In this selection from the book, Mitford analyzes the twin processes of embalming and restoring a corpse, the practices she finds most objectionable.
You may need a stable stomach to enjoy the selection, but in it you’ll find a clear, painstaking process analysis, written with masterly style and outrageous wit.
If the funeral men are loath to discuss the subject outside the trade, the reader may, understandably, be equally loath to go on reading at this point. Jones is reposing in the preparation room-to be readied to bid the world farewell.
For those who have the stomach for it, let us part the formaldehyde curtain. The preparation room in any of the better funeral establishments has the tiled and sterile look of a surgery, and indeed the embalmer-restorative artist who does his chores there is beginning to adopt the term "dermasurgeon" (appropriately corrupted by some mortician-writers as "demi-surgeon") to describe his calling.
A textbook, , comments on this: "There is some question regarding the legality of much that is done within the preparation room." The author points out that it would be most unusual for a responsible member of a bereaved family to instruct the mortician, in so many words, to "embalm" the body of a deceased relative.
The very term "embalming" is so seldom used that the mortician must reply upon custom in the matter.
If he should be bucktoothed, his teeth are cleaned with Bon Ami and coated with colorless nail polish. Jones's face is heavily creamed (to protect the skin from burns which may be caused by leakage of the chemicals), and he is covered with a sheet and left unmolested for a while.
His eyes, meanwhile, are closed with flesh-tinted eye caps and eye cement. But not for long - there is more, much more, in store for him.
His equipment, consisting of scalpels, scissors, augers, forceps, clamps, needles, pumps, tubes, bowls and basins, is crudely imitative of the surgeon's, as is his technique, acquired in a nine- or twelve-month post-high-school course in an embalming school.
He is supplied by an advanced chemical industry with a bewildering array of fluids, sprays, pastes, oils, powders, creams, to fix or soften tissue, shrink or distend it as needed, dry it here, restore the moisture there. The author tells us, "On the basis of such scanty information made available to this profession through its rudimentary and haphazard system of technical research, we must conclude the best results are to be obtained if the subject is embalmed before life is completely extinct - that is, before cellular death has occurred.