For many families, embalming is an essential part of the funerary process. Seeing the deceased one last time, pristinely preserved and sharply dressed, can help normalize death and ease you into the grieving process.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is Extreme Embalming?
- How Does Extreme Embalming Work?
- How Much Does it Cost?
- Why Do People Choose Extreme Embalming?
- Embalming has Been Around for Ages
For some, though, standard embalming isn’t quite enough. Over the last several decades, mortuary science has made enormous strides in embalming techniques. Now, some families are turning to a process known as “extreme embalming” to keep the memory of their loved ones alive.
What is Extreme Embalming?
The term itself extreme embalming can help describe the new additions to the process. Embalming as a practice has been around for years, with morticians and embalmers using many of the same chemical processes when starting on a body.
What makes it “extreme?” As the science evolves, embalmers are now adding extra steps to present bodies without external signs of decay and improving appearance to the point of making them seem lifelike.
And while extreme embalming might seem disturbing to some, others may think it is a great way to memorialize a beloved family member.
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History of Extreme Embalming
One of the first known customers of extreme embalming was Vladimir Lenin, the first chairman of the Soviet Union. The communist revolutionary’s century-old body continues to be an ongoing experiment in the extreme science of embalming.
A group of Russian scientists, loosely organized under the title of the “Lenin Lab,” have tweaked embalming chemistry and improved preservation techniques for the sole purpose of keeping Lenin’s corpse looking lifelike.
At the height of Lenin Lab’s scientific research, from the 1950s to the 1980s, more than 200 researchers worked tirelessly on the problem of maintaining Lenin’s body. The work stopped around the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
However, in 2016, the Russian government has decided to dedicate further money to help keep his body preserved for many years to come. Along the way, they discovered and created innovative medical treatments and new embalming methods.
Extreme Embalming in Puerto Rico
Modern extreme embalming, by all accounts, began in Puerto Rico. The practice is far more common there than anywhere else. The Marin Funeral Home in San Juan is behind many of the modern-day muerto parao (or “dead man standing”) funerals taking place in Puerto Rico.
Below are just some of the Puerto Rican extreme embalming cases that made headlines:
- Angel Luis Pantojas — Extreme embalming appeared on many people’s radar in 2008. That’s when the story of a young Puerto Rican man, Angel Luis Pantojas, made headlines. The 24-year-old became a media sensation when his family held a “dead man standing” funeral at his request.
- David Morales — After Pantojas, another young Puerto Rican man, David Morales, underwent extreme embalming. He could be seen at his own funeral, astride a motorcycle as he often was in life.
- Fernando Diaz Beato — Later that same year, Fernando de Jesus Diaz Beato stole the spotlight when he appeared at his own funeral, seated in a chair with his eyes open. This became the first case of extreme embalming featuring open eyes.
- Christopher Rivera — The trend of extreme embalming continued with the funeral of boxer Christopher Rivera in 2014. Rivera’s family honored the man’s wishes of having a standing wake by having him propped up in the corner of a faux boxing ring.
- Jomar Aguayo — A resident of Rio Pedro, Puerto Rico, Jomar Aguayo Collazo was posed taking part in one of his favorite pastimes—playing dominoes—for his wake.
- Georgina Chervony Llore — Georgina Llore passed away at the age of 80 years old. Before she died, she told her daughter she wanted to be part of the funeral. Her family had Georgina dressed in her wedding gown and sat in a chair for the ceremony.
Extreme Embalming in New Orleans
All of the examples above took place in Puerto Rico, but extreme embalming has made its way to mainland United States as well. The leading city for extreme embalming in the United States is New Orleans, Louisiana.
- Miriam Burbank — In 2014, a New Orleans woman underwent extreme embalming and went viral. After her death at the age of 53, her family had her embalmed and posed at a table drinking beer and smoking a cigarette.
- Mickey Easterling — NOLA socialite and philanthropist Mickey Easterling attended her own funeral the way she went through life: in grand style. Her body was staged at a theatre in New Orleans, amongst foliage, flowers, and lavish pink feathers.
- Renard Mathews — In 2018, another New Orleans resident—an 18-year-old named Renard Mathews—attended his own wake, seated in a chair, playing video games just like he loved to do in life.
- Lionel Batiste — One of the most famous cases of American extreme embalming is “Uncle” Lionel Batiste. The Brass Band drummer and popular New Orleans character died in 2012 and was staged in a lifelike pose, propped up against a street lamp.
How Does Extreme Embalming Work?
Only a few funeral homes offer lifelike extreme embalming, and the ones who do provide the service tend to keep their methods close to the chest.
What we do know is that embalming a dead body to look lifelike involves different chemicals and processes than standard embalming. The mortician must use a special type of embalming fluid—a plasticizer—to keep the body stiff.
Normal embalming fluid is a mix of formaldehyde and alcohol. This mixture, along with massage techniques used by most embalmers, leaves a body flexible, which could lead to awkward slumping during an upright viewing.
Felix Cruz, a Puerto Rican extreme embalmer, spoke about his techniques on a Channel 5 documentary, Extreme Embalmers. He described how he used different formulations for different parts of the body, and even incorporated structural supports. “I used a pipe to maintain the head and neck position, inside the body,” said Cruz.
How Much Does It Cost?
Extreme embalming takes much longer than standard embalming. Not only does the process require precisely formulated chemical concoctions, but the embalmer must pose and fix the body in position.
Embalming a body typically costs about $500-$700. The added time and materials needed for extreme embalming can up the price to about $2,500.
Why Do People Choose Extreme Embalming?
The instances of extreme embalming listed above are only the most popular examples. The trend is becoming more popular in the United States and worldwide, as more morticians learn advanced embalming techniques.
But why would someone want to be embalmed in such an extreme way? To onlookers, extreme embalming might seem morbid or macabre. But for many families and individuals planning their own funerals, it’s the perfect combination of mourning and celebration.
Psychology of Embalming
To understand why a person or family might choose extreme embalming, it helps to look at the psychology behind embalming in general.
Modern-day embalming focuses on three aspects: disinfection, preservation, and restoration. It primarily serves to preserve a body until a funeral can take place, and to allow a mortician present the body with a more lifelike appearance for viewing.
Psychologically, embalming lets family members and mourners avoid some of the more obvious signs of death, including the sinking of skin, decomposition smells and other unpleasantries.
When a mortician embalms a body and applies makeup or prosthetics, it allows mourners to view the deceased in a pleasant state. Going forward, their last image of the person can be one where they look peaceful and at rest.
Psychology of Extreme Embalming
Extreme embalming takes those same psychological mechanics and pushes them a step forward. Rather than remembering their loved one laid back and asleep in a casket, a family’s last memory of the deceased can be one where they’re doing something they loved.
But some of the reasons behind extreme embalming are more nuanced. For example, most of the extreme embalming cases in Puerto Rico were young men who died tragically and violently.
The families may have wanted to send their sons off on a positive note and give them a last chance to do what they loved in life. Additionally, the image of someone “still standing” after being tragically killed can be seen as a statement on behalf of the deceased.
Others choose extreme embalming because of past experiences with standard embalming or funerals. For example, Angel Luis Pantojas requested a muerto parao funeral after he witnessed his father’s funeral as a young child. He told his relatives he wanted to be viewed standing up, rather than lying down in a casket as his father had been.
Embalming Has Been Around for Ages
The science of extreme embalming is very new, only coming into being in the 20th century. But human beings have always had a fascination with mortality, and it shows in how we’ve preserved and presented dead bodies through the ages.
The earliest embalmers were the Egyptians, who had a relatively standardized system for preserving their dead. The process involved storing a body in potassium nitrate for 70 days, after which the Egyptians would wash the 70-day-old body and wrap it in cloth.
Historians believe that the Egyptians embalmed their bodies so that the person’s soul could be resurrected. The body needed to remain as close to it’s living condition as possible so that the soul could return and reanimate the remains.
Victorian Death Photography
In the Victorian era, “death photography” played a major role in funeral culture. Many families hired a photographer, a rarity at that time, only in the event of a death.
They would pose the deceased in a lifelike position to have their image captured. Often, an artist or family member would paint eyes onto the portrait to give it a more realistic gaze.
Understanding Extreme Embalming
Preserving a body and posing the dead in lifelike positions helps many people cope with the grief of losing a loved one. Mortuary science has advanced significantly throughout the ages to bring some of these visions and celebrations to life. However for some, the process of treating a body in such a way may seem unnatural.
Ultimately, the decision whether to embalm a body—extreme or otherwise—is up to the family and determined by what the deceased asked for before death.
- Hsu Jeremy. “Lenin’s Body Improves with Age.” Scientific American, 22 April 2015. www.scientificamerican.com/article/lenin-s-body-improves-with-age1/
- Borreli Lizette. “Freaky Funerals: The Psychology Behind Out-Of-The-Ordinary Body Embalming.” Medical Daily. 26 April, 2016. www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125020152
- Afan Emyr. “Extreme Embalming” Channel 5. www.imdb.com/title/tt8323382/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ql_1