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Through embalming and sealed caskets advertised for “eternal rest,” the American funeral industry caters to our anxiety over bodily decay. In 1903, a Russian-born inventor in Herkimer, New York, named Joseph Karwowski proposed a radical way of preserving corpses: suspending them in glass cubes. Patented as a “Method of Preserving the Dead,” Karwowski provided diagrams and directions “whereby a corpse may be hermetically incased within a block of transparent glass” and thus “maintained for an indefinite period in a perfect and lifelike condition.” First the corpse would be drenched with “sodium silicate or water-glass,” and then, once dried, covered with “molten glass.”
Karwowski’s patent is on view in Curious and Curiouser: Surprising Finds from the Rakow Library now at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. In a blog post for Corning called “Glass and Death,” glass artist Caitlin Hyde writes:
There are some interesting bits of logic to Karwowski’s plan. Water glass is used as a desiccant and to seal eggshells to extend freshness, but it’s hard to imagine that, even if perfectly sealed, the clothed body would look at all natural after being coated in the wet sodium silicate and then dried out, much less after being exposed to the elevated temperatures required to cast glass around it. Karwowski did not produce any samples of his proposed invention and, though the idea may have seemed brilliant enough to need patenting at the time, it has never caught on in practice.
A 1910 issue of Scientific American quipped that the intact bodies preserved in Karwowski’s method “could be utilized as a lawn statue” while the “bodiless head could be placed on the mantle in the stead of a jar of ashes, or could be used as a heavy-weight paper weight or as a door stop.”
Although Karwowski’s people paperweights never achieved reality, or even a B-movie treatment à la House of Wax, others have experimented with using glass to hold the deceased. According to some reports, Alexander the Great was entombed in a glass coffin. Hyde notes that Curious and Curiouser also explores the glass coffins that were marketed in the early 20th century by the American Glass Casket Company in Ada, Oklahoma. These were not intended to display bodies like sleeping Snow Whites; they were meant to protect the body in the grave. In a 2012 post, Amy De Simone, reference librarian at Corning’s Rakow Library, writes that it’s “unknown how many full size caskets were produced, but today only two 6′ 3″ caskets remain intact, both in museum collections.” One is displayed at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston.
Karwowski and the Glass Casket Company were part of a wave of reimagining death traditions that resisted human putrefaction in the 19th and 20th centuries (and indeed, followed centuries of mummification). The cast-iron Fisk mummy coffin, patented in the United States in 1858, was promoted as “airtight.” In 1934, a patent was issued to electroplate corpses into statues, turning your loved ones into heirlooms. (It was never put into practice.)
All these methods of sealing the body into airtight contraptions ignores the fact that decomposition comes from within. When the heart stops, the autolysis, or self-digestion, of the flesh begins, through its enzymes consuming cell membranes. Trapping a body in with its own bacteria means it is producing gas that has nowhere to go. In fact, if these inventions were successful, the results were quite gruesome. A report from the Chicago Press in 1848, titled “Explosion of a Metallic Coffin,” described a Fisk casket exploding due to the gas built up from a corpse. Exploding corpses remain a possibility in modern mausoleums that lack proper ventilation. Even if the most extreme measures to preserve the dead never caught on, they reflect a collective resistance to mortal decay, and the translation of our bodies into its organic elements.
Curious and Curiouser: Surprising Finds from the Rakow Library continues at the Corning Museum of Glass (One Museum Way, Corning, New York) through February 17, 2019.