Mortal Coil: The Holidays and the Heart of Darkness

The Holidays and the Heart of Darkness

For some, the autumnal equinox is a time of celebration. The increasingly shorter days usher in holidays in October, November and December in a blur of festive celebration with family and friends. For others however, the September solstice represents the start of a dark season, both literally and figuratively for people suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). While others revel in holiday spirit, those afflicted with SAD experience profound mental and emotional changes as a result of the changing amount of daylight.

Symptoms of SAD can include increased hunger, especially for carbohydrates; increased desire to sleep, and weight gain, along with the traditional symptoms of depression (mood swings, irritability, memory problems, loss of interest in day to day activities, to name a few). The condition strikes only 5% of the US population, but disproportionately impacts the one million people who live in areas of high cloud cover in northern latitudes, including most of Western New York.

The culprit may be the dorsal raphe nucleus, an area deep within the brain that has close ties to the body’s ‘master clock’ of circadian rhythms. An area highly susceptible to melatonin, the region also controls levels of serotonin in the brain. Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression, while high levels create feelings of well-being. Researchers at Vanderbilt University recently conducted a study of mice exposed to a summerlike 16 hours of light and 8 hours of darkness and others exposed to a dismal 8 hours of light and 16 hours of darkness (comparable to Rochester, New York in December.) The serotonin neurons of the dark mice fired far more slowly than their sunny counterparts, and as a result, the mice showed key signs of depression. (A swim test is used to evaluate depression in rodents, as the availability of mice with Ph.D.s and research training is severely limited.)

In light of a national election that has left many feeling stunned and anxious, this SAD season may be harder than most. However, there are treatments to help SAD sufferers rebound more quickly or fight the malaise of depression. Light therapy, antidepressants, and cognitive behavioral therapy (a form of psychotherapy facilitated by a medical professional) can all reduce symptoms of the condition and result in a better quality of life for patients. If you or someone you know seems to be struggling this year, talk to your doctor or nurse about possible treatments. In the dark of winter, it’s hard to imagine the light of spring.



Green N, Jackson C, Iwamoto H, Tackenberg M, McMahon D. Photoperiod Programs Dorsal Raphe Serotonergic Neurons and Affective Behaviors. Current Biology. 2015;25:1389-1394.

Kurlansik S, Ibay A. Seasonal Affective Disorder. American Family Physician. 2012;86:1037-1041.

Ltd CRP. Cloudiest cities in US. Current Results. 2004.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Ranking of cities based on % annual possible sunshine. Comparative Climatic Data.

Mortal Coil: A brief history of embalming

What do honey, myrrh, alcohol, tar, seed oils, and formaldehyde all have in common? They have all been used, in various forms and combinations, to prevent the decay of the human body after death.


For the majority of the 107 billion humans that have lived on this planet, the fate of their mortal remains was limited to a handful of options: cremation on some type of pyre; burial in soil, stone or the sea; or be devoured by scavengers and the wrath of nature.6 At some point, probably around 7-10,000 years ago, humans decided to interfere with the natural process of decomposition.


It is not surprising that natural preservation preceded and possibly inspired artificial preservation; many of the locations in which embalming evolved are geographically and climatically conducive to natural mummification. Areas in which dry heat or dry cold, in combination with preservative minerals like cinnabar,  were the primary methods of preservation in cultures in modern-day South America, Africa, China, Tibet and Alaska. Over time, herbs, incense and natural gums and resins were incorporated into the process.1 (This actually sounds quite pleasant, almost like being preserved in a nice, fragrant tea.)


The historical purposes of embalming ranged from the spiritual to the pragmatic to the scientific. Ancient Egyptian cultures believed the preservation of the body was crucial to participation in the afterlife.1 (I like to imagine an underworld bouncer, carefully inspecting the quality of your mummification before allowing you to enter.)The transportation of high-ranking corpses during military or other state-related travel also necessitated preservation. Alexander the Great was preserved in a honey-based solution in order to facilitate his transportation from Babylon to Alexandria, a journey of more than 1,100 miles. As late as the beginning of the 19th century, Admiral Lord Nelson was placed in a cask of rum to make the journey from the Mediterranean Sea back to England.3


Later, illicit European anatomists would embalm bodies for scientific or artistic study.Leonardo DaVinci, the beloved, grandfatherly painter known for his anatomical studies, was also an expert embalmer. He documented his preservation techniques, which included innovative arterial injections of “embalming fluids ... mixtures made from turpentine, camphor, oil of lavender, vermilion, wine, rosin, sodium nitrate, and potassium nitrate1.” Later, the dawn of chemistry ushered in a series of new preservatives, including dichloride of mercury, zinc chloride, acetate of alumina, and arsenic. To continue on the trend of Italian anatomists, Guiseppe Tranchina was the first to document preservation using only injection without evisceration in the the early 19th century. Later that century, his countryman Alfredo Salafia was the first to use formaldehyde in the preservation process, although it was not widespread and only discovered much later in his notes.


In the United States, the embalming industry was created from a desire to preserve the dead for sentimental and aesthetic purposes during the Civil War, when many soldiers travelled hundreds of miles or more to fight and perish for the Union or Confederate Army. Dr. Thomas Holmes, known as the  “father of modern embalming” is said to have performed more than 4,000 embalming procedures during his career2.  In 1869, German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered the application of formaldehyde in anatomical preservation, which quickly became a best practice in European embalming schools, in combination with phenol (also known as carbolic acid-a resin-like substance), glycerine and alcohol in varying proportions. Adverse effects from formaldehyde were noted at this time and included upper respiratory issues, headaches, and eye and skin irritation.


Since that time, changes have been made in chemical composition to improve smell, color, and preservation capability, but the primary agent continues to be formaldehyde, or a derivative, formalin, in addition to other chemicals. These chemical cocktails go by various brand names: Flextone. Lyf-Lyk. Suntone. Silitech (by Frigid Fluids). Freeform. Compo Hard. Re-Viva-Tone.

Today’s embalmers are typically well-trained professionals, having to go through an apprenticeship and hours of practice before being certified.9 Also, embalming remains relatively rare in the rest of the world, making it an experience somewhat unique to North America, partially due to the practice of leaving the casket open at wakes and funerals.


Future generations will probably look on with horror and incredulity at the fact that, upon death, North Americans of the past two centuries allowed their bodily fluids to be drained and filled with a noxious array of chemicals in order to facilitate a brief, bizarre display for their closest friends and family. That we pay so dearly in economic and environmental costs for for this strange artifice is almost unbelievable. The final indignity to a formerly natural process is that after that brief moment of mourning, our well-preserved corpses are shuttled into the ground where they will sit, ticking time bombs of groundwater and soil contamination.



  1. Brenner E. Human body preservation – old and new techniques. Journal of Anatomy. 2014;224:316-344.

  2. Schmoll B. National museum of funeral history, Houston, Texas. The Public Historian. 2003;25(4):108-108+. doi:

  3. Montefiore SS. Where the party faithful will celebrate in style: Final 1 edition. Sunday Times. 1997.

  4. Mitford, J. The American Way of Death Revisited. Alfred Knopf. New York. 1998. XV, 43

  5. General Price List. New Comer Funeral Homes. Published March 1, 2016.

  6. Stephenson W. Do the dead outnumber the living? BBC News Magazine. Published February 4, 2012.

  7. Harris M. Grave Matters: A journey the modern funeral industry to a natural way of burial. New York: Scribner; 2007.

  8. Consumers Union of United States. Funerals, consumers’ last rights: The consumers union report on conventional funerals and burial and some alternatives, including cremation, direct cremation, direct burial, and body donation ; By the editors of consumer reports. New York: W. W. Norton & Company; 1977.

  9. New York State Department of Health. Bureau of funeral directing. New York State Department of Health.

Mortal Coil: Grief, guilt, and graft: the business of embalming bodies

“Embalming is the ultimate fate of almost all Americans, the economic base of the funeral industry and as practiced on a mass scale a uniquely American practice,” Jessica Mitford, author, The American Way of Death Revisited.1

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals,” Attributed to William Gladstone, British prime minister (1808-1898).4


Like many entrenched American traditions, embalming is a practice with roots in both pragmatism and sentimentality. (Click through for a full description of the history of embalming). This particular institution has evolved over the past century and a half into a twisted charade of tradition, perpetrated by an entire industry upon the public, and the environment. Many companies are engaged in a form of cultural and economic coercion in order to facilitate a long-running deception regarding social expectations and legal requirements. The goal of this dark narrative to increase profits at the expense of the consumer. They do this through the repetition of commonly-held, practical-sounding narratives which have no basis in reality.1


The first commonly perpetuated myth is that embalming is a legally required process. In reality, few municipalities or states require embalming, and most that do, apply only international or interstate transportation of human remains.7


The second myth is that embalming is done for sanitary purposes to prevent the spread of disease. In reality, a dead body is nearly always less likely to spread disease than a living human, through breathing and other functions of daily life.1  Retrospective studies have shown that undertakers do not suffer a higher mortality rate than the general population, a fact which contradicts the inherent danger implied in contact or proximity to unembalmed corpses.7


The third myth is that seeing the restored, embalmed body of a beloved family member will provide ‘closure’ and assist with the grieving process. There is no firm scientific study to substantiate these claims, and if anecdotal stories are given credibility, most funeral attendees find the experience unsettling. One possibility is due to inadvertent occurrence of the ‘uncanny valley’ -the repulsion experienced while viewing objects (usually robots) that appear almost, but not quite like a living human.5


Although a funeral is typically the third largest purchase for a family, after a house and a car, the buyer is generally not in a position to compare prices or question costs. Decisions are made impulsively, under emotional stress, and with full trust in the funeral professional.The cost to embalm a corpse in 1880 was around $10.1 Today, it’s upwards of $350, with additional charges if the body has been autopsied.2 Full funeral costs for a standard service are approximately $10,000.4  To those who would defend the actions of the funeral professionals, it wasn’t until 1984 that the Federal Trade Commission made it illegal for morticians to lie to customers, about the legal need for embalming and other procedures.1, 7


While the family pays the exorbitant price for the funeral, society and the environment shoulder the burden of the contamination that occurs as a result of these misinformed practices. Arsenic, used in the 19th century as a primary undertaking tool for preservation, has been detected in water and soil samples taken from cemeteries in Iowa, New York and Ohio, some near local groundwater resources.4 Beginning in the late 19th century, the funeral industry turned to formaldehyde in response to federal government regulations to protect undertakers from being exposed to pounds of arsenic on a daily basis.


Today, nearly 3 pounds of formaldehyde is interred in each burial.  Millions of gallons of the preservative, a known carcinogen regulated as a hazard by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are buried in leaky metal boxes within highly fallible concrete vaults each year. Further, there are no safety standards for formaldehyde in drinking water in the United States, nor has any large-scale research been conducted about potential groundwater contamination. Nor has the switch from arsenic to formaldehyde done wonders for the health of funeral industry workers. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), has labeled the preservative as a “potential occupational carcinogen”. It is the likely culprit for an increased rate of blood, brain and colon cancers, as well as chronic skin conditions, among funeral home workers.4, 6


This is a growing crisis, as the nation’s baby boomers approach their late seventies in the next few decades. The projected space required for boomer burials alone would be nearly the size of the city of Las Vegas.8 There clearly needs to be a multi-pronged, evidence-based approach to study the environmental impacts of an industry active in every small town and big city in the United States. It’s not a matter of identifying if there’s contamination, but a matter of scale, one which has dangerous implications for human health. The irony of this situation lies in the fact that the less is done about industrial environmental contaminants, the greater the chance of illness or death due to lack of regulations-which in the end, provides more business for the funeral industry. In short, we are slowly being poisoned by our own dead, and paying dearly for the opportunity.


Sources available at