Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The embalming question

Just read a snippet on the web that, horror of horrors, the Pope has not been embalmed. He lying on his plush bier without having been stuffed to the gills with embalming fluid. (I shall have a little posting about the departed Papa on Thursday, but I couldn't resist the embalming issue.) It was simply too juicy. You see, my next novel Unusual Steps has a scene at a funeral parlor in the North of England where one of the characters--a meddlesome old lady--almost faints when a young girl starts to do an embalming procedure in her presence.

Anyway, the fact is it is only in America that people are anal retentive about having every one who dies embalmed. Hygiene is the excuse cited. Of course, by everyone, I mean the people in the professional death business, and it's all to do with dollars and still more dollars. It is common knowledge that the human body can be put on display for a number of days without any such problems (or pox, if they could raise that as a scare tactic, I'm sure). For information on this, you are quite welcome to go into the PBS archives--thank God for PBS--and summon up a program they did on home funerals. Incidentally, more Americans are choosing to do home funerals, which is another disturbing reality the mega parlors don't want people to know about. Only in NY and one other state (I can't think which one) is it against the law to hold home funerals.

In Northern Ireland, embalming takes place only in rare circumstances. Moreover, although funeral directors, handle the arrangements such as moving the body to and fro wherever it has to go, it is traditional for Catholic families to hold a wake for one evening at the deceased's home. The next evening the body is taken to the church where it lies until burial the next morning. This rule came into effect in the 70s and was introduced to save less wealthy people the associated costs--tea, sandwiches, cakes...oh, and a 'wee whisky or cordial'--of 'waking' for a second night at home. Protestants, on the other hand, tend to hold the wake at a funeral parlor. I feel the Catholic rule to be very prudent because, at the few wakes I've attended in Northern Ireland, I've observed mourners who come mostly for the craic (merriment and gossip) and would, as my darling late grandmother used to say, 'brazenly eat and drink people out of house and home.'

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Debra Hamel said...

If you haven't already you might want to read Mary Roach's book Stiff. Quite entertaining and just downright interesting. (A review at the book-blog, of course, here: http://www.book-blog.blogspot.com/2003_08_01_book-blog_archive.html#106028706856404652)

Billy said...

Great post. We at Am Israel Mortuary enjoying finding new resources to learn more about embalming.