Even when you spend your life immersed in death, embalming a loved one can be a different set of challenges.
“It’s good for you to write down your thoughts. It’s therapeutic because it forces you to slow down and think about life.”Katie Kacvinsky
The second blog to start with a quote but once again this has resonated with me. I am also acutely aware that this is my third blog post and that once again it is going to be severely lacking in light-heartedness.
One of the questions that I have been asked on numerous occasions is “Have you ever embalmed anyone you know and what was that like?”
The short answer is yes, I have embalmed people who I have known. There is no short answer though for what it is like.
For me, caring for somebody in death who you cared about in life is a privilege. It is also something I feel I need to do for me, as much as for them and their (or our) loved ones and friends. I think there is a level of comfort and ease that is instantly afforded to a person when they know that the funeral professional responsible for their loved ones’ care knew them when they were alive.
I find that spending all day immersed in the reality of death, constantly being forced to face your mortality, changes your perspective and how you think. Ten years ago I used to be a sulker. I used to hold grudges. I could quite easily leave the house or go to sleep on an argument. I could hang up the phone in temper and cancel or ignore calls.
Then I began to work in the funeral profession. I would sit down with clients and hear their stories. A recurrent theme was that they had lost somebody they loved dearly and their last interaction had been cross words. It may seem dramatic but I couldn’t stand the thought of finding myself in a position in which I was to lose someone who I had been angry with without resolution.
Working with death has made me realise I am not scared of dying. What I do fear is my loved ones dying. Not because of death itself, but the thought of the world without them. To never hear them laugh, to speak to them or to hug them again. I don’t fear death for me because I will be the one gone, none the wiser.
Six years ago, in March 2015, my Grandad was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. I remember my initial thoughts. It’s fine, cancer is treatable or at least manageable. My Grandad was a good weight, he was going to be okay. Even though I saw the reality and loss that cancer brings upon so many, the families I serve, the notion that this was going to be one of those situations seemed to blissfully pass me by. Denial is real.
My Grandad’s health rapidly declined, he almost seemed to be shrinking away before my eyes. He didn’t want to have therapies or treatments which would make him poorly, he wanted quality over quantity and it was a decision that I respected although that in itself was difficult at times. It is amazing how selfish you can feel, that you almost believe that someone should suffer to stay with you for a little longer.
When I was eighteen I moved in with my Grandparents for a time. After moving out Sunday lunch at their house remained very much the tradition. My Grandad could eat huge plates of food. After his diagnosis, what he ate gradually declined, time spent with him each weekend wasn’t always in the kitchen anymore.
By September 2015, my Grandad was very poorly. It became apparent that he didn’t have long left. Once he became bedridden, time spent with him was in the chair by the side of his bed, I would spend a great deal of time (what felt like) talking at him. On the 16th September 2015, the day before my Nana’s birthday, my Grandad passed away at home with me and our family by his side.
I was heartbroken that my Grandad had died but I was relieved that he was no longer suffering. The selfishness I had felt in the beginning had been removed after the months of his decline. The following morning I arranged for his body to be taken to my place of work, I ordered the necessary paperwork and began preparations for funeral arrangements.
Outwardly, this could seem cold and clinical but in a way it made it easier for me to process. I felt like I had control and a sense of purpose. There was no fear of the unknown for me, I had something to occupy my mind and in doing so I felt I was able to support my family in our grief.
Funeral arrangements were seen as one thing, preparing and embalming my Grandad’s body was another. I was asked on numerous occasions if I felt that it was the right thing for me to do. My Dad in particular was concerned that it was going to be too much for me, but in reality I couldn’t stand the thought of somebody else doing it.
Of course there are fellow professionals who I could trust but he was my Grandad; I knew him, I loved him and I cared about him in life so why would I not care for him now in his death? I had my mind made up that I wanted to embalm, dress and place my Grandad into his coffin.
Embalming in itself is invasive and visceral but it has a purpose. There were only eight days between my Grandad passing away and the date of his funeral, so from a preservation point of view I wasn’t overly concerned given it can usually be that amount of time before I even receive a body for embalming and that amount of time again until the date of the funeral.
My main thoughts were from a presentation perspective. As I had been with him when he had passed away I was able to elevate his hands and position his head to minimise the hypostatic discolouration of the blood settling to the lower parts of his body.
As I took him into our funeral home I was able to apply a massage cream to his eyes and mouth to help to prevent the tissues dehydrating. Even with these steps taken, his skin tone and features did not look like him and I knew that embalming him would restore him to how he looked before he died, but also before he had begun to look really poorly.
With my mind firmly made up and wanting the best for my Grandad in death, I went into my funeral home mortuary on a Saturday morning. I carried out my pre-embalming assessment, prepared my arterial solution and made my choice of incision site. All the apprehension drained and I became ‘an embalmer’. It is a strange feeling to try to explain because although I knew it was my Grandad, it was also a procedure that I carry out multiple times a day for others.
The aspiration process was not a problem either. I talked him through and narrated each step, I reminisced and apologised when I got shampoo in his eye. Once the embalming procedure was complete, I moved on to the finishing touches and final steps. This is the thing I remember most about it. I trimmed his nails, shaved his face and I felt like I was having time with him that I knew nobody else was going to get. As I dressed him in his suit I told him how smart he looked and how handsome he was – as much as I loved his cardigans and Grandad jumpers!
So, as much as it may seem like you have taken a tough decision, you know if it is the right one for you. I truly believe that I had a much healthier grieving process for doing what I did. It did not change the fact he was gone and that I was going to miss him desperately but I felt safe in the knowledge he had been loved and cared for. I took comfort in knowing I had completed every step, that I had been in control. I also felt like in him being with me, my family could take comfort too.
As an embalmer, I always recommend embalming. Sometimes I think it comes across as a bias – which to a degree there will be because it is a service I believe holds so much value. Even if the time between death and final disposition is only a matter of days, from a presentation point of view it is still worthwhile. Embalming is commonly misunderstood and preservation is sometimes the only acknowledged benefit and so the presentation benefits are missed.
Sometimes, it is the fact that there are no plans for the body to be viewed but I feel embalming is as much for the dignity and care of the deceased person, as it is the family. Not to mention, there is always the possibility that they may change their mind and want to say their final goodbyes. When I say I recommend embalming and say that I will care for your loved one as though they were my own, just know that I say it with sincerity and a place that knows exactly what it is like to care for and embalm someone you knew and loved dearly.