Why do we revere the dead?

When you’re pissed off, don’t go online. WRITE. Online you will only find more stuff to piss you off.

A fellow mortician posted a picture that nearly all of us will recognize as one of the most fear-inducing situations we face at work: a rubber tube with a kink in it, full of embalming fluid and about to burst. This happens when part of the hose becomes trapped under a body’s arm or leg while the machine is running, or when an artery is too small for the cannula. If you don’t notice it in time, the cannula will slip out of the artery or the hose will burst, and you will be coated in embalming fluid, which at best will make you very sick and at worst will send you to the hospital.You can also blow up the artery and screw up the embalming job.

So we were all posting with our “that happened to me once” stories, and I wanted to find a video to post in the comments. I searched for one I remembered; this fake advertisement for embalming fluid.

The first video that popped up was some jackass filming himself doing an actual embalming. He was working on a nude, uncovered body and cutting into the upper thigh. Of course, I had to comment, saying that his license needed to be yanked, if he even had one. But most of the comments defended his actions, saying “It’s just a body part” and “It’s not like you can see his face.”

It’s easy to say “The dead don’t care.” Although we can’t say we know for sure, most likely, the dead don’t care if you drop them on the floor while you are transferring them or if you leave them on the table with instruments all over them while you get lunch or if you make remarks about their weight or appearance.

But maybe they do.

Or, maybe only the living care. Maybe only Joe’s mom would be upset if she knew Joe was naked and covered in blood with eight pairs of surgical scissors on top of him while you took a break. But Joe’s mom paid for the funeral. You met her. You promised to treat her son like your own. Would it be too much work to just wipe the body down and put a sheet on him before you leave?

Yes, it’s just a body part. Obviously I don’t have a problem with human body parts of all varieties. I don’t even care if I’m working with someone who doesn’t modestly drape the body before he starts working on it. But I have a huge problem with entrusting my deceased family member to someone and then finding their naked body in a YouTube video for no apparent purpose. If it’s just a body part…well…do you have a daughter? Would you want her body parts to appear in something like this? Can I film her while she’s asleep and won’t know or care?

There are a small number of legitimately educational videos that show embalming, cremation or other parts of funeral service work. These videos are different in that they show as little of the body as possible; for example, if you are watching the distribution of fluid through the arteries, you might be shown a hand with the veins distending as the fluid moves through. And, the families of these people have given permission for the videos to be made and shown.

They are also quite boring. No shock, no gore, no entertainment.

The dead don’t care. Maybe many of you have stated numerous times that you don’t care what happens to you when you die. They can throw you in the trash. They can dump you at sea; you’ll be dead. Say that again when your young wife dies in a robbery. Tell me that you honestly do not care how her body is treated.

She’s dead. I guarantee you do not want her thrown in the trash, even if she’s dead and won’t feel anything and won’t know about it. When I come to pick her up, can I just drag her by the ankles down the stairs instead of putting her on a stretcher, since she’s dead and doesn’t care?

Maybe it’s not just a dead body after all. It’s now something to revere.

I am a stranger coming to your home and I intend to walk away with the person who meant everything to you. I have just a few minutes to gain your trust so you may allow this. If you have had someone die you need to be able to trust them to revere the shell that held your favorite person.

You can take it too far. There are some people who do not allow one word of non-­work­-related conversation in the prep room while working. If you are cutting on a body, you are talking about the embalming of that body or you are silent. I’m not like that. I will say that all conversation should be respectful, but I don’t think it dishonors the dead to discuss movies and restaurants while you are at work.

“The body is not an instrument tray.” Some people consider it disrespectful to lay a surgical tool on top of the body at any time. Where else are you supposed to put them if not on the expanse of chest and stomach in front of you? Some people use little carts, but when you are continuously walking around the body as you work, it gets in the way. I think the body is a damn fine instrument tray. Please, when you work on me, lay out all your instruments on me. Especially if I get really fat and give you lots of room.

I have worked on a relative. A grandmother. I was asked to do it and it was an honor. I couldn’t imagine leaving a relative to the care of another, though I would if they were autopsied. As someone who refused a prenatal ultrasound because I believe I am not meant to see an unborn baby, yes, I will also refuse to look at the viscera of those dear to me. And I laid my instruments on her as well. My supervisor asked me, “Did your grandma walk around with embalming tools all over her when she was alive?”

“I don’t know; I wasn’t always there.”

I’m a professional working on my own relative. I say it’s fine to put my scalpel on top of her rather than leave it on a counter across the room.

Suddenly when your hated mother dies, you forget all about why you hated her and she becomes great in your eyes and you had the best relationship. Or if you didn’t, we think you should have. We get families who just flat out tell us they divorced themselves from their parents or children or siblings long ago and they don’t care about the funeral plans at all. (Though even they never ask us to throw the body in the trash.) They know the body will be cremated and the cremated remains will be locked in some public storage vault or maybe scattered in the mountains along with several others during the funeral home’s yearly scattering thing.

And we have decided that is unacceptable. Your mother is dead and it’s time to show her some respect.

In most cases, when it comes to the living vs the dead, I will side with the dead. But…what if sometimes the living are right? Maybe your mother was a complete bitch and getting dumped in the ocean with everyone else would be too good for her. Maybe she doesn’t deserve any of your respect, even in death. Maybe the best thing for everyone is for you to ignore her and ignore my phone calls and just let me do what I need to do to clear space in the cooler and close my case file.

People can be horrible. If you tell me your dead mother was a horrible person, I will believe you, but I can’t allow her body to be disrespected.

Never, for any reason, take a photo or video of human remains. “Education” is not a good enough reason, because most of us aren’t really educating anyone. We want to do it because it’s cool. We have jobs that are not like other jobs and people find them interesting and they want to see how we do what we do. So let them borrow a textbook. I have a first edition embalming textbook I used in school and that I still refer to sometimes. I will gladly show you that, or some of the trade journals I read.

If you are writing an embalming textbook, ok, you can take photos. Of course I know the textbook will actually be used to educate future embalmers and that you will have obtained the necessary permissions needed to take and use those photos.

I had an intern text me a picture of the gunshot wound he had reconstructed, and he honestly wanted my opinion on his work, and I told him here is why we never do that: now this person’s face is on two phones. That’s twice the level of human error; two people who now have the opportunity to forget this photo is there. Who else looks at your phone? Who looks at mine? Which one of us might lose their phone or get it stolen or let someone borrow it? What happens to the picture if the wrong person finds it and thinks it’s “cool” and sends it to some friends? What do they do with it? Post it with a stupid caption? Put it in a video slideshow? Have you ever logged into Facebook and seen an image of YOUR BROTHER’S shot­-up face pop up in your news feed? Well, now someone might.

My basic rules, in addition to no photos (and this includes photos of wrapped ­up bodies and blood/viscera as well) are:

­ When working, speak only of the body in ways you would if his family were standing there watching.

­ Assume the dead can understand everything you say and do, because we have no way of knowing they can’t. (If you think this is strange, I’m guessing you have never lost someone, because if you do, you will talk to them.)

­ Do not dwell on things that do not matter to the embalmer, such as who the person was or his lifestyle or how he died. All that matters is how you are going to do your job. We don’t ask how the gunshot wound got there, we just fix it.

I might take some extra steps too, like if I am working with someone and we start having a disagreement, move the conversation to another room the way we would if we were fighting in front of another co­worker. I try to use no profanity in the prep room or other negative language. I’ll usually ask that no offensive music be played, unless the deceased was a young person who might have listened to that stuff anyway.

It’s fine to say that you don’t care what happens to your own body when you die, but I’m glad that someone probably does, and I hope you have someone in your life you would not want dragged down the stairs to a trash can after they die.