In this soup of nationalism and love of Egypt, we began embalming our dead. I am not surprised that in the US Civil war, we romanticized embalming as a way of emulating the great Egyptian Kings and Queens. At first, embalming could only be done for the very rich. (A regular soldier’s monthly pay was $13 and embalming for him would be $25, where an officer would have to pay $50 whose pay was about $100+ depending on rank.) Probably the image that most imprinted our national psyche was the death of the beloved Abraham Lincoln. His body was embalmed and traveled many miles on the railway making stops for people to pay their last respects to the fallen leader. I believe our society began its journey idealizing embalming and vaults in this climate of love for things ancient and Egyptian, and our admiration of Lincoln.
The 1920s also marks the when most Americans began to be embalmed and funeral homes became the place of private homes were visitations took place. We were becoming an urbanized society and no longer had front parlors to receive visitors wanting to pay their respects and offer condolences. It’s so easy to see our society who was looking backward to move forward, who wanted to emulate kings and queens of the past and our own fallen leader. Now, in the midst of the Egyptian craze, we wanted to be just like the King and Queens of old.
So here we are today, with acres of cemetery plots filled with kings and queens under the earth, in some cases above the earth like the Pharaohs of old. Do we really think we are ancient kings and queen and that our bodies should be preserved forever? Then again, that is so American. We stand against such class differences. If it’s good enough for the king, it’s good enough for Aunt Suzie. I understand that. I am an American after all. What I wonder about is do we want to continue our conventional funeral practices as normative? Do we really want to keep the bodies of our loved ones preserved forever? Look at the mummies of Egypt in the nineteenth century. They were not treated well, especially if they really weren’t really a king or queen. Some were turned to medicine, made into paint, dug up and unwrapped for scientific study or entertainment. I am sure I do not want to end up in a museum. I am also sure I do not want to end up as paint or medicine. Why do we want to keep our loved ones bodies sealed up under the earth so that in several hundred years or so their tombs might be open again by people who may or may not share our same sensibilities? For me, I want to return to the earth from which I came. I have no desire to have my body treated in death in any extravagant manner. Please, place me in a shroud, and return me to the earth. If my body helps preserve land, and especially a forest, that would be even better. I do not want to be a queen sealed in a tomb under the earth. Please treat my body in death as a simple human being that I am in life. I am not a queen. I am just a woman trying to do her best in this world.