A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why are dead bodies embalmed?

September 9, 1994

Dear Cecil:

Why are dead bodies embalmed? It seems like a lot of trouble for a sack of dead meat that will shortly be dropped into the ground, or even cremated. If the concern is sanitary, why not simply use refrigeration? I suspect most of what undertakers do is geared toward separating grieving relatives from large amounts of the deceased's estate, rather than hygienic and compassionate corpse disposal.

Cecil replies:

Jessica Mitford tackled this one in her classic muckraking book The American Way of Death (1963). She came to basically the same conclusion you did: morticians embalm bodies because they can charge money for it. That's not to say embalming is completely pointless; it preserves the body for viewing. What frosted Mitford was that morticians used to embalm bodies even if they weren't viewed, on the excuse that the law required it. Not so, but you can see what got morticians started thinking otherwise. In the latter nineteenth century doctors and others in the then-emerging field of public health concluded that urban cemeteries were a major cause of epidemics. A movement began to relocate cemeteries to outlying areas and somewhere along the line the related idea took root that embalming helped prevent disease. It does, we know today, but only in bodies not yet interred. If all you want to do is return Aunt Millie to the biomass without putting her on display first, you're within your rights to refuse embalming. Dunno about Millie, but I'd rather my friends got pickled toasting my memory than waste the money pickling me.

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