Twenty-five years old and well-known in what some call the “urban world,” shot dead in a setup. He happened to be the friend of someone in the business and I was requested to prepare this case for viewing because “…he has to look perfect, you know…everyone knew him…”
For any embalmer, there is no greater pride than being requested to handle the final honors of someone close to another funeral director. People have asked me to work on their mothers, their ministers, their closest friends. I told him I’d be glad to, and of course he would be perfect.
Should you have to tell an embalmer to make this one look perfect? Don’t we try that with everyone?
Most of us would claim we treat all our cases the way we would treat our own families. That is, until you work on a family member, and you catch yourself going just a bit above and beyond. Maybe on most of your cases, if you palpate a limb and can feel parts where the fluid didn’t reach as far, you decide it’s good enough; he’s still viewable; he’s being cremated tomorrow anyway; his clothes will cover it. But if it’s your uncle, you re-inject that area. Even if it’s his knee. Even if everyone else says he looks fine and you did a great job.
But even if I think my work is close enough to perfect most of the time, I’ll still try everything on this one. Don’t just sew up the incision; cauterize it first. Then double-stitch. Then use glue and cotton. Change the cotton the next day. If the hair looks clean, wash it anyway. Because everyone is going to be there.
He’s small, but I’m going to get an assistant to help me dress him so I can be certain his clothes won’t be wrinkled or pulled on. Try out different sizes of eyecaps [plastic disks we insert under the eyelids to give a natural contour to the closed eye] to see which looks most like his eyes. Use cotton and humectant under the lids as well, so the skin doesn’t tear or dry out if you want to change the eyecaps the next day. Dehydration in the eyelid can cause the inner corners of the eyes to dry out as well and turn brown.
Comb the eyelashes to make sure no Viscerock [powdered formaldehyde used in autopsies] is stuck in them, and to remove traces of moisturizer as well. Use cosmetics on the hands; don’t just clean them. He’s been dead over a week and his fingers turned purple; he might need some opaque color on the hands. Got the discoloration out of the fingers but I can still see a little under the nail beds. Laypeople won’t notice, but I will.
Pack the nostrils even though there is very little chance of leakage when an autopsy has been done, since the throat is removed. Just…do it anyway. Don’t just spray disinfectant in the mouth – clean his teeth.
Suture even the bullet wounds that didn’t go all the way into the body. He has to look perfect.
Wash the hearse. Dust the flower stands, even if they are clean. You would if it was your family member.
The funeral director came in to view him just before he was placed in the casket. He was dressed in all white. I didn’t have to worry about blood stains or leakage, because he was perfect.
“Looks good”, the director said.
“But does he look the way you remembered him?” Most expertly prepared bodies look good. But if they don’t immediately cause the viewers to recognize them as him, you may as well have done nothing.
“Yes.” The simple answer was all I needed. Now I can rest.