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Death of a Death School 

The 72-year-old San Francisco College of Mortuary Science -- perhaps the country's premier institution of funeral service education -- has its last graduation and moves (gulp) into the great beyond

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
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That concern can take forms that seem strange to current Western thinking. Some Australian Aborigines, for instance, place their dead in trees; the Parsis, an Indian religious sect that originated in Iran, bring corpses to hilltop enclosures called towers of silence, where vultures pick the bodies clean. When it comes to unusual and obsessive care for the dead, however, the ancient Egyptian civilization stands head and shoulders above the rest. Because they believed death was simply a lull in life while the soul departed the body to travel through time, Egyptians sought to ensure immortality by preserving the corpse for the soul's eventual return. Although ancient Egyptians credited the jackal-headed god Anubis, protector and judge of the dead, with inventing embalming, mortal priests began practicing mummification as early as 4,000 B.C.

It was an intricate process, as reconstructed by modern embalming textbooks and historians, beginning after the corpse was dunked in the Nile and purified in a special shelter. In the embalming workshop, priests placed the body on a narrow table and used a variety of metal probes and hooks to remove the brain, bit by bit, through the nostrils. After repacking the skull with resin, the embalmers made an incision in the left flank and fished out all of the internal organs (except the heart), which they cleaned, perfumed, and placed in jars to be buried with the mummy. The body was then packed with sand, rags, and grass, covered in a salt called natron, and left to drain for upward of 40 days. Once the natron had absorbed the corpse's water, the body cavity was repacked with dry materials. Then the wrapping began: Over a two-week period, workers clothed the body in more than 1,000 yards of bandages -- inserting jewels and amulets between the layers -- before a priest dressed as Anubis performed a few final ceremonies. Then the mummy was placed in its sarcophagus and loaded into a tomb.

Forms of embalming progressed over the centuries in Europe, but didn't catch on in the United States until the Civil War, when the sheer volume of dead soldiers forced doctors to pitch battlefield embalming tents, where they preserved bodies for the long ride home. President Lincoln, in particular, took a great interest in corpse preservation, and it was his assassination and subsequent embalming -- for a groundbreaking funeral procession that coursed from Washington, D.C., to his home in Springfield, Ill. -- that ignited the American public's new awareness of the death trade.

By the turn of the last century, undertakers had assumed the separate death-care tasks previously performed by carpenters, clergy, and doctors. Today, the National Funeral Directors Association estimates that there are more than 22,000 funeral homes in the United States, employing about 35,000 licensed funeral directors and 89,000 additional funeral service and crematory personnel.

As the profession has evolved, so too has the embalming procedure. Now, as in ancient Egypt, the corpse is first placed on an embalming table, washed and disinfected on all sides, and shaved where necessary. Then the eyes are closed, usually with a perforated cap under the eyelid that grips the skin and holds it in place; next the mouth is wired shut so the jaw won't go slack. The embalmer then glues the lips together, fixing the corners into an expression of serenity, and fills in any wounds with a puttylike compound. After depressing the diaphragm to evacuate air from the lungs, the mortician packs the corpse's orifices with cotton or plugs to prevent the escape of gases or waste. Then the cadaver gets a massage to relieve rigor mortis from the arms and legs, which are then spread and straightened in preparation for the embalming fluid -- a solution of formaldehyde, borax, phenol, glycerin, alcohol, and water that comes in a variety of tints, scents, and concentrations to suit almost any manner of death. (A jaundiced corpse, for instance, requires a stronger dose.) By no means a permanent preservative, embalming fluid is designed to eliminate odors and slow tissue decomposition long enough to hold an open-casket funeral.

After the mortician makes an incision in one of a few chosen arteries, the fluid seeps into the body from an embalming machine, which consists of a several-gallon reservoir and an electric pump. One tube conveys fluid into the artery, under pressure by the embalming machine, while another tube connected to a vein carries away displaced blood into a sewer hookup. After 3 to 6 gallons of embalming fluid have dribbled into the corpse, the tubes are removed and the incision sutured. But that's not all: The embalmer slices open the stomach and probes internal organs, such as the bladder and liver, with a hollow tube called a trocar, which sucks out any lingering blood, waste, and gases. Then these organs each get a shot of fluid before the last incisions are sewn shut.

Now the corpse is ready for its close-up. After the mortician again washes the body and smears cream over the hands and face to prevent dehydration, he shampoos the hair, polishes the fingernails, and reshapes or reconstructs any disfigured features with clay, cotton, plaster of Paris, Styrofoam, or wax. If necessary, an entire hand or head can be built and bound to the body. Then the face gets a big helping of makeup (most of the natural color drains away with the body's blood), and the hair is combed and set.

Voilà.

Is all of this necessary, from a sanitation or health point of view? No. In fact, there's not a state in the union that requires embalming by law, except in certain special cases. Critics of the death trade, most notably Jessica Mitford in her seminal investigative work The American Way of Death, have charged that the public health benefits of embalming are virtually nonexistent. In turn, many modern funeral directors have begun arguing that embalming is principally a matter of mental health rather than public safety, that creating a "memory picture" of the corpse enables loved ones to better cope with the loss of the dear departed.


About The Author

Matt Palmquist

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