Every culture treats their dead in a different way. The way the dead are treated has evolved because of local beliefs and sometimes out of necessity. Here we are going to consider the American practice of embalming the dead. How this practice has evolved to be the norm in America demonstrates what we mean.
Most Americans do not realize that how they treat their dead makes them different from nearly every other culture in the world. By looking at the work of the oldest embalming school in the US, The National College of Mortuary Science, we can get a better understanding of why the dead are embalmed in the US, but not in other countries.
Since 1882, generation after generation of mortician’s in training have enrolled at the NCMS to become experts in the American rituals of death and burial. American Funeral Directors know that their clients want the dead to look as they did in life. They want to see their loved one in a very natural peaceful state.
In the US embalmers work not just to disguise the power of death.
They work to stop its inevitable destruction of the body in its tracks.
Using modern embalming techniques the decay can be stopped several years. The body can be preserved by using several gallons of a chemical preservative called formaldehyde. This practice of routinely embalming the dead would be taboo in many other cultures. Even in mortuary school, embalming is practically a ritual with clearly defined steps.
The steps of embalming explained
First, the body is cleaned and prepared or laid out in a natural repose. Natural and proper mouth closure is crucial to get a natural expression.
Next, the embalmers locate the blood vessel into which they will pump the formaldehyde solution. As the solution works its way through the body, it displaces the blood. The blood escapes through an incision made in a vein, usually in the jugular vein. Almost immediately, the corpse begins to harden. This may seem like a process dreamed up by a mad scientist but in reality, the practice has deep historicaland religious roots.
Why embalming became necessary in America
In America, the motivation behind the practice of embalming the dead is not from a quest for immortality. Rather it stems from what is perhaps the nation’s greatest tragedy – the Civil War. When the war started modern embalming techniques had just been invented.
During the war, hundreds of thousands of young men died on the battlefield. Often, they were far from home when they died. For the first time soldiers families could request that the bodies of their sons and husbands be preserved and returned for burial.
There were many who welcomed the new technique as a godsend. For many Christians embalming is a perfect fit with their religious beliefs. Many believe that the body and the spirit will be reunited at the resurrection.
Embalming is just one of the diverse rituals that we practice to honour the dead. It is also part of our attempt to make sense of and cope with death.