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The Novice

How to Embalm a Body

Those who can’t do, learn. In this 2008 installment of our series in which the clueless apprentice with the experts, we visited a funeral home in New Jersey to learn, hands-on, how to prepare someone for an eternal rest.

Credit: Paul Castle

The first dead body I saw was my grandfather’s, at his funeral. More recently, I attended the funeral of a friend who’d died in a car accident. I forced myself to the dais to say goodbye. Looking over at him—he was striking in his beard and suit, clutching a leather-bound book—I thought he didn’t seem quite like himself: I’d never seen him with such cleanly cut hair. Likewise, my grandfather didn’t seem like himself, either: He was waxy, glowing, with makeup on his collar.

Though not entirely lifelike, their embalmed bodies were at least similar to how they appeared in life—similar enough that their casketed images surface alongside my memories of their smiles, movements, and voices. For many of us, death is a grim prospect—facing it or dealing with it—but for embalmers, it’s in the job description. By learning how to embalm, I hoped to learn how these final portraits are constructed, and how those in the business view death and grieving.

 

Though thin and energetic, Carla, a funeral director in New Jersey, manages to project calm and control. Over dinner, as she shared stories of picking up bodies for a medical examiner’s office, it wasn’t difficult to imagine her methodically removing maggots from the body of young man who’d died days before from a drug overdose, or suturing the top of someone’s head back on after an autopsy. Well, it was hard to imagine, but only because it’s completely disgusting—not for any lack of projected composure on Carla’s part.

I happened to head for the bathroom after a particularly morbid account of a man who had died in the woods and had his face eaten off by bees.

“You didn’t just vomit, did you?” Carla asked with genuine concern.

“No, no,” I assured her, “but now that you mention it, maybe I should.” Despite the jokes, I was determined to see the embalming through. Demanding to tag along while someone negotiates the cheerless gray area between life and death is asking a lot, but I wasn’t about to force Carla to hold my hand—or hair—at the same time.

“The worst thing for me, the first time I saw Carla work on a body,” Carla’s girlfriend Mary confided, “was the smell. It’s not a dead body smell. It’s more the smell of embalming fluid that really gets in your clothes and hair.”

If the smell of embalming fluid is the worst thing about tonight, I’ll get in the coffin myself, I thought. We paid the bill and headed out to spend the rest of the evening with the corpse of a man Carla’s boss had picked up from a nursing home earlier that day.

Step 1: Clean the Body and Break Down Rigor Mortis

In the basement of the funeral home, fluorescent lights bounced off the tile that covered the floor and walls of the prep room, which was barely above 50 degrees.

Shivering, Carla turned up the thermostat and wrapped herself in a white paper gown. I’d taken less than three steps inside, noticed a covered, man-shaped lump on the porcelain embalming table at the center of the room and stopped, frozen in fear.

She casually tossed away the sheet to expose the body of a tall, elderly man. What struck me first was the stillness. His head was cocked back, open-mouthed. Purple and blue bruises were scattered across his arms and hands. There were yellowing folds of skin around the hips of what was otherwise the thin body of an average-looking old man. He looked more like a wax sculpture or mannequin than an actual person.

Carla grabbed a spray bottle and quickly spritzed his face. His eyes shot open and I jumped back.

“What did you just do?”

“Oh, I just disinfected his eyes, nose, and mouth. Those are the places were decay starts most easily and it’s important to keep them clean.”

She glanced down at his face. “Aw, man, the guy’s got a beard. Shaving him is going to be pain.”

Carla explained that they shave everybody’s face, male or female—otherwise the makeup won’t look as good if our natural facial hair isn’t removed. However, if the person had a beard during life, the hair stays.

“OK, I’m going to thread the wire onto the needle, put it in the gun, and you shoot it underneath his bottom teeth,” she instructed.

“Once I worked on an old man with a really bad moustache, like the kind a teenager would grow. It was really crooked and misshapen, so I shaved it off. At the funeral his family kept coming up saying, ‘Oh, where’s his moustache?’ Apparently, it was supposed to look that way.”

The closer to its living self a body looked, the happier a family would be. And keeping families happy, I’d learn as the night went on, was the main objective of Carla’s work, and a task she took very seriously.

The man on the table had already undergone obvious physical changes. He was pale, almost translucent. Carla pointed out where his ears and nose had become emaciated and bony.

“See this puckering.” Her fingers made indentations in the sagging skin on his sides, “This is edema. When he was in the nursing home, he may have been on a saline drip that was working to keep him alive, but now, all that fluid is causing the skin to bloat. Mostly, though, he’s in really good shape. He even has his own teeth. It’s really rare to see someone this old who still has his own teeth.”

I crept toward him. Edging around the table, I couldn’t stop looking at his face.

“So, do you wanna help me with this?” Carla asked.

I spread a paper gown over my clothes and pulled on some blue latex gloves.

“We’ve gotta break down the rigor mortis.”

Carla squeezed some soap into my gloved hands and told me to start rubbing the man’s arms, but to “be careful not to pull too hard in case something pops.”

I imagine dead weight as the force of someone’s sleeping body on yours, or a head in your lap. This man’s body had none of that mass—think of it as stiff weight. It was hard to even get the arms to straighten, but their mass had no muscle, no heaviness.

“Always place the hands right over left” Carla instructed, “unless there’s some religious reason why we wouldn’t. Later we’ll use makeup to do something about those bruises.”

Credit: Pavel Tcholakov

Step 2: Close the Mouth

Carla brandished what looked like a simple metal gun with a pointy tip and effortlessly shot a needle with a protruding wire between his lip and upper gums.

“The needle injector is tough, and if you miss it could mess things up,” she warned, as I practiced firing the gun. It felt like using a strengthening grip, and popped like a staple gun when I finally managed to pull it all the way closed.

“OK, I’m going to thread the wire onto the needle, put it in the gun, and you shoot it underneath his bottom teeth,” she instructed.

With both hands and all my strength, I pulled back the lip, aimed and pulled the grip closed. The needle shot into his gums with a bang.

Carla twisted the wires to pull his upper and lower palates together, and, using what looked like a long pair of pliers, began stuffing his mouth with cotton.

“When I first started embalming, it would take me forever just to do something like fill the mouth with cotton.” She was finished in under a minute.

Step 3: Open the Carotid Artery and Embalm the Body

“I can tell so much about someone’s health from doing this,” Carla said as she gently incised the skin on his right clavicle, revealing gaping insides. “If someone has been drinking I can smell it. The arteries are sometimes really hard and thick—that is, if someone has had an arterial disease.”

She sifted through the man’s neck, locating the thick, white carotid artery and tying it off with string. The jugular vein, where the blood would leave the body once the embalming fluid was pumped in, proved tougher to find and eventually Carla gave up, expecting that the blood would flow from the wound regardless.

Carla and I went to an adjacent table, and she reached into the cabinet below and retrieved some pink-hued chemicals, which she set next to a glass cylinder. “So, I’m embalming him with formaldehyde and something called Metaflow that will pave the way for the formaldehyde in his arteries,” she said as she poured the fluids into the cylinder. “Then we add some Chromatech”—it was like watching a chef season Pepto Bismol—”and a bit of water.”

The smell Carla’s girlfriend had described at dinner slowly filled the room. It reminded me of a vet’s office—completely sterile, though still animal.

It was enough I would have to ride home smelling of embalming fluid. I did not want to leave the funeral home looking like the lone survivor in a horror movie.

Carla unveiled a plastic tube connected to a cylindrical tank about the size of a 50-gallon aquarium. This was the embalming machine. It would mix the chemicals and pump them into the tube and out a thin metal pipe called an arterial tube; bent at a 90-degree angle with a hole at the end, the arterial tube inserts the fluid into the carotid artery.

“Since I can’t find the jugular vein, we’ll have to be careful to make sure he’s draining. Step back, cause it could get messy if the blood won’t flow out easily.”

At the word “messy” I leapt behind her. It was enough I would have to ride home smelling of embalming fluid. I did not want to leave the funeral home looking like the lone survivor in a horror movie.

Luckily, we had nothing to worry about. Seconds after she’d put the arterial tube into his artery, blood began to pour through the hole in his chest and formed a small rapid that ran quickly down a well on the perimeter of the table.

“Go ahead and massage his limbs to make sure the blood is flowing out and the embalming fluid moves through,” Carla put some more soap on my hands and I got to work rubbing the loose flesh on his arms and then the taut skin over his legs.

Carla pointed out where the color was coming into his legs and the left side of his face. I had to admit, he looked a bit healthier than he had when we first arrived. Still worse for wear, but with slightly rosier veins.

The machine chugged away, the fluid level falling as more and more pink chemicals pumped through his circulatory system. Eventually, Carla switched sides and tied off the other end of the artery so she could embalm the right side of his face.

Step 4: Visceral Embalming and Tying Up Loose Ends

It turns out that, when embalming a body, the worst part comes last. Though a body’s veins may be overflowing with formaldehyde, decay—or purge—can still occur if the internal organs aren’t drained of fluid. The process for removing that fluid makes everything we’d done up to now seem like a warm bubble bath.

“This,” Carla said, brandishing a two-foot long metal tube attached to a plastic hose, “is a trocar.”

She pushed the pointed end of the trocar slightly above and to the left of his belly button and began prodding.

“This hose is attached to a hydroaspirator. We’re sucking fluids out of his internal organs. Right now I’m draining his kidney—no, wait,” she gave a little push with the trocar, “his spleen. After I get fluid out, I’m going to reverse the pressure and put chemicals inside. Do you want to give it a try?”

I nervously took the wand. Liquid was being sucked into the tube and down the drain, so I started feeling around, trying to figure out where more excess fluid might be lurking. Suddenly I hit bone—and also my threshold for mortuary work.

“Oh, no way, forget it, I can’t do this.” I gave the trocar back to Carla and shuffled over to the safety of his head.

She switched directions on the hydroaspirator and used the trocar to pump in a solution (made from chemicals named “Freedom Cav” and “Dry Cav”). She finished up, filling the hole in his abdomen with cotton and putting the probe away.

“I’m going to clean him off, suture up his neck, and then put cream over his face and hands so they won’t dry out. Working on a body that has dried out is a nightmare. Tomorrow my boss will come in to do his makeup and trim his hair.”

I asked how long he could keep until the funeral.

“He’s in pretty good shape. Probably about a week. The trick is to keep him cold and embalm as soon as possible after death.”

Using a needle and thread, Carla made an appropriately named baseball suture to close the hole she’d cut for the fluids, then brushed a heavy, white moisturizer over any skin that would be exposed during the viewing.

“He’s gonna get makeup, right?” I asked.

“Oh, more than that, see how emaciated his face is, we can make the features look more lifelike, too.” Carla gave me a quick feature-fixer demonstration. “Here we’ve got big needles, bigger needles and really big needles,” she waved a cartoon-sized syringe at me. “Because he’s already pretty thin, we’ll add some feature fixer or tissue fixer to fill his face in.”

She injected a thick, pink (always pink!) gel into the tip of his nose, which immediately bubbled with health and fullness. She then gave his ears and brow the same treatment. By far, injections of feature fixer were the most noticeable cosmetic enhancement. After only a couple of squirts, he looked like he could have sat upright and walked out of the mortuary.

As we were cleaning up, Carla and I chatted about the nature of the business. “I guess funeral directors are working with dangerous chemicals all day, but for some reason they typically live really long lives.”

She added that she definitely planned to be cremated.

biopic

TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka