When Toni Pallett was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer in 1999, she started preparing for her own death, and visited a funeral parlor as a “pre-need” client, to start planning for the end. There, her questions about embalming and other practices were rebuffed, and instead she felt pressured to sign up for an expensive package for “services” that she didn’t want and wouldn’t be around to enjoy.
Pallet’s curiosity about death along with her frustration with the secretive world of mortuary science, coupled with the get-on-the-Web ethos of the times, led to the creation in 1999 of bluelips.com. There, Pallett, 53, began to sell autopsy and embalming training videos, and later moved into Gothic bric-a-brac and novelties like chocolate body parts, all to have a little fun at death’s expense, and to give people more tools to make their own final decisions. Recently, to concentrate on her health, Pallett passed bluelips.com on to an associate, but the site is still alive.
When you first tried to make arrangements, how did it go? The treatment I received from the pre-need folks at a funeral home made me very curious as to what they were hiding. When I tried to ask about embalming I was told “people don’t ask those sorts of questions.” I went home and tried to research on the Internet and didn’t come up with much. It became apparent to me that there was a need for this info, no matter how macabre.
And what’s the most macabre thing you discovered about death rituals? I think that the practice of embalming needs to be optional, not an absolute. It’s a surgical procedure, really. Would you consent to something without knowing what they were going to do to you while you were alive?
Why is it a big deal? So it’s surgery, what of it? I think it’s important for the public to know what it entails so that they can decide for themselves. Embalming involves the removal of fluids and the preservation of the cavity. An instrument called a trocar is entered above and to the right of your navel, to rupture your organs and remove fluids and waste. Facial features are set using mouth closure pins. The eyes are closed using eye caps. If there is rigor mortis they manipulate the limbs to break the rigor. I do not want to be embalmed and why should I have to undergo a process I oppose?
How do you want your body prepared? I want to be cremated. The idea of people walking up to my casket to see me looking cosmetized and hard as a rock is not appealing at all.
Many people with incurable diseases try to simplify their economic lives; you started a dot com. Why? I am a huge fan of the late Jessica Mitford, who wrote the exposé The American Way of Death. I had contemplated starting a site for some time, before I got sick. Bluelips came into existence early on in my diagnosis. Bluelips is not about making huge amounts of money, it’s about poking fun at death and sharing info about an industry that hides behind closed doors. We donate much of our profit to breast cancer research.
You must attract a lot of kooks who want more than a History of American Funeral Directing video. We get lots of odd requests for stuff we’d never carry. Necrophilia films; embalming fluid—kids soak their pot cigs in it; cremated remains—some people think we ought to sell them in little packets; and some people think we somehow have access to dead people’s blood. There was even a “vampire dude” who said he could cure my cancer if I allowed him to suck my blood. These are the kinds of folks we weed out and never sell to.
Have you always been attracted to the “dark side”? I became curious about death at 14. A friend of mine was killed in an accident. My mother had these weird perceptions about funerals. She told me that it was “wrong to cry for the dead” and called me selfish. I was not allowed to attend my friend’s funeral; instead I was locked in a closet that entire weekend and let out after it was over. After I got my diagnosis I decided to find my friend’s grave and say goodbye.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 20, 2005