Why would someone want his or her body preserved forever? Maybe this speaks to our broken hearts and allows us the think that our loved ones are not really gone, if somehow their bodies are preserved untouched in the grave. Maybe we want to be remembered or have our loved ones remembered forever. Maybe we all want to be like the pharaohs of old. At any rate, embalming is not some romantic idea of being preserved forever, but a rough, unnecessary process of preparation of a body.
The process of embalming is not pretty. The body is first washed, and prepared. The jaw set, often by wiring it closed. Then the embalming fluid is injected into the body while the blood is drained from the body and flushed into the sewer system. The internal organs are suctioned through a trocar and the abdominal cavity is treated with formaldehyde. I am reminded of when my father-in-law died and my husband asked if we had to embalm and the funeral director looked at him and said, “We aren’t Egyptians!” Now I think they kind of are. Embalming cannot be guaranteed for more than five days. I know that often times the body can be preserved for longer, but no one can give a longer guarantee anyone this.
The chemical make up of embalming fluid has changed. Embalmers no longer use arsenic, but it is still very toxic not just to the ground water, but also embalmers themselves. Funeral directors are at greater risk for certain types of cancer. In many cases, funeral directors insist that embalming is a must for a viewing or traditional open casket. This is simply not true. There are traditional ways to prepare a body, and then funeral homes could refrigerate the body until the funeral home.
I think that part of our overwhelming embalming impulse in this culture has everything to do with the fear of our own mortality. If we can face the truth of our mortal nature, maybe we can embrace the nature of death. If we face our own death, maybe we can see that in death we can be kind to the earth and love the nature of our own being. In death, we can offer the nature of our bodies to the earth, and nurture that which has nurtured us.