Purchase What We Leave Behind
Read more

Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Embalming (p. 139)

From chapter "Toxic Gifts"

Early embalming was most famously performed by ancient Egyptians when they mummified royalty with the aim of benefitting the soul in the afterlife. For all of its intricate ritual complexity, ancient Egyptian mummification was chemically simple by modern embalming standards. Mummified bodies were preserved essentially by rapid drying—the desiccation made the mummy an inhospitable environment for microbial agents of decay. Sometimes the process was hastened by immersing the bodies in Natron, a naturally occurring mixture of salts found in saline lake beds. (Natron, from the Arabic natrun, has given us the modern symbol for the element sodium, Na.) Ancient Egyptian mummification was ecologically benign (unlike their large burial monuments).

Modern embalming—and this is true as well for styrofoam, saran wrap, depleted uranium and other contemporary hazardous wastes—was invented through a union of science and war. Although embalming enjoyed some limited popularity in Europe during the Crusades to send home bodies of slain Crusaders, it wasn’t until the American Civil War that embalming became something more than a marginal practice. The large number of soldiers killed in action, often dying far from home, drove morticians to find new ways to send bodies back to families for burial. At the time, there were no practical means of refrigeration to cool bodies. Enter Dr. Thomas Holmes, the “father of modern embalming.”

A New York surgeon by trade, Dr. Holmes was familiar with medical preservatives and embalming methods which were, at the time, used mostly for anatomy specimens and medical cadavers. Dr. Holmes was concerned that the arsenic-, mercury-, and zinc-based preservatives of the era were hazardous to the health of medical students performing dissections. He had good reason to be concerned, of course. Such preservatives were essentially broad spectrum biocides, designed to kill living beings, with microbes of decay as their intended targets. Nonetheless, when war broke out and the Union Army engaged Dr. Holmes to deploy battlefield embalming stations, he used an arsenic-based fluid on the bodies. Poisonous embalming compounds, after all, are effective becausethey’re poisonous.

Dr. Holmes’s innovation was in his particular technique, called arterial embalming. He took the bodies of soldiers, drained their blood, and pumped an arsenic-based fluid into the blood vessels so arsenic would permeate the entire body. Nineteenth century embalming fluid recipes varied, and were often trade secrets, but some patented fluids required injecting as much twelve pounds of arsenic into a single body. After the war, Dr. Holmes returned to civilian life as an embalmer, and, curiously, ordered that his body not be embalmed after his own death.

Arterial embalming has become a common technique, along with other means of introducing embalming fluid into a body, such as by injecting fluid into the abdominal cavity, hollow organs, and underneath the skin. However, the fluid now used is different. Arsenic-based embalming fluids were banned in the early 1900’s, because—as Dr. Holmes recognized— they were hazardous to embalming practitioners. Arsenic contamination of cemetery grounds was not a concern at the time, even though— assuming the lowest expected dosages of arsenic—a small town cemetery likely accumulated hundreds of pounds of arsenic during the roughly three decades that arsenic use was commonplace. If we assume higher dosages, the groundwater under those cemeteries could be contaminated with several tons of deliberately buried arsenic.

Currently, embalming fluid is a mixture of formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol, and other solvents. Other ingredients include dyes, perfumes, anti-coagulants, and disinfectants. Close to three gallons are pumped into the body as the blood is drained out. At the same time, the body is washed and disinfected. Cosmetics are applied, and the body is groomed to give it a more “natural” appearance.

It’s estimated that in the US alone, about 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid is buried every year, enough to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. And that’s not good. Although less overtly toxic than arsenic, formaldehyde is a recognized toxin and carcinogen. Its use in Europe has been banned. Embalming aside, formaldehyde is a common indoor air pollutant. Formaldehyde resins are used in many construction materials, which, once installed, can slowly outgas formaldehyde. Methanol, a common antifreeze ingredient, is also toxic. Some embalming fluids even contain chloroform, a recognized organochloride carcinogen, which has a very long half-life in groundwater. Other hazards include lead chromate, toluene, methylene chloride, trichloroethylene, hexane, glutaraldehyde, and phenol, a compound used for lethal injections in Nazi concentration camps. It’s the same problem that Dr. Holmes had—effective embalming agents are generally harmful to living creatures.

Of course, embalming fluids are only one part of burial waste. In North America, bodies are commonly placed in wooden caskets or coffins, and then these are placed in metal or concrete “burial vaults” underground. These accoutrements require resources to be extracted, too. It’s estimated that every year in the United States, more than one hundred thousand tons of steel, 30 million board feet of temperate and tropical hardwoods, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete are buried in cemeteries.

Common misconceptions to the contrary, measures like embalming and burial vaults don’t actually stop the body from decaying. The body stays preserved for the funeral, yes, and the waythat the body decays changes. But it still decays. A body in a sealed buried vault has no access to air, so it can’t compost aerobically. Instead it putrefies, gradually changing into a semi-liquid residue doped with toxic preserving agents.

At pretty much every funeral and burial I’ve been to, a priest or preacher has stood over the casket and intoned, without irony, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” As though people in the modern world commonly recognize and appreciate the cycle of human life and death. I guess “ashes to formaldehyde, dust to toxic sludge” doesn’t have the same ring.

Over the past few days, as I’ve been preparing to write this section, a story has been running through my head over and over. It’s something a friend told me as a child. I don’t know if it’s based on any factual truth, but it has come back to me decades later. A hardened and violent criminal, my friend told me, was once captured and put in prison. In prison, he fought with other prisoners and made no friends. But one day while out in the exercise yard, the prisoner found a baby bird who had fallen from the nest. He snuck the bird back into his cell, fed it, and cared for it until it could fly. The bird stayed with him then, often perching on his shoulder and keeping him company. But one day the prison warden found out about the bird. Prisoners weren’t allowed to have pets, so the warden ordered the prisoner to set the bird free. When the warden sent the guards to take the bird away from the prisoner, the prisoner grabbed the bird from his shoulder and crushed it to death. If he couldn’t have the bird, he declared, no one could.

The prisoner’s attitude is echoed in the attitude of Westerners toward their own bodies after death. We all borrow our body’s nutrients from the living world, and eventually we all die, and must return them. We eat the bodies of other creatures to live, and the very least we can do is return our own bodies with a modicum of grace when we can no longer use them. But in the dominant culture, this is not done. We can’t stop ourselves from being eaten, eventually. But like sore losers, like the prisoner, in an approach falling somewhere between extreme selfishness and psychopathy—and of course this approach describes this entire culture—we poison those who would help return our bodies and nutrients to living cycles: if we can’t have our bodies, no one can.

Not all cultures have such an attitude toward death and burial. Traditional Muslim, Jewish, and Ba’hai beliefs forbid embalming. And one of the most interesting, even beautiful, burial practices is the traditional Tibetan practice of jhator, also called sky burial. In Tibetan, the name literally means “giving alms to the birds.” In jhator, the body is ritually cut into small pieces and placed on a mountaintop. The bones may be smashed into small, edible pieces, and barley flour, tea, and yak butter may be added to the mix. The mix is then exposed to the elements and eaten by animals, especially birds of prey.

The act, as the name suggests, is explicitly considered a gift. The majority of Tibetans are Buddhists who believe in reincarnation. “When the body dies, the spirit leaves, so there is no need to keep the body,” explains one monk. “The birds, they think they are just eating. Actually they are removing the body and completing part of life’s cycle.”

Some Western observers and occupying Chinese bureaucrats have called jhator“barbaric,” “brutal,” “primitive,” even “insane.” But what is really insane? To participate in the community of life? To gift your body as a gift to the land? Or to poison that body in an attempt to keep something that’s no longer even useful to you?