Have you ever wondered what they put inside Mr. Stretch Armstrong? Is what they put inside this abnormally stretchy, elastic toy of the seventies, close to what they put in the bodies of today just before they’re put on display at a funeral? Well it’s not; but Jessica Mitford does know and is perfectly willing to explain in detail the whole process. An analysis, of Mitford’s essay, “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain,” which will dissect and describe the literary elements she utilizes as the chilling and grisly facts are clearly laid out on the table and we bear witness to the almost taboo processes of embalming and restorative artistry.
The primary purpose of this essay is to describe, in depth, the gruesome steps of a mortician and beautician as they take a human body and turn it into a canvas for viewing by a most mournful array of critiques. Each of which remains “[…] blissfully ignorant of what it is all about, what it is, [and] how it is done” (Mitford 257). Another purpose would be to expose, or simply bring to light, the somewhat illegal practices of the industry.
However, is it really a question of legality or just an ill informed public? Mitford states, “In most states, for instance, the signature of the next of kin must be obtained before an autopsy may be performed, […]. In the case of embalming, no such permission is required nor is it ever sought” (257). She seems to be mocking the system in which the two practices differentiate in protocol. Is not the morticians’ job to cut into a deceased human beings body, the same as a coroner?
Yes, the two professions are similar and therefore should follow the same protocol but, for a mortician to achieve the best results, “’The earlier, […] the better […. ]’” (259). So, the question isn’t, “Is it legal? ” more a question of, “How much time can I (the mortician or coroner) wait to cut into the body? ” The answer, if asked by the coroner, might be multiple hours or even a day or so. For a mortician, “[…] the best results are to be obtained if the subject is embalmed [within an hour after somatic death]” (259).
The thesis to Mitford’s essay puts in our minds a picture, not a detailed image of what happens but enough to describe what the rest of her essay will expound upon. The sentence in question being, “How surprised he would be to see how his counterpart of today is whisked off to a funeral parlor and in short order sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, roughed, and neatly dressed – transformed into a Beautiful Memory Picture” (256).
The whole essay is based around these words in that they are each a part of the embalming and restorative art process. She starts with an illustration of a man who has lost his loved one. This serves to pull at our hearts and make us come to an understanding, at a personal, level that these cadavers are more than just bodies in a cooler, they are our grandfathers, grandmothers, moms, dads, and so on. The list of words that follows are cold and leave a feeling that maybe the mortician doesn’t take care of the body.
Rather they do their job without any respect to the body. However, with the last three words we are left with a feeling that the mortician does care and does want the person to be remembered with as much dignity as possible. Mitford appears to be reaching out to the general public. This essay was pulled from her book, The American Way of Death, a bestseller that dives into the industry of embalming and restoration revealing its hidden secrets that are normally not spoken of or even thought about by the general public of America.
The specific audience are those individuals interested in the medical and post death medical field. She uses words and phrases specific to those areas of training and learning but that are also not limited to those areas. Her topic is not exactly a pretty one but, the information provided is thorough enough and easy to understand making this an essay for even a comic enthusiast. Mitford unifies her essay by pulling together information from medical books, journals, essays, and quotes from college presidents, authors, psychologists, professors, and mortuary workers.
All of the information provided follows the thesis statement word for word describing the course of action to be followed in the processes of embalming and restoration. Coherency is also an element of structure that we see throughout the essay. She is deliberate in the timing of details in which she gives about the process. The piece as a whole is filled with information that flows and takes us step by step through the gruesome procedure of embalming and beautification of the body. In reading the piece the most prolific method of development is, process analysis. The embalmer, having allowed an appropriate interval to elapse, returns to the attack, but now he brings into play the skill and equipment of sculptor and cosmetician” (Mitford 260). By starting with the word “embalmer” and ending with a “sculptor and cosmetician,” Mitford describes a certain transition that takes place in the back room of a funeral home as the man, or woman, changes from butcher to artisan. This coupled with the words “attack” and “skill” show us the change in modus operandi as it changes from, as the denotation of attack would convey, from brutal to meticulous.
The process analysis element of the piece is present throughout the entire essay as we’re taken through a thorough, detailed and almost minds numbing literary tour of the gut retching process that a loved one goes through after they have already gone through the horrible and terrible ordeal of dying. With her skilled usage of the description method she paints a most detailed portrait of the operating table. Her descriptions are so vivid; she makes the body tangible to the reader. Ideally, embalmers feel, the lips should give the impression of being ever so slightly parted, the upper lip protruding slightly for a more youthful appearance” (260). In this sentence she describes a small detail of the body, the lips, but portrays them as a very important detail by including in the sentence before that if not done just so that the positioning can drastically change the facial expression from youthful to disapproving. She doesn’t just explain the process like a medical book might, she uses examples to develop her essay.
With the words and examples she chooses to present to us, she forces our minds to enter the room with her and the mortician. We walk side by side with the “doctor” of death as he cuts into the body and drains it of its life fluids and replaces them with a preservative. Her examples are very real and so descriptive that you can actually feel them pulling at the lining of your stomach. Such an example would be, “[A trocar] is jabbed into the abdomen, poked around the entrails and chest cavity, the contents of which are pumped out and replaced with ‘cavity fluid’” (259). Throughout the writing a certain hint of sarcasm is apparent.
One such appearance of this is in the sentence, “[The presentation of our dead in the semblance of normality] is a rather large order since few people die in the full bloom of health, [unravaged] by illness and unmarked by some disfigurement” (260). The sarcasm is so subtle it’s hard to pick up but if you listen carefully as you read the part of the phrase “a rather large order since few people die […] of health,” it becomes evident that Mitford is patronizing the author for adding to idealistic belief that all is well even if the person was decapitated at the time of death.
However, is there some truth to the idea that a body is more perfect at death then in life? After all, the mortician/artisan did take the time to make the corpse presentable for the viewing. Mitford uses irony throughout the dissertation to lighten the mood of the piece and keep the reader interested and willing to continue reading. One such usage of irony comes to the surface in a sentence that actually deals with a very serious subject, live burial, but turns this terrifying suggestion into something stupidly funny. “’One of the effects of embalming by chemical injection, however, has been to dispel fears of live burial. How true; once the blood is removed, chances of live burial are indeed remote” (259). How true indeed, draining a body of its fluids would be an excellent way of insuring the body is dead. Some of the language and word choice is based off of the technical terms and phrases of the profession. In the title itself, “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain,” the word “formaldehyde” is used. A word not heard in your average everyday jargon; unless of course you’re in the break room of the county hospital. Even then the break room would need to be rather close to the basement where the coroner conducts his duties.
In fact, not many people can say the word “formaldehyde,” much less recognize it when reading it from the pages of a book. Other words like, “scalpels, scissors, augers, forceps, clamps, needles, pumps, tubes, bowls, and basins […. ]” describes the instruments used by the “’demi-surgeon’”, another term used at the water cooler of the hospital to describe the embalmer and restorative artists (258). After all these things take place, what is the family left with? As Mitford seems to say; nothing but a porcelain doll in an expensive glorified box.
To the family though, peace of mind knowing that they did all they could to remember and let the deceased rest with dignity. How much dignity do they really have after the embalming and beautification process is complete? This brings me back to my statement of this process being “almost taboo”. The customer doesn’t know what goes on in the basement of the mortuary and maybe that’s how it should stay so as to allow families to continue being blissfully ignorant of the horrific and unpleasant procedure of making the body presentable for our memories.