Copyright © 2015 by Robert Connolly
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Everyday tales of funeral folk
From the pharaohs to the future
A diversionary tale of hair growth and casket fashions
How embalming became popular
Why embalm? Premature burial, modern grave goods
Initiation rituals, regulation, take-overs
Science of death, consequences for the undertaker
Black bags, hearses, campness, perks of the job
Autopsy procedure, revelation
Necrophilia, body snatching today
Crime and undertaking, trade trinkets
1087-now. Kings, commoners, crape, jet, plumes
Cremation, its replacements, ecology of death
20 years ago I worked for a funeral firm in a big city. I always said I’d write a book about it, that the first sentence would be “You always know it’s a bad one when the copper’s stood outside.” and that the title would be “Confessions off an Undertaker”.
The memories of events that I include are those that have stayed with me; they are even now still extremely vivid, distilled from my experiences by the passage of time and retained in all their immediacy in pin-sharp recall. They are all in various ways remarkable by normal standards of existence, but not at all strange in the world they are part of.
But this has turned out to be much more than a collection of stories about undertaking.
The firm I worked for no longer exists (but I have changed the names to protect the innocent – and the guilty – nonetheless), and as I interviewed people working in the trade now to check the details, somehow that process spread to include Europe, and then America and Australia.
As interesting facts discovered along the way led to other interesting facts, and brief digressions became whole sections, this has expanded from a personal account of what undertakers do, to include their history, and how they came to take over something we used to do for ourselves, the science and ecology of death today, and the future of how we deal with the dead.
I’ve written it so that it works as something you read from start to finish, but also as something you can dip in and out of wherever you like.
A Day in the Life
You always know it’s a bad one when the copper’s stood outside (instead of sat inside having a read of The Sun).
It was a flat above a shop, with very steep stairs right behind the front door, and the flies started as soon as you got in. Upstairs they were so bad that they were crawling up your nose and in your mouth. The smell was atrocious, the kind that gets in your hair and clothes, and that you can’t wash off.
The room was knee-deep in empty beercans, so it was difficult to get through the door, and the cloud of flies was so dense it was difficult to see across the room. Somewhere in there was what the technician at St Dunstan’s called a jolly green giant.
I won’t go into the details of getting it out – we had to use a shell instead of the stretcher. It made you think, though. It was a woman, probably middle-aged from the amount of flesh on her (old people are, as you may have noticed yourself, usually skinny; handy in this line of business). You can’t tell from the clothes – counterfeit designer sports gear is a uniform that transcends age among the drinking classes in that part of town.
Had she got a final stock of booze in, put it to hand, and buried herself in a drift of White Diamond as she drank herself to death? Or was this some kind of interior decoration quirk? I’ve noticed teenagers like to blu-tack cans or beermats to their walls, girls as well as boys, these days.
Jobs like that stand out, of course, but really they’re all extraordinary, because working in the funeral business, you’re involved in something that no-one knows about and no-one talks about.
Death is, as they say, the last taboo – but the endlessly repeated corollary to that endlessly repeated cliché, that death is for us what sex was to the Victorians, is not quite true.
Everyone, even Victorians, thinks about sex, and most have personal experience of it on a regular basis, but death now really is kept out of sight and, if not out of mind, as much as possible physically separated from life.
It seems ironic now, but I took the job because I thought I’d get funny stories out of it. A friend of mine had worked as an embalmer when he was a medical student, and according to him it was one long round of pranks and practical jokes from day one:
Two bearers eyeing a body and a coffin, shaking their heads and saying repeatedly to a new recruit
“’E won’t go in there, oh no, … E’ll never go in there …”,
“SO WE’LL ‘AVE TO PUT ‘IM IN!”
They told me at the Job Centre that they didn’t get many adverts from undertakers, and that this one specified previous experience essential.
That was a load of bollocks, and I could have spared myself the effort of inventing a past as a casual bearer in another time and another place, because after they’d hired me it dawned on them that everyone else there was a midget compared to me (I’m six foot one). Which made the bearing very undignified, not to say precarious, my shoulder being about eight inches higher than the other three under the coffin.
You’d think they might have thought of that beforehand. Anyway, after that they got in a young lad who didn’t even pretend to any previous, who turned out to be what I can only describe as a ghoul.
Tim was a gangling streak of piss with prominent knobbly joints and a prominent knobbly adam’s apple and a bad haircut. I suspect he may have even have been ESN, and I certainly had plenty of time to investigate that suspicion, because of course they paired him up with me.
It didn’t help with the bearing, though. What happened was that the coffin took a pronounced foot-down attitude (the head is always at the back) and almost the entire weight was thrown onto the two at the front, which didn’t make me and Tim very popular, however much we pointed out it wasn’t our fault.
Having us at the front was out of the question. Experiment proved that aside from looking even more absurd, the centre of gravity being nearer the back meant that the coffin slid in that direction uncontrollably as soon as we set off.
We were forced to adopt a peculiar gliding walk with our knees bent and our backs crouched. This, coupled with the fact that professional bearers walk with hands clasped in front (not gripping the other side of the coffin, except going up or down steps, at least at funerals), made us look like Uriah Heep in stereo.
On his first day I was called into the boss’s office, introduced to the lad, and was told they’d hired him because he was the same height as me.
“And you’ll be taking him out and showing him the ropes.”
I’d only been there a month or two, and I was passing on the torch of knowledge as it had been passed to me, like a baton in a relay race. A torch that was burning dimly, my instructor having had no great enthusiasm for the job, and me even less.
I was down to drive the van all day, so no funerals, just shuttling bodies to and fro, from shops to and from embalming. Which might be why I’d been landed with him – you don’t want someone who’s never done the job before on a funeral straight off.
I waited while he was given a second-hand polyester suit that didn’t fit, a mac whose sleeves were three inches too short, and a pair of black leather gloves from the wardrobes in what was obviously once a bedroom, presumably when this was the family home above the shop.
Hand in glove in glove
Tim liked the gloves. When we were sat in the van later, him proudly stroking the sleeves of his uniform as if it was from Savile Row, I watched as he took some disposable latex gloves from the box on top of the dashboard and then put them on over the leather ones that he was already wearing, so that his hands looked like packets of cling-wrapped dates.
I looked at him, baffled, while he grinned shyly.
“What have you done that for?”
“I dunno. It feels good.”
We had just collected a body from the downstairs back room and put it on the van (for some reason bodies are always put ‘on’ the van, not ‘in’). I got the impression he was fulfilling a long-held ambition when he first handled a body. It was, predictably, someone’s grandad, the funeral business’s number one customer. Men are supposed to die before their wives because they’re worn out by a life of work and stress. I think it’s just genetic – men’s bodies wear out quicker. I bet that man’s wife had just as hard a (pre-welfare state working class) life as he did.
Tim had had an almost touching look of childlike wonder on his face as he prodded the body’s flesh and manipulated its hands.
“It’s not what I thought at all. It’s all soft and floppy like a big white rubber doll.”
A big cold white rubber doll. At least this one was dressed and ready to go. On my first day I had been sent into the same downstairs back room with a big carrier bag full of clothes that I’d been told to put on someone’s grandad.
I was quite sure that this was the first of that endless round of pranks and practical jokes that I was expecting. After all, I’d read ‘The Loved One’ and ‘The American Way of Death’, so I knew they had special shirts and suits that had a slit up the back for dressing corpses in their coffins.
My new oppo, Dave, tasked with showing me the ropes, in the same way that I would be with Tim, leaned against the wall smoking a roll-up and looking out of the window. I looked in the bag. Everything was in there, all neatly folded: shoes & socks, a three-piece suit, shirt & tie, even singlet & Y-fronts and, on top of the pile, a hankie. He won’t be wiping his nose where he’s going, I thought.
“Is this an open–coffin job, then?” I said, trying to go along with the joke.
Dave shrugged and stared at a bit of tobacco he’d just picked off his lip. After a bit of waiting for him to laugh and say “Gotcha!”, I tried again.
“But this is a joke isn’t it? I don’t really have to dress him up in this lot do I? Who’s going to see it?”
Dave shrugged again and said nothing. At that point Maurice, the head of the firm, who’d just given me the bag upstairs in his office, stuck his head round the door. He’d obviously been listening.
“Something wrong, Bob?”
I wasn’t sure how to play this – if it was a joke, then the boss was in on it.
“Do you really want me to put these clothes on him? Aren’t there special suits for this that fasten up the back?”
But Maurice obviously hadn’t read Evelyn Waugh or Jessica Mitford.
“This is someone’s grandad, Bob. The family have given us these clothes because they want him to be buried in them.”
“So do I cut them up the back to get them on?”
Maurice frowned, and looked at me as if he wasn’t sure if I was trying to wind him up.
“No. They want him to be wearing these clothes, so that’s what he’ll be wearing, not a load of rags.”
I realised it wasn’t a good idea to point out that unless they opened the coffin and took him out to look round the back, there was no way they could know.
“Ah, I see. Right, okay then.”
Maurice gave me a long hard look, then left. I heard him go back upstairs, and realised I hadn’t heard him come down. I got the impression I hadn’t done myself too many favours there.
Grandad was wearing a shirt, cardie, polyester slacks and slippers. Getting those off was hard enough, and Dave made no move to help.
Although this was very obviously the body of an old man in his late 70s with grey hair and a moustache, fit-looking, in an ex-army kind of way, I found I was unable to rid myself of the impression that it was a cunningly-made lifesize wooden doll covered in silicone, or, yes, rubber.
I couldn’t help wondering what kind of job I’d got myself into while I was trying to wrestle the pair of newly-laundered Y-fronts over his wedding tackle. The shoes were surprisingly difficult, too, because his ankles were so floppy, until I stopped trying to hold his ankle and worked out that I had to cup his heel in one hand and cram the shoe on with the other.
I realised I’d been trying to use the same technique that you would with a child, who, however unhelpful, has ankles that don’t wobble all over the place.
Which gave me a marketing idea for Clarks. You remember Start Rite shoes for toddlers? Well, they could look after the other end of the market with End Rite – biodegradable and inflammable, with velcro up the back of the heel to get them on, and a clip for morgue toetags.
I was never asked to dress a body again, nor did I hear of any of the other chauffeur bearers being asked to do it. It was normally done, I think, by the embalmers, who also did the make-up.
Which, to return to new boy Tim’s first day, is where we were taking someone’s grandad while Tim was inventing glove puppet prophylaxis.
Black Van Man
This is what the day consisted of when you were on the van – yes, ‘on’ the van again, not ‘driving the van’. And you, or the police, or the doctor, are always ‘on way’, never ‘on the way’ or ‘here soon’.
Anyway, when you were on the van, you spent the day making short journeys collecting and delivering, pretty much like all the other van drivers, except your van is black or dark grey, not white. The other tell-tale signs for spotting an undertaker’s van were a spinning ventilator on the roof and a driver in a white shirt & black tie. There also seems to be an increasing tendency to mark the van as an ambulance, which I suppose gets round the problem of parking tickets.
Bodies have to go from their first resting place – hospital, old people’s home, their own home, pavement or wherever – to the undertaker’s shop nearest the family home. Then, if the family agrees to it, they get embalmed (which involves another trip to & from the shop that has the embalming suite, unless that’s where they happen to be already), dressed, and put in a coffin for the family to visit at the shop, or less usually these days, for a wake at the family home or for a vigil in church.
Larger undertakers have a head office, known by the name of the road it’s in, a garage where the hearses, funeral cars and vans are kept, and subsidiary shops, one of which will be where the embalming is done. The other shops retain the names of the family businesses that used to run them, and the name plates behind the glass in the sides of the hearses are swopped over accordingly for funerals, like false number plates on James Bond’s car. This gives the illusion that people are dealing with the same family business that their family has always been served by.
Even with this ringing, the firm we worked for, Balmer’s, were still a family business, even if they only had their own name over the door at the head office at Paradise Road. Maurice was the boss, just like his dad before him, and other members of the family worked there in other capacities. Most undertakers in Britain are still independents, and often, like Balmer’s, originally family businesses, who had, over time, bought up their local competitors. Genuine single shop family firms survive in larger numbers in country towns and villages.
Balmer’s garage was a courtyard that had been roofed over, with a couple of small rooms leading off. I suppose these had been feed and tack rooms originally – you could see the marks on the other walls where the horse stalls had been when this was still stables.
Apart from the brief bursts of activity at the start and end of the working day when the cars left and arrived, with the engine noise and exhaust fumes book-ended by the squeal and rattle of the ceiling-high sliding entrance doors, the garage was a peaceful and contemplative place. This was due in equal parts to the chapel-like acoustics created by the high part-glazed roof, and to the sepulchral light like that of a winter’s day which filtered through the peeling white-wash covering the rafters and glass panels – which also contributed a suitably snowy (or dandruff-like) effect as it fell.
One of the ceilingless rooms had a sink, a kettle, and a two-ring Baby Belling electric cooker, and I spent what seemed like a considerable amount of time on my own in there to start with, savouring the cool echoing silence and soft shadowless light, “learning routes” from the battered hardback A to Z on the table under the shelf with the teabags and sugar by the sink.
Apart from the graphics on the teabag carton and possibly the date on a discarded Sun or Star, there was nothing to peg the space to any particular era from the past 60 years. Take away the Belling and swop the stainless steel sink for ceramic, and the 60w bulb for gas, and it could have been any time from the 1880s onwards.
A persistent whiff of Victoriana often surrounds the appurtenances and procedures of undertaking.
Take the traditional window display. The look is Victorian High Church Gothic with fumed oak, stained glass and polished brass, or the more austere Arts & Crafts look with blonde oak and bright metal fittings. Traditional contents include cinerary urns, flower holders for graves, and photos of horse-drawn hearses. And when this is replaced by dried flower arrangements flanked by corporate slogans and logos, in a cack-handed attempt to make the front office look like an estate agent’s, the changes usually stop at the STAFF ONLY signs.
(The best window display I ever heard of was the Co-op’s in Blackburn. It was a tropical fish tank with lumps of coal sitting on crushed coal on the bottom, with black fish and a purple light at the back.)
Other modernising efforts will also be limited to what meets the public gaze – shiny grey two-piece suits instead of black jackets & waistcoats with grey pinstripe trousers, and a Volvo or Mercedes hearse instead of a Daimler.
The hearse at Balmer’s was a 10 year old Ford, as were the cars. The van was clapped-out, and a bastard to drive, with a stiff clutch that had very long travel, and lots of play in the steering. Both revealed a slightly surprising capacity for corpses on opening the back door for the first time. Hearses, like double-decker buses, have ‘room for one upstairs’, with hidden space underneath for two more, and undertakers’ vans also have ‘plenty of room inside’, with racks for four. Shortly after I started at Balmer’s, I certainly helped the passengers move along the bus and make room for others.
Highway Hokey Cokey
It happened like this. As I said, the van was clapped out, one aspect of that being the dodgy lock on the back doors. The first time I drove it, Dave had told me it wasn’t enough to turn the handle from vertical to horizontal after closing the doors, you had to actually lock it with the key. I assumed this to be just a security measure, but found out I assumed wrong when taking a roundabout at speed. I heard a noise from the back which I took to be the stretchers rattling. Then Dave glanced over his shoulder and said
“Don’t look back, just brake hard!”
I did both of course, glancing in the rear view mirror to see someone’s grandad and grandma hurtle back into the van on their trolleys after hanging halfway out, and the doors bang shut after them. Grandma in her nightie and slippers, grandad in cardie and Alf Garnett bags. I made bloody sure that Tim knew how dodgy the lock was when I showed him over the van on his first day.
In the past, shells were used more – rounded mummy-shaped lightweight plastic coffins – but most places now use ambulance-type stretchers with three quick-release restraining straps like car seatbelts. The posh type have an undercarriage that folds up when you bang the front legs against the van tailboard. They’re called ‘gurneys’ in America.
Balmer’s were the lightweight type, with six-inch stub legs that folded out manually, and a dark blue plastic-backed needlecord cover that fitted over the bodies and was held in place by elastic loops at the sides. If it was a messy one, a piece of clear PVC from off a roll went on the stretcher first and was folded over the body before the straps and the cover went on. Despite what you see on the telly; no body bags, except in the most exceptional circumstances, where because of the state of the body, it was best to roll or shovel it sideways into a bag. Usually, sloppy ones went into a shell, which of course someone (usually me as most junior, until Tim arrived) had to swill out afterwards. Not a nice job.
I drew Tim’s attention to the little foibles of Balmer’s van on our way to the shop where the embalming was done. When we arrived at Thrale’s (the name of the family who originally had it, and whose name was still over the door), we took the body off the van and carried it into the shop – yes, through the same shop that customers sat in to arrange their relatives’ funerals. The bereaved made their arrangements in a room separated from the front-door lobby by a door with a frosted glass window. You might expect that there’d be a service entrance, as there would be for most businesses that had a regular throughput of goods, but again you have to remember that in Britain this is a trade that has for the most part developed from Victorian beginnings by piecemeal acquisition, often in densely built-up, speculatively-developed areas.
I introduced Tim to the manager, John, who told us to put the body in the other room in the back, because the embalming room was full. John was short and skinny, in his 30s, with thinning blond hair in a side parting, watery blue eyes and bad acne scars on his cheeks that looked worse because his face always looked red raw, as if he tried to shave them off every day.
He favoured the shirt-sleeves-and-waistcoat look when he wasn’t seeing to customers, like a saloon card dealer in a Western. He had previously been a plasterer, and was currently (even as we walked in) studying to pass his exams to become a qualified embalmer. If he did pass them, he would be the only one ‘in-house’ at Balmer’s, provided he didn’t then move somewhere else where they paid better.
Balmer’s used freelancers, some of whom, unsurprisingly perhaps, were pretty strange characters. None of them were medical students subsidising their studies like my mate had been. Most were already connected with the funeral trade in some way, like John, and had taken the British Institute of Embalming exams.
“I am (I’m me)”, got to number 18, 1983
The creepiest were a pair of midget lesbians, like the twin girl ghosts in The Shining, inseparable, and indistinguishable in memory; but with little in common when you compared them in the flesh, apart from their doll-like proportions and a shared fashion sense apparently drawn from those minicatalogues that come with the Sunday papers – the sort that show people who aren’t OAPs dressed in OAP clothes. (And they did their ordering from the men’s section.)
Creepiest of all, and also like the twins from The Shining, they never spoke, to each other (at least in public anyway); and otherwise as briefly as possible, only ever one at a time, and only in response to direct questions.
I once mentioned to Dave it was a good idea not to linger in the embalming room when it was in use after we’d just left a body with them. They had already been working on another body, and the fumes from the formaldehyde were eye-watering. The room was tiny, with a low ceiling, and the only ventilation was through a minuscule extractor fan intended for a shower booth set in the skirting board in one corner.
“You don’t want to hang around in there. It’s bloody bad for you. Formaldehyde’s terrible stuff – it gives you cancer. God knows what it’ll do to them, in there for hours at a time with their noses stuck in it.”
Dave paused and raised his eyebrows:
“Oh yeah? Health and Safety, eh? Well we’d better tell the Twisted Sisters.”
We were just on our way through the front door, but Dave turned round and went straight back in. As we emerged from the corridor and reappeared in the doorway of the embalming room, they both looked up.
They were both still working on the same body, and you just knew that they’d do that until it was finished before both starting work on the other body. No division of labour there.
“Bob’s got something to tell you.”
Thanks very much, I thought, that makes me look like some kind of know-it-all busybody.
“Erm, yeah, it’s about the fumes in here – they’re really bad for your health. You can get cancer.”
They both stared at me in complete silence for some seconds, then lowered their gaze and carried on where they’d left off. Dave looked at me, winked, then walked past me as he led the way out.
They weren’t the only women embalmers, and you get more and more women funeral directors these days. My aunt on my dad’s side used to lay people out (as an enthusiastic amateur, in a role always occupied by just such an enthusiastic amateur female in working class communities then): wash them, bung up their orifices with cotton wool, dress them, close their eyes, comb their hair. She was fascinated by death and dead bodies, in a kind of star-struck way that other women had for weddings.
She actually used to say:
“He made a lovely corpse.”
She’d have loved to be an embalmer.
History of Embalming
Embalming is often presented as part of the funeral package, as a completely standard component like a coffin or flowers, almost as if stinting on this would somehow not be doing justice to the memory of your loved one:
“And you will be wanting the embalming treatment.” (no question mark at the end there).
“Well, I don’t know…”
“We do recommend it – it’s more hygienic.” (quickly, with a similarly brief flash of a sad smile that says ‘You don’t want to know about what’ll happen if you don’t have it.’)
There may also be a fuzzy impression, perhaps, that this is something like the treatment the pharaohs got, or what keeps Lenin and Ho Chi Minh looking as if they’re just taking a break from affairs of state.
This taps into a surprisingly pervasive unthought-through idea at the back of people’s minds that the body, or its vicinity, is still somehow passively inhabited by the personality of the deceased:
“Ooh I couldn’t have him cremated – I’d hate to think of him being burnt up like that.”
“I couldn’t bear to think of her buried – she hated the cold and the damp.”
The idea of someone hibernating underground in their coffin like some kind of latter-day King Tut doesn’t just fly in the face of everything every modern religion, not to say commonsense, tells us, it presumes that what your undertaker does will make that possible.
But there’s scant similarity between what he (or she) does and what we might call ceremonial embalming.
Old Time Religion
The first Egyptian mummies probably came about by accident, from burying bodies in hot dry sand with no covering, or hunched up in a clay funerary urn – the most famous of those being Bilanben, from the dynasty known as the ‘Flowerpot’.
Later on, it became important to the Egyptians to preserve their rulers, originally because of a belief that the body was a kind of operational base for the pharaoh’s souls (five in all) to use their influence with the gods in the afterworld to keep the sun rising and the crops growing in this world. The rulers needed their attendants and servants, so they had to be preserved too, and the priests, and the civil servants.
Eventually, everyone who could afford it wanted to be preserved. Cities were built to house the dead, and the living devoted more and more time and energy to looking after the needs of the dead, building pyramids and tombs, and leaving supplies of food, drink and gifts at the tombs.
To begin with, they just wrapped the body in a shroud, or bandages soaked in resin and pitch, but over time a more effective method was developed. This involved removing the internal organs (including the brain, via the nostrils or the eye sockets, with implements like long crochet needles) and then packing the body inside and out in a kind of dry marinade of mineral salts called natron, found where prehistoric lakes had dried up. This had the same effect as the original desert burials, of removing all the water from the body. Without water, the bacteria that rot the body can’t survive.
The high point for Egyptian embalming was the 18th dynasty, 1555-1350BC, for the likes of Tutankhamun and Nefertiti. Mummies from this era are the best preserved, and it seems that their embalmers made some variations from the methods used either side of this period. This was only worked out very recently by a British archaeological chemist called Stephen Buckley, who got there by a combination of detective work (literally, he used gas chromatography, just like the cop shows on TV) and personal experimentation.
He was x-raying lots of mummies using new medical equipment that gave better results than anyone had seen before, and he noticed two things that were different about mummies from the 18th dynasty – two things, in fact, that shouldn’t have been there. First of all, a lump rattling around in the back of the skull that looked like it might be a dried-up 3,500 year-old brain, and then there were flakes of some kind of mineral embedded throughout the flesh.
You see, according to Herodotus:
“First with a crooked iron tool they draw out the brain through the nostrils, extracting it partly thus, and partly by pouring in drugs; and after this with a sharp stone of Ethiopia they make a cut along the side and take out the whole contents of the belly, and when they have cleared out the cavity and cleansed it with palm wine they cleanse it again with spices pounded up: then they fill the belly with pure myrrh pounded up and with cassia and other spices except frankincense, and sew it together again.
Having so done they keep it for embalming covered up in natron for seventy days but for a longer time than this is not permitted to embalm it; and when the seventy days are past, they wash the corpse and roll its whole body up in fine linen cut into bands.”
The History of Herodotus Book II, Macaulay translation, 1890.
Herodotus was a Greek historian, and he was writing in 450BC, but there are hieroglyphics from earlier periods showing the same sort of things he described (although sometimes the brain was removed through the eye sockets – perhaps easier because the skull is paper-thin there).
So if the lumps inside the skulls were brains, then the 18th Dynasty embalmers weren’t following the usual procedure, and when Dr. Buckley analysed the strange flakes that were in the flesh, they turned out to be crystals of the mineral salts found in natron. If they were actually embedded throughout the flesh like nuts in nougat, it meant that the bodies hadn’t simply been laid in a bed of dry natron, as described by Herodotus.
Dr. Buckley favours a hands–on approach to his research, or to begin with in this case, perhaps, trotters-on – he first experimented with dead piglets to see if laying them in dry natron could get the crystals under the skin and into the flesh, and when it couldn’t, he used pig’s trotters in 194 separate experiments with different strengths of natron solution and different combinations of herbs and spices until he got it right. Pork is very similar, it seems, to human flesh.
He found that the concentration of natron needed to leave crystals in the flesh also tended to burn the skin off. This was where the spices that Herodotus mentioned came in – a coating of the resins and oils from the spices protected the skin and preserved the external features.
Being a man who does things properly, Dr Buckley then looked for a volunteer for the ultimate test of his theories, and found a 61 year old Torquay cabbie called Alan Billis. He was dying of lung cancer, and both he and his wife were happy with him providing posthumous input to the cause of archaeological understanding in this unique way – his wife said that she’d be the only person in the world who’s got a mummy for a husband.
When he died Alan was taken to the Medico-Legal Institute in Sheffield where Dr. Buckley and an expert on ancient Egyptian funerary practice called Joann Fletcher advised the medical staff how to go about it.
The pathologist, Peter Vanezis, was surprisingly game, his first challenge being to extract Alan’s internal organs through the six inch slit between the left hip and ribcage specified by his expert advisors, while yet managing to leave the heart in place – a considerable test of his dexterity, tenacity of grip, and knowledge of anatomy by touch.
I don’t think it counts as cheating exactly, but they did make a few concessions to modernity – the coating of resins and oils was applied with an industrial spray gun, for instance.
High temperatures and zero humidity not cropping up too often in the weather forecast for Sheffield, they dried the body off from the natron bath in a room with the air conditioning set to replicate the Valley of the Kings. In a tribute to the irresistible power of nature, even though the body was kept behind closed doors in a windowless room in a modern climate-controlled building, they found two maggots on it at one point.
The whole experiment was completely successful – the facial features were recognisably Alan’s, and the tissues retained elasticity while displaying the embedded mineral crystals seen in the 18th Dynasty mummies. When they x-rayed the head, the brain was in the same place at the back of the skull, and with the same appearance Dr Buckley had originally noticed in Egypt.
What I’d like to know is what they’re going to do with Alan’s mummy now – for the time being it will be stored at the Medico-Legal Institute, but it’s hard to imagine that’ll still be there in three and a half thousand years’ time. Seems a shame to go to all that trouble, when you know the job you’ve done has that kind of potential, and not give it a chance stay the course.
Ship it somewhere where they have the same kind of desert conditions as Egypt? But then again, with global warming, perhaps the desert will come to Sheffield.
Alan’s mummy could in theory be much more durable than some of the relative youngsters among his predecessors in Egypt. The embalming got progressively less effective from the 19th dynasty onwards, as the procedures became less and less thorough and more and more symbolic; until by the time Egypt became part of the Roman Empire in 30BC, it seems the bandaging and the decoration of the coffin were more important than how well the body inside would last.
Similar levels of care and effort to those of the 18th dynasty have been applied to other bodies than Alan’s since standards declined in Egypt, but the motives have tended to be political rather than religious in those more recent times.
The method the Russians have used on Lenin, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, and other personalities whose cult needed extending, along with the variant used for Eva Peron, is the Rolls Royce of modern embalming treatments.
Although done in the service of totalitarian political regimes, it’s actually a continuation of the traditions for royal or state funerals dating from medieval times, when the body needed to lie in state for some time, and perhaps go on a farewell tour round the country.
This was originally performed by monks, the ones who normally did the butchering for the abbey. Methods varied, as did the effectiveness of the results, but best practice involved removing the soft organs (but if the brain was removed, rather than using the nose, the crown of the head would be sawn off), washing out the blood and body fluids, and using a pickling solution.
We can presume the pickling solution was made by the monks working in the kitchen (refectory?), using skills they had learnt preserving food. Typical ingredients include wine, vinegar or spirits, pickling salts and herbs and spices.
When it works, pickling can work very well indeed. A scientific study found nitrite pickling salts and alcohol were better than formaldehyde for embalming ([_ Nitrite pickling salt as an alternative to formaldehyde for embalming in veterinary anatomy--A study based on histo- and microbiological analyses _], Janczyk, P et al, 2011).
The science goes like this (but because the monks didn’t understand the science, their results were hit and miss, and the misses could miss by a very large margin, as we shall see):
Pickling salts in the right concentration could remove water from the body by osmosis: if the pickle is more concentrated than the solution inside the body tissues, there would be a gradient across the cell walls, and just as gravity tends to make things on gradients level off, osmosis would make water move out of the cells to dilute the stronger solution outside the body. (Osmosis means freshwater fish never stop pissing because they need to get rid of all the water that comes into their bloodstreams through their gills, blood being thicker than water.)
Dehydrating the body kills the bacteria that cause decomposition.
The pickle gets into the body by diffusion, which works in the other direction to osmosis: because the solution in the body is less concentrated, molecules of pickle move across a concentration gradient to where it’s less crowded in the body tissues.
The pickle is too acid for most bacteria to live in, and ethanol (alcohol) is poisonous, as are chemicals in the herbs and spices.
The Russians get the same result by first of all removing the organs and injecting formalin, which is a solution of 40% formaldehyde normally used as an antiseptic. Formaldehyde is a caustic (too alkaline for bacteria to live in) chemical used to preserve scientific specimens. It replaces the water in the tissues. After that, they soak the body in different chemicals in a glass bath (glass, because formaldehyde reacts with metal).
Here’s the recipe if you want to try it yourself: first 3% formaldehyde, then alcohol, water, glycerine, potassium acetate and quinine chloride. The Russians call what the body finishes up floating in “balsam”. After that, everything except the bits that show is wrapped in rubber bandages so the stuff doesn’t leak out. Twice a week they smear more balsam on the face and hands, then every 18 months it goes in the bath again (minus the bandages).
There was a bit of learning on the job with Lenin (overseen by “The Committee for Immortalisation”), but after Stalin, they had it down to a fine art, and it was rolled out anywhere there was a personality with a bereft cult: Bulgaria, Mongolia, Czechoslovakia, Angola, Guyana, Vietnam, North Korea, and more recently Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Suffering from hot flushes (1)
It certainly works – Lenin’s been on show since 1924. There was something in the papers recently about Lenin getting mould on his face because they were strapped for cash and the procedures weren’t kept up, and a junior lab tech pouring boiling water over him and “blistering” the skin. It’s all rubbish. First off, his skin wouldn’t blister as if he were still alive. Blistering is caused by water in the tissues heating up through contact with heat and expanding so fast it damages cell walls. There’s no water in Lenin’s skin. Second, there’s been no cash flow problem since the collapse of Communism, because the lab was quickly sought out by a new high-spending niche market: Russian mafia. They keep another group who used to be kept busy on Lenin’s behalf in business too: monumental masons.
Suffering from hot flushes (2)
By all accounts, though, the Spanish doctor who embalmed Eva Peron used a slightly different technique. Following injection of alcohol through the circulatory system (in at an artery, out from a vein), glycerine at 45°C was pumped in until it had replaced all the fluid that was originally in the tissues, which then set as it cooled down – like a South American politician-sized helping of butcher’s brawn. Then, apparently over a year, Dr Ara worked on infusing paraffin wax into “certain areas of the body” and a layer of wax over the whole body.
According to a silversmith who was engaged to make a Tutankhamun-style body mould to go on top of her crystal casket, this involved suspending the corpse vertically. He doesn’t specify, but we can guess this would be head-down, like a giant blonde bat.
Evita in her crystal casket was to be the centrepiece of a copy of Les Invalides, and on the anniversary of her death every year the lid would be raised and the body displayed, like that of a saint in a cathedral. I like to think they might perhaps have also installed a breathing motor under her blouse, like the Sleeping Beauties in the seaside waxworks of my childhood.
What happens at the local undertaker’s is a lot less permanent and very much quicker.
Join the Jet Set
It might start with something that features in the mental image that pops into your head when North Sea oil rigs are mentioned.
Let me explain: when you die, the cells in the lining of your stomach and gut stop making the mucous that stops your stomach and gut from being digested by their own digestive juices. But the digestive juices carry on working. The sphincter valves at either end of the stomach also open, and depending on the individual anatomy and the way the body’s lying, the stomach’s hydrochloric acid can leak into the gut and oesophagus and damage their thin walls.
At the gut end, bacteria resident in the gut get to work on the part-digested intestines, surrounding tissue and organs, and any food that might have been in transit, which is why a greenish flush here, below the ribs, is often the first sign of decay after death; in plucked gamebirds at the butcher’s just as much as bodies laid out at the undertakers. The digestive juices also attack the rest of the intestines, of course, but without the stomach acid, the walls remain intact for longer, and the bacteria are contained.
Putrefactive bacteria make gases, which then collect at the same place. This can make corpses belch or groan as a build up of gas is released through the gullet and goes past the vocal chords. This means that bodies sometimes grunt when you get hold of them to move them – definitely Uncanny Valley territory. You may have heard of bodies sitting upright, belching, and then lying down again, but I’ve never spoken to anyone who’s seen that, in a morgue or an undertaker’s. It doesn’t make sense – having a belly full of gas would bend them the other way.
The main tool of the undertaker’s embalmer is a long hollow needle called a trocar, which is used to suck out body fluids and pump in embalming fluid. Unlike the other methods of embalming, the soft organs are not removed. Instead, the trocar is stuck deep into the body repeatedly through the same entrance point, but each time in a different direction, to drain the gut and the contents of different parts of the body.
The point of entry is just under the sternum, at the bottom of the strip of gristle where your ribs meet, the same place that putrefactive gas builds up. Which is how, sometimes when a body’s not too fresh, the connection between embalming and oil rigs comes in.
The trocar is removed from the tube connecting it to the collecting bottle and aspirating pump, and, in a bravura display similar to a chef flambéeing an entrée, jabbed vertically into the plexus, simultaneously using a cigarette lighter to ignite the escaping gas to produce a roaring blue flame sometimes several feet in height. Very impressive in a darkened room, and, as I say, curiously reminiscent of night time views of the North Sea oilfields when the rigs are flaring off their excess gas.
After any flaring off that may be necessary, and after a trocar connected to the suction pump has drained the heart, lungs, stomach, gut and bladder; ‘cavity fluid’ (formalin) is pumped in through the trocar using the same point of entry, followed by less concentrated embalming fluid the same way the Russians used – in through the carotid artery at the side of the neck, and out through a vein in the ankle, or through the jugular vein, which lies next to the carotid.
Like flushing a radiator.
I once saw Damien Hirst on TV, preparing one of his trademark sliced-up dead animals like some kind of Frankenstein/TV chef cross. He was standing chest-deep in a vat of formaldehyde with half a cow, wearing a big grin and a one-piece diving suit, jabbing a disposable hypodermic into the carcass, surrounded by discarded hypos floating on the surface.
If that really is how he does it, rather than a bit of typical show off pose-striking for the camera; number one, he wants to wear a gasmask, and number two, it’s no wonder his pickled livestock and sharks fall to bits after a few years – he wants to use the radiator flush method and do the job properly.
There is a kind of ultimate, super-modern method of embalming, which, without our un-Victorian taboo on death, might have appeared in the optimistic predictions of children’s comics of the last century that always began
“In the year 2000”, and continued:
…go to work in a hover car / not need to go to work because we’ll all work from home using TVs that you talk to,
…eat food in tablet form that contains all the nutrition and vitamins we need / have our food cooked instantly by silver-clad mums in space-age kitchens where the furniture rises up out of the floor”.
Yes, and offices will be paperless.
This sci-fi embalming technique is plastination, invented by Dr Gunter von Hagens. Dr von Hagens is a colourful character who is also famous for doing live dissections on UK national TV despite being told it’s against the law (no charges brought), and for answering accusations of body snatching in various courts around the world (as director of his company, not personally, and again not guilty, I hasten to add). He also gets accused of bad taste and offences in the area of kitsch, like using dissected bodies to recreate scenes from Bond films for his ‘2007’ display for 2007.
He invented plastination for medical specimens of organs and tissue used for teaching purposes, and scaled-up the technique for whole body preservation – usually human, but also horses, a gorilla, and even a giraffe. The bodies are dissected and posed to display different anatomical systems, often with the skin and muscles cantilevered out like the 3D exploded diagrams that come with manufacturer’s assembly instructions.
He sometimes copies poses from historic anatomical treatises – like the flayed man holding out his skin, as if over the cloakroom counter of a very severe S&M club – and sometimes uses similar ideas of his own, like the man running so fast his skin and muscles are being peeled off by the slipstream and flapping in his wake.
As well as pinching ideas from Vesalius, he always wears a black hat in public, even when dissecting, like Rembrandt in his painting of the Syndics of Utrecht – the one with the staff of the medical school dissecting a body with the artist stage right.
Although, despite his hat, the professor doesn’t claim to be any kind of artist, he is a top class anatomist, and along with the hat, he has something else in common with the great artists of history: like the renaissance master painters doing the hands and faces after their apprentices had filled in the rest of the canvas, he does the hardest bits of dissection himself.
His method of preservation is the best anyone’s come up with so far, and it probably can’t be bettered. All the water and fats are removed from the tissues and replaced by plastic, hard or soft, as end-product application requires. Natural colour and texture can be retained, and the weight of the specimen remains the same. Tissue or organ samples, or whole bodies, can be sliced like bacon, as thin as a sheet of paper.
First of all, the specimen or body is soaked in a bath of acetone at minus 25°C and then gradually warmed to room temperature, until first the water boils off, then the fat. Then it goes in a plastic solution (silicone, epoxy or polyester polymer), which over days or weeks is brought to the boil in a vacuum, until plastic has leached in to replace the acetone as it evaporated out. The plastic is then cured using gas, heat or UV light depending on the type used. Different plastics give different properties, in different degrees: flexibility, colour contrast or transparency.
The finished article is immune to decay, and will never fade, shrink or dry out.
Because your local embalmer’s efforts are more perfunctory than the aforegoing methods, and because the typical English grave is a lot damper than the Egyptian desert, there’s not much chance of there being anything for a future Howard Carter to find. In a classic case of history repeating itself; just as in the days of the pharaohs, embalming has become less thorough and more symbolic. (“What we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history” – Stephen Buckley excepted of course).
One benefit that the undertaker’s method has over best practice though, is the use of a pink tint in the embalming fluid, which imparts a disconcertingly healthy-looking rosy glow. You see the same thing in carbon monoxide poisoning, which is what you die of when you rig your car up as a fume trap to commit suicide. The carbon monoxide bonds better with the haemoglobin in the blood than oxygen (which is why it kills you), so it’s a kind of super healthy glow, of the type produced by a brisk walk in a strong wind in nippy weather – very out of place on a corpse.
As well as improving the complexion, it also fills the tissues out, often not just getting rid of the hollow-cheeked desiccated look that corpses have, but actually making someone look better than they did before they died.
Higher pressure injecting can even get rid of wrinkles, and this – along with the make-up, wash ‘n’ brush up, shampoo and set (literally, since embalming fluid sets the body like rigor mortis), cotton wool inside the cheeks and eyecaps under the lids that fill the sockets out as well as keep the eyes closed – can make someone look not just better than they did before they died, but better than they had for years. The embalmer can put a smile on your face too – running a thread through the upper and lower lips to keep the mouth shut also allows him to tension it and tie it off to get any expression he likes, which the embalming fluid then helpfully freezes.
Men get a final shave of course, and here I can deal with (I was going to say ‘lay to rest’) another myth about dead bodies that people like to tell each other: your hair does NOT go on growing after you’re dead.
It looks as if beard stubble has grown after death because the stubble that was there at death looks longer afterwards, caused by the face flesh shrinking, leaving more of the stubble exposed.
I can also state with absolute certainty, from personal observation, that the head hair does not keep growing until it fills the coffin, another one I’ve heard a few times.
Tales from the Crypt
I know this from a time when I helped move coffins in a church crypt. They had to be moved from one part of the crypt to another, stacked up, and walled in. The builders who were doing work in the crypt were too superstitious to touch them, so I, being known to be unbothered by moving bodies around because of working for Balmer’s, along with a few other unsuperstitious types with strong backs that the vicar knew, spent a Saturday afternoon humping old coffins around.
Nowadays everyone would be worried about smallpox and anthrax spores, or lead poisoning from the oxides on the lead shells, but no-one bothered about that type of thing then. We wore gloves and white noddy suits like forensic technicians at a crime scene, and I taped the legs of mine to the tops of my boots, but that was it; no gasmasks or goggles or inoculations, or anything like that. As far as I know, none of us suffered any ill-effects.
You can imagine what it was like, dark, cold and clammy, even though it was a hot summer’s day outside. The end of the crypt where the builders had been working had high vaulted ceilings and the walls had been whitewashed. Workbenches and parts of the walls there were illuminated by tungsten lights on stands, and the floor was covered with loops of yellow wires from the lights and black ones from the power tools; but the space we were in was dark and claustrophobic, split up into bays with low arched ceilings either side of a central passageway.
The floor was flagged, and in the confined space our boots seemed to make a lot of noise scraping on the grit and bits of rubble from the connecting wall that the builders had knocked down to discover the coffins. I can remember being conscious that our breathing seemed to make a lot of noise, too – after we got going we were breathing hard because it was hard work, mainly because of the confined spaces we were forced to work in.
Some of the coffins were really crammed in, piled on top each other anyhow, stacked right up to the ceiling, and some of them were burst or broken. It looked like the burial services were probably done in the more presentable end of the crypt where the builders were working, with the coffins then being put in place reverentially in the tidy end of the bit we were in. Then, at a later date when space was running out, the earlier arrivals were shunted away to the back so that the bays at the other end could be re-used. In any case, the oldest coffins were the ones piled up at the back. They dated from the late 18th to mid 19th centuries. We knew that because they had coffin plates with dates on, lead (or perhaps it was pewter, it was difficult to tell because they were usually badly oxidised), but some were brass, particularly on the newer ones.
The older coffins were plainer, presumably reflecting the more elegant Regency preference for uncluttered Classicism, with the newer ones showing a growing elaboration of ornament in the coffin furniture and decoration of the exterior as Victorian taste took hold. A kind of record of changing tastes as plain as that in, for instance, car design – think of the increasing use of ornament and chrome in the post-war period.
The best quality had a mummy-shaped airtight lead inner shell with soldered seams, an inner coffin of what I believe was elm, and an outer coffin of oak. Cheaper versions had only one coffin of elm. The less elaborate versions also tended to be coffin-shaped, while the others were usually (but not always) rectangular – that is to say, strictly speaking, caskets.
The exterior of the caskets, and some coffins, was covered with cloth, either something like worsted or thin felt, or what might have been velvet. Some were maroon or brown, others black or faded purple. Some looked as if they might originally have been a deep red or very dark blue, rather than maroon or purple. The cloth was held in place by rows of upholsterer’s tacks, the type with the dome-shaped head; just round the edges on the older ones, but with increasingly elaborate geometric patterns as time went on, with close-set rows of three or four lines of tacks along the edges, and inbetween, single lines of window-pane check or lozenge patterns.
The older ones didn’t always have handles, just rings, but the later ones usually did, and more and more floridly ornamented, as was the plate with the name and dates on it. Some had flowers on top; very sad remnants after all those years.
…’res’ as in ‘resting place’, rather than ‘residence’
As I said, some of the coffins were broken, perhaps deliberately, so that they took up less space when they were moved to a less des res, and others broke when we moved them. That’s how I know there were different layers, and what the bodies looked like. The lead shell was often very brittle, and perhaps there was some kind of gas or liquid seepage from it that affected the wood of the coffin too.
The bodies were always dressed in shrouds made of thick wool that were a foot or two too long, and sometimes with a kind of snood or extravagantly long collars at the other end. I believe this custom came about originally because of a law passed by Charles II that all corpses were to be buried in a woollen shroud specifically of this generous size, a law introduced to protect the English wool trade. The priest had to mark the burial with an “A” in the parish records to Affirm that he had checked there was a woollen shroud. The only exceptions were plague victims or those buried naked because they were too poor to afford a shroud. The penalty otherwise was a fine of £5 in the local Magistrate’s Court; so only the very poor, the very rich, or the very unlucky went to their grave without a shroud.
The occupants always had their hands crossed on their chest; and with the swaddling effect of the shroud, often the hands and face alone were all that was visible, with the features framed in folds of the coarse wool that filled the space between the face and the coffin edge.
Many were surprisingly well-preserved, and one or two, exposed when the lead shell collapsed as we moved them, really did look as if they had only died recently; but in those cases exposure to fresh air (comparatively speaking) and oxygen made them degrade very rapidly, in a matter of minutes. (but not ‘right before your very eyes’ like the kind of time-lapse photography effect that horror films use).
Others that had obviously been exposed for some time frequently retained their hair, even when there was no flesh left on the rest of the skull. This gave the appearance of a skull with a wig glued in place, and if it was a man with sideburns (although, incidentally, none had sideburns below the cheekbone), these would be curling up, as if the glue had dried up round the edges.
And I can confirm definitively, and, I hope, once and for all, that none of them had long hair filling the coffin, and the men did not all sport luxurious post-mortem beards.
The hair was often a curious orangey shade of red, like the colour that you see on Moslem men who’ve gone white but dye their hair and beard with henna. This was, I think, not because more people had red hair then, but some kind of post-mortem effect, perhaps something to do with chemical changes related to how the lead oxides from the shells react with body fluids.
Speaking of which, in the shells that broke open when we moved them, the bodies would usually be well-preserved, with flesh, eyebrows, and hair, and retaining some fullness in the facial features, but always with an inconvenient extra: half a pint or more of a sweet-smelling dark-coloured liquid collected in the bottom of the shell. I say inconvenient because if you happened to be lifting the coffin when it split, the liquid would spill over you. I once got some in the face when we were lifting a coffin from the top of a stack.
I can only guess it was a kind of distillate of the body fluids, the rest of them perhaps having leaked out through the soldered seams as the shell oxidised.
This substance is mentioned by John Aubrey in his Brief Lives. John Aubrey was a Restoration historian (although they called themselves Antiquarians then). He was generally sneered at by later historians for just being a glorified gossip who never finished anything; but he was the first person to work out that Avebury prehistoric stone circle was a prehistoric stone circle, and he was also the first person to suggest that Stonehenge was a lot older than anyone had previously suggested it was.
“John Colet (1466-1599).
John Colet, D.D., deane of St. Paula’s London – vide Sir William Dugdale’s Historie of Paule’s church. After the conflagration his monument being broken, his coffin, which was lead, was full of a liquour which conserved the body. Mr Wyld and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and ‘twas of a kind of insipid tast, something of an ironish tast. The body felt, to the probe of a stick they thrust into a chinke, like brawne. The coffin was of lead and layd in the wall about three feet above the surface of the floore.”
Brief Lives ed. Rev Andrew Clark, 1898
The conflagration being the Great Fire of London in 1666, Colet had been stewing in his own juices for 67 years when Messrs Wyld and Greatorex sampled them.
What were they doing prodding poor old Colet with a stick and tasting his liquor?
Ralph Greatorex was an inventor and scientific instrument maker, and Edmund Wylde was an MP and civil servant, and the reason they were poking around St Paul’s as if it was a sale of fire-damaged goods was also how John Aubrey knew them: they were all members of the Royal Society, the first professional organisation in the world for what are now called scientists (although they called themselves Natural Philosophers then.)
You might also want to know what “brawne” is, too, it seems to be an old-fashioned idea on its way to being a bygone. It’s a kind of savoury jelly with the debris from cutting ham or joints or whatever embedded in it: meat leftovers in aspic.
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Over Your Dead Body is a nonfiction book with a very personal narrative that reads like a novel. It takes in real life experiences, the science of death and caring for the dead, the after-death existence of pharoahs, kings and dictators, underworld and gangland connections with the funeral trade and how 20,000 people in post-communist Poland were murdered because they were worth more dead than alive, why we wear black at funerals - and nude hiking. It begins with a brief behind the scenes look at undertaking, and the day to day experience of working in the funeral business. We learn what undertakers do, about their curious obsession with embalming and exactly how they do it, its history from ancient times through to present day corpses being turned into plastic, and a modern day version of an Egyptian mummy created by archaeologists from a donated body. Further glimpses of personal experience are used later on to illuminate the problems that arise from the laws of science and natural processes – sometimes gruesome, often surprising, always revealing. After this brief but vivid introduction, the origins of funeral ceremony are uncovered through accounts of medieval heralds and royal funerals, with their roots surpringly often related to the science of decomposition and the hit and miss methods that attempted to deal with it. We also learn what ordinary people did before there were undertakers, and the combination of social upheaval, snobbery and 'mission creep' that led to their appearance, their rise to glory in Victorian times, and the global industries created to provide the rigmarole they traded in. There are chapters on sex and death, and death and the law – who legally owns a dead body? The final section explores the future of how we deal with the dead, and new technologies set to replace cremation and burial, with an ecological audit of the different methods, old and new. It also has practical advice on how to conduct a funeral without using an undertaker. The narrative is peopled throughout with bizarre characters who cross over between the death business and the the worlds of medicine, warfare, literature, crime, religion and big business: the first man to die in the American Civil War and the man who created a new industry by embalming him, the earl’s son who made art out of human body parts, the first modern embalming, who was kept in the parlour by her husband, the man who made cremation legal, and who wore a comic book hero’s costume in the 19th century… and perhaps surprisingly, there is also humour.