Deathcare Careers: Embalmers and Education

Early embalming tools.

Early embalming tools.

According to Gary Laderman in his book, Rest in Peace, there are no statistical data for the number of bodies embalmed in the early decades of the twentieth century. However, according to many second- and third-generation funeral directors, embalming rapidly became a standard feature of the undertaking work performed by their predecessors. Even before funeral homes existed, embalming often was practiced at the home of the deceased.

From the time of the Civil War forward, more and more funeral men began to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to be certified as embalmers from the rapidly growing number of mortuary schools around the country. Between 1900 and 1920, schools devoted to training embalmers — “students often entered a class without much college or even high school education” — appeared in cities such as Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Cleveland.

Courses in these schools normally would last roughly six weeks. But, as curriculum requirements became more rigorous, state boards began to examine and license prospective embalmers and funeral directors and the overall appearance of serious educational training became more critical for professional legitimacy. School term lengths increased and subjects such as anatomy and chemistry became crucial components of an embalmer’s education. By 1934, courses began to last for nine months.

Unfortunately, at that time, rural areas had to rely on traveling instructors, or use educational texts that covered the basics of anatomy, physiology and embalming techniques. One funeral director from 1914 detailed his experience in Laderman’s book:

“There were no embalming schools in the early days. One learned from practical men or proctors, who had learned from peripheral men who became undertakers after the close of the Civil War. In the late ’90s and the early 1900’s, short courses were offered by men will versed in mortuary practice as learned from thoseĀ  who served during the Civil War. These courses were offered over a period of one month or six weeks. Then, compends…were prepared and printed for reference for the beginners, and it covered anatomy and a lot of things like that.”

Despite this lack of schooling, embalming became the “enduring signature of the nascent funeral industry, a practice at the center of the economic, cultural and religious funereal universe…” Embalming had become the lifeblood of the American funeral industry from the beginning of the twentieth century forward. Embalming was presented as a thoroughly modern practice, yet part of a new American tradition. It had religious value for the living and it was a highly technical, hygienically-beneficial intervention that required the delicate skills of an artist.

Today, formal classroom time in the art and science of embalming and restorative art remains quite short. Post-graduate learning is limited to seminars — if and when they are available. Publications for the embalmer are very scarce. the American Society of Embalmers knows of five embalming associations in the United States, only three of which serve an entire state…

Only one journal is now in regular print for embalmers — and a portion of that journal is devoted to topics for the funeral director — since this journal is a fluid manufacturer’s “house organ” a majority of the articles discusses only their products. Seminars are infrequent and not always convenient for the embalmer to attend due to the work schedule. To this writer’s knowledge there are only four embalmers trade associations in the United States (and two are within the same state) which have been in existence for over 10 years. Smaller groups possibly exist within local communities. There is an international association of embalmers with a North American division — it has made a concerted effort to provide educational opportunities for the embalmer.

Is embalming taking a back seat to current American outlooks about death, the increase in cremations and the new interest in green funerals? How do you feel about embalming, and do you feel more education in this field is necessary?

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