Final Intimacy

You should look as good as your funeral flowers, for the sake of others.

You should look as good as your funeral flowers, for the sake of others.

Embalming was rapidly growing in centrality in the first two decades of the twentieth century. In The Confessions of an Undertaker, Charles Berg says “The undertaking business took a decided leap forward when embalming was made practicable for the average undertaker to perform. The practice of embalming had much to do with placing the undertaker in the professional class.”

Embalming was, for example, something that couldn’t exactly be done at home. It was an art form. Did the advent of embalming bring about a kind of pagan body worship cult, as some critics suggested? The transformation of the corpse, the washing and the cosmetic work — did it transform our attitude toward death?

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 says people wanted a final time to be “at home” with their loved ones after the funeral director had removed them from their homes. Embalming and funeral home space made possible a brief period of contemplation of the dead, a time to obtain emotional release.

The transformed corpse was a suitable object for devotion, and thus the body became for than a vehicle for the spirit, more than leftover dust that cannot do spiritual work for the living. The embalmed corpse was further transformed under the indulgent gaze of mourners to something sacred — not spiritual, but material, and comforting rather than frightening.

Of course, viewing the body was a tradition, but embalming made the corpse more appealing in more ways than one. The effort was to present the dead in peaceful surroundings, in a condition that resembled life — this condition pleased mourners who wanted a familiar rather than a ghastly face to say good-bye to. Some critics felt that this effort to create a “life-like” appearance encouraged a denial of death, but according to Laderman, it instead “domesticated” death — it gave mourning friends and relatives one last chance to commune with their loved ones and created an acceptable and therapeutic “memory-image.” At this time, casket and post-mortem photography was becoming more and more popular; this supported the funeral industry’s opinions on the importance of the memory image.

Edward A. Martin, in a 1940 article entitled “Psychology for the Funeral Director,” discussed the emotional value of contemplating the embalmed body — and the importance of the presence of the body throughout the entire funeral service. Suffering was relieved, for the bereaved, by the formation of an appealing “memory-picture” during the final intimate visitation with the corpse.

It is of utmost importance that the body be presented so as to elicit tender feelings for the departed. Indeed, the entire success of the funeral is dependent on how good a job the embalmer has done, for the mourners will remember the final viewing of the body their entire lives, and can be left with a feeling of comfort or horror. A line of reasoning was necessary to support embalming and the mediating role of the funeral director; Martin says that it depended on the therapeutic idea of viewing the dead in a safe, intimate — and temporary — surrounding, an experience which would keep on giving comfort.

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