Before embalming my recent non-viewable case, I spent three hours driving him to the funeral home. I talked. We bonded. I said I don’t mind that he smells bad. This one didn’t talk back, and I didn’t want him to. This case was just way too close to home.

The smell of decomp stopped bothering me years ago. People who have been on the job 40+ years ask me how I can stand to work around that smell. I don’t know. I just can. My sense of smell is not as good as other people’s due to my cumulative exposure to formaldehyde over the years, but I can still smell decomp.

I have actually come across one worse smell; that of rotting flowers. If you work in a mausoleum, there will probably be vases attached to the crypts for people to leave flowers, and most people just leave their flowers once a year or so. The flowers rot and no one takes care of them until they get an intern they can make deal with it, and you’d be surprised at how nasty vegetable matter is when it breaks down. I’d rather smell decomposing human remains any day.

When I got back, I had a lot of work to do before I could even start the embalming, and I had an intern helping me. He didn’t complain. He didn’t try to get out of it. We worked in silence, going through bags of recovered material, separating the human from the non-human from the indeterminate.

“This came off; can we throw it out?” he asked, holding a lump of tissue. My general guideline – obviously not my first time with a case like this since I have a guideline for the situation – if it’s a handful, it’s considered a human body part and it goes in the casket (in a bag) or in the crematory. We only throw out pieces of human tissue that are the small bits left on dissecting and cutting instruments or small flaps of skin that come loose, or things like hair and fingernail clippings. So if you’ve got a handful of something there and aren’t sure what it is, just assume it’s human material, and we don’t throw that in the trash.

So we’ve got open medical waste bags we’re digging through, and the human remains bag has embalming fluid in it, and the rest of the body is on the table. Everything still smells. The formaldehyde drifts into the air and hurts our eyes, so we step away when we have to but the decomp smell is ever-present. It’s hot. We’re wearing nice funeral suits under our impervious protective gear. Everyone else at work is complaining because we brought this guy here and he’s not leaving for several days while we arrange a flight. His whole body is covered with a thick coating of mud, which we start scraping off and throwing into the non-human medical waste bag. But we can’t always tell the mud from possible human organs. So we might have to leave it on while I embalm. There are maggots.

“This also came off.”
“OK, drop it in the bag here.”

I’m puncturing every blister I can find on his body and making incisions in the areas to remove the methane gases present with decomposition. I’ve stuck myself with a suture needle. I double-gloved for this one, but the gloves rip anyway and the fluids get into my gloves. I change them for the first of several times; at least 50 times because I used up an entire box over a few days just on this case.

We cut off the clothing and a good layer of skin comes with it. What we can recover, we treat and save. When washing his hair, his scalp comes off. Saved.

I have to turn the body over, face-down on my table. I’ve never done that before. If I have to sew up a spinal autopsy or something else done to the back, I have someone hold the body on its side while I suture. But this body has to be examined everywhere for skin slip, leakage and other conditions, and I’m going to have to do this several days in a row, and there won’t always be someone to hold him, so he can go ahead and be the first body I’ve ever flipped on my table. He’s only an average-sized man, but my back can handle far more weight than my biceps can, so I hoist him up onto my shoulders and then reposition him face-down. Blood and purge start to drip from his mouth and ears, so it’s a good thing I flipped him. “Sorry,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. My protective gown was pushed aside and fluids got on my arms. I really wish we had a shower at work.

We repeat most of the same procedures on the underside of his body. I perform the most invasive and unpleasant of all embalming procedures, the one no one wants to talk about, let alone actually do. We get told we smell far too bad to be in the rest of the funeral home. We are isolated and ostracized.

We start to sort through the bag of undetermined material and decide most of it is probably human.

The intern goes into the restroom…and yells “GROSS!”

I had to laugh. This body is bloating up on us even as we work. We’ve been up to our elbows in bags of rotting human remains. We’re breathing nasty fumes and getting stuff dripped on us and these damn gowns don’t work and even other morticians have decided we smell too bad, yet the only thing he verbalized as being “gross” was having to look at someone’s unflushed urine.