Exposing Reality in “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain”

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Exposing Reality in “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain”

This essay will analyze “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain,” an essay by Jessica Mitford. It will discuss how the essay exposes the reality of the embalming process and the funeral industry. The piece will explore the themes of death practices, cultural norms, and industry transparency presented in the essay. Also at PapersOwl you can find more free essay examples related to Death.

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Most of the general population is not aware of what is being done to their loved ones’ bodies behind closed curtains as they wheel them off to the mortuary services.

Summary of “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain”

English writer Jessica Mitford, in her essay “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain,” explains undertakers’ process of embalming and restoration of the deceased before the actual funeral. Mitford criticizes the distasteful process of embalming and exposes the commercialization of the funeral industry. She adopts a humorous and almost mocking tone in order to draw out disgust in the general public and to help support her opinion that the process is strange and unnecessary.

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Mitford’s Use of Irony and Tone

Mitford’s writing implements various rhetorical devices like irony/tone, diction, syntax, and imagery to shed some light for the general population about the embalming process and the truth behind the mortuary profession. Although it was never mentioned that she objects to the practice of embalming, the process takes on a negative connotation and is the subject of Mitford’s sarcastic yet informative tone.

She opens the essay with “Alas, poor Yorick! […] a Beautiful Memory Picture” (Mitford, Par. 1), almost with a mocking tone to show how pointless the whole process is. By comparing the whole procedure to a play by Shakespeare, she creates a sense that everything that goes on in a funeral home is money-oriented and superficial. In addition, she utilizes ironic remarks like “How true; once the blood is removed, chances of live burial are indeed remote” (Mitford, Par. 10). She employs this strategy to keep her readers interested and engaged while emphasizing the central idea. It is obvious that once the deceased is dead, they are not going to wake up, but by making these remarks, the readers have to stop and think about what has been said.

Similarly, she quotes the embalmer, “Death by carbon monoxide, on the other hand, can be a rather good thing from the embalmer’s viewpoint […] This is nice because the healthy glow is already present and needs but little attention” (Mitford, Par. 18). In this sentence, she employs sarcasm to point out how cruel the embalmer can be when treating the family’s deceased loved one’s body. She emphasizes that the funeral is solely a business, and the people in this profession do not care for the desire of the deceased’s family. Lastly, she concludes with, “He and his team have given their all to score an upset victory over death” (Mitford, Par. 27). Mitford’s use of irony leaves the readers feeling uncomfortable with the whole embalming process as if it is just some game to those involved in handling the corpses. She is implying that the morticians have little to no empathy toward the families of the deceased.

Diction and Repetition: Mitford’s Language Choices

Mitford’s use of diction is informal and ironic while still being straightforward to convey her point of view on the topic. As she points out, “Is a hand missing? Casting one in the plaster of Paris is a simple matter” (Mitford, Par. 15). These procedures are normal for an embalmer. The casual diction highlights the sarcasm in her writing. The way Mitford presented these things in a matter-of-fact kind of way evokes a sense of humor. Moreover, she uses repetition, as evidenced in “[Mr. Jones] is covered with a sheet and left unmolested in a while. But not for long — there is more, much more, in store for him” (Mitford, Par. 13). This sentence is deployed to prepare the reader for the horrid treatments that are coming after. The repetition of the word “more” emphasizes the atrocious ways the funeral directors treat the deceased bodies.

Syntax and Parenthetical Insights

Also, knowing that she is writing for an audience with varying intelligence, she maintains the use of informal diction throughout the essay. For instance, she mentions the positioning of the body, “It should lie as high as possible in the casket, […] when lowered, will hit the nose” (Mitford, Par. 19). Since her intended audience is the general public, she appeals to what an average person would know about the funeral services and further explains what they would not understand. She clarifies why things are done the way they are done in ways she would not have to if she was talking to a funeral director. Moreover, Mitford utilizes syntax, like parentheses, not only to further explain what she meant but to criticize the word usage of the morticians.

For example, she claims that “The embalmer […] is beginning to adopt the term dermasurgeon (appropriately corrupted by some mortician-writers as “demi-surgeon”)” (Mitford, Par. 8). By jumping out of the sentence to convey to the readers about something, it draws attention to her point about how embalmer acts like surgeons when they are not. She makes use of the parentheses to lighten the mood with a joke regarding the qualifications of the embalmer for handling a body and for the readers to actively consider the truth. Likewise, she continues to critique their word usage, as evidenced in “Everyone was walking toward the coffin (sorry, I mean casket)” (Mitford, Par. 23).

Imagery and the Exposure of Inhuman Treatment

Mitford incorporates parentheses throughout her writing as side notes to the readers, conveying how she feels about the sugar-coated words funeral directors use in front of the families of the deceased. She implies that the funeral directors hide behind their words to cover up what is really going on behind the curtains. Lastly, she goes into ghastly details about the embalming and restoration process using imagery to draw out disgust from the audience. For instance, Mitford describes how the trocar was used by the embalmer, “This is a long, hollow needle […] It is jabbed into the abdomen, poked around the entrails and chest cavity” (Mitford, Par. 13).

Her usage of imagery appeals to the readers’ senses and exposes how inhumanely the bodies are treated. The imagery evokes feelings of disgust, which Mitford wants the readers to feel. Similarly, she moves on to describe the restoration process, “Swollen mouth? Cut out tissue as needed from inside the lips” (Mitford, Par. 15). By showing how the families’ loved ones’ bodies are dehumanized into a doll, it serves her purpose of illustrating how cruel the process is. She aims to evoke a sense of anger from the audience by showing the embalmer’s lack of respect for the deceased.

After reading this, she is hoping the readers would support her opinion and reconsider how Americans want to honor their deceased loved ones. Mitford successfully uses many rhetorical devices to get her point across to her readers. She utilizes tone/irony, diction, syntax, and imagery to reveal the truth “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtains” of the funeral homes, which is a sole money-making business. Her writing is filled with sarcasm, which evokes feelings and makes readers stop and reconsider what has been said. She shed light on the process of embalming and restoration, which is not widely known by the general public, to inform them of what they are putting their money into, hoping readers would reconsider how they want to honor their loved ones after they pass away.


  1. Mitford, J. (1963). Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain. In The American Way of Death. Simon & Schuster.
  2. Harrison, L. (1991). The Business of Dying: The Financial Reality of the Funeral Industry. University of Chicago Press.
  3. Smith, R. A. (2008). Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice (5th ed.). McGraw-Hill Medical.
  4. Turner, P. (2016). The Rhetoric of Death: A Critical Analysis of Jessica Mitford’s “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain”. Rhetoric Review, 35(2), 148-159.
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Exposing Reality in “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain”. (2023, Aug 18). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/exposing-reality-in-behind-the-formaldehyde-curtain/