LISTS March 3, 2023

Nine Facts from the Notes I Took While Reading With Great Interest the Embalming Textbook To Which My Biological Grandfather Contributed, 3rd Edition, Copyright 2000.

1. The focus of embalming is on restoring the deceased’s color and form.

2. During the embalming process, an embalmer must prevent chemical reactions which would turn a deceased white person’s skin grey, blue, green, or yellow. (Can you imagine turning someone green? How do you come back from that, professionally speaking?)

3. The hands of the deceased must never, ever (ever!) be placed parallel to the sides of the body. Do not even think about it. For one thing, it “detracts from the desired memory-image” the embalmer is trying to create. And, also, keeping the hands at the sides deprives the deceased’s loved ones from admiring “their sensitive and expressive beauty in natural repose.”

4. By the way, natural repose is achieved by: massaging the skin to remove rigor mortis, injecting fillers to plump emaciation, draining the blood and replacing it with embalming fluid, inserting eye caps under the eyelids since the eyeballs won’t maintain the same shape post-mortem, sewing the jaw shut with a gnarly-ass needle, and shoving cotton up the deceased’s ass, down their throat, and, if they have a vagina, into that orifice too. My father at age three apparently was sat upon the counter in the workroom while my biological grandfather embalmed bodies. How does a toddler make sense of the massaging, injecting, draining, inserting, sewing, and shoving?

5. Getting the lips and eyes “right” is the key to successfully creating the “illusion of natural repose.” The phrase “illusion of natural repose” is repeated frequently in this textbook, followed by “symbolic peaceful rest”—as a genteel substitute for “not looking dead.”

6. There is a cosmetic called “Mortuary Red.”

7. Embalmers encounter any number of challenges in achieving the illusion of natural repose, and some common examples are detailed. What I had been searching for was mentioned: electrocution. Basically, the textbook states, restoration of a victim of electrocution is no big deal, especially if the burn area will be hidden by clothing. You know, a pretty basic restorative art problem. I wonder if this was part of my biological grandfather’s calculus in attempting to electrocute my grandmother in the bathtub.

8. In the chapter on the history of embalming, of which my biological grandfather was the primary author, I count off 21 pages describing specific, individual, named anatomists, physicians, surgeons, and chemists. All male. In the paragraph headed “Women Embalmers,” there are 10 lines of text and three named female embalmers.

9. I don’t want to be embalmed.

Paula Burke is an emerging writer from Washington State. She is currently writing a memoir that is variously about old cars, family lingo, bad birthdays, and her father’s seven-year descent into dementia. She will always look at the dessert menu.