The American Wayof Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford, 1996, Excerpts
John Eckels, President of the Eckels College of Mortuary Science: “In the hands of a skilled practitioner, this work may be done in a comparative short time and without mutilating the body other than by slight incision, so slight that it scarcely would cause serious inconvenience if made upon a living person. It is necessary to remove the blood, and doing this not only helps in the disinfecting, but removes the principal cause of disfigurements due to discoloration. The earlier this is done, the better, for every hour that elapses between death and embalming will add to the problems and complications encountered.”
The preparation room has the tiled and sterile look of a surgery. His equipment – consisting of scalpels, scissors, augers, forceps, clamps, needles, pumps, tubes, bowls, and basins – is crudely imitative of the surgeon’s, as is his technique, acquired in a nine- or twelve –month post-high school course at an embalming school. He is supplied by an advanced chemical industry with a bewildering array of fluids, sprays, pastes, oils, powders, creams, to fix or soften tissue, shrink or distend it as needed, dry it here, restore the moisture there. There are cosmetics, waxes, and pints to fill and cover features, even plaster of Paris to replace entire limbs.
The blood is drained out through the veins and replaced by embalming fluid pumped in through the arteries. Every operator has a favorite injection and drainage point. Typical favorites are the carotid artery, femoral artery, jugular vein, and subclavian vein. There are various choices of embalming fluid. If Flextone is used, it will produce a “mild, flexible rigidity. The skin retains a velvety softness, the tissues are rubbery and pliable. Ideal for women and children.” Suntone comes in three separate tints: Suntan, Special Cosmetic, and moderately pink.
About three to six gallons of a dyed and perfumed solution of formaldehyde, glycerin, borax, phenol, alcohol, and water is soon circulating through Mr. Jones, whose mouth has been sewn together with a “needle directed upward between the upper lip and gum and brought out through the left nostril,” with the corners raised slightly “for a more pleasant expression.” His eyes, meanwhile, are closed with flesh-tinted eye caps and eye cement.
The next step is to have at Mr. Jones with a thing called a trocar. This is a long, hollow needle attached to a tube. It is jabbed into the abdomen and poked around the entrails and chest cavity, the contents of which are pumped out and replaced with “cavity fluid.” This, done, and the hole in the abdomen having been sewn up, Mr. Jones’s face is heavily creamed [to protect the skin from burns which may be caused by leakage of the chemicals], and he is covered with a sheet and left unmolested for a while. He has been embalmed, but not yet restored, and the best time to start the restoration work is eight to ten hours after embalming, when the tissues have become firm and dry.
The object of all this attention to the corpse, it must be remembered, is to make it presentable for viewing in an attitude of healthy repose. The embalmer, having allowed an appropriate interval to elapse, brings into play the skill and equipment of sculptor and cosmetician. If a lip, a nose, or an ear should be missing, the embalmer has at hand a variety of restorative waxes with which to model replacement. Pores and skin texture are simulated by stippling with a little brush, and over this cosmetics are laid on. Head off? Decapitation cases are rather routinely handled. Ragged edges are trimmed, and head joined to torso with a series of splints, wires, and sutures. It is a good idea to have a little something at the neck – a scarf or high collar – when time for viewing comes. Swollen mouth? Cut out tissue as needed from inside the lips. If too much is removed, the surface contour can easily be restored by padding with cotton. Swollen neck and cheeks are reduced by removing tissue through vertical incisions made down each side of the neck.
The opposite condition is more likely to present itself – that of emaciation. His hypodermic syringe now loaded with massage cream, the embalmer seeks out and fills the hollowed and sunken areas by injection. In this procedure, the backs of the hands and fingers and the under-chin area should not be neglected.
Positioning the lips is a problem that recurrently challenges the ingenuity of the embalmer. Closed too tightly, they tend to give a stern, even disapproving expression. Ideally, embalmers feel, the lips should give the impression of being ever so slightly parted, the upper lip protruding slightly for a more youthful appearance. This takes some engineering, however, as the lips tend to drift apart. Lip drift can sometimes be remedied by pushing one or two straight pins between the two front upper teeth.
Masking pastes and cosmetics are heavily laid on, burial garments and casket interiors are color-correlated with particular care, and Jones is displayed beneath rose-colored lights. Death by carbon monoxide can be rather a good thing from the embalmer’s viewpoint: “One advantage is the fact that this type of discoloration is an exaggerated form of a natural pink coloration.” This is nice because the healthy glow is already present and needs by little attention.
The patching and filling completed, Mr. Jones is now shaved, washed, and dressed. A cream-based cosmetic, available in pink, flesh, suntan, brunette, and blond, is applied to his hands and face, his hair is shampooed and combed, his hands manicured.
Jones is now ready for casketing. Positioning the hands is a matter of importance, and special rubber positioning blocks may be used. The hands should be cupped slightly for a more lifelike, relaxed appearance. Proper placement of the body requires a delicate sense of balance. It should lie as high as possible in the casket, yet not so high that the lid, when lowered, will hit the nose. On the other hand, we are cautioned, placing the body too low “creates the impression that the body is in a box.”
Jones is next wheeled into the appointed slumber room, where a few last touches may be added – his favorite pipe placed in his hand, or, if he was a great reader, a book propped into position.