An Analysis of Jessica Mitford’s Rhetorical Creation,
“Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain”
Have you ever wondered what they put inside Mr. Stretch Armstrong? Is what they put inside this abnormally stretchy, elastic toy of the seventies, close to what they put in the bodies of today just before they’re put on display at a funeral? Well it’s not; but Jessica Mitford does know and is perfectly willing to explain in detail the whole process. An analysis, of Mitford’s essay, “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain,” which will dissect and describe the literary elements she utilizes as the chilling and grisly facts are clearly laid out on the table and we bear witness to the almost taboo processes of embalming and restorative artistry.
The primary purpose of this essay is to describe, in depth, the gruesome steps of a mortician and beautician as they take a human body and turn it into a canvas for viewing by a most mournful array of critiques. Each of which remains “[…] blissfully ignorant of what it is all about, what it is, [and] how it is done” (Mitford 257). Another purpose would be to expose, or simply bring to light, the somewhat illegal practices of the industry. However, is it really a question of legality or just an ill informed public? Mitford states, “In most states, for instance, the signature of the next of kin must be obtained before an autopsy may be performed, […]. In the case of embalming, no such permission is required nor is it ever sought” (257). She seems to be mocking the system in which the two practices differentiate in protocol. Is not the morticians’ job to cut into a deceased human beings body, the same as a coroner? Yes, the two professions are similar and therefore should follow the same protocol but, for a mortician to achieve the best results, “’The earlier, […] the better [….]’” (259). So, the question isn’t, “Is it legal?” more a question of, “How much time can I (the mortician or coroner) wait to cut into the body?” The answer, if asked by the coroner, might be multiple hours or even a day or so. For a mortician, “[…] the best results are to be obtained if the subject is embalmed [within an hour after somatic death]” (259). The thesis to Mitford’s essay puts in our minds a picture, not a detailed image of what happens but enough to describe what the rest of her essay will expound upon. The sentence in question being, “How surprised he would be to see how his counterpart of today is whisked off to a funeral parlor and in short order sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, roughed, and neatly dressed – transformed into a Beautiful Memory Picture” (256). The whole essay is based around these words in that they are each a part of the embalming and restorative art process. She starts with an illustration of a man who has lost his loved one. This serves to pull at our hearts and make us come to an understanding, at a personal, level that these cadavers are more than just bodies in a cooler, they are our grandfathers, grandmothers, moms, dads, and so on. The list of words that follows are cold and leave a feeling that maybe the mortician doesn’t take care of the body. Rather they do their job without any respect to the body. However, with the last three words we are left with a feeling that the mortician does care and does want the person to be remembered with as much dignity as possible.
Mitford appears to be reaching out to the general public. This essay was pulled from her book, The American Way of Death, a bestseller that dives into the industry of embalming and restoration revealing its hidden secrets that are normally not spoken of or even thought about by the general public of America. The specific audience are those individuals interested in the medical and post death medical field. She uses words and phrases specific to those areas of training and learning but that are also not limited...