Embalming and the social construction of the corpse in contemporary England
This research study analyses the construction of meaning surrounding the embalmed corpse in contemporary England. It documents a process of social change in which Legal, Medical and Religious discourses concerning the dead, once dominant and unchallenged, now co-exist, if somewhat uneasily, with modern constructions of death and the possibility of an after life. The meaning of the embalmed corpse is considered to be constructed by different elements which are presented historically. Initially religious discourses governed the meaning of the body, which was preserved for religious reasons. 17th century surgeon-embalmers requisitioned the corpse for reasons of status assertion, presenting their arguments in medical terms. Contemporary hygiene issues, in tandem with legal issues, today have a powerful impact on the corpse, which is usually experienced by mourners in the context of contemporary consumer culture, after the process of embalming has occurred. The decline of religious practices also mean that the contemporary corpse has assumed a far greater significance than in the past. From the perspective of the sociology of the body, based on the seminal work of Turner, this thesis discusses how changing experiences of live bodies are inextricably linked with changing experience of dead bodies in contemporary societies. This is accomplished through an interpretation of the different meaning attributed to embalmed corpses, together with an appreciation of the work of Hertz and Van Gennep, both of whom identified, in pre-literate societies, the centrality and embeddedness of the treatment of the corpse to funeral rituals. The thesis reports some empirical investigations of embalming-related issues which provide an analysis of contemporary meanings of the corpse and cast light upon the contemporary structure of the English funeral world. Embalmers expect to produce a culturally acceptable ‘death disguise’ for the benefit of mourners whose encounters with the corpse are surprisingly numerous in contemporary death-denying society. Culturally acceptable death images appear to focus upon the dead being in a condition of 'liminal repose', where the illusion of rest is constructed. Embalmers and funeral directors comprise occupations that are quite distinct, although working with the dead in different parts of the same process. Highlighting the significance of corpse appearance, whereby it is rendered 'normal', has also highlighted the socio-cultural process whereby this transformation occurs. As the dead are carefully re-presented, this has hidden the 'true' condition of the dead and therefore also hidden the covert technicians, embalmers, who accomplish this transformation. Embalming therefore appears a hidden aspect of the social construction of the dead, as death is now estranged from the popular context.