity to spend time with their dead, to wash and dress them, to talk to them, to feel their presence….if they want to. But it’s not for everyone, and it comes down to that magical word, choice.

    And for campaigning for choice, as always, we thank you, Charles.

  3. Charles

    What a very good point, XP. Thank you for making it — it needed to be made.

    Yes, a dead body occupies a status which accords both with the (differing)belief systems of the bereaved and with the emotional experience of the bereaved during the dying and at the death. People think it’s all over at different stages. In the case of Alzheimer’s it may be years before the death that the person becomes a part of the past. In your case, it was at the death. For others it may be in the ‘chapel of rest’ (can’t someone come up with a better term?!); at the committal in the funeral; at the ‘do’ afterwards; years and years later after much psychotherapy.

    It’s all about reconfiguring our relationship with the person who has died, yes? By which I mean ‘getting our head around what that person means to me from now on’.

    I wonder how many funeral directors think about this — about the implications of what Chapple and Ziegland say: “The way that relatives refer to the body can be a strong indication for professionals about whether the person who died retains a social identity for the bereaved.” This applies to every death, not just traumatic death. There may be more right ways than many of them, and the rest of us, suppose. At one end of the scale a dead body is a shell; at the other it embodies the breath of God. There are many, many points in between.

  4. Charles

    Only just caught this discussion – and what a valuable one it is, too. Thank you XP for your personal post – it could be no other than that, hence its value.

    I think you’re absolutely right. Seems to me a death requires a lot of sensitive and timely judgements, and this is one of them. Charles’ final comment is emblematic of the value to us all of his writing.

    His point about “reconfiguring our relationship with the person who has died” is, I’ve come to understand much more thoroughly from these discussions, exactly the point of a funeral.

    It needs to be a transformative procedure/ceremony/ritual in which mourning over a body is done and farewell to a physical presence is said, acknowledged and accepted. That, obviously, is why they get upset (visibly or otherwise.)

    Then the people can leave with the beginnings of a new meaning for the life – the sort of life that stays with them, not the sort of life that is now over.The life that stays with them is part of them, the non-life back there can’t be any longer. Ouch! That hurts, only way through it is through it.

    Once again, “the difference between him and it.” (Jonathan Someone Or Other, quite recently and very helpfully.)

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