Grief, guilt, and graft: the business of embalming bodies

“Embalming is the ultimate fate of almost all Americans, the economic base of the funeral industry and as practiced on a mass scale a uniquely American practice,” Jessica Mitford, author, The American Way of Death Revisited.1

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals,” Attributed to William Gladstone, British prime minister (1808-1898).4

Like many entrenched American traditions, embalming is a practice with roots in both pragmatism and sentimentality. (Click through for a full description of the history of embalming). This particular institution has evolved over the past century and a half into a twisted charade of tradition, perpetrated by an entire industry upon the public, and the environment. Many companies are engaged in a form of cultural and economic coercion in order to facilitate a long-running deception regarding social expectations and legal requirements. The goal of this dark narrative to increase profits at the expense of the consumer. They do this through the repetition of commonly-held, practical-sounding narratives which have no basis in reality.1

The first commonly perpetuated myth is that embalming is a legally required process. In reality, few municipalities or states require embalming, and most that do, apply only international or interstate transportation of human remains.7

The second myth is that embalming is done for sanitary purposes to prevent the spread of disease. In reality, a dead body is nearly always less likely to spread disease than a living human, through breathing and other functions of daily life.1  Retrospective studies have shown that undertakers do not suffer a higher mortality rate than the general population, a fact which contradicts the inherent danger implied in contact or proximity to unembalmed corpses.7

The third myth is that seeing the restored, embalmed body of a beloved family member will provide ‘closure’ and assist with the grieving process. There is no firm scientific study to substantiate these claims, and if anecdotal stories are given credibility, most funeral attendees find the experience unsettling. One possibility is due to inadvertent occurrence of the ‘uncanny valley’ -the repulsion experienced while viewing objects (usually robots) that appear almost, but not quite like a living human.5

Although a funeral is typically the third largest purchase for a family, after a house and a car, the buyer is generally not in a position to compare prices or question costs. Decisions are made impulsively, under emotional stress, and with full trust in the funeral professional.The cost to embalm a corpse in 1880 was around $10.1 Today, it’s upwards of $350, with additional charges if the body has been autopsied.2 Full funeral costs for a standard service are approximately $10,000.4  To those who would defend the actions of the funeral professionals, it wasn’t until 1984 that the Federal Trade Commission made it illegal for morticians to lie to customers, about the legal need for embalming and other procedures.1, 7

While the family pays the exorbitant price for the funeral, society and the environment shoulder the burden of the contamination that occurs as a result of these misinformed practices. Arsenic, used in the 19th century as a primary undertaking tool for preservation, has been detected in water and soil samples taken from cemeteries in Iowa, New York and Ohio, some near local groundwater resources.4 Beginning in the late 19th century, the funeral industry turned to formaldehyde in response to federal government regulations to protect undertakers from being exposed to pounds of arsenic on a daily basis.

Today, nearly 3 pounds of formaldehyde is interred in each burial.  Millions of gallons of the preservative, a known carcinogen regulated as a hazard by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are buried in leaky metal boxes within highly fallible concrete vaults each year. Further, there are no safety standards for formaldehyde in drinking water in the United States, nor has any large-scale research been conducted about potential groundwater contamination. Nor has the switch from arsenic to formaldehyde done wonders for the health of funeral industry workers. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), has labeled the preservative as a “potential occupational carcinogen”. It is the likely culprit for an increased rate of blood, brain and colon cancers, as well as chronic skin conditions, among funeral home workers.4, 6

This is a growing crisis, as the nation’s baby boomers approach their late seventies in the next few decades. The projected space required for boomer burials alone would be nearly the size of the city of Las Vegas.8 There clearly needs to be a multi-pronged, evidence-based approach to study the environmental impacts of an industry active in every small town and big city in the United States. It’s not a matter of identifying if there’s contamination, but a matter of scale, one which has dangerous implications for human health. The irony of this situation lies in the fact that the less is done about industrial environmental contaminants, the greater the chance of illness or death due to lack of regulations-which in the end, provides more business for the funeral industry. In short, we are slowly being poisoned by our own dead, and paying dearly for the opportunity.


  1. Mitford, J. The American Way of Death Revisited. Alfred Knopf. New York. 1998.
  2. General Price List. New Comer Funeral Homes. Published March 1, 2016.
  3. New York State Department of Health. Bureau of funeral directing. New York State Department of Health.
  4. Harris M. Grave Matters: A journey the modern funeral industry to a natural way of burial. New York: Scribner; 2007.
  5. Kageki N. An uncanny mind: Masahiro Mori on the uncanny valley and beyond. IEEE Spectrum. Published June 12, 2012.
  6. Davidson SS, Benjamin WH. Risk of infection and tracking of work-related infectious diseases in the funeral industry. American Journal of Infection Control.
  7. Consumers Union of United States. Funerals, consumers’ last rights: The consumers union report on conventional funerals and burial and some alternatives, including cremation, direct cremation, direct burial, and body donation ; By the editors of consumer reports. New York: W. W. Norton & Company; 1977.
  8. Biegelsen A. America’s looming burial crisis. CityLab.

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