I’ve said before, I’m amazed whenever someone chooses a painful method of suicide, especially in the presence of simpler alternatives. Recently I had a lady who burned herself up in her car. She didn’t crash it, she sat in her car and lit some papers on fire and just stayed there. She could have exited at any time, but she sat in the car until the flames killed her, and then she came to me.
I knew it would be a challenging case, and it got worse the longer I worked. Her skin was peeling off in sheets. I had about a basketball-sized amount of skin that came off her body and face, and I started to have doubts about the viewing. Miraculously, her hair was spared. I was rehearsing what to say to her husband who found her in time to save her hair, but not her face, or her life. Then the funeral director came in and told me to stop the embalming; viewing was canceled.
“But I’m nearly done,” I said, gesturing to the one unembalmed limb on her body. Her head was done, her body was done, the autopsy repair was under way. The husband already paid. Might as well let me finish.
But the husband didn’t want to see her, because he found her and he remembered what he saw. Generally, burn victims are not viewable. He assumed his wife wouldn’t be, and he changed his mind about wanting to see her.
I asked the funeral director to try and change the man’s mind. I mean, he pulled his wife out of a burning car and saw her skin falling off. I can fix that. It’s what I do. I can’t bring her back, and I can’t ease his grief, but I can replace that terrible last memory.
He told me the husband had resigned himself to a closed-casket service, but that since he already paid, I could finish my work. I suggested making her look nice anyway and taking some photos in case the husband later changed his mind. The funeral director said he never recommended that, since it could be a potential lawsuit either way – if the body doesn’t look good, we get sued for emotional distress. If the body looks good, we get sued for “allowing” him to decline viewing.
That was an angle I never considered. I often take pictures of infants whose parents do not want to view, because this can be a very regrettable decision and I want them to be able to have a last look if and when they decide, years later, that they have made a mistake. Perhaps this is a bad idea.
I had to agree that most of the body was in such poor condition that the lady could not have a traditional open casket, dressed in her favorite clothes, viewed from mid-thigh on up. Most of her skin was gone, and she would have to be tightly wrapped in plastic and cotton, which would show under most clothes. But her face wouldn’t be too bad, with the understanding that it would have to be heavy makeup and something people could not touch.
But there was still a chance he would view, at least for one last glimpse. I used my airbrush cosmetic machine and my usual stash of waxes and sculpting tools, and created something that looked good, looked viewable, but only the husband would be able to tell me if she looked like herself, and I swaddled the body in white sheets and arranged her miraculously saved hair in one of my own decorative headscarves to draw attention away from some of the differences in skin texture that probably only I could notice on her face. The scarf, her hair and the casket liner blended together very well to create an aesthetically pleasing appearance. I was proud of this one; one for the book. I mean a literal book of my best before-and-after work; photos I print and delete from all electronics and save in a locked-away binder that I only show to others in the business.
The husband was pleased, and he allowed his children to view, and the family spent the entire morning viewing her when previously they had only wanted to see her for a moment, if at all. The funeral director was glad that we had gone ahead with the viewing, and told me after the family left, “…he was very happy with us; very happy! He bought several keepsake urns and some pieces of jewelry and a photo slideshow; he is very happy!”
Happy except for his wife’s suicide.
Sometimes we forget just how much a death can wreck someone’s life, particularly the unexpected sudden death of a young person. Many lives and futures are forever altered. It doesn’t get better, you don’t get over it, you just find a way to make it a part of who you are now and live as best as you can.
And for me, that includes doing what I do, putting people back together. Telling families and funeral directors, I can fix that. And sometimes they still won’t let me. I had another recent case, a young man who jumped head-first onto concrete and looked the way you’d expect. I wanted to fix him. I was looking forward to it. The funeral director told the family, “We have a resident expert here and this is what she does; she thinks he will be viewable.”
So they agreed to a viewing, and I drove in on a day off with all my supplies and some literature, and then halfway there, the funeral director called me and said the family canceled the viewing. They just didn’t believe a guy who jumped off a bridge could be viewable. The funeral director said she noticed the family having reservations after she asked them to provide photos. Apparently that was when they realized it must be very bad, and if it was that bad, they didn’t want us to try.
It was frustrating. I totally can fix that. That’s what I do; it’s why I am in this business. But I can’t do anything for a family who doesn’t want to view. This one I just had to let go.
And who knows, maybe it wouldn’t have been a good experience for them. Maybe once I opened him up and got to work, I would have found things that further impacted the end result. Maybe this is a family who will be fine without a viewing.
And most people do not want what I am selling. I have a skill and talent that you hope you will never need to witness. In the Pacific Northwest where I work, it can be hard enough to get families to have a memorial gathering in the first place, let alone an open casket viewing and embalming for someone who died in a disfiguring manner. No one cares – nor should they – how much I personally enjoy the work and how skilled I am. Not everything in this job is massively interesting and blog-worthy. If I get ten deaths in a row, odds are they will be non-viewing cremations.
In personal news, I have gotten married! This was a traditional Islamic arranged marriage – his parents set everything up and we did not meet face to face until after we were married – in Pakistan. The most common questions (I mean, after “What?!” and “Why?!”) are: “Does he speak English?” and “Does he know what you do for a living?”
His English is like…my Spanish. He would be able to get by in an English-speaking country, probably a bit beyond ordering food and asking for directions. But he doesn’t have an English vocabulary related to embalming, because in most Muslim countries, embalming is not done. He knows I work in a funeral home and that I get bodies ready for burial. He knows there is cutting and suturing involved. But I don’t think he knows exactly what I do, no. He asks every day how many funerals I had and what the people died from, or what else I happened to do at work, but I am fairly certain he doesn’t know what I mean when I say I “got someone ready” for a funeral.
In Pakistan, like in other Muslim countries, funeral services and burials are carried out by the family and community; hiring a separate business is not done. My husband’s family has their own cemetery, but families who cannot afford this resort to burying their dead literally anywhere. I spent two weeks there, some of it in the cities and some in the villages, and often there would be a random gravestone nestled between fruit stands and factories and schools.
But if you die in a Muslim country, you will probably have a thousand people at your funeral. In a place like that, there is zero likelihood of someone being forgotten in a nursing home and his estranged children deciding to cremate him and then “have a memorial in the Spring when it’s convenient for everyone.”