Combating Smells

•October 13, 2008 • 17 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.

Tons of Torso

•May 21, 2008 • 6 Comments

One day in the prep room, I was told by my boss to go out to the parking lot and help unload some large boxes from a large refrigerated semi. I was unsure as to the contents, but later learned that the boxes contained torsos of dead people who had donated their body to “science.”

The torsos were packed in large Styrofoam packaging and were only about a day old. This meant that the people who the torsos belonged to had only been dead for about 24 hours. During the past 24 hours, their head, arms, and legs were removed and packaged for shipping.

Why? Each of the torsos had been selected to be used at a convention for back surgeons. The medical company had hired our funeral home to transport the torsos and set them up on the mock operating tables. It was here that surgeons from all over the country would practice on the torsos.

Of all of the death, smells, and sights I had seen in my short career in the prep room – this was the worst. The smell was horrendous – much like that of a slaughter house with fresh meat that had been butchered. Essentially that is exactly what this was.

I begrudgingly loaded my van with a few torsos and drove it over to a local hotel ball room, where the convention was taking place. I could not help but think of how odd and sick it was that I was wheeling in butchered torsos into a nice hotel. Of course no one knew what I had in the boxes.

The torsos were all from overweight people, which was actually part of the new procedure experiment. The torsos were extremely heave, flabby, bloody, and gross. I could almost not stand seeing or smelling them as I lifted them and positioned them on the operating tables. Each table was set up with an operating light, trays of utensils in plastic bags, and a “hazardous waste” trash can. Each table had been placed on top of thick plastic so no blood or guts stained the pretty hotel ballroom carpet.

There were several of us from the prep room working on this assignment. There were probably about 15 torsos.

It had never occurred to me that doctors practice their craft on cadavers, even though I had seen my fair share of movies where this was the case. What was most shocking to me was the fact that the bodies had been mutilated for the purpose of experimentation. It seemed odd to me that only a day ago these were living human beings, all of which had no idea their torso would be in another state, in hotel ball room, on an operating table. How bizarre is that?

It took me about a week to get the smell out of my nose, and about the same amount of time to get the images out of my mind. Even the most seasoned prep room employee had never seen anything like this, and found it repulsive.


•April 25, 2008 • 6 Comments

I’ll never forget the first time I heard one of my colleagues mentioned the word “purge.”  Purging is the phenomenon of someone’s bowels releasing either air or fluid through the mouth, nose, or other openings in the body.  It can occur on a freshly dead body or a body that has already been embalmed.

In moving dead bodies around to get them on a gurney for transport, often I would push too hard on the abdomen, causing the body to purge.  Not only is this just generally gross, but it can also be dangerous since we never know what diseases a person may have had.  When purging occurred, I had to make sure that I did not breath the air, or if there was any type of fluid, it needed to be cleaned up promptly.  Luckily, I always had rubber gloves when handling dead bodies, which came in handy when dealing with purgers.

We assume that dead bodies are completely dead, but in fact, the body still has chemicals, air, and fluids activly settling down after death.  Purging was always somthing that I was aware of, and I tried not to cause it if possible.

Some bodies would continue to purge even after embalming.  This usually was embalming fluid seeping out of the mouth, nose, eyes, or even through the skin.  For family viewings, this type of purging always had to be monitored and discreetly cleaned without the family seeing the problem.

Note*  I was going to put a picture here, but I just could not think of one.


•April 24, 2008 • 10 Comments

Little 2 year old Sean (name changed) had opened the back door to the house, leading to the family pool.  He was being baby-sat by a relative who thought he had gone to sleep in his room for a nap on summer afternoon.  Sean made his way to the pool an fell in.  Only a short time later, his baby-sitter saw the back door open and ran outside to discover Sean floating, face down, in the water.

The Medical Examiner’s office was about an hour away since it was in a neighboring city.  I loaded myself in the van and set out for the drive, knowing I had a 2-year old drowning victim to pick up.  I arrived at the M.E., and went about my normal checklist of things to do:  Fill out the ankle ID tag, place it on the body.  Check the body for personal effects and log them on my papaer-work.  I unzipped the body bag.  The first thing I noticed was the young boy’s wet superman underwear that he had been wearing.  The site of this really made the story of his death more real to me.  The next thing I noticed were his eyes.  Or in this case, his lack of eyes.  The M.E. had removed the boy’s eyes from the sockets.  His family had agreed to donate them.  The liitle boy, cold from death, with empty eye sockets and wet, soiled clothes next to his body was perhaps one of the most impacting image I had ever seen.

I loaded him in the van and began the drive back to the funeral home.  All the way there, I rode in silence as I reflected on the day’s events.  I thought about his family who had to be in hysterics.  I thought his life, cut short because of normal toddler curiosity.  I thought about his little eyes, now perhaps being used for someone else’s benefit.  It was indeed the most difficult day I had in my short funeral home career.

The next day, I was required to dress the boy in his funeral clothes – a tiny white tuxedo. I placed him in his tiny white casket and prepared him for viewing.  The embalmer had made his eyelids close in such a way that his eyes looked like they were still there.  The image of him in the casket was not nearly as difficult as the image of him on the M.E. gurney when I first saw him.  His wet cloths were placed in a small red plastic bag, and given back to the family.  I can only imagine what they must have been going through when they opened that bag.  Would they throw them away?  Wash them and put them in a drawer?  Who knows?

Saturday’s In The Prep Room

•April 1, 2008 • 3 Comments

On Saturday, for some reason, the funeral home prep room was slow. There was not as much work on Saturdays, yet we had a full team in place in the event that business would pick up. Often, during our weekend lull, I would volunteer to wash the vans out back – it was good excuse to get to spend some time in the sunshine. We would often all o out to lunch, usually a local BBQ restaurant. Sometimes we would all meander upstairs to the administrative offices and hang out with the Secretarial staff and join in their gossip. What do people in the funeral business gossip about? Mainly one another. Funeral directors were a hot topic. Which ones were jerks – which ones were nice, that sort of thing.

Saturdays were always a much less stressful workday than normal. I often hated them though because the day went by very slowly and would get quite boring.

Old Toes

•February 12, 2008 • 3 Comments


One thing I decided to do when I get old: hire someone to cut my toenails. I noticed a trend among elderly dead people: they have out of control toenails. I guess they no longer can bend down to trim them. After seeing them each day, I decided that, should I live long enough that I can no longer cut my toenails, I will have to hire a clipper.

Ledger’s Death

•January 30, 2008 • 21 Comments


Normally, I reserve this blog for my own personal experiences as a funeral home employee, but this recent story sparked my interest and I thought I would recap the story here and then give an explanation of what may have occurred behind the scenes based on my experiences in the funeral business.

The story is related to the recent death of actor, Heath Ledger. Most likely, after his body was removed from his NYC apartment by the coroner, it was taken to the Medical examiner’s office for an autopsy. After the autopsy, people from the Frank E. Campbell funeral home in New York, acquired the body and began preparation for the funeral. Most likely, Ledger’s body was embalmed at the funeral home since a body cannot be transported by airplane in the United States or overseas without embalming. This is a Federal law. After Legder was embalmed, someone would have chosen clothes for him to be buried in, and viewed in (if a viewing was to be included in the funeral plans). Most likely, his manager, his immediate family (father, mother, or sibling), or his ex-wife may have been included on the decision as to what to bury him in and what casket to use. These decisions have to be made quickly and are important since they will be the last image people have of the deceased.

There are rumors circulating that someone posing as Ledger;s father arrived at the Funeral home and made decisions, spoke to celebrities who called (such as Tom Cruise), viewed Ledger;s body, and flew to California with a free First class ticket from a national airline. These are rumors that I find very difficult to believe since Legder’s real father was shown on TV soon after his death, and would have been in NY possibly before the body ever arrived at the funeral home. In addition, the funeral home probably went to great lengths to ensure privacy through secrecy of where Ledger’s body was located. I am also sure that everyone involved in the decision making process was directly related to Ledger in some way. It is, after all, the family (or in this case, a manager) who would have initially called the funeral home to ask them to conduct the funeral arrangements. Funeral homes do not randomly pick people up unless someone (from the family) has asked them to do so.

After the body was embalmed, dressed, and placed in the casket, it was then ready for flight. The casket would have been placed in a large wooded crate-type box for shipping. Paperwork would have been placed inside the casket with the body as well as secured to the outside of the shipping box. The box would have been clearly marked “human remains” on the outside. Airline personnel have special rules and guidelines for how this cargo is treated, including the placement of the box in a climate controlled area of the cargo hold. As for the other rules, I am unsure since I never have worked as an airline cargo person.


Above:  Ledger’s Cargo-Casket Box being loaded for airport delivery 

The box would have then been driven to the airport cargo bay. It would have been treated just as any box being shopped on a plane, and would have been loaded in the bottom cargo area of the airline. There may have been people riding on a normal commercial flight from New York to California without any knowledge of Heath Ledgers body laying in the underneath cargo space just beneath them. If people knew there were caskets on commercial airlines, some people ay refuse to fly, but this is a common occurrence. Most likely, if you have ever flown, you too have ridden with a dead person and not known it. Once the airline arrives, the funeral home is called and comes to the airport cargo depot to pick up the remains. Once back at the funeral home, the box is opened, casket removed and the body is ready for a fresh make-over. Often times here may be some fluid leakage or make-up touch ups that need to be tended to after a body has been transported by airplane. In Ledger’s case, if the body were then going on to Australia, the embalmers may have infused more embalming fluid than usual to offer the best preservation as possible. Ledger’s body would have to be able to withstand many days of travel and activity, and decomposition would need to be delayed as long as possible.

My guess is, since Ledger’s body was found fairly soon after he died, and since he was young and fairly healthy, the embalmers probably did not have any trouble preserving his body for the funeral.

One more note about human remains as cargo: an airline ticket for the deceased would be purchased through the funeral home, and usually cost as much as a regular plane ticket (between $250 – $700). This cost would be included in the funeral home bill. Most airlines have information about their specific guidelines for “Human remains” which can be found by doing a simple search on “Human Remains Cargo.”


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