Each year, cemeteries across the United States bury approximately 800,000 gallons of toxic embalming fluid, risking groundwater and soil leaching. Nearly two million caskets are purchased in the United States annually, with 45% sold through the Batesville Casket Company. (1) Most caskets are buried in cemeteries three deep within concrete vaults. In aggregation, buried caskets consume over 90,000 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, and over 30 million board feet of hardwoods annually. Burial vaults and vacuum sealed industrial casket bunkers which cause the body to putrefy in black isolation rather than actually “return” to the Earth, are
comprised of an additional 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete and 14,000 tons of steel annually. (2) No matter how fortified the bunker is, eventually a fetid brew of embalmed tissue slowly leaches into the surrounding soil and groundwater. The perception that the corpse itself is somehow toxic is only made true by postmortem interventions that attempt to delay decay.
Embalming, linked to ancient Egyptian practices of mummification, began in the
United States during the Civil War using arsenic to preserve dead soldiers on their
journey home. Delaying natural decay became increasingly culturally anticipated
after the intensive and repeated embalming that facilitated viewings along President
Lincoln’s nineteen-day funeral-train following his assassination in 1865. American
mortuary services have presented embalmed burial as the accepted norm since the
late 1800s, with the option of cremation increasingly utilized during the second half
of the twentieth century. From the battlefield, the embalming process moved into the
home of an undertaker or “embalming surgeon.” The integrated services of corpse
preparation and ceremony within the American funeral parlor as we know it today
first emerged less than one hundred years ago. Until that time, the grief process was
acutely connected to the intimate preparation of the corpse, allowing for a healthy and
tactile connection to emotional loss. Although considered a desecration of the body
in some religions, embalming remains common throughout the United States and
1.) To provide what is considered a desirable last image for the bereft, the corpse is disinfected, its eyes and mouth are
set, stitched or sealed, after which two to three gallons of arterial chemicals are injected while blood from the corpse
is drained into the municipal sewer.
2.) Remaining bodily gas and fluids are suctioned or desiccated from internal organs which are then also injected and
packed with embalming fluids, including formaldehyde, phenol and other hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals, to
“disinfect” and delay decomposition.
3.) Following the mechanics of preservation—which also include dyes to restore “natural” coloration, and humectants to
mimic “living” hydration—hair, clothing, and a resting position are styled to present the corpse as if in a benign yet