Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I have a different post about one-third done, but I'm going to hold off on it. It's nothing time-critical, anyway.

I tried to bang out that post this afternoon before I went out to the wake of a friend's ex-husband, who died suddenly and unexpectedly this weekend. But I only got the scene-setting part done, and I don't think I can properly finish it before I go to bed.

So here is a different topic: is the cosmetic preparation and presentation of the body of the deceased for the viewing at a wake a dying art? (No pun intended.) It seems that a decade or so ago it was quite common to hear people say "Oh, he (or she) looks so natural!" But lately, the sentiment seems to be "That doesn't look like him (or her) at all!"

I discussed this with my friend, and it seems like there may be several explanations for this:

1. Perhaps in the past the cosmetic preparation of the body for viewing was an art form that the old-timers in each funeral home reserved for themselves, jealously guarding their secrets or assuming that the younger generations could never develop the required skills. And when the old-timers eventually died, these skills died with them, and the younger generations were left to try to rediscover the tricks and techniques necessary for doing a life-like job.

2. Possibly the specific techniques used in the past made use of materials that are not available to the modern funeral home. I'm at a loss for an example, but I am sure there were things that were common practice in the past that would never be allowed today.

3. This just hit me: In the past, at least in small, tightly-knit communities, undertakers were probably quite familiar with any deceased person who came their way from their pre-deceased days. So when they were preparing the body for viewing, they were working from a specific memory of what that person looked like in life. Nowadays it is far more likely that the person doing the preparation is encountering the person they are working on for the very first time. And so they create a replica of a person, but not necessarily the person; they may not get the set of the mouth or the fullness of the cheeks quite right for that specific person. And so what they end up with is technically passable, but is not immediately recognizable to friends and family.

Morbid, I know. And also at least as long as the post I decided I couldn't do for reasons of time. For people from non-Western (or possibly non-American, or even non-Pennsylvanian) cultures, the whole concept of having a corpse on display for viewing before burial may seem a bit odd. But for those who are familiar with this, have you noticed a similar dropoff in the quality of the preparation of the deceased for viewing?


Anonymous said...

Whoopi Goldberg used to be a cosmetician for dead people. Maybe its time for her to give up acting and try that again.

piglet said...

I can't speak to your question, as my husband, a fire captain and former paramedic who has seen death in the most vivid forms imaginable, cannot bring himself to view a body in a casket. And as a show of solidarity (and so as not to make it that much more apparent that he alone is skipping the viewing line), even though I'm curious, I skip it too.

I've tried to psych my way through his squeamishness, but the provenance of this fear is unknown, maybe even to him.

And I'm guessing it's not a rare thing.

btw, my word verification is "repoke."

whimsical brainpan said...

I have never understood the whole viewing of the body. I mean I understand it on the basis that it is a cultural thing. I just don't see the point. It's just an empty shell. The only person who'll be forced to look at my corpse is whoever is there at the time of my death and whoever shoves my body into the crematorium.

hedera said...

Many years ago, my husband and I stopped in to visit my aunt (now deceased). She was showing us some family photos, and among them was a photo of her late husband, my uncle - in his casket. Quite clearly dead. I didn't ask, but from what I know of their relationship, I think she wanted reassurance that he was dead...