My last post prompted a few questions about what diseases one can catch from a dead body, so I will cover the most common concerns here.
The dead are, almost always, no more dangerous than the living. Touching the intact skin of a dead body, even a body that has been dead for days, is as safe as giving a living person a handshake. Even without embalming and without the use of protective equipment, it is safe to touch, wash and dress the body.
The first signs of decomposition that are evident to those who do not see the dead on a daily basis will often be a green discoloration of the abdominal area. Even at that point, the body is safe to touch. A body in an advanced state of decomposition will be covered in fluid-filled blisters, often as large as the entire limb, and at that point it becomes hazardous, but only if this fluid gets into your body. Those in the funeral business know to put on their Hazmat gear, and those not in the business would most likely not be asking to touch the body.
Tuberculosis: a real concern, as this is an airborne bug that a deceased body can pass along. Obviously they do not breathe, but they release air when they are moved, and many embalmers push on the chest in order to make the jugular vein more easily seen, which forces air out of the mouth and nose. However, a simple surgical mask should protect you.
Hepatitis: As far as I know, only Hepatitis A and B can be caught from a deceased person, if you practice really unsanitary embalming. Hep A is orally transmitted; you would have to be embalming without gloves, perhaps doing what is sometimes necessary to stop anal leakage, and then put your hands in your mouth. So don’t do that. Hep B is especially scary because the virus can live for such a long time outside the body, but there is a vaccine for it, so get it. The easiest way to get Hep B would be if, while cutting into the body, you slipped and cut yourself with the scalpel, and got its blood mixed with yours. I have never heard of this happening. Most cuts made in the skin do not produce much blood, and when you are cutting into the vein you are most likely using a small scissors, which will not be as sharp as a scalpel even if you do slip. Again, wear thick gloves.
HIV: There has never been a case of an embalmer catching the virus from a deceased body, and HIV cannot live outside of the host. The only way to catch it would be in the above-mentioned scalpel mishap.
Mad Cow Disease: I didn’t want to look up the scientific name, but many funeral homes will refuse to embalm or handle a body with Mad Cow and will insist on immediate cremation. Some crematories will even refuse the body. After reading some literature, I would be comfortable embalming such a body as long as no autopsy had been performed, since the disease is found in the brain and spinal cord matter. It is also suggested that embalmers not perform the cavity aspiration procedure, as this may expose them to spinal cord matter.
Ebola: All funeral homes are recommended to immediately cremate the body and discourage relatives from handling. Too new for virtually all American funeral homes to have experienced.
MRSA: Flesh-eating bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics. I have embalmed a few of these cases. I wear full Hazmat gear and heavy gloves, and wrap all infected areas of the body in chemical-saturated cotton and cover it with heavy plastic.
You, the grieving relative or funeral consumer, have practically no risk of catching any disease from any deceased body, as long as you are not handling them in such a way that could cause an exposure to body fluids, such as touching an open sore when you have a cut on your hand.
The embalmer is more likely to suffer health problems from exposure to embalming chemicals than from the body. Most of us go into this line of work knowing that formaldehyde is a carcinogen, and that we will be exposed. After ten years, my sense of smell is pretty much shot. This is actually a blessing, given some of the people I work on.
If you are a new employee, you have the right to ask for the protective equipment you feel is necessary. You are not required to wear goggles AND a surgical mask AND a face shield, but if you ask for these things, your employer needs to provide them. They are also required to provide hair coverings; waterproof gowns; shoe coverings; rubber gloves and formaldehyde spill cleanup kits. The prep room needs to have a clearly labeled bottle of ammonia (neutralizes formaldehyde) and an eyewash station. They are also required to have separate laundry and trash for biohazard materials, and a sharps container.
Wear whatever safety gear you need to feel comfortable enough to do your job. Some people like to keep a spare set of sweats or jeans at work to change into before embalming. There are some cases that are “rush jobs” and you won’t have time to change, so that is where you will need the gowns and shoe covers. I had one three-day shotgun repair case whom I had to suspend from the mechanical lift and work under on the floor, in my brand new Banana Republic suit. Banana Republic is tops when it comes to funeral director fashion.
The dead are safe, as safe as any living person and no harm will come from touching them or spending more time with them before they are gone forever. I wish more people would.