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Biology 103
2005 Second Paper
On Serendip

Holding off Improbablity: Embalming

Zack Grunau

The improbable living body inevitably becomes more probable. When it dies, the elaborate systems crucial to maintaining the body stop working, and the body begins to decompose. Other life forms feast on the remains until the body disappears. Humans, in all our technological splendor, fight the decomposition of our dead bodies through a very temporary and mostly chemical procedure called embalming. In modernity, it is a traditional American practice, though there are many instances of embalming as an important aspect of cultural death rituals in history, the most famous of which being the ancient Egyptian mummifying process. In this paper, I will look at the biological process of decomposition and what embalming does to counteract that process. I also will explore of a few of the moral issues involved in the practice of embalming corpses.

The decomposition of a once-living body is an entirely organic process. That which makes up a human body is the same stuff that serves as the best food/fuel for other living things, and so a dead body is an enormous feast for a whole host of living things. In the human digestive system, various bacteria live symbiotically with their host. The bulk of these bacteria live in the intestine, using the food and passing on digestive benefits to the host human. Once the human dies, the mechanisms that protect the human from that bacteria (the immune system) and the processes that contain the bacteria in the intestinal tract go away, making it possible for the bacteria to spread and actually begin eating the body itself instead of merely what passes through the intestinal tract. (1) Also, enzymes contained within cells will be released, destroying cell membranes and structures. The tightly controlled and functioning system of life is required to keep a body from destroying itself, even if one does not count the vast amounts of other life-forms waiting to eat the body from the inside. Especially destructive are the digestive enzymes, which, when released, begin "digesting" the body itself, thus adding to the decomposition. (1)

The results of all these stages are waste and fluid both within and being expelled from the corpse. The odors of these waste products attract the attention of insects., who also begin to eat the corpse. Maggots will tear through a corpse using a combination of physical (mouth hooks) and chemical (digestive enzymes) in order to use it as both house and fuel. (1) The process of decomposition does not end in here, but we have enough information to continue on with the discussion and examine the technique of embalming.

Embalming in its simplest form involves the removal of blood from the body and the addition of some preservative fluid in its stead. Formaldehyde, or HCHO, discovered as an effective preservative in 1888, is still considered the basis for most fluid arterial embalming. (2) Effective embalming involves the retardation of the decomposition process and creating in the body a life-life look. Formaldehyde is especially effective because it serves many functions: it kills the organisms eating the body from the inside out, destroys the digestive enzymes aiding in decomposition, reacts with proteins to form tough compounds, and also stiffens the tissue, making the body easier to position. (2)

However, embalming does not involve just the substitution of formaldehyde or some similar preservative for the blood in the body. It is a process meant both to avoid the negative effects of decomposition and to create the most life like dead body possible. The embalmer with massage the muscles to alleviate rigor mortis. Then, a small incision is made, usually on the neck, in order to reach the carotid artery and the jugular vein. (3) Usually, blood is drained out of the jugular vein and the preservative pumped in through the carotid artery. The process is never simple, as clots and other such impediments will call for a variety of fluids to be used—anti-clotting agents are needed especially, as an effect of many preservatives is to clot the blood.

The internal organs are treated separately. Instead of arterial embalming, morticians use a process called cavity embalming, which involves injections of various preservatives (usually much stronger than those used in arterial embalming) into the organs. Aspiration, or the removal of other bodily fluids from the stomach and other such cavities is an important step in this part of the procedure. (3) After this is all done, the final steps of embalming involve washing and dressing up the corpse, adding makeup and the like.

Of course, the procedures described here are used in the modern day. Ancient Egyptians, for example, went through a very different process of embalming. Theirs involved a religious belief that the body needed to be prepared in a certain way in order to be ready for a certain kind of afterlife. (4) Modern day embalming, especially in America, is not a religious tradition. It has a curious role in American society. Funeral homes, the businesses that practice embalming corpses, usually explain the need for embalming in two ways. The first reason for embalming is for sanitary and health concerns. The second involves a psychological argument that seeing the deceased body in a good looking state will aid in the healing process and in letting go of the deceased person. (5)

Embalming preserves because it destroys so many of the organic parts of the body in order to make it less useful to those life forms that may want to use those parts. The chemical processes of formaldehyde serve to both destroy enzymes and micro-organisms while creating longer lasting inorganic structures out of organic ones. The living body, instead of going back to the earth, becomes a mess of chemicals that help to preserve the look, if not actual structure, of the body in its living state. I am not attempting to make some kind of argument condemning embalming here, only pointing out that it is a kind of perversion of a natural process.

The American business of undertaking revolves around this process of embalming, because it is what makes the funeral director a possessor of a skill. Without embalming, funeral directors are just guys who sell coffins and graves. (6) Those who defend the open casket viewing and embalming as a tradition may very well have an interest in the business of embalming and restoring corpses. Many people believe that the advancements in embalming techniques and the prominence of the open-casket containing an embalmed and restored corpse as a funeral practice derive from the fact that funerals are a business in America, and, in fact, the process serves no purpose other than to make money for some. The argument ultimately comes down to deciding whether or not the viewing of an embalmed course is psychologically healthier alternative to the opposite, which would be to bury the body as soon as possible to avoid the nastiness of the decomposition process. My own take is that, while funeral homes may be making money somewhat immorally (as all their patrons are grief-stricken and therefore somewhat incapable of making smart consumer choices), embalming as a practice is useful in certain situations. The psychological benefits of a viewing is a complicated issue that cannot be explored with any depth in the few lines I have left in the paper.


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