Books and Movies Reviews

The Commercialization of the Funeral Industry

In "Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain," Jessica Mitford presents a compelling, if unnerving, argument for the commercialization of death and the funerary industry in North America and specifically in the United States.She explains that the role of the funeral director has evolved to the point that he (or she) "has put on a well-oiled performance in which the concept of death played no part whatsoever" (Mitford).Embalming plays a central role in this show because it is the means through which the funeral industry can present the deceased in a manner that will make them appear as lifelike as is possible, given their limitations.Embalming and presenting the dead has spawned a vast supporting market into which, Mitford notes, Americans willingly shovel hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
Mitford argues that the funerary industry in America has become a commercial venture, in which the dead are paraded about for the satisfaction of the living.In such a situation, the role of the embalmer takes on a special purpose.In that case, "the purpose of embalming is to make the corpse presentable for viewing in a suitably costly container" (Mitford).At one time, we can gather from this statement alone, embalming may have had religious significance or even the simple purpose of protecting health and preventing decay.However, the additional comment regarding the cost of the casket adds a commercial element to the entire venture.The implication, of course, is that embalming has developed as a way to sell more expensive caskets.No one, after all, would purchase an expensive casket that could not be "shown off" to the people who pay their respects.But if the casket is going to be part of a presentation, then it would be unreasonable not to include the body as well.Embalming has developed into a modern industry precisely because it permit the funeral industry to make more sales.


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