Feature Builder

•September 19, 2007 • Leave a Comment

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One of the most interesting things about body prep for a funeral is the attempt to ake the deceased look as they did during life. You often hear people say, “She looked better in death than she did in life.” This is often the case because often people who have been very sick for a long time preceding death will have sunken faces, swollen of baggy eyes, a pale skin-tone, and just and over-all fragility about them. Then once they die, the embalmers fill them with pink formaldehyde, which often restores some color in the skin, and they will often use a product refered to as “feature builder.” This is a liquid gel type aterial that is ijected into the sunken parts of the face with a syringe.  This get fills the sunked areas and “builds” it up to make it have shape as it once did when the person was alive.  It was very much like “botox.”  The interesting thing is that the results were instant.  As soon as the liquid was injected, you could see it filling up inside the skin.

There were many times I would pick up a body from a nursing home, where the patient had been ill for months.  They would often look like a skeleton, but by the time they had spend a few hours in our embalming room, they would come out looking like a different person.  As I have said before, we would often use photos of the deceases to make sure we were mimicking what they looked like when they were alive.   We had a professional hair-dresser come in each day and work on the more difficult hair styles often the women.  It was ery important to get the hair exactly styled the correct way.  This is not an easy feat to fix someone’s hair who is laying on their back.

Why do we make the dead look as they were alive? It’s all part of our grieving process.  Its important to have the last image of the deceased be a peaceful, pleasant image when possible.

Dignified Duds

•September 17, 2007 • Leave a Comment

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I found it interesting while being on the removal staff that I was required to wear a suit and tie each day. This is funny because much of the time I was dealing with gross stuff like blood and body fluids. I guess the funeral home wanted us to look dignified and professional when being seen in public. There were times when I felt odd wearing such a restrictive outfit while trying to hoist a dead body onto a gurney.

When I got the job I only had one suit in my closet. So I went to the local thrift store and found four nice suits that fit. This way I did not have to worry about them being ruined. If they got a stain, I could simply throw them away. My ties, on the other hand, would often get soiled and had to be replaced frequently.

When I resigned from the job, I threw all of my shoes, socks, suits, and ties in the garbage. By this time they had been through a lot.

The Smell of Death

•September 10, 2007 • 1 Comment

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I learned very early on in my job that death has a smell. I attribute the smell to the intense heating and cooling of a body that occurs upon death. Keep in mind I am not a scientist, and am strictly speaking form opinion and experience. We often think of a corpse as cold, however the cold does not occur immediately after death, but is gradual. The body temperature can be very hot when someone dies, and in my opinion this creates a distinct smell that cannot be described. This smell, not disqusting but not pleasing is one that is very strong. Many bodies I picked up would be hot to the touch upon my arrival, in some cases only 1 hour after their death. The body temperature would often rise significantly upon their death and then start to gradually decrease. I seldom arrived to pick up a body so late that rigor mortise had set in, though there were occasions when this was the case. There were some occasions where death had occurred days or weeks earlier, and those smells were quite different than the immediate pick up of a body. Those smells required special face respirators (gas masks) that had been specially fit for my face.

I will always remember the smell of death – it is embedded in my memory forever.

   

Lives Cut Short

•September 4, 2007 • Leave a Comment

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Anytime a call came in from the city medical examiners office for a body pick up we knew it would be bad. People normally were taken to the M.E. who had been murdered or in car accidents. My first M.E. pick up was a mess. It was a car accident victim: a 19 year old male and his 21 year old girlfriend. Both had been severely beaten up in the high speed wreck.

I pulled the van into the dimly lit M.E. garage. Once I was in, the garage door closed, so that the public could not see the horrific sights that would transpire. I entered through the glass double doors leading into the M.E. morgue. A large man wearing bloody scrubs, rubber gloves and a surgeons mask came in with a clipboard.  “Are you from the funeral home?” “Yes” I replied. “I haven’t seen you before, you must be new. I’m Tom.” He said. I was glad he did not extend his hand for a friendly handshake. Though I too had on rubber gloves (standard protocol for removals) I did not care to shake his bloody hand. “Let me get the personal effects, I’ll be right back.” Tom said as he disappeared behind a door that said “M.E. office.”

The bodies, both on gurneys and in body bags were to my left awaiting their trip to the funeral home. I had been trained that no matter how grotesque and mangled a body was, I would be required to unzip the body bag, locate the foot and compare the ID numbers on my paperwork with the ID on their tag. Then, I would be required to attach another tag, with the funeral home ID #, which would be different #. I would prepare the tags before arriving on scene at a removal so that the removal could be done as quickly as possible.

The body bags in the case were white. Though the zippers were closed, they were bloody, which meant that inside of the body bag would most likely be a mess. It was not only the car wreck that had caused the mess, but the autopsy that had been performed at the ME. Autopsies were standard in accidents and murders, and always included the opening of the chest cavity, which would often be re-sewn shut, but never cleaned up.

I unzipped the first bag. The smell was horrific. It smelled mostly of blood and body fluid. The bodies had not yet began to smell of decomposition, but the smells were very gross. My gag reflexes engaged as I tried to keep form throwing up. I was glad the M.E. was in the other room. I imagine he would have made fun of me had he seen me dry heave. Unfortunately the body bag had to be completely unzipped for me to find the foot. I located the guys foot, which was attached to a mangled leg that had been broken in three places. I attached the ankle tag quickly and re-zipped the bag. Now my rubber gloves were bloody as well.

I moved over to the second body, unzipped the bag, located the ankle and attached the tag. The girlfriend’s legs were not as badly damaged as her boyfriends. But her face was severely damaged.

The M.E. came out the office with 2 plastic zip lock type bags with their personal items. A wallet, some jewelry, and a watch. These items would have to be documented once back at the funeral home so that they made it back to the family.

I transferred the body bags onto my own gurneys and loaded them into the van. Upon arriving back at the funeral home I was met in the parking lot by 2 of the embalmers, who looked like kids on Christmas morning. They had spoken to the funeral director about the victims and were excited that they would have about 8 hours of reconstructive work to do on the bodies to prepare them for a viewing. We rolled the gurneys in and we immediately transferred them onto the embalming tables. Boyfriend and girlfriend, side-by-side for the last time. Kinda weird.

The Bodies were so badly mangled, I remember the embalmers placing broomsticks in their legs to give them shape and using a liquid gel that could be injected into the face with syringe. The gel was kind-of like botox, and would fill out features on a face that had “deflated” after the person died. This technique could make one look more the way they looked in life. I remember a lot of this being used on the car crash victims to make them look less banged-up. The bruising on the face was covered generously with make-up. A current photograph of the victim was set up next to the embalming table to use as a reference.

Once these two were embalmed, they were back in my care as another removal staff person and I dressed them in their burial clothes, and placed them into their caskets. Before the burial clothes could be put on, the bodies had to be “dressed” in plastic pants and shirt in the even that there would be some purging or leaking of fluids during the funeral. This was common for victims who’s bodies had been severely mangled and lots of embalming fluids and sewing had been done during the embalming process. The last thing a funeral director wanted was for the body to seep out fluid while a mourner was viewing the body. This could be a traumatic experience for the mourner, depending on who it was.

It was sad to see these two lives cut short. I was sure to drive safely and slow for the next several weeks as I would recall the horrific effects of careless driving. Though I never had any interaction with the families of these two, I know it was a sudden, tragic shock that rocked their lives. I did not envy their grief.

You Never Know

•September 2, 2007 • 3 Comments

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Warning – this posting may be disturbing to some. Read at your own risk.

 

It was my second day on the job. My supervisor told me that I would go o the next call that came in to the funeral home. Just then we got the call. I was introduced to “FRED” (names have been change to protect identity). Fred was a New Yorker, Jewish, and about 50 years old. He had worked at the funeral home for a bout 12 years, and had the most experience of all the removal staff. He was extremely vulgar, rude, annoying, and would talk non-stop, inserting expletives with about every other word he uttered. I didn’t like him much.

We were assigned to go on what is referred to as a house call. House calls meant that someone had died in their home, and no foul play was suspected so the removal staff would pick up the body and bring it back to the funeral home. The protocol for house calls always required 3 removal staff to go since we never knew what we might be walking in to. People die in strange locations in their home, in strange situations and positions, and sometimes it requires 2 people to get the body. Oftentimes, one of the removal staff would keep the family away while the other would remove the body. Death is not a pretty thing. There is nothing comforting about seeing your loved one scooped up, placed on a gurney or in a body bag and moved out of your home for the last time. We would try to protect the family as much as possible from having to see us at work since it could be quite a traumatic thing for many families. On one house call, a Hispanic family who had gathered around their dead fathers body in their home would not allow us to take the body. They cried and screamed and fought to keep the dead man in his recliner, where he had passed away. Finally the family members giving us problems were escorted out of the home by the Sheriff who distracted them long enough for us to remove the deceased.

Fred and I began our journey to the home of a 41 year old deceased white male.  Our paper-work told us the wife would be present at the home waiting for us.  I remember what Fred said to me on the way, as I listened quietly (imagine this being said with a heavy NY accent) “Ok, now. . .I don’t know who you are – I only met you today. So I don’t know what your experience is – as far as I know you’ve never seen a dead body. I don’t know. But what we’ll do when we get to the home is go in and see what we’ve got. You never know what you’re walking into. So I like to go in and see where the body is, see how hard it will be to get the f***ing gurney in and out the door. You don’t want to be banging into the walls and hitting doors as your rolling theG**D*** body out. You want to do it in a dignified way. That’s why you want to see what you’ve got first. You never know. After we go in and see the body we’ll come back out and get the gurney. Then we’ll go in and get the body. Now, you never know what the family is going to do. They may try to hit you or keep you from taking the body. Sometimes they are F***ed up. You never know. So you have to try to figure out what they are like so you can deal with it. I’ve had people go crazy on me before – you just never know. You never know. As far as I know you may run out the door screaming since you are new at this. I never know. If you do, I’ll get the body, but don’t embarrass me, ok? I don’t want to be embarrassed. You seem like a nice guy, and seem to be in control, but you never know. So I don’t know if I can trust you yet.” The conversation went on and on with Fred repeating himself over and over and over until we arrived. My confidence was increasing with each thing Fred said to me. He such an encourager.

 

We did just as Fred said. We went in and met the wife of the deceased, who seemed to be in control of her emotions. She mostly looked scared. She led us into the living room where her husband sat slumped over on the couch. Rigor mortus had set in and his arms and legs were stiff – he was in a sitting position, but had leaned a bit to the right. He was wearing green shorts, and looked as though he had been relaxing watching a football game on TV. Fred and I went out to the van to get the gurney. While out there he said, “Ok, rigor has set, so this may be a hard to get out the door. We’ll try to straighten him out once we get him on the gurney. You lift his legs and I’ll lift his torso and we’ll get him on the gurney then straighten him out.” At this point I was thinking, ok? Straighten him out? Hmmmmm. This should be interesting.

So we went in solemnly pushing the gurney. The wife stood close by as we wrestled the man onto the gurney. For some reason both Fred and I were quite clumsy and the man’s rigor mortis was making it difficult to move him. He was quite heavy as well. Finally we got him on the gurney and Fred now attempted to “straighten” out his legs so that he would lay flat on the gurney. This was a bit humorous because his legs were not going to lay flat, no matter how much Fred fought them. Finally, after making us look insensitive and unpleasant, Fred told the man’s wife we would be leaving now. We placed a sheet around the man and the blue funeral home blanket over the gurney and wheeled him out. It looked quite strange since he was not laying very flat. It looked as though we were moving a kitchen chair under that blanket instead of a dead man.

We got him the van and pulled away slowly. Fred began giving commentary. “You did good. The G**D** rigor made that one hard but you did real good. You never know what your walking into. I didn’t know if you would run or what but you did good. I can’t believe the F***ing rigor in his legs. Did you see the f***ing rigor? Damn. You never know. You never, never, know.”

That day, after working with Fred, I realized that dealing with the dead was much more pleasant than having to put up with the living. Also, I learned. . .you never know.

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Above:  This is similar to the gurneys we used to transport the deceased.

Orientation

•August 29, 2007 • 22 Comments

My first day on the job was interesting, to say the least. I had never been inside the “back rooms” of a funeral home. I had only attended funerals as a mourner in the past. Now, I was on the inside, no longer a civilian in the world of funeral business.
My supervisor met me in the lobby and began to give me a tour and introduced me to everyone. We strolled through the administrative offices as I met the many aging, chain-smoking female receptionists and administrative assistants. They were nice, but their chairs had permanent imprints of their over sized bottoms due to the fact that they had worked at the funeral home for many years. Little did I know that I would be spending a lot of time with these ladies as I would eventually be temporarily transferred out of “removals” and into administration. More on that later.

Next we toured the “show room” which was the area where rookie mourners would be brought to pick out the products they would have at their recently deceased loved one’s funeral. They had caskets lined up wall- to wall, all shined and ready for burial. It was very much like a new car lot with the shinny caskets in assorted styles and colors. The least expensive casket was called “The Triton” – it came in tan or grey and cost about $1,400.00. It was made of some type of aluminum or metal. The most expensive, the Cadillac of caskets, was a Batesville model, completely made of wood, lined with the finest fabrics and foams, and was supposed to have a sealing system guaranteed to not leak underground. This one retailed for about $25,000.00. Most people, I found, purchased the Triton.

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Above: The “Triton” Casket, one of the most popular among customers – primarily due to the low price.

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Above: This is an example of the “showroom” casket displays. Notice the sign in front, that tells the name/style and the price. We had a very large room full of these caskets for customers to peruse.

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Above: This is an example of another area of the showroom. These are the urns people could purchase to place their loved one’s ashes if they were to be cremated. I don’t remember the price range on these, but I remember them costing a lot. Just because they were small did not make them cheap.

The next stop was the prep room, and with no warning my supervisor opened the door and walked right in as I followed. Upon entering the prep room, I stopped in my tracks and stood staring as he kept talking. There were about 12 naked dead bodies on gurney’s waiting to be dressed and placed in a casket. It had been a busy week. There was loud heavy metal music playing as about four to five people bustled about moving in caskets, putting on socks and shoes to some, and filling out paper work on another. It was the Willa Wonka factory, only there were no ump-lumpas, and there was no candy. Only corpses.

My supervisor, upon seeing my shock, let out a hearty laugh and gave a slap on the back as he said, “oh yeah, I guess you’re not used to this huh?” Not used to this? Uh. . no. But in the coming days and weeks I would soon get used to it and after that day I was never surprised again.

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Above: This is an example of a metal table (gurney) used to store the bodies awaiting prep. At any given time, there would be anywhere from 5-10 corpses awaiting prep in the prep room. Some were covered with sheets, but most were left naked on the table until they were clothed for funeral viewing purposes.

Finally he took me into the embalming room, where one of the embalmers were working on a body. The bodies would be placed on an angled table (similar to the metal table pictured above) and their bllod would be scrubbed clean, hair washed, eyes sealed, mouth sewn shut, and eventually formaldehyde pumped back into their veins for preservation. During my time working at the funeral home I watched many embalmings take place. It is a fascinating science. I will be telling stories in future postings about some of the specific embalmings I saw that included some reconstruction of faces and limbs to sucidie victims, and car accident victims. More on that another day. . .

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Above: An example of an embalming room. Ours looked similar to this, only we had 4 “stations” instead of two, and there were no windows in our room.

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Above: This is an example of a formaldehyde machine. It pumps just the right amount of formaldehyde into the body. Notice the pink liquid in the tubes – that is formaldehyde.

Removal Staff

•August 28, 2007 • 10 Comments

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At the funeral home where I landed a job, I was called “removal staff.” I was one of about 8 people who working in what was called the “prep-room.” This was about a 1200 square foot room with cinderblock walls, industrial tile flooring. It was a fairly sterile room. It contained a small, enclosed office space, used by the prep room supervisor. It also had an adjoining room called the “embalming room” which housed two very large walk-in refrigerated rooms where the deceased bodies were stored before their scheduled funeral. I truly wish I had taken some photos of these spaces so you could have a reference to what I am speaking of, but hopefully you have an active imagination that can fill in th blanks. I will try to post “stock photos” of images from time-to-time to reference my stories.

The prep room was a space where all of the action took place. Here is how it worked: A removal staff person would retrieve the deceased from their home, the Medical Examiner’s office, hospital morgues and ER’s, and nursing homes and promptly bring the body back to the outside double doors of the prep room. The bodies were transported in unmarked vans equipped for such things. Upon arrival to the prep room, I would remove all personal items such as jewelry, wallets, etc. These items would be tagged and logged and stored in a safe box. The deceased would then receive a yellow plastic ankle tag with their name. The tag had a pre-printed ID number, which would be used to identify the body from here on out. The tags were not possible to remove with scissors, and would remain with the body, even in burial.

I would then take the body into the embalming room and either transfer them to the refrigerated storage space, or place them on the embalming table. We had a system for moving bodies that it possible for one person to move them. I will discuss this un future postings since it will come up frequently as a body removal procedure. Sometimes the body had to be transferred into a body-size cardboard box to be taken across the hall to the cremation room. We would store the bodies to be cremated in a separate refrigerated room next to the cremation “ovens.” I call them ovens because that’s exactly what they reminded me of, on they were much larger and could fit a human body lying down. I will tell stories of cremation in other postings.

Other responsibilities I had a s a removal staff person was inventory of caskets for upcoming funerals, preparing bodies for the funeral including dressing the body, placing them in the correct casket, and applying make-up and fixing their hair from time to time. Also, it was my job to load the casket containing the prepared body into my unmarked van to transport them to the funeral home chapel where I would unload the casket, roll it into place inside the chapel, set up the appropriate candles and flowers, open the casket and make sure the body was presentable with the correct lighting for viewing. Sometimes when a body was transferred, the make-up might smudge or glasses might get askew and need readjusting. It is very common for the upper body clothing to be re-situated before a viewing since it sometimes gets sloppy during travel.

The funeral home where I worked was a large “corporation” in a large city. They owned 13 funeral home sin the metro city area but all of the bodies were prepared at the downtown location, which is where the prep room was located and where I worked. So if someone died in the far north part of town, their body would still be driven to the downtown area for preparation, and then driven back to the local funeral home chapel that would be located in their community, in this case north. So depending on where you one lived, their body could be driven many miles to and fro before actually resting in the spot where mourners would view them and attend services, I’m sure the families of the dead never knew this, and probably assumed that their loved one had remained at the funeral home where the services took place.

I hope that this descriptions paint a picture of my job and of the activities I participated in each day. Should you need any clarification, do not hesitate to ask.

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Above: A prep room photo (not the one where I worked)

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Above: This is like our vans, we had white and navy blue. I liked the blue van because it was newer.

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Above:  This is the type of “rack that we had in our refrigerated rooms to store bodies.  The bodies would be transfered from the gurney to the rack after I brought them in from the van.   We had several of these racks and cold store up to 20-25 bodies at a time.

 
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