Behind The Formaldehyde Curtain: Summary and Analysis

April 20, 2023
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Behind The Formaldehyde Curtain: Summary and Analysis essay
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"Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain" is an essay written by Jessica Mitford in 1963, originally published in The American Way of Death. The essay exposes the American funeral industry's practices and procedures, including the embalming process and the sale of expensive caskets, and criticizes the industry's tendency to exploit grieving families. In Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain, the purpose of Mitford is to argue that the funeral industry is solely profit-driven and that it takes advantage of people's ignorance and emotions during the grieving process. Mitford's analysis is still relevant today as the funeral industry remains a for-profit industry that often capitalizes on people's emotions.

The concept of death is widely associated with sorrow and remorse. In “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain” summary, Jessica Mitford tackles both the obvious and overlooked problems involved in North Americas’ popular tradition of embalming. Mitford creates a brilliant argument against this oppressive procedure by using explicit information, skillfully placed sarcasm, and moral values as evidence to expose the taboo brutality within this process.

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Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain: rhetorical analysis

Firstly, Mitford builds her argument on a strong base by immediately drawing attention to the fact that the process of embalming is simply disgusting. She begins by comparing embalmers or “dermasurgeons” (311) to surgeons in the room of embalming as their “equipment, consisting of scalpels, scissors, augers, forceps, clamps, needles, pumps, tubes, bowls, and basins, is crudely imitative of the surgeon’s” (311). She goes further to highlight this resemblance by pointing out that embalmers have specific locations in the body through which they would like to drain fluid from including “ the carotid artery, femoral artery, jugular vein, subclavian vein” (312). Mitford also addresses the unpleasantness of having one’s internal fluids removed and replacing them with chemicals which preserve the body for the sake of eye pleasing. By emphasizing the gruesome activities that must take place in order for a successful open casket funeral, Mitford increases the efficiency of her argument by proving that it is an unnecessary and inhumane practice.

Mitford stimulates her argument in a discreet but effective way by adding sarcastic remarks to ridicule the entire concept of embalming itself. Upon the discussion of cosmetically enhancing dead bodies prior to putting them on display, she points out that the placement of the body is extremely vital because “placing the body too low creates the impression that the body is in a box” (qtd. in Mitford). She does this again by mentioning how an embalmer’s job is actually made easier with certain types of deaths, for example, if an individual is to die from carbon monoxide poisoning, it would be beneficial for the embalmer “because the healthy glow is already present and needs but little attention”(314). Near the end of her conclusion, Mitford mocks the open-casket custom one last time by advertising “the Gordon Earth Dispenser (at $5) which is of nickel- plated brass construction… it is also “one of the tools for building better public relations.” (qtd. in Mitford). Mitford intelligently adds these cynical remarks to make embalmers and their profession sound increasingly absurd, favoring her argumentative position.

Furthermore, Mitford’s argument is well thought out because she also discusses how embalming interferes with the ability of friends and family to mourn the deceased individual. This is because “the best results are to be obtained if the subject is embalmed before life is completely extinct- that is, before cellular death has occurred…this would mean within an hour of somatic death” (qtd. in Mitford). This suggests that the practice of embalming is really only considered as an assignment which must be completed within a certain time frame for ideal results without having value and respect for the individuals. Mitford also takes into consideration that embalming is unauthentic, “untouched by human hand, the coffin and earth are now united” (316), referring to the fact that everything about this method of grieving is artificial, from the body components, to the actual funeral itself. By exposing readers to the vulnerable and upsetting reality of this custom, Mitford elevates the strength of her argument because she addresses issues that have gone unnoticed.

Not only is embalming unethical according to Mitford, she also acknowledges that those who provides the embalming services are corrupt and greedy. Funeral directors are fraudulent as “ they have relived the family of every, they have revamped the corpse to look like a living doll.. put on a well-oiled performance in which the concept of death played no part whatsoever”(316). Mitford successfully argues that embalming for an open casket funeral is a scheme for embalmers, funeral directors, and funeral homes to make profit and to be praised for their work and services.

All in all, Mitford makes a successful and convincing argument against embalming by using effective techniques to persuade readers that the procedure and effects of embalming are disastrous in ways that are unimaginable. By using informative quotations from research sarcasm, and disgust in her argument, she is able to give a detailed insight into the ruthless reality behind what seems to be a glorified and respectable funeral service.


  1. Mitford, J. (1967). Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain. The American Way of Death.
  2. Chambers, D. W. (2011). Inside the American way of death: An interview with Jessica Mitford. Mortality, 16(3), 290-305. doi:10.1080/13576275.2011.585608
  3. Mitford, J. (1998). The American way of death revisited. Vintage.
  4. Bledsoe, T. A., & Davis, S. M. (2013). Culture and Death: A Multicultural Perspective. Routledge.
  5. Shneidman, E. S. (1999). Autopsy of a suicidal mind. Oxford University Press.
  6. Crawford, R. (1980). Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life. International Journal of Health Services, 10(3), 365-388. doi:10.2190/3H4K-4YHX-2C4Q-UFWN
  7. Kalish, R. A., & Reynolds, R. P. (1976). Death and Ethnicity: A Psychocultural Study. Springer Science & Business Media.
  8. Sontag, S. (1978). Illness as metaphor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  9. Kleinman, A. (1980). Patients and healers in the context of culture: An exploration of the borderland between anthropology, medicine, and psychiatry. University of California Press.
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Expert Review
This essay provides a thorough analysis of Jessica Mitford's essay "Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain," effectively capturing the author's intent to critique the funeral industry's practices. The writer skillfully dissects Mitford's arguments, highlighting her use of vivid descriptions, sarcasm, and evidence to condemn the embalming process and the exploitation of grieving families. The analysis is well-structured and offers a comprehensive overview of Mitford's key points. The inclusion of direct quotes and specific examples enhances the credibility of the essay. The writer demonstrates a keen understanding of rhetorical techniques employed by Mitford. Overall, this essay offers an excellent evaluation of the original essay's persuasive elements.
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What can be improved
Thesis Statement: Explicitly state the main thesis of Mitford's essay at the beginning of the analysis to provide a clear roadmap for readers. Clarity: Organize the analysis by focusing on one key point per paragraph to ensure clarity and effective development of arguments. Citations: Include proper citations for direct quotes and references to the original essay to support the analysis and enhance its authenticity.
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Behind The Formaldehyde Curtain: Summary and Analysis essay

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