Personal Health

Why Has It Become Standard Practice in the U.S. to Embalm Our Dead?

Is it necessary to be disinfected, preserved, cosmetized and deodorized for your going-away party?

Unlike Lenin, Lincoln and Rudy Valentino, you don't need to show proof that you ignited revolutions, civil wars and extra-marital affairs in order to be embalmed. You just need to reside in America and be pronounced dead. If, on the other hand, you wish to remain intact until burial or cremation but you fail to communicate this information to your loved ones, your family will probably hand over the care of your body to a funeral home which will strongly advise that you be disinfected, preserved, cosmetized and deodorized for your going-away party.

Since it's become imperative that we confront the hidden costs of our modern lifestyle and reevaluate whether our needs are truly needs and not just wants, it's no surprise that our death industry and its standardized practice of embalming is getting a second look. Formaldehyde, the main preserving agent, has been classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Improper disposition of embalming fluids has also come under scrutiny for its violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. "Formaldehyde and phenol," notes the EPA, "present human health risks, if ingested in drinking water."

If Canada and England show a penchant for the posthumous makeover, the United States is the only country in the world where chemical conservation of our dead is common practice even though embalming is not required in most states. "Embalming is an option," says Shun Newbern, quality control embalming supervisor at Rose Hills Memorial Park & Mortuary in Southern California. "With that option come procedures to make people presentable and assure that during the service there is no odor. It's only temporary. It only lasts 100 years." Only?

1. 100 years ago

"Embalming was the lifeblood of the American funeral industry from the beginning of the 20th century," writes Gary Laderman, author of The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883 and Rest In Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home In Twentieth-Century America. "Without this procedure," he adds, "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."

Up until the Civil War, losing friends and family members was more frequent but no less painful than today. The main difference was that we cared for our dead at home. We bathed them, dressed them and placed them in the coldest room of the house -- also known as the parlor -- so that relatives and friends could pay their respects before burial. The Civil War interrupted this cycle. The dead didn't always come home. "After the funeral journey of Abraham Lincoln's embalmed body from Washington D.C. to Springfield, (embalming) slowly gained legitimacy," Laderman writes. "Lincoln's body served as son to those who lost children to anonymous graves." Yet, at the beginning of the 20th century, embalming was still a procedure regarded with skepticism and repulsion by many. Embalming "had been employed in medical schools usually in secret to preserve cadavers for instruction in the middle of the 19th century," writes Laderman.

Embalming also faced opposition from Christian leaders who argued that it gave rise to a morbid fascination with the body over the soul. Ministers resented the growing legitimacy of funeral directors since their role at time of death had already diminished. "Dying in the isolated space of the hospital room institutionalized the experience as a passage requiring scientific and increasingly technological intervention, rather than prayers and the presence of the community. As medical institutions grew in stature, technological advances revolutionized treatment, and health care became accessible to more and more people, a new perspective on death began to take hold in the US: Life must be sustained at all costs, with death viewed as a devastating defeat."

Urban living also gave a boost to the funeral industry. Smaller living spaces made it harder to accommodate a coffin and have memorial services in the home. In addition, the option to preserve the body and the nationwide railway system gave family and friends a chance to travel long distances to attend wakes. Of course, this was all possible for a fee. In the 1920s, Gary Laderman notes, John C. Gebhart investigated the high cost of funerals for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and found that "with embalming has come a demand for more elaborate and expensive merchandise: caskets, grave vaults, burial clothes, and funeral paraphernalia."

2. New resistance

I asked Shun Newbern about his first time. "I was at ease. I understood what the process was going to be. My supervisor had skills and knowledge and he explained to me the importance of caring. It was a wonderful experience." In the PBS documentary A Family Undertaking, advocates of home funerals, where families choose to care for their dead instead of handing the responsibility over to a funeral home, liken embalming to "assault and battery" or sending your loved ones to be "bled and pickled."

"Embalming is not mutilation," Newbern argues. "It's simply the person raising one artery and one vein. A small tube is placed into the artery and then through the embalming machine pushes the blood and the body fluids out through the vein. You may have to raise additional arteries depending on the condition of the person. What people call 'piercing of the organs' has a purpose: it is to remove additional gasses and excess fluids from the heart, the lungs, the internal organs and the intestines. Formaldehyde hardens those organs and reduces if not eliminates additional gas buildup. This process hasn't changed much since the Civil War."

Piercing of the organs cannot hurt a dead person but inhaling formaldehyde can cause harm to the living. The National Cancer Institute notes that "Research studies of workers exposed to formaldehyde have suggested an association between formaldehyde exposure and several cancers, including nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia." I asked Newbern if he was concerned about his health, since he's been an embalmer for two decades and danger increases with the number of years one is exposed to the chemical. Newbern says he has no reason to worry since every mortuary he worked for followed OSHA's regulations. But OSHA regulations change as more data and research confirm the serious risks involved. Prior to 1987, workers couldn't be exposed to more than 3ppm (parts formaldehyde per millions parts of air) per 8-hour shifts. By 1992 the number was changed to 0.75, the current standard.

"We've been starting to use safer chemicals like glutaraldehyde," says Newbern. "With formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde, the purpose is not only to preserve but also to have some firmness of tissues which gives the embalmer as well as the family the reassurance that this person is preserved well. I've also used an eco-friendly embalming preservative which is simply alcohol. Companies who make these greener chemicals let us know that we might experience softness." So far Newbern has been impressed with the results but I can sense he doesn't want to be labeled a "bad" embalmer if families notice soft tissues on their deceased. "In the mind of the family," Newbern continues, "something is wrong." Maybe their deceased is dead?

3. Death Awareness

In the 1960s the nascent death awareness movement warned that Americans had entered a dangerous state of denial when it came to death and dying. As evidence they cited the growing trend to return the dead to life-like appearances via embalming. "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," writes Gary Laderman. Psychologists agree that viewing the deceased is an important aspect of the grieving process. But 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. I asked Jerrigrace Lyons, a home funeral educator who has attended more than 100 home funerals, for her opinion.

"For three-day wakes," Lyons responded, "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. We also use therapeutic-grade essential oils that are antibacterial and smell wonderful. Embalmers are not taught about dry ice or essential oils, but the dry ice is far colder than the refrigerators that the funeral directors use at their facilities. Home funeral procedures are different than what is taught in mortuary science schools or embalming schools and we have had several funeral directors take our courses to learn about them."

Lyons is not the only one to suggest that mortuary schools need to update their curriculum. In his 2006 article "The Art of Embalming and Its Purpose," funeral director Ron Hast criticized mortuary schools for teaching their students that embalming protects public health, a fact unsupported by scientific evidence and widely circulated in funeral homes' promotional and advertising materials. An official at the Center for Disease Control interviewed by Hast stated that "We have not at any point prescribed embalming as a method of protecting public health." A medical examiner for Los Angeles County also shared with Hast that "Riding on an airplane or a bus may be a public health risk; the presence of an unembalmed body is not. On rare occasions of certain deaths resulting from contagious disease, our office may encourage placing a facemask on the decedent before and during transportation and containment, and disposing without embalming or viewing. In the event, however, that it becomes necessary to hold a body for an extended period of time before public services can be held, arterial embalming is recommended." "If laws requiring embalming in certain states exist 'for public health reasons,' concludes Hast, "it is possible they are unfounded or politically based."

"People feel what they see," argues Shun Newbern, "If they walk in and see the deceased looking pained or sad or stressed or the fear on their face when they got murdered, the family will feel the pain. When they've seen the loved one in the hospital, at the morgue, or at the scene of the car accident; when they've seen the blood and the crushed bones, witnessing their loved one restored to a presentable appearance at the mortuary helps them find peace and the strength to say goodbye. It gives me great joy to help them reach this level of reassurance and comfort."

I asked Newbern if he often receives bodies in bad shape. "All the time," he replies. "It's still hard when the person is before you but we say, I see there may be some crushed bones, or trauma because of the gunshot wound but let me get some soap and water and wash the person and slowly and surely we try to get them back to a more presentable state. Sometimes it takes hours to do that. When a person's ear is missing from cancer for example, we can redevelop the ear. We utilize wax and carve all the parts to make it look natural. That's restorative art. You are replacing facial features. It may be that the bones of the face may be crushed, so you use things like plaster, waxings, etc. to bring the covertures to the face back. A good embalmer is able to liken a person with a photo, to match the chemicals with their complexion, to preserve the tissues well."

But Newbern agrees that nothing can shield us from the pain of losing a loved one. "People say 'closure,'" he says. "Just because there is a viewing and a funeral doesn't mean there is closure, it's still your baby, it's still your mother."

Touching is also an experience rendered impossible when a body is dressed up, mummified and stuck in the tight confines of a casket. Mary Tillman, in her book Boots on the Ground By Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman, about her son who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, describes a particularly moving moment when her ex-husband viewed Pat's body, against the advice of mortuary personnel who didn't know the condition of the body. "I glimpsed Patrick reach into the coffin to touch Pat. I looked at the morticians and I saw the trepidation on their faces as Patrick tenderly lifted Pat's upper body. He held Pat for several seconds."

4. Return of the Living Dead

It comes at no surprise that the death awareness movement was born during the 1960s. "At a time when traditional patterns of meaning and authority were breaking down on numerous social fronts," writes Laderman, "(George Romero's cult film) Night of the Living Dead simultaneously captured and anticipated a growing sense of anxiety with how the living relate to their dead and with the question of whether the dead could really be kept in place at all. As one film critic writes, 'In earlier horror eras, the monster could be conquered with science, engineering, and a group guided by good men."

"Mortuary colleges produce strong, patriotic American citizens," continues Laderman, "who preserve social order because they have a very special commitment to living society: to keep the dead in place by disposing of them in an orderly, humane, and meaningful way. (During the Vietnam War) the disordered presence of death commonly appeared on television and in newsprint in unprecedented ways, ranging from the familiar scenes of body bags containing dead American soldiers on TV to graphic published accounts of massacres occurring, for example, at My Lai."

As of this writing, civilian embalmers helped by army personnel and volunteers, are at work handling the remains of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Loyd Sawyer has been the subject of several news stories because of his tragic struggle to assimilate back into civilian life due to a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"For years, he had worked as a funeral home director," writes Kelly Kennedy in a story published by USA Today, "His children learned that death was part of the normal cycle of life; that it's good to mourn for a loved one and there was no reason to fear the bodies their daddy embalmed in a workroom of their home. But then he spent six months working at the morgue at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and then six more months in mortuary affairs at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. After that, Loyd no longer saw death as part of a natural cycle. Faces of dead troops began to haunt his every minute. Awake. Asleep. Some charred or shattered, some with faces he recognized from life, some in parts."

Returning soldiers and army personnel tormented by gruesome memories often call the dead "the lucky ones." Their nightmares, sometimes more real to them than civilian life, replay the traumatic death of their comrades and trigger a powerful longing to join them.

Unfortunately, this is not the 1960s. No massive demonstrations have followed the ongoing assaults against human, animal and planet life. Yet there is no denying that change is in the air. At a time when disasters call us to action, do we really want our dead to look like they're peacefully resting after a visit to the beauty parlor? What if it's our own state of apathy and delusion that we're gazing upon? We have already removed ourselves from the care of our dead. Are we now altering our ability to empathize with other people's suffering when we replace the reality of death with standardized serene sleep? Are we neutralizing healthy doses of anger that would drive us to act against the cause of our grief?

We have to thank embalmers like Shun Newbern for his commitment to families, and those working in army mortuaries for a sacrifice that could cause them their lives whether they're killed or silently wish they were when they can't adapt back to life as we civilians know it. But there is no reason why a costly practice that requires harmful chemicals should be standardized. Funeral homes are quick to share that viewing the body is an important part of the healing process. What they need to add is that, in most cases, it doesn't necessitate embalming and safer alternatives don't compromise the look of our dead.

The photograph illustrating this story is of a woman named Mireille. After she died of cancer, she was cared for by her family and kept at home for a few days using dry ice. She looks peaceful, but she doesn't smile. Her cheeks are not rosy. No cosmetic or artifice was used to give her complexion a semblance of life. If you were in her presence, there would be no denying she had passed. In a day or two, her features will sink a little deeper and take on a paler hue. Newbern makes the case that it serves a purpose to restore the face, when it was disfigured by violence or disease but restoring our dead to a "lifelike" appearance is questionable.

We all need to start asking: is this something I want or is this something I and the environment and my neighbors need? Sacrificing some of our wants is a necessity because preserving the planet for 100 years seems a better idea than preserving the dead. The dead are praised for looking lifelike, but the dead will not wake up from their sleep. I hope we the living will.

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Frankie Colmane lives in Los Angeles where she reports on local independent artists and activists. Links to her stories can be found on "The Smiling Spider" blog.