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Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain

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Courtney Shearer

on 9 April 2014

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Transcript of Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain

Thank You! you're dead!
memoirist, journalist, and social activist
little formal education
investigative reporter in 1960s
talent for social criticism on American funeral industry
She uses concrete diction to detail the treatment of the decease during embalment. For example, " …Whisked off, sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, rouged and neatly dressed…"

She uses formal diction when describing the legal aspects associated with handling the dead. For example," The processes to which a dead body may be subjected are after all to some extent circumscribed by law."

After copious formal diction, she uses informal diction to show the standard procedure of embalming. For example," Go ahead and embalm"

Her diction elevates embalming but at the same time includes irony, such as "Indeed" and "extraordinary procedure." These ironies contribute to her sarcastic tone.

She incorporates French language to highlight the absurdity of the embalming process that tries to make the dead look alive. For instance, "il faut souffrir pour etre belle," which means "it is necessary to suffer to be beautiful."
“...Whisked off to a funeral parlor and is in short order sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, rouged and neatly dressed.”
“Before an autopsy may be performed, before the deceased may be cremated, before the body may be turned over to a medical school for research purposes.”

Many loose sentences, such as “Books on the subject are extremely hard to come by.”
Parallelism- “Americans are blissfully ignorant of what it is all about, what is done, how it is done.”

Highly complex sentences with excess commas to add details and exemplifications to claims. For example, “In an era when huge television audiences watch surgical operations in the comfort of their living rooms, when, thanks to the animated cartoon, the geography of the digestive system has become familiar territory even to the nursery school set, in a land where the satisfaction of curiosity about almost all matters is a national pastime, the secrecy surrounding embalming can, surely, hardly be attributed to the inherent gruesomeness of the subject.”

“For those who have the stomach for it, let us part the formaldehyde curtain...
Figurative Language
She alludes to Hamlet's “Alas, Poor Yorick!” speech to introduce the idiosyncrasies of American funerals.
“Pierced, prickled, trussed, trimmed...”
“Before the body may be turned over to a medical school.”
Analogy- She compares the encouragement of the funeral staff to the encouragement of a football team.
“But now he brings into play the skill and equipment...”
“An artificial grass matt is ready to conceal the sere earth.”
When referring to the Gordon Earth Dispenser, he says “it is shaped like a saltshaker.”
“Directing the participants through this maze of gadgetry.”
“He has revamped the corpse like a living doll.”
“He has done everything to make the funeral a real pleasure.
Personal Response
The Sheet Man: "Mitford's 'The Formaldehyde Curtain' is a very detailed and informative critique of American funeral and embalming practices. At times, her description of the embalming process borders on nauseating, though her use sarcasm softens the blow of her vivid imagery. Mitford effectively decries the practice of embalming, and, after reading her work, we have already written into our wills that we wish to be cremated. 10/10 would read again."
Jessica Mitford
Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain
An inner look at the process of embalming and organizing of a funeral by a funeral service/home.
Mitford writes because she believes that the public should be enlightened about the process of what goes on in the embalming of the deceased.
A young adult to adult audience because of the grotesque examples and the understanding of sarcasm. Also aimed towards Americans.
To expose the techniques of embalming. She would want the audience to be more involved and aware of the embalming of the deceased and to make sure the audience conveys to the funeral service whether or not they want the standard embalming process.
• Quotes embalming textbook: Pg. 254 and once again on Pg. 256
...The Principles and Practices of Embalming..."There is some question regarding the legality of much which is done in the preparation"

• Reference to real locations in North America (Canada and the U.S.) on Pg. 254
Provides specific law regarding deceased family (In most states, sig. of next of kin must be provided before autopsy, cremation, or bodily donation) Pg. 254
Describes early American embalming practices on Pg. 255
Throughout entire selection the embalming process is described in vivid detail
Lists the tools of embalming on Pg. 255
Quotes John H. Eckels (Pres. Of Eckels College of Mortuary Science) on Pg. 255
Lists embalming fluid/dye brands on Pg. 256 (Flextone, Lyf-Lyk Tint, Suntone)

• Quotes J. Sheridan Mayer’s Restorative Art on Pg. 257

• Quotes Psychology of funeral service on Pg. 259

• Quotes Wilber Kriege on Pg. 258

• 90 percent of all American funerals feature an open casket – Pg. 259

• Mocks specific product (Gordon Leak-Proof Earth Dispenser), even listing price. Pg. 260
She evokes feelings of disdain towards embalmers by describing their inhumane treatment of the deceased. Their disregard for humanity is demonstrated in lines, such as "Death by Carbon monoxide can be rather a good thing. One advantage is this type of discoloration is an exaggerated form of a natural pink coloration. This is nice because the healthy glow is present and needs little attention."

She also evokes feelings of disbelief and shock by detailing the harm inflicted on the bodies of the deceased. When describing such harm, she alludes to "needles jabbed through the abdomen," "fluid pumped through the arteries," "teeth clenched with Bon Ami," and "eyes closed with eye cement."

Finally, she evokes feelings of anger by describing the controlling and selfish practices of those who design the funeral service. She claims that they "never ask the family whether they want an open-casket ceremony" and that they simply want to "show off their beautiful facilities."
Parentheses are used to critique the word usage of fellow mortician writers. For example, “The embalmer artist who does his chores adopts the term dermasurgeon (appropriately corrupted by some mortician writers as demi-surgeon.”
Many sentences contain items in a series, such as, “His equipment, consisting of scalpels, scissors, augers, forceps, clamps, needles, pumps, tubes, bowls and basins...”

She uses quotations to incorporate the words of mortuary scientists, such as “Mr. John H. Eckles, president of the Eckels College of Mortuary Science, thus describes the first part of the embalming procedure.”

She also uses parentheses to explain her word usage, as evidenced in “Jones is now ready for casketing( this is the present participle of the verb “to casket”).

She uses italics to emphasize key points. For example, “the family is never asked whether they want an open-casket ceremony.”

She uses repetition to emphasize the horrid treatment of deceased bodies, as evidenced in, “He is covered with a sheet and left unmolested for a while. But not for long-there is more, much more, in store for him.”

A rhetorical question is demonstrated by “Is all this legal?”
• Trocar (Hollow needle) description, chest cavity fluid, face cream, body covered in sheet – Visual

Pg. 256

• Description of tissues as firm and dry – Tactile Pg. 256

• Embalming fluid/dye color descriptions on Pg. 256

• Stippling to simulate pores and skin texture – tactile Pg. 257

• Reattachment of decapitated head – Pg. 257

• Filling in sunken areas of body with massage cream – visual Pg. 257
"His hypodermic syringe now loaded with massage cream, the embalmer seeks out and fills the hollowed and sunken areas by injection"

• Closing of lips/lower jaw realignment – visual Pgs. 257-58

• Bodily discoloration (jaundice, etc.) on Pg. 258

• Description of the “casketing” process – Pg. 258
"In this operation his right shoulder should be depressed slightly to turn the body a bit to the right and soften the appearance of lying flat on the back. Positioning the hands is a matter of importance, and special rubber positioning blocks may be used. The hands should be cupped slightly for a more life like, relaxed appearance.
The tone is sarcastic and mocking but it is aso informative
"The body is first laid out in the undertaker's morgue- or rather, Mr.Jones is reposing in the preparation room-to be readied to bid the world farewell"
"Speaking of fears entertained in the early days of premature burial, he points out, "One of the effects of embalming by chemical injection, however,has been to dispel fears of live burial." How true; of the blood is removed, chances of live burial are indeed remote."
Assumptions / Warrants
• The author assumes that embalming is a grotesque mistreatment of the dead.

• She also assumes that if the process of embalmment was more publicly known of, less

Americans would view it as an acceptable practice.

• (Possibly, if you agree) assumes that the reader has no prior knowledge of embalming.
Organizational Patterns
• Primarily the chronological process of the embalmment of “Mr. Jones.” Uses exemplification

throughout description of embalmment.
Full transcript