Any takers for the real face of death?

Charles 5 Comments

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. 

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.


  1. Charles

    There’s lots to like about this post: an unusually balanced take on the embalming versus natural debate, the slide show of medieval tombs showing sculpture of emaciated bodies, and the chance to flick through NDC’s latest More to Death e-magazine, stopping to read to some interesting features. Congrats, Rosie, Fran and Ru. On embalming, I sit on the fence. I wouldn’t opt for it personally as I aim for a low carbon footprint, but I doubt those who choose it do that much harm in the greater scheme of things. If it helps ‘people get their heads around their dead’ then so be it.

  2. Charles

    I have struggled with this closed mouth issue.
    I was divided on this subject for a while, but convinced by the feedback I had when I did not close the mouth in three separate cases where ‘natural’ was the order of the day; over a three day vigil the persons’ jaws opened into the classic ‘aghast’ position – and even the hard core keep-it-real visitors reported being chilled by the experience.
    However, those few who came back to the vigil several times found both the increasingly pronounced jawline and the shape of the person’s body under the sheet, to be somehow right and proper.
    I concluded this stiff lower lip was strongly cultural. (Check the movies for open mouthed corpses ……… hen’s teeth ………. they are not there).
    I concluded it was not my place to head butt the culture to this degree. Closed it shall be – ideally with a small towel tucked under the chin very soon after death ….. teeth in.

  3. Charles

    I offer the closed mouth as standard and definitely note the weak smile can be part of that. Eyes open or opening is another conundrum? In my view they’re always best shut. How natural is natural?

    Btw Richard, I don’t want to be embalmed either. Box me up in whatever is at hand and remember me how I was is my last request. The rest of it is just flim-flam and ceremony.

  4. Charles

    I have never liked embalming ever since I saw it being performed for the first time.
    Unless it is a legal requirement, I don’t recommend it. I do explain to my clients however that it is entirely their choice if they would like this to be done.
    I have never had a problem with the eyes remaining closed. Sometimes they do open slightly and I am happy to close them again if family members would like to see them. I have never used eye caps.
    Now for the mouth…this is such a tricky thing. I hate the thought that someone would sew the mouth of my grandmother up just so I can see her. It just doesn’t sit well for me.
    I am all about transparency and honesty, so I give my clients a choice. Some want to know in great detail about how I prepare someone, others don’t want to know but just want me to ‘make them look smart so we can see them.’
    But now, I am finding more often than not that the clients say ‘just dress him/her and before we go in, just tell us what they look like.’
    If their mouth is open I tell them and explain why this happens. If you prepare people correctly, it isn’t a shock and they are grateful that their loved one hasn’t ‘been mucked about with.’

  5. Charles

    We close the mouth with a discrete plastic wishbone style chin strap. It is visible, and not perfect, but it stops short of suturing the mouth shut, such a strangely emotive and powerful act, viscerally unpleasant to all who hear it. Our mouths are such delicate and important parts of us, smiles, words and kisses all come from it. To sew it shut feels like an act of hostile voodoo. That might seem fanciful, but how feel about such things are important and lie far beyond rationality.

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