I’ll take a break from my discussions about transvestite cops and child abuse to discuss something I’ve never discussed on this blog – embalming!

Seriously, though – all of my posts are in some way related to funeral service. I interact with a lot of cops. I work on people who have been shot by cops. I work on child abuse victims. It’s impossible, for me anyway, not to try and empathize with all my cases.

Aspiration is probably the most unpleasant and gruesome part of the embalming process on an intact body. If I’m explaining what I do to a family, I will say that I introduce a needle attached to a suction device into the abdominal cavity to remove all traces of bodily fluids. I don’t tell them the “needle” is about the size and diameter of a broom handle and that by “introduce” I mean shove with all my body weight while bracing myself against a wall. There is no gentle way to perform this procedure (except perhaps on an infant, and I use something about the diameter of a pencil for those cases) and I question the need for it in the first place.

(For the purposes of this piece, when I refer to aspiration I mean only the invasive abdominal and thoracic cavity aspiration and not the more routine nasal aspiration, which I do on almost everyone.)

Aspiration removes everything that remains in the lungs, stomach, bladder and bowels after embalming, as well as any blood that was not drained through the jugular vein and any embalming fluid that may have leaked through a nick in the artery. It also removes the gases that can build up and sometimes distend the stomach. After this is completed, I attach the needle to a bottle of embalming fluid that is designed for treating the body cavity and internal organs, and inject each organ as best as I can. Then I close up the puncture wound.

Of course, this procedure is not done on autopsied bodies because the organs are usually sliced in several pieces. I often have to cut the intestines to release gases, but all I do afterward is leave the organs in a bucket and saturate them with cavity fluid for the duration of the embalming process, then return them to the body.

Aspiration may also be done on an unembalmed body if there is a large gaseous buildup in the stomach, or any sort of purge from the mouth. Some bodies arrive with what appears to be coffee grounds leaking out of the mouth, which is some kind of liquid from the stomach. Aspiration can prevent the gases and liquids from continuing to exit through the mouth during a viewing, although if the family did not request embalming then we don’t inject the cavity fluid after we aspirate.

When I realized this was what I wanted to do for a living and started reading more about the embalming process, I had second thoughts about the job and abandoned the thought for a few months. I thought I would be fine with the surgical cutting but I decided I could not jam a huge tube into someone’s stomach and then through their heart.

What’s funny is my first day on the job, when I got sick and had to leave the room, what turned my stomach was watching the first cut get made. When it came to the aspiration – the tube used is called a trocar – I actually did fine.

I have since met many embalmers who do not routinely aspirate bodies, because they don’t enjoy the process. They feel it is disrespectful and unnecessary, and also feel that the person’s family would never allow it if they heard of it. Some people will puncture the abdomen and let the body sit overnight, and then only perform the aspiration procedure if any fluids have leaked out.

The danger in not aspirating, of course, is the possibility that fluids from the stomach could leak out of the mouth or nose during the viewing. Bodies who are moved often, such as while transporting; dressing; shelving in the cooler or transferring to tables, are more likely to purge these leftover fluids. However, one common step we take is to pack the nose and throat full of absorbent cotton, or cotton saturated with a cauterizing chemical. In most cases, that should be enough.

Another possibility is that an unaspirated body might be fine throughout the funeral, but then in the event of a disinterment, may be found to have purged. This could result in the funeral home being sued for negligence.

I normally do not aspirate bodies who are having quick viewings or who are being cremated after the service. I definitely aspirate a body who is being shipped.

I feel that we can never be too careful or too thorough, but it also seems wrong to cut or pierce a human body in a way that may not be necessary. Many people feel the same way about what can politely be referred to as packing the orifices. There are people who think it’s more professional to do this to all bodies in their care, and people who only do so if they feel it’s truly necessary. Me personally…I’d say I do it to one in ten.

And by far, the worst day any of us will have on the job is when the aspirator machine backs up, and instead of sucking the stomach contents into the sewer, it sprays them all over the room and you.

Say no to routine aspiration.