the transformation of a medical innovation
This paper studies the trajectory of modern embalming, considered as a technical innovation in the treatment of dead bodies, across time and societies. Tracing the history of technical innovations, it examines the evolution of embalming from the fi eld of medical science to its re-appropriation by a secular sphere (funeral sector). The central role of material culture in the spread of innovative embalming techniques is underlined, and notably the leading role of commercial networks and industrial actors as they support the growth of embalmers while products, equipment and technical know-how are normalized. On the basis of the contemporary funeral organization, the analysis explores how embalming has become part of the cooperative chain surrounding death. It describes how embalming innovation entails a set of ‘alignments’ (Strauss, 1988) in the management of corpse care, supporting various standardization processes, which are both practical and symbolic. Finally, the establishment of a professional body of embalmers points to a new inter-professional interpretation of the corpse and of death care, radically changing the interface between the medical world and the funeral world.