A brief history of restorative arts

by M-Gillies

There are over 400 movies with the word "corpse" in the title, but only one movie with the word "embalm" in the title.

As early as 1200 BCE, the ancient Egyptians were practicing a range of restorative techniques on the emaciated features of the dead from filling the inside of the mouths with sawdust to improve hollowed cheeks to stuffing linen under the eyelids or replacing eyes with stones. They would continue this procedure, tending to any disability, injury or disfigurement until the face and the body were contoured to approximate the original features and shape of the person they were preparing for their death ceremony.

Since then, modern restorative techniques, renamed restorative arts in 1930, became an important sub-discipline of the aftercare services; mending the body when it exhibited obvious signs of trauma, disease or wounds from war to provide comfort to the bereaved by presenting a loved one who appears familiar in death as they did in life.

It was in 1912, when well-known embalmer, Joel E. Crandall introduced demisurgery, a practice he described as “the art of building or creating parts of the body which have been destroyed by accident, disease, decomposition or discoloration, and making the body perfectly natural and lifelike.”

With this practice, demisurgery grew to become an integral part of the responsibilities of the embalmer in making the body presentable.

While the practice of demisurgery, which had also garnered names such as, dermasurgery, plastic surgery, plastic work, derma sculpturing and artistic embalming, many people felt as a matter of principle, that cosmetics and, in many cases, surgical procedures should not be used.

However, it was the use of before and after photographs which showed the repairs he made to mutilated bodies, that Crandall had made a striking impact in the field.

In 1943, Sheridan Mayer published “Restorative Art” a basic text in many education institutions, as well as writing the “Workbook on Color and Mortuary Cosmetology”, and the textbook “Color and Cosmetics”. While trained as an artist and sculptor, and employed as a theatrical cosmetician and makeup expert, his greatest contribution to restorative art was his encouragement of adopting a uniform curriculum and standards for instructional and testing purposes, in which he prepared sample syllabi and curricula, as well as examination questions that became standards in the field of study.

However, it wasn’t until 1945 that restorative art became a formally adopted discipline when it was the subject of the National Funeral Directors Association Convention in Chicago, where it was addressed as being a value and necessity of the procedures of embalming.

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