A few weeks ago I posted a blog about embalming — a short piece, just three quotes, no comment.
One of the quotes acclaimed the art of the embalmer who, ‘by and through his professional attainments‘ in causing a corpse, by artificial means, to be made tolerably presentable to the living, glorifies ‘the divinity in man‘.
A second quote congratulated embalmers on ‘protecting the physical and emotional health of the people of the United States‘.
The third quote was taken from the Daily Mirror: ‘Nelson Mandela’s eyes were closed and he had one of his favourite colourful shirts on. He looked completely at peace and had what seemed like a small, contented smile. He lay in state in a glass-topped coffin – his face looking slightly bloated.’
I imagined the pro-embalmers reading the blog with self-congratulatory approval — then pondering the technical reason for Mandela’s bloated face. Embalmer error?
I imagined the non-embalmers – the refrigerators – harrumphing at what I supposed they would regard as the absurd self-regard of embalmers. If you want to read some hot anti-embalming views, just have a look at the latest edition of More To Death published by the Natural Death Centre.
I wasn’t surprised that the blog was greeted with silence — only one person commented — but I was very surprised to see a huge spike in the number of people actually reading the post. Heaven only knows who they were or what they thought. I wonder, I wonder.
The main reason for making a corpse presentable is to enable bereaved people to spend time with their dead person, getting their heads around the fact of their death. This is a belief shared by radicals and reactionaries alike — though not by Jews, who think it bad manners because the dead person can’t return the gaze. Here’s the great American home funeralist Beth Knox on the subject:
Our dead are offering us a great teaching, and a great healing. They teach of the cyclical, ephemeral nature of life. They teach as we sit vigil, as we witness their departure. They teach an appreciation of life and offer an experience of the deepest love as we experience their loss.
The convention is to present dead people, whether embalmed or not, looking at peace — perfectly content to be dead. Whatever the degree of cosmetic intervention involved, from trocar to hairbrush, the process in all cases involves setting the features and closing the mouth.
However well-intentioned, no matter how gently achieved, the outcome is confected and artificial. You cannot ascribe feelings to a no-longer sentient being. Mandela was not smiling, he had a smile assigned to him.
Is it right to manipulate the faces of dead people in order to achieve this illusion of chilled-out tranquility? The real face of death, after all, is more often open-jawed, exhausted, aghast.
Annie Mary Todd: Last Portrait of Mother
Well, we’ve been arranging the features of our dead since time began. We do it because we can. Any call for the authentic presentation of the dead can only fall on deaf ears and you’ll not hear it here first.
But as between the embalmers and the refrigerators, the difference is only one of the means by which they achieve the illusory expression of stillness and serenity. They are brothers and sisters under the skin because their achievement in each case is the same: a white lie.
There was a fashion in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries for presenting the dead in all their starkness as effigies on their tombs. Some of these cadaver or ‘transi’ effigies, which very accurately portray the true face of death, are pictured above.
JM Spear’s patented corpse eye closer, 1891.