When I did my internship and actually touched a dead body for the first time, I understood why people said it was harder than dressing a squirming baby.
My boss told me if I was ever having trouble getting the clothing on, I could cut it. I could split suit jackets up the back, cut the waistbands of pants, or even split the legs vertically and drape the pants on the body if there was no viewing.
And at first, I refused to cut clothing. I believed it was disrespectful; that it was a family’s personal property, not to be permanently altered even if they’re just going to bury or burn it. I even dressed one lady in a one-piece purple jumpsuit with ostrich feathers all over it without cutting it.
Now, I almost always prefer to cut clothing. It just plain fits and looks better. Cutting the clothing also means you do not have to pull on the deceased’s limbs, possibly tearing the skin, or sit the body up and manipulate it. I prefer to move a deceased person as little as possible after embalming is completed, so there will be virtually no chance of the mouth popping open, the skin ripping, or fluids leaking from the mouth and nose. Particularly when dressing autopsied cases, I do not like to jostle and move them.
If the body is well-embalmed, dressing will be easier because when you roll the body toward you with one hand on a shoulder and the other on a hip, the body will roll as one straight unit. Sometimes, if a person’s feet are small enough, you can hold both of them in one hand and lift upwards, and the entire body will follow, with the back of the head remaining on the table but the legs, hips, back and arms rising.
In contrast, dressing an unembalmed body means that when you pick up a foot, the ankle and knee will probably bend and the leg will flop to the side. If you roll the body, the neck is not fixed in place, so the head flops over and possibly purges on you.
Some useful tips: for bras, fasten them first and then put them over the head like a tank top. With belts, they can either be looped through the pants first, or cut in back and then positioned at the waist once the deceased is in the casket. I like to put on socks before pants, because this way the person’s foot-skin doesn’t flake off when you’re putting the pants on. Earrings and necklaces often need to be pinned or glued in place in order to be visible.
I instruct all families to bring clothing that is slightly larger than usual, to accommodate the distended abdominal region which sometimes occurs after an autopsy, and I also ask for long sleeves. Even if the body is in great condition, embalming fluid often lends a mottled appearance to the skin in light-skinned people, so short sleeves are rarely a good look in the casket. Rather than putting makeup all over a person’s arms, I prefer to just dress them in long sleeves. I also suggest no sheer materials, since sutures may show through. Unfortunately, many families forget these instructions and bring tank tops or gauzy sundresses, so I like to keep a few scarves handy that can be arranged and draped. I have a few scarves that were worn by deceased people before I got a chance to wear them.
I had one case recently who was a full facial reconstruction and cranial repair, after a car wreck. His head – any part that was to be viewed – was made entirely of cotton, wax and paint. His head could not be moved at all, or it would have caved in, and he was to be left overnight at his family’s home. These types of cases in particular must be moved and manipulated only as necessary. This man was to be dressed in an Armani leather jacket, and I informed his family it would have to be cut. Some families want pieces of clothing returned to them after the service, so I had to let them know if they wanted him dressed in this jacket, they would not be able to have it back in one piece. (They instructed me to cut it as necessary and bury it with him.)
Priding yourself on dressing a body without cutting clothing is similar to taking pride in embalming a body using only one injection point. What matters most is the appearance and preservation of the body, and if you have to make six incisions and split the jacket and cut the waistband to create the best appearance, please do so.