Forever Silenced.

•December 10, 2011 • 17 Comments

Though I have not posted an entry on this site in quite some time, I do still think about my job at the funeral home from time to time.  It was a side job for me.  Not a career, but a temporary job that payed the bills.  Of course, it became so much more than that since I did enjoy the work and found each day to be an intriguing adventure.  I have respect for those in the funeral business, now that I know what they do.  Well…I have respect for most of the people in the funeral business.  Some of the folks I worked with were not the greatest people I had ever met, and some were.  I guess as with all jobs, you have to take the good with the bad.

One of the most profound feelings I had during my first week on the job as a removal staff person had to do with what I referred to as “the shell.”  I saw more dead bodies in the first few days of my job than I had ever seen in my entire life.  And each one, unique in their own way, had something in common:  there was no one there.  Silence.  I know that seems cliche and perhaps obvious, but for the first time in my life, I viewed the human body as nothing more than a shell for a human spirit.  Once that spirit was gone, the only thing left was the lifeless body.

I’m not the most gifted writer in the world.  In fact, I seldom spend much time recording my thoughts.  My words are more impulses that are blurted out on a computer keyboard.  But I hope, in some small way, the feelings and ideas I have are communicated and received by you, the reader.

Expiration Date

•September 9, 2010 • 2 Comments

Due to popular demand…hahaha….I will attempt to make another posting here.  Sorry I do not post more frequently, but thank you for reading and for your interest.

I was surprised to “meet” a man who had been dead for several months and was still resting on a gurney in the prep room at the funeral home.  He was wearing a nice suit, tie, and polished shoes.  He had been embalmed, but was not looking so good.  I asked a co-worker…what is the deal with that guy?  They told me something had occurred with the family and their finances which had kept them from being able to proceed with the funeral arrangements, and until the paperwork could be resolved he was to remain in the prep room until further notice.  Now I am not sure if I was being told the truth, but I do remeber him being in his little corner of the room for quite some time.  So maybe there was some truth the story.  Who knows?  Which begs the question: is there a legal time limit or “expiration” date on the deceased? Are funeral homes required to dispose of remains after a certain amount of time? I am not sure what the answer to this question is, perhpas some of our more experienced funeral directors and technicians who frequent this blog can answer this question.

I am surprised at how few “rules” there are to the deceased in terms of the family’s involvement and ability to make choices about the arrangements and details of their loved one who has passed away.  There is no law that says you cannot view the body at any time you are ready.  There is no law that says that funerals, viewings, and burials have to be done the way funeral homes say.  There really are no rules as to how funerals must be conducted.  You just have to find a funeral home that is able to accommodate your requests.  Funeral homes will give you some guidelines to follow, and in most cases this is extremely helpful to the grieving.  Sometimes funeral directors will make it seem that it is “law” that the funeral go exactly the way they tell you it must.  This is just not true.  So don’t be afraid to ask your funeral director to accommodate you and your family’s wishes. It really should be their obligation to accommodate your wishes.

Hospitals Body Removals

•August 8, 2010 • 11 Comments

One of our jobs as removal staff personnel at the funeral home, was to pick up the deceased at area hospitals.  The hospitals would call after getting the families of the deceased had made arrangements with our funeral home.  There were a variety of reasons people died in hospitals.  Unsuccessful surgery, heart attacks, or some prolonged illness that had finally taken it’s toll.

Bodies in hospitals were always discretely moved to the hospital morgue, which was generally located in a non-descript, out-of-the-way location in the hospital.  All of the hospitals in our city had morgues with security codes for entry of some type.  So if someone could figure out where the door to the morgue was located, they would not be able to just walk right in due to the security precautions.  The morgues seldom had anyone working in them, and I always remember being alone anytime I picked up a body with the exception of a few hospitals that required a uniformed security guard to be present.

The morgues often had walk-in coolers that held the deceased, or the big heavy rolling drawers where the bodies would lie.  sometimes the bodies were in body bags, sometimes they were not.  We were always required to drive our van up into some back alleyway of the hospital and were encourages to wheel the deceased through areas that did not have many people around.  I guess it was bad for business if people saw dead bodies being wheeled out the hospital.  But death is a reality at hospitals and often occurs daily.

The procedures for removing a body form the hospital was like most of the other procedures, though there might be some extra paperwork involved.  Hospitals always had their own way of tagging a corpse, but we would always re-tag them with our standard ankle tag, which had the deceased’s name and ID number that corresponded with all of their funeral home paperwork.

Often times, the security guards would try to make small talk to lighten the mood.  Often they seemed uncomfortable with having been assigned morgue duty.  I always put them at ease by acting professional and by doing my job as quickly as possible.  Some guards would try to not look at the corpse, and some would be very interested in getting a good look.

There were some hospitals with very nice morgues, but I remeber most of them being less than nice and being dimly lit and not as clean as the rest of the hospital.  I guess since only the dead would ever be in these rooms it was less of a priority for them to spend money to make them nice.

We would often know that a hospital pick up would be in our future becuase we would hear from the family shortly after the person died.  But it was not until we received the official call from the hospital after the body had been released that we could actually go pick them up.  Sometimes it might be a day or two after the person had died.  I’m not always sure why sometimes it took so much longer, but in some cases it had to do with whether or not an autopsy had been required.

One time I actually went to pick up a body at a very busy hospital and was told the body was in the E.R.  A man had come in with chest pains and had ended up having a heart attack right there in the E.R.  He died and the hospital was so busy they insisted that I simply remove him from the E.R. instead of them taking him to their morgue.  This made it very awkward for me since I had to park right in front of the E.R. doors and remove his body in a much less private setting.  Everyone there saw me come in, and then saw me wheel him right out the doors into the parking lot.  It was not discreet and did not seem very professional, but it was what that hospital had asked me to do…so I guess I had no choice.  It was the only time that ever happened.  All of the other times, I simply picked them up from the morgues.

Busted Ankles

•July 24, 2010 • 3 Comments

My partner and I drove down the quiet neighborhood street in our unmarked navy blue van.  We had left the funeral home about 20 minutes earlier after being given a “house call” assignment from our supervisor.  A house call was an event that would include picking up a deceased body from a residence.  It could be tricky since the person could have expired in a variety of hard to get to places within the home.  Often we found them laying in their bed, or often-times laid out on the floor after having collapsed form some unexpected ailment such as a heart attack.  We did not have any reason to believe that this assignment would be any more difficult than any other house call, but we became suspicious that something was up when we saw a police car parked in front of the home and two officers waiting outside.

It was not uncommon to have a police officer on the scene of a death that had occurred in the home.  They often would wait for s to arrive and promptly leave upon seeing our van drive up.  Something seemed different about this case.  The officers met us at the van with a dazed look on their face.  They said, “you don’t want to go in there without a mask.”  Officers were generally experienced in situations involving death and nothing ever seemed to phase them.  But these two looked as though they were ready to vomit at the slightest provocation.  “There’s a cat in the house, seems to be the lady’s pet.  We’ll call animal control.  The lady has been here, we suspect, for about three days.  She’s in the bathroom.”  With that information, the cops got in their cruiser and left.

My partner looked at me and we non-verbally agreed that we needed masks.  Life a reflex, we opened the back van doors and rummaged through our stash of emergency protective clothing.  We found our masks, which had been specially fitted for our faces – designed to keep out the most horrific smells or fumes that might be in the air.  Luckily the masks worked very well.

We went in the house.  It had been lived in by and elderly lady who had, as the officers indicated, a cat…perhaps more than one.  The house was dark with thick avocado and mustard yellow drapes drawn.  The kitchen was a mess, outfitted with all the best the 1970’s had to offer in appliances.  The carpet, a green shag was worn with time and covered in pet hair.

We slowly walked down the narrow hallway toward the bathroom.  The door was closed.  My partner looked at me as if to say, “here goes!” as he slowly opened the door.  Inside, we found about an inch of sitting water on the floor, caused by some sort of toilet overflow.  On the toilet sat the deceased, her mouth agape and her milky eyes staring straight ahead.  She was slumped slightly to her right toward the bathtub.  She was perhaps in her late seventies or early eighties.  The bathroom was very small, even for one person.

The officer’s assessment was correct.  The lady had probably been dead for about three days.  With no family around to know, a neighbor had called the police after noticing her newspapers collecting in the driveway and hearing the moans of her cat from inside.

The dilemma we faced was tricky.  Most of her blood had collected in her feet and ankles, having been sitting upright for three days with no circulation.  Her thin skin would most likely give way at the slightest movement of her body.  We would have a huge mess on our hands if we were not careful.

My partner and I went back out to the van to assemble a plan of action.  Our task was to remove her body by placing it in a body bag and on a gurney.  There was no room on the floor of the bathroom to lay out a body bag and place her inside.  We would have to somehow pick her up and carry her out, down the hallway, and into the living room in order to place her in the body bag.  But how would we do it without getting blood and body fluid all over the house and ourselves?

My partner, who was currently in school to become a criminologist was not one’s idea of a funeral home removal staff worker.  He was in his mid-twenties, with designer glasses and a clean cut hair style.  He looked very studious and smart.  And in fact, he was.  Often quiet, he was confident and in control.  I was glad to have him on this job with me.  The others on our staff would have wanted to make crude jokes or outlandish exclamations about the situation.  We would have spent much of our time talking about how gross it was and how we didn’t want to touch her rather than just getting the job done.  My partner, though disgusted, was level headed and had ideas of how to get the woman off the toilet and into the body bag.

The plan was for one of us to get on her right side the other on the left, and gently lift her from under her arms and carry her out the door.  We could not hold her by her legs in fear of them falling apart.  This sounds exaggerated, but it was a valid fear.

We set the gurney up in the living room.  The grey body bag was placed on the floor and unzipped.  Would it hold the blood and fluid sure to seep out?  Probably not.  But we could always double bag her if needed.

We put on protective gear over our clothes and shoes.  Our masks were in place and we were on or way into the bathroom.  We had discussed the need to move very slow and gentle so that her legs and feet would not gush open.  I got on the left between the bathtub and the body.  My partner got on the right and with a visual cue we both gently lifted.

It was only a few seconds before we noticed blood and fluid rising up past the souls of our protected shoes.  Her ankles had busted.  There was nothing left to do to prevent it.  Blood and fluid filled the entire bathroom floor.  We quickly moved her out into the hallway and into the living room.  Her body was frail and the skin was literally peeling off in our hands.  We had made a mess of the house, but it was something we could not avoid.

The entire task took us about an hour.  We slowly removed the soiled protective wear at the rear of our van, being careful not to touch any of the fluid, blood, or skin that had attached itself to the material.

On the way back to the funeral home, I realized that my partner and I had not spoken very many words the entire time during the removal.  We had been communicating with eye contact and nods only.  Most likely, we did not want to open out mouths and intake any of the putrid air that surrounded us, even though we had masks protecting us.

I cannot remember what we did about the required ankle tag we were supposed to place on the body.  I’m guessing we put it on her wrist.

It’s been a while…

•July 24, 2010 • 6 Comments

It has been a long time since I have made a posting here.  This blog is several years old now, and I have had a lot of visitors.  Thank you to all who have visited the blog.  Over the years I have gotten a lot of comments, some good, many bad.  I am amazed at how rude people are in the world in which we live.  I know in my experiences working in the funeral home, it was my co-workers who were some of the most hateful people I had ever met and have never met people as hateful since I left that job.  So it does not surprise me to have some rude comments on this site every now and again.

I am simply a guy who worked in a funeral home for a brief time in my life.  I am not an expert in any way on the practices of the funeral business, but I do know what I experienced while working behind the scenes” of a funeral home corporation in a large U.S. city.

For the most part, I have respect for funeral directors and those who work in this industry, however I also have seen a side of the business that is less than respectable.  It is a business.  There is money to be made, and lots of it.  Some are in the business of helping people, and many are in the business of getting rich.  Unfortunately burial and funeral services are something we all encounter at some point in life.  It is never fun, and is far from pleasant.

I would like to say “thank you” to all of those working the funeral care industry who work hard to help grieving families and friends.

First Call

•November 16, 2008 • 8 Comments

In the funeral home where I worked, we serviced a large U.S. City and all of the metro area within about 30 miles of the core of the city itself. This meant that there were several calls a day to come and pick up the deceased at hospitals, nursing homes, the city morgue, and private residences. When a call came in, the upstairs offices at the funeral home would answer the phone and complete a “first call” sheet. This sheet would have most of the information needed for us to know who we were picking up, where, and what the arrangements were to include.

The ladies upstairs would print out directions to the location of the deceased and send them, along with the first call sheet to me. I would then jump in the van and head out. If it were a routine location like nursing home, hospital, or city morgue – I would not require directions. If it were a private residence, i would require directions.

Before leaving the parking lot of the funeral home, I would write on the ankle tag with a sharpie marker the deceased last name and the ID number assigned to them on the first call sheet. This way, as soon as I arrived, I could place the ankle tag around their ankle so that I would not forget who they were and so they could always be identified from then on. The ankle tags were made to where they could not be removed or tampered with. The only way to remove it would be to cut off the foot at the ankle. That would be someone desperate to hide something!

The first call sheet would accompany the body back to the funeral home prep room, where the deceased would be logged in and stripped of their clothing and personal effects. These items would be placed in a safe until they could be handed over to the funeral director, who would get the items back to the family. The body would then be rolled into the cooler until it was time for embalming (if embalming was to be done on them). Sometimes the body would go right to the embalming table if there were no others tobe embalmed. This was rarely the case. On any given day there would be anywhere form 5-8 bodies come through our prep room doors. Dead bodies, that is. So we were very busy.

The first call sheet went in a log book, and eventually made it back to the office where it originated. Copies were made and sent to the appropriate departments. The cemeteries also worked off of the first call sheets.

Combating Smells

•October 13, 2008 • 16 Comments

It has been a while since I have written a blog entry here. I guess I have been super-busy and pre-occupied with other things. I wanted to share a story about a product we often used in the prep room of the funeral home. It was a cinnamon-scented air freshener. I do not know what the concoction was or the brand name, but I do know this air freshener was no typical kind that could be bought in a local store. It was specially made for areas like funeral homes. Why did we need it? Well typically, when a body was embalmed the natural smells of decay would disappear. Embalming, after all, stops natural decay and preserves a body. However, there were several times when a family would not want the body embalmed. Sometimes it was because of the expense. Sometimes it was for religious reasons. Sometimes it was because the body would soon be cremated and had no reason to be preserved. I remember one case when a family decided to forgo embalming because of the expense. Typically embalming was over $1,000 – and there is no law or rule that says you have to have a body embalmed. The only law that requires embalming is when a body is to be flown in an airplane to another location. Funeral homes may make you believe embalming is required, but it is not. It is, however, a very good idea to embalm if you are planning on having a funeral service where the body o the deceased is present. Even with a closed casket, a decaying body can emit horrific smells. So funeral directors often encourage embalming, not so much for the money, but more for the family’s peace of mind and grieving experience.

There were several times that I recall bodies not being embalmed. One that stands out is the story of a large fella who passed away unexpectedly and a bit young – probably he was in his late 40’s or early 50’s. e had been through a recent, nasty divorce, and his ex-wife was the primary family member involved in his funeral planning. We cannot confirm the reasons why she did not have him embalmed. It could have been due to the expense or it could have been some type of sick revenge tactic. I hope it was not the latter.

The man, whom we had to dress in a dark pin-stropped suit was beginning to decay quickly. There were no visible signs at first of decay, but the smell grew increasingly worse throughout the few days that we were “storing” him in the prep room before his funeral. He stunk. A lot. It got to the point where it was truly hard to be in the prep room due to his smell. That’s when I discovered the high-powered cinnamon air spray. It was in a generic looking, industrial size spray can. I sprayed it a ll around the prep room and it did eliminate the smell for about 15-20 minutes. At that time, a quick re-spray would buy us more time.

The funeral director pleaded with the family not have the body present in the room during the funeral. But they insisted. So we had to spray the room before, during, and after the viewing and funeral services. There is no doubt that the family smelled the decaying man. Of all of the horrible things a family has to go through after the death of a loved one, smelling their decaying body is not one to add to the list. That is why embalming is important. By the time the day arrived for the man;s burial, his hands and neck/chin areas were beginning to turn dark. Nature was running it’s course. Without the embalming, there was nothing more to be done – other than spray the area every few minutes with cinnamon spray.

 
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