Beauty In Death
The Embalmer's Trade
by Cecilia Ho
Most of us shiver at the mere thought of a corpse. And most don't want to think about how our deceased loved ones are being handled before being presented once again at the wake for a last view. The funeral directors also take pains to protect the public or grieving relatives, as the process can be disturbing at various stages. So all preparations are done behind closed doors.
But let's face it, though we may try to avoid issues of death, many of us are actually curious and infact fascinated by these extraordinary workers for the dead.
In Singapore one such embalmer has been in the trade for 20 years. John *(not his real name), now in his early 50s, went to America at the age of 23 and took up mortuary studies. He completed his education and decided to settle down in Singapore to work as a professional embalmer.
BECOMING AN EMBALMER
John told me that many funeral homes actually started off doing furniture. Unknown to many, furniture makers actually make coffins too!
John's father used to be an embalmer in Malaysia. This gave John many occasions to watch while his dad worked. When he was older, like many undertakers' sons, he would help place bodies into coffins.
Ultimately the funeral trade gripped him.
HOW BODIES DECOMPOSE: WHY EMBALMING IS NECESSARY
John explains that bodies go through certain stages to reach decomposition.
Firstly, when the heart stops beating, gravity will cause blood flow to settle down in different parts of the body nearest to the ground. This causes skin to appear pale and waxy. Within 8 to 12 hours, the skin will turn purple-red and eyes will be sunken and extremities turn blue.
John points to a plastic model figure."At first the body muscles relax but soon stiffen up again from the face to the entire body. (The stiffening) can stay 2-3 days depending on the surrounding temperature, before softening again resulting in muscle fibers decomposing."
"The body putrefies starting from the lower abdomen with a visible greenish discolouration in the skin and soon, the body and face swell up entirely."
I try not to imagine how gruesome this could be. "The bacteria in intestines produces gases that bloat the body as well as the tongue and eyes. It also pushes the intestines out through the rectum."
Embalming thus becomes essential especially for Chinese funerals where bodies may be kept in wake from 3 to 7 days. In cases of a sudden death, like an accident, the body needs to be embalmed before being transporting back to the person's original home ground to be buried.
As only relative and trainees are only allowed to watch the embalming process, John shows me the room where he works. Inside is a big steel table and drainage-pipes.
EQUIPMENT USED IN EMBALMING
I begin having cold-feet and the strong chemical stench was overwhelming.
John continues, "The head of the corpse will be elevated to prevent discolouring of the neck and face. We have to make the corpse look as real as possible...as if it is sleeping."
Since most viewings are only partial; from the waist up, most embalmers will concentrate on the face and hands.
"Some embalmers will stuff cotton pads into cheeks to make the face look fuller. Or they slide plastic eye caps under the eye lids to reshape sunken eyes. Superglue is used to shut the eye lids and lips."
John proudly shows me some items in his embalming kit such as canula tubes (for transferring embalming fluid), needles, special reconstruction waxes, gloves, tissue scissors, etc.
HOW EMBALMING IS PERFORMED
John tells me that there are several methods of embalming, but the most commonly used is arterial embalming where preservatives are injected into the blood vessels.
In fact, a professional embalmer would classify the bodies once they come in to help them determine how to prepare them. For example, a body with advanced stages of putrefaction or gangrene may require more embalming fluid; and of course this will influence the fee charged too.
"Firstly, the embalmer will dress the body in plastic clothing. Then a drainage tube is inserted to the axilary artery and vein to remove blood."
John pointed to some chemicals displayed at the side. "A long, hollow needle attached to a tube is inserted into the abdomen to puncture the colon to release gas. Then it will pass through the diaphragm to the heart to drain blood. Lastly, embalming fluid is inserted."
Later as the tube penetrates the heart, the body may lunge forward, thus a lot of confidence is required!
A decision is made about where to inject the embalming fluid as different places are selected for different purposes, according to different body types. At the end of the process, any holes made by the penetration of the tube will be sewn shut or closed with "trocar buttons" that resembles plastic screws.
A PERFECT LOOK
When the procedure is done, the body is dressed and positioned to look peaceful. John does not do make up but hands this task over to an artist. The body will go through a grooming process. The hair will be washed & styled while the face skillfully toned with matching power and cosmetics.
To prevent the body from looking flat, the coffin may contain a raised bed that tilts slightly or cloth may be used to prop up the back. Fingers may be glued together around the abdomen area as a pose. As the coffin lid closes, the body is now ready for viewing.
* Name of the embalmer has been changed and his company not mentioned in the interests of privacy.