Dealing with the Dead from The Boxing Network on Vimeo.
Behind the scenes at the State University of New York’s Mortuary School. Interesting insights into the rationale for US funerary practices and what motivates the students. NOTE: Includes graphic scenes of embalming.
I commend you to the book – ‘Never stuff your dog’ by witty and talented ‘Mash’ actor, Alan Alda.
The thrust of the title is that as a child – the Alda family dog – a beloved pet died. Breaking the awful news, Alan’s Dad implored him not to get upset – Rover was gone, but would soon return, preserved for ever in his favourite sitting position.
Not being quite old enough to understand, Alda waited patiently for weeks – knowing grief was unnecessary because the dog wasn’t ‘dead’ – it was just away. Of course once the dog returned – or what remained of it after the taxidermist had done his best – it looked nothing like his pet. The well meaning Dad had told a lie – to minimise his sons grief. It worked, kind of. It also left a lasting impression.
Death is death. It is what it is and best confronted.
My mistake Mark. Apologies.
Our dead need to look as they are; dead. Emotive words like decomposing give a much exaggerated mental image of what actually happens. Our experience is that every family is reluctant at first to come and see their dead relative, “we want to remember her as she was” but on drawing on their reserves of enormous courage which so often accompanies the experience of someone dying, they come once, then again and again and again. The subtle changes, skin discolouration, features becoming more drawn are things we recognise on a deep instinctive level, and need to see to align the head and the heart, the “they’re dead/they’re not really dead” too and fro we go through when someone we love dies.
One middle aged man came out of our chapel with a look of profound relief on his face, having seen his unembalmed son in law, ravaged by cancer in the way that only the young can be. He had suddenly realise how disturbed he had been by seeing his father, embalmed, dressed like a choir boy, made up looking like he was lying on a sun lounger in Tenerife. It had taken twenty years for this realisation to hit home.
I echo Charles’s sentiments about the niceness of embalmers, Mark Elliot and his wife are delightful, but I don’t envy Charles the splinters.
And yes, some middle sized corporate fd’s do still employ an embalmer because it is cheaper than refrigeration. That’s just plain wrong in anyone’s books.
I do not have a Wife.
Having in mind all the very nice embalmers I know, I am going to nail my trousers to the fence on this one.
The best neutral, dispassionate, descriptive treatment I have seen is a short film I posted four years ago. Definitely NOT for the faint-hearted: https://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/2009/08/the-truth-the-half-truth-and-nothing-of-the-truth-2/
The word ’embalming’ sounds almost lovely doesn’t it? From years of making funeral arrangements with families I would put money on the fact that the common understanding of embalming is a kind of anointing with magical Egyptian oils that miraculously keep the dead person looking just like they’re sleeping instead of being, well – dead!
I also have years of experience of looking after people who have died, collecting them, washing and dressing and placing them in coffins, then supporting families who come to ‘view’. The whole suggestion that people only look ‘at peace’ if they have been embalmed and the use of the word decomposing to describe bodies that haven’t been subjected to this process demonstrates what is fundamentally wrong about the funeral industry’s approach.
I think that those of us who vehemently oppose the practice of embalming being a standard procedure (rather than a last resort in extreme circumstances) do so because we know for a fact that if people truly understood what embalming involves then the uptake would be pretty much zero – Jed and Kitty’s requests for the image above to be removed kind of support that theory…
If I thought the general public knew what it was they were agreeing to when they were offered ‘temporary preservation’ or ‘hygienic treatment’ (oh, that must be some sort of washing mustn’t it?) for their ‘loved one’ – oh those euphemisms beloved of the funeral business – then that would be a different matter, but I’m 100% certain that the majority of embalming of bodies happens because of the public’s lack of understanding of what goes on behind the closed mortuary doors and the funeral industry’s preference for bodies that contain chemicals – more stable, less requiring of refrigeration, easier to move around from a hub to a branch for a ‘viewing’ and generally far more ‘presentable’. In whose opinion the latter?
I totally agree with Ru and Jonathan, and, with the greatest of respect but at the risk of paraphrasing Mandy Rice-Davies, Mark, you would say that, wouldn’t you? I am sure that many families have been grateful for your skilful ministry to their dead, and appreciative of the lifelike results, but how many of them do you think actually understood what was involved in attaining them?
Embalming is a well meaning but misplaced attempt to spare people a truth that cannot be spared. It causes a psychological dissonance that we believe is harmful. I speak as someone who has been showing bodies to the people who loved them for thirteen years.
Kitty, I am afraid that this is how the video implants/embeds itself. Over that I have no power. I’m really sorry!!
Charles – thank you for explaining.
Sorry, Jed, there isn’t.
I do not think seeing a decomposed person or someone who is startig to decompose is something that any family would want to be put through. In all my years of funeral service families have been pleased to see their loved ones looking at peace families don’t wish to see such changes etc. Embalming when done well is of great benefit to the bereaved and friends etc who come to pay their respects in the chapel of rest.
Unfortunately embalming is not very pleasant. It is however sometimes essential. No amount of ‘cold storage’ can help prevent a body breaking down if the funeral isn’t going to be for quite a few days. Would I want it to happen to anyone I know, absolutely not. I would prefer a closed sealed coffin. But if a family want view and the deceased is beginning to decompose by the time you can get them from the hospital, sometimes you just have to do it…
I’d partially agree, Ian, if you said embalming may very occasionally be the better of two evils after ‘quite a few weeks’; I’ve certainly been around unembalmed bodies, two or three weeks dead, with no problem. It’s one of those myths of Funeralworld, that a body must be ‘presentable’; but I’ve just come from a client who told me her apparently sleeping relative upset her because she couldn’t shake the thought that he was about to wake up again. I’m still in favour of a visit to the dead being a chance to understand, at first hand, the decomposition of a something that we have to get used to seeing as an empty container, and no longer identified with its previous contents.
Blimey! So that’s what ‘hygienic treatment’ is? So that’s what has to be done to make a corpse acceptable to its beloved? I’ve read about it before – but there’s something about the visual. That’s more than a bit graphic! I found it intriguing and horrifying at the same time – that’s ticked right off my list of things to do after I die….The really sad thing is that I have heard so many people say, ‘We would have considered organ donation, but we didn’t want them messed about….’
If only they knew.
ps Is there any way of changing the first image?
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