Let the Corpses Decay

by Conor Friedersdorf

In case you missed it, this week's reader question prompt was, "What widely accepted practice, custom or societal norm do you regard as irrational, absurd, offensive, silly, nonsensical, counterproductive, or morally wrong?"

Perhaps 200 people responded, and the most frequent answer was that it makes no sense to say "God bless you" after someone sneezes. Lots of readers also lodged complaints against eating meat, mistreating animals, believing in God, practicing organized religion, driving SUVs, and the societal practice of pairing off in monogamous relationships.

Less expected responses will make up the bulk of what I post. Let's start with a common answer that I didn't anticipate:

Carol objected most concisely: "Pumping dead bodies full of embalming fluid and burying them in a sealed casket, instead of wrapped in fabric in a pine box so they can decay as quickly as possible."

Says Carmel:


Perhaps not so much the fact that we as a society bury bodies at all, but the manner in which we do so is, frankly, grotesque. First we embalm the corpse. The body is preserved with gallons upon gallons of formaldehyde and ethanol, and the face is set in the "proper" expression, as if it were a child's doll. (It should be noted that the average burial puts hundreds of gallons of embalming chemicals into the soil, so this practice isn't merely twisted, it's an environmental disaster.) Continuing this monstrous parody of dress-up, the body is then groomed, makeup is applied, and the deceased is dressed in its Sunday best for all to see. The body is then displayed in its casket, so that mourners may admire the embalmers' handiwork. Then, and only then, is the corpse finally buried--in an overpriced mahogany box lined with satin pillows that look like rejects from Hugh Heffner's interior decorators.

We're not honoring our dead loved ones by doing this; we're desecrating them. People may as well taxidermy their dearly departed. At least then you can use your beloved Aunt Mable as a hat rack.

Lisa writes:

I find myself, so far as I know, very much in the minority on the issue of having open caskets at funeral viewings. People have insisted to me that being able to see the deceased in this manner brings some sort of 'closure.' Personally, I find it morbid, gruesome, voyeuristic and unnecessary.

This isn't a matter of squeamishness on my part - I'm not freaked out by the sight of a dead body. I simply don't see the need to put the deceased 'on display' in this matter, if only out of respect. I myself have told my husband and kids in no uncertain terms that they are NOT to do this to me when the time comes. Closed casket, cremation, donation to science, whatever...but no traditional 'viewing.'

I've requested that I be cremated, but that a life-sized, cosmetically accentuated ice-sculpture version of myself be displayed at the funeral so that my friends and family can look upon me one last time, bidding their goodbyes as I melt into eternity.

I'm kidding! But the descriptions above make that seem preferable to being embalmed.