Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Embalming: Part 1, the transformation


Two photo composites by Artist Nancy Burson in a project dealing with cultural conceptions of beauty and facial features

Embalming is a topic that nearly everyone has an opinion on, but few know much about. This post is a beginning point to understand the process and results of embalming. In future posts, I will explore more of the issues involved in embalming and the other tasks involved in preparing the deceased for a viewing.
As an apprentice, my first impression of embalming was the transformation it made upon the deceased. I noticed that when the dead arrived at the funeral home, they looked, of course like people, but not like specific people. They seemed to lack their distinguishing features. They were pale and their features were drawn back, mouths and eyes open, they were usually needing a shave and a hair cut. As the embalming preparations moved forward, the features gradually returned, and I began to see (or even recognize) what that person had actually looked like.

The glow of Health as pictured in vintage Japanese magazine covers via Gatochy

The first few steps often made the most dramatic changes. The eyes and mouth were closed and set into natural expressions, the person was bathed and shaved, hair washed and combed. Then the embalming fluid was introduced, flushing out discoloration and returning a firmness to slackened cheeks and lips. The pigment in the fluid began to bring back the glow that once shone from oxygenated blood flowing through capillaries below the surface of the skin.

Duotronic embalming machine
At this point, under the care of a skilled embalmer, the skin tone, expression and facial features of that person had returned to a very close approximation of the way they appeared in life, and I was amazed, because I could see the person. In addition to the vast improvement in sanitary issues, I could see the character and personality of a specific person who, only a few hours before, had looked like they could be anyone or no one. This made an impression upon me. The fact is that it is a much different experience to be around and to look at a person who has been embalmed, and one who has not been embalmed. I am confident that if people really knew the difference first hand, almost everyone without a religious or philisophical prohibition against embalming would choose it without a second thought. The difference is that vast.
In life, our cheeks, laugh lines and other features make us recognizable and express our unique character. Above, a picture of Portuguese personality and beauty via Gatochy

You could argue that Chet Baker looks like he's already dead in this photo from the documentary film of his life "Let's Get Lost", and in fact, he died shortly after this picture was taken, but I think that the photo shows the personality that lines and other facial features give to a person's appearance. These features are lost due to the effect of gravity on the facial features of a person who has died, and not been embalmed.
Today, people have many decisions to make during funeral arrangements, and whether to embalm or not is one of the big ones. Legally, a private family viewing can take place without embalming, and many people choose this route, or choose not to view at all. Whatever the choice, people should be aware of what they are getting, and in my professional opinion, they are getting a better look at the deceased if the funeral home staff is allowed to do their work prior to viewing.

Part 3, Stagecraft


Charles Cowling said...

It is brave of you, Patrick, to speak in praise of embalming at a time when, I think, a great many people in the US are questioning (ie, deriding)it. It's always going to be a contentious topic because it is so invasive. It's always going to be easy to pour scorn on it.

It's not my thing. But some of my best friends are embalmers, and I know that what gives them immeasurable pleasure is effect of the transformation you describe. There is much artistry in embalming, and there is much emotional benefit to an embalmed person's family.

I look forward to all your posts (as do a great many people), and I look forward to part two!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Patrick. Personally, I have mixed feelings about embalming, but until recently, I'd never seen good work. I look forward to part two of your series.

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