frigid safe powder

Ever wondered what a funeral director’s convention would be like? Ashlea Halpern can tell you

image found here

On the whole, the morticians here are pale and heavily mustached, with white hair and liver spots, big gold watches and chunky class rings, hangdog jowls and the occasional cane wobbling underfoot.

hangdog jowls found here

In the decomp department, there’s Eckels Arrest for Tissue Gas (“destroys maggots, lice and vermin and eliminates tissue ‘crunching‘”), Frigid Safe Powder (“the economical choice for external embalming over gangrene, cancer sores, mutilation and autopsy cases”) and Aron Alpha instant adhesive (“seals lips, eyelids and incisions and dries clear in 45 seconds”).

image found here

“Do you like perfume?” asks one embalmer/salesman. I nod, and he spritzes me with a cadaver-friendly odor neutralizer. “You can use it on the skin, in the mouth, in the nose or for other… problem orifices.” It smells like orange-scented toilet bowl cleaner.

The goal of embalming is not permanent preservation, but to make the body “acceptable” and “identifiable” to interested parties. Like a designer supergluing the hem of a dress minutes before a runway show, embalmers pin bodies together just long enough to make it through a wake and funeral. A PowerPoint presentation shows us how to do this in cases of severe head-crushing trauma or soft tissue damage.

It starts with the before-and-after photos of a decomp. In the top photo, Mr. X’s mangled face resembles a bowl of black, oozy spaghetti, the ashen skin peeled away like leather on a baseball. His facial features are indistinguishable from one another. In the bottom photo, he’s waxy white and rather sticky looking, but at least you can tell his nose from his mouth. He’s not winning any beauty awards, but the kids’ll recognize him.

Black spaghetti found here

One prominent US citizen who was not embalmed was wealthy Alexander T Stewart (1803-1876). Some time after his burial at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery, Stewart’s body was stolen and the remains held for ransom.

image found here

Inspector Dilks, acting Police Commissioner, exuded confidence in a speedy resolution of the mystery. He sent out a directive describing the body’s removal from the broken casket and then noted: “The decomposition of the remains is so offensive that this cannot be concealed.

Each day brought positive statements from either Inspector Dilks or Captain Byrnes, chief of detectives. On November 13, for instance, under a headline “PRIVATE DETECTIVES ON THE SCENT,” readers learned that all was going well and that some “forty-odd experienced detectives” were now on the case. On Friday, November 15, under the glowing banner, “A. T. STEWART’S BODY FOUND! THE GUILTY PERSONS ALL KNOWN,” the New York Times proudly announced: “Nearly complete evidence has been secured, and an officer of the law holds every man in his grasp, only awaiting the signal to drag him to prison.” 

image found here

On the 16th Captain Byrnes announced the arrest of two of the “ghouls,” William Burke and Henry Vreeland, but though “swarms of detectives” were ready to pounce, the paper further noted that the “complete swoop” had not yet been made “because of the continued incompleteness of the proof against some of the guilty parties”

image found here

But these were only “indications,” and from here on it was all downhill, although confident announcements of imminent success continued daily for another week and the reward was raised to $50,000. Clue after clue, lead after lead petered out. It soon became apparent that Burke and Vreeland had had nothing to do with the crime.

Another prime suspect, Kelly the Hackman, alias “Bull” Kelly, was also eliminated, though not until after two New York detectives on his trail had  spent the evening with him in a bar but failed to recognize him.

Eventually a ransom was paid, and remains were returned, although never verified as his. A local legend states that the mausoleum holding his remains is rigged with security devices which will cause the bells of the Cathedral to ring if ever again disturbed.

Cathedral of the Incarnation found here

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53 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Okay, only white spaghetti for me from now on. And that bit about unnamed orifices was ghastly – air freshener is horrible at the best of times. Ah, Nurse, I appreciate your dedication to rubbing our noses in the real stuff of life.

  2. “frigid safe powder” Dear God!On the same shelf as KY?

  3. Spaghetti eh?
    (I met an ex-taxidermist last night, lovely fellow, no jowls. In fact, a rather delicious jawbone…)

    • I’m fascinated by taxidermy, especially from the Victorian era.

  4. I’ve viewed the bodies of all those I have loved but always advise other friends and family members not to go view the body unless they are prepared to accept that what they will see is not the person they knew – however good the embalmer’s art, they cannot capture the essence of the person that animated that body and gave it life 😦

    • Duncan, thanks. It is so true that what makes us “us” is something almost intangible and how quickly that goes once we are gone.

      • I don’t think embalming is very common in Australia.

      • We only have “Morto, the Embalming Clown”. Apparently he does children’s parties – scary…

        The King

      • They don’t embalm bodies in Australia?! With the climate you have there?

  5. I’m a little too squeamish for all this. Is there a good mind-bleach on the shelf there?

    • No but there’s plenty of KY. dinahmow can direct you to the appropriate shelf.

  6. Nursie this was so good. And you just know I followed that link to the funeral convention story, don’t you?

    On a side note, Inspector Byrnes was an interesting character. I wonder have you read a novel called “Time and Again” by Jack Finney. I think the Inspector Byrnes in the novel is the same person you mention in your article. He was well known for manufacturing confessions and locking people up so I’m thinking it was probably the same man.

    • No I haven’t read it but it sounds good.

  7. Embalming? No thanks. Such an odd human custom to cut the person ope, drain fluids, and insert a bunch of chemicals, just to make the body last a few more days so it can be put on display. Not for me. I would prefer to be cremated and my ashes interred at a giant memorial to me.

    • Cremation for me too. How is your giant memorial going to be shaped?

  8. oh, my! those beefy morticians are simply to die for!

    • Front left is mine!

  9. See! THAT’S why I want to be cremated. None of that starring at the corps, people stealing my body nonsense for me. It’s all too old world, spooky-religion for my modern tastes.

    • Any other requests? Would you like to be shot out of a cannon like Hunter S Thompson?

  10. I read somewhere that we eat so many preservatives that our bodies take longer to decompose.

  11. You know, Nursie, you ain’t gonna believe this. But Halpern’s article brought a tear of nostalgia to my eye.

    When I was at University, I had a weekend job with a funeral director. It was an office job, as it happens, so I didn’t need to deal with THAT side of the business.

    Undertakers sure know how to party. I am tempted to make an observation about existential awareness, but that might be a stretch.

    While I wordked tehre, my boss was a vice president of the International Funeral Director’s Association, and organised the world convention in Sydney. Now that was a helluva bash.

    • Do you have photos? 😉

  12. When you said: make the body “acceptable” and “identifiable” to interested parties. I thought you were writing “make the body “acceptable” and “identifiable” at interesting parties. After re-reading, I realized my mistake. I’ve never seen this at a party before either.

    • Ok that just won you comment of the day.

    • Funerals are, if nothing else, often interesting parties.

  13. I’m with the Good Greatsby on losing the embalming all together and going for the flames.

    • Yep, I’m with you. Keep it simple.

  14. that black spaghetti is freaky. like its made of squid ink or something.

  15. I hope that belled boobie trap plays something catchy (and appropriate) – maybe the theme from Mission Impossible…
    🙂

  16. I tried the corpse-ransom lark. Unfortunately most of the relatives had no desire to see their obnoxious loved ones ever again, so the corpses are still putrifying in my garage. The stench is unbelievable.

  17. I went out with a Lady Funeral Director once…she certainly knew how to handle a stiff.

  18. I’m going to be cremated and my ashes smuggled into a gingernut factory … you have been warned!

  19. I once dated a lady embalmer,I told her, “I’m going to feck you in my bedroom, my bathroom, my kitchen and my lounge when we get back to mine.”

    She replied, “Wow! Let’s go – it’s good to find a man with such stamina these days.”

    For some reason, she didn’t seem too impressed when we finally got back to the caravan.

    • Horse-drawn?

      • Not sure about drawn, but we both emerged a little pale.

  20. The nice thing about being a mortician is that you never run out of customers.

    • How true is that. It is probably one business that won’t ever go out of style, be offshored or taken over by computers.

  21. Taxidermist used to be on my list of possible professions. I never made it to an actual stuffing process. I got sidetracked after the skinning. I did skin a squirrel for a how-to speech in high school, though. 🙂

  22. I’d like to be composted or cremated with Jack the cat’s remains.

    • Does your sister know this Syncy? I want to be scattered under Stephen’s tree. If my kids don’t carry out my wishes I’ll be back to haunt them.

      • When my feline companion passed on a couple of years ago, I decided to leave explicit instructions with the rellos that he is to go in the box with me when I’m cremated. Lucky cat to be cremated twice, that’s what I say.

        Nursie, that seems like a reasonable request. Nice to have the tree as a living memorial too.

  23. People are dying to see an undertaker… Sorry, I’ll get my coat!

    • When I worked at an undertaker, we had an official policy on jokes like that. Especially form cops, who always think they’re funny.

      A favourite joke amongst cops was to ask the following. “How’s business? I suppose business is a bit DEAD, eh?” They would then laugh at their own cleverness.

      Our policy was to reply with a straight face. “No, business is looking up.”

      About a third of the cops didn’t get it, or at least didn’t get it until they were in the car on the way back to the station and thought about it.

      • you need to blog about your time in that job

  24. I went to a wake (funny word to view a dead body) of a friend last year and she looked horrible… nothing like herself – she was all puffed up and someone told me it was because she hadn’t been embalmed. I’m glad she didn’t explode!

    Add me to the cremation list.

  25. I should go into the cadaver-friendly odor neutralizer business. I can’t imagine there being much market competition.

    Mine will smell like lavender.

  26. Fascinating! Jewish funerals take place as soon as possible after time of death to ensure minimal decay of the deceased. That is why there isn’t a tradition of a showing of the body/coffin prior to the funeral (seen as delaying the burial.)

  27. I’m tempted to buy a few cans of cadaver-friendly odor neutralizer and leave them around the house (by the kitchen sink, on the bathroom counter, etc.) just to see how people react.

  28. We don’t go in for embalming in the UK either, not in any significant numbers anyway, neither do we like viewing the body. Both seem peculiar (to us anyway) American customs. I’m hapy for my corpse to experimented on when I go, if they can find anything useful to do with it.

  29. I hope my orifices are never problematic for anyone.


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