Some customs of our civilization have been around so long they seem perfectly normal. And when it comes to death, who wants to talk about what we do to a corpse?
Sallie Tisdale does. Her essay on Time.com challenges the practice of embalming, which, she says, started during the Civil War so soldiers could be returned home rather than buried on the battlefield.
But it’s disrupting our ability to grieve, she argues.
“If we grieve because the person we loved has died, why do we so often make a dead person appear alive?” she asks.
Embalming and the so-called restorative arts are about denial and, as a result, they unwittingly cause us greater pain. The poet and mortician Thomas Lynch wrote of the practice, “I’m an apostle of the present tense.”
To mourn, we need to accept what has happened, and in order to truly know what that is, we must look at what has happened.
What good is served by turning away from the fact of loss? Only delay. Only confusion, day after day, as reality collides with a dream.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, since 2015, cremation has become more common than burial, largely because it is cheaper. But embalming is still more common in the United States than anywhere else in the world.
We do this even though there are alternatives that have always been with us. Most of the world does not choose embalming. Buddhists and Hindus usually choose cremation. Muslims and Jews, whose religious laws forbid embalming, embrace natural burial, the way billions of bodies have been buried for eons — without preservation.
Death can’t be pretty, she writes. Nothing can stop what happens to a body, even though her father bought the most expensive, waterproof coffin when her mother died.
A dead body is not like any other object in the world. The muscles of the face relax into expressions never seen in life.
Whatever you believe has happened, you know when you look at it that it is not the person you knew, that something profound has happened and cannot be undone, and this allows us to take a step toward the new world in which we live, where the person we love no longer exists.
Related: The Dog Isn’t Sleeping: How To Talk With Children About Death (NPR)