A soldier dies on a Civil War battlefield far from home. Before the battle he bought a ticket to be embalmed. He's one of the lucky dead; he's found and identified and his family wants him back but the trains won't take unembalmed bodies. Using Dr. Thomas Holmes's new pump an embalmer injects fluid containing arsenic to kill microorganisms that cause decay long enough for his body to be transported home for burial and to provide closure to his family, who otherwise would never know for certain whether he died.
Embalming existed before the Civil War to preserve bodies for medical study. The techniques developed during war were perfected for mass public use and by the mid-twentieth century, most everyone assumed that dead bodies needed to be embalmed to avoid spreading disease and polluting ground water. Formaldehyde-based solutions had replaced the incredibly toxic arsenic. Embalming also satisfied a human need to see and touch someone after they'd died. Although nobody set out to do it, embalming led the living to disconnect from the dead as afterdeath care that now required professionals and equipment moved out of family homes into funeral homes and Americans came to think of an unpreserved body as yucky.
As we try to walk back afterdeath care to achieve green or natural burial, is it necessary to entirely do away with embalming? If this were a newsreel, would we rewind to the point at which funeral homes didn't exist?
Probably not. People should and do have more input into afterdeath care. The afterdeath care field has expanded to include alternative professionals, just as cemeteries have, and many are willing to include families. I'm one of the customers who went green when my father died but chose to leave the personal care up to someone else. It wasn't important that he be viewed after his family saw him dead in the hospital, and the funeral director kept him in the refrigerator. We could still have arranged for him to be viewed. Refrigeration works just fine for preserving a body, as does dry ice, but part of making a body viewable is doing touchup to get rid of the "dead" look and I didn't want makeup. My father wasn't even dressed; he was decently wrapped in his shroud.
The definition of embalming doesn't include the word toxic; it includes words like chemicals and spices and sweetening and preserving. The Green Burial Council certified The Champion Company's Enigma line of "eco-balming" fluids as safe, effective, non-toxic, and non-hazardous both to the environment and, equally important, to the human who does the embalming (formaldehyde is harmful in the workplace). Eco-balming keeps a body preserved for about a week, or the time it generally takes to gather mourners and hold a funeral. (Myth: embalming preserves a human body forever.) Again, for a body to be viewable it also has to be made up and dressed.
My objections to embalming go beyond environmental to the social and emotional texture of death. Continuing to view a dead body as "human" well after death makes it harder to see our mortality as part of a cycle and to take comfort from simple burial directly in the earth in a shroud or biodegradable casket, in the grand idea of the human flesh being recycled into something usable by new life, whether it be blueberry bushes or earth worms, bacteria, beetles or evergreen trees.
When families took care of their dead the knowledge of what to do passed down from generation to generation. We've largely lost that knowledge; a couple years ago I wouldn't even have known what funeral home to call when my father died. The hospital people were incredibly kind but their responsibility ended at his death. I at least knew who to go to next. Because of my work in green burial I had chosen a funeral director who is a green burial advocate and who I could trust to make decisions. I'm glad of that because I was in a state of shock, but I regret not taking more of a hand in the individual steps.
Don't wait until someone dies to talk about what to do with them. There doesn't have to be any "yuck" in death.