Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Embalming Room

Photographs of what goes on behind the closed doors of funeral homes and autopsy labs are rare and rightly so. But the empty spaces can be revealing, however. It is always interesting to compare past circumstances to contemporary ones. These windowless suites are usually hidden away in an unobtrusive part of the undertaker's complex, away from the prying eyes of the morbidly curious public. Only dedicated specialists work here. I came across two photographs from days of yore which illustrate the changes in these facilities in the first half of the 20th Century. The first is from 1910 (Mid-Western Canada) and looks like something from a bad Western movie. I can almost picture the sheriff and a country doctor examining the bullet riddled body of Big Bad Bart in this room.

Decades later, possibly in the 1950's or 60's (?) the embalming suite in this photograph has taken on a much more clinical and organized layout. Surfaces are smooth and white. A sense of sterility pervades. The equipment looks like it was designed for the task at hand, not something borrowed from a kitchen or bedroom as in the older photograph.

I have managed to find a couple of books that may have actually been on the shelves of the older room (top photo). One is this reprint I found on eBay of an 1897-1900 embalmer's manual. It is complete with bad half-tone images of various aspects of the process. The cover design is a modern conceit of the bookseller. It starts with a brief historical section describing ancient forms of preservation, mummification and embalming as practiced throughout the world. The "American" process itself hadn't been in practice for much more than 40 years when this was originally printed. After a major section of the actual process, it covers all the eventualities of "difficult" cadavers, either through illness or misfortune. It ends with a small section on "Funeral Etiquette" and the duties of undertakers in the 1890's.

I also managed to find an original copy of an embalming text, printed in 1909. Here the dark, textured, leather-like cover is embossed tactfully on the front with the title, Eckels–Genung Method and Eckels' Practical Embalmer on the spine. It has very few illustrations, as most plate references point to a missing second volume. It is quite detailed in the anatomical processes that embalmers must study, even at that early time. I will certainly think twice about allowing this for me when the time comes.....  Embalming as standard practice is a recent, mainly American tradition that is slowly spreading around the world. In this day of shrinking land-mass for populations and agriculture, ground pollution, and our modern cultural lack of real involvement with the processes of dying, it makes no sense. But more on that later.

A related tidbit to explore is the Oscar winning Japanese film: Departures (or Okuribito). (2008, 2009 USA).
Daigo Kobayashi is a devoted cellist in an orchestra that has just been dissolved and now finds himself without a job. Daigo decides to move back to his old hometown with his wife to look for work and start over. He answers a classified ad entitled "Departures" thinking it is an advertisement for a travel agency only to discover that the job is actually for a "Nokanshi" or "encoffineer," a funeral professional who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life. While his wife and others despise the job, Daigo takes a certain pride in his work and begins to perfect the art of "Nokanshi," acting as a gentle gatekeeper between life and death, between the departed and the family of the departed. The film follows his profound and sometimes comical journey with death as he uncovers the wonder, joy and meaning of life and living. — Synopsis written by Regent Releasing for IMDb
There's also a good review at Living in Cinema. Where I live, these odd films simply do not appear, so I am waiting for a chance to acquire it elsewhere.

At this point, maybe what we need is a compendium, a treasure trove of information directly related to our topic at hand. Well I did find a pretty good one for today's Death Link. It is the Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying. It is a very thorough reference for articles and definitions, well footnoted and written in a scholarly manner. Well worth the look.

1 comment:

  1. What I wouldn't give to work in a prep room HALF as spacious as either you've pictured!! Or to get my hands on your copy of "The Practical Embalmer," for that matter. Google Books has a really good collection of early embalming texts---for free, of course---in digital format, including the very first ever published, Dr. Jean Gannal's "History of Embalming," published right around the end of the 18th century. It's also notable for being one of the only embalming texts NOT written by someone with a vested interest in embalming chemicals or patented techniques ;) Of those, my favorite is "The Art and Science of Embalming," by Carl Lewis Barnes, in which he describes his very own "Needle Technique," which involves injection through the foramen magnum, insisting that introducing the preservative fluid into the cerebrospinal cavities produces a far better result than injection directly into the vascular system. I don't know about all of that, but it would certainly stave off a zombie apocalypse had it become the standard practice XD


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