What Is Jessica Mitford’s “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain” About?

Jessica Mitford’s “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain” is a critique of the funeral industry and its barbaric ways of performing “demi-surgery” on corpses, according to Scribd. Utilizing metaphor and potent imagery, Mitford achieves her purpose, which is to expose the horrendous acts that occur in a funeral home.

Mitford uses metaphor effectively to compare the funeral system to a play or drama. In the first sentence, for example, she solidifies this metaphor, writing, “The drama begins to unfold with the arrival of the corpse at the mortuary.” By doing this, Mitford is saying that everything that happens at a funeral home is completely superficial. The essay’s title itself demonstrates that the sham that happens “on stage” is not the same as the truth that happens behind the curtain.

In addition to effective use of this central metaphor, Mitford uses evocative imagery as when she discusses the several products used to embalm a body, including a Special Cosmetic Tint, a pink shade formulated especially for female subjects. If the customer wants “velvety appearance of living tissue,” Lyf-Lyk tint is used. She also describes how a body can be restructured and the mouth can be sewn together to present a relaxed or pleasant expression.

In analyzing the process of embalming and funeral preparation, Mitford demonstrates her central premise that mummifying a corpse is wrong, barbaric and inhumane.