When I first started on the job, I practiced the way far too many interns do – handling the body too softly, as though it were a newborn baby. It is natural to work with great care when tasked with such an important job, but sometimes, you have to be forceful.
Embalming is not a gentle process. The body is lifted and turned and manipulated. The arms and legs are bent and stretched over the head. The wrists, fingers and neck are moved and turned. I’ve broken bones. I’ve dislocated shoulders and fingers. And, like all interns, if I ever broke a bone or tore skin I’d feel sick and profusely apologize to the deceased. This is one reason why laypeople cannot observe the embalming process. There is no way to make it look…palatable. This isn’t a peaceful scene of a body in repose, mouth fixed in a pleasant expression as practiced hands massage limbs. This is metal hooks under eyelids, forceps inserted directly into the heart, jaws pried apart, incision spreaders and packed orifices. It’s what we have to do so you don’t have to see him looking how he did that horrible day you came home and found him.
Much like removals, when you sometimes have to improvise in order to get a large body out of a tiny house with narrow halls or tight corners, some embalmers have tricks they use when the tissues of a human body are not cooperating. There are things I’ve done to get a body out of a house that other embalmers would call disrespectful or inappropriate, and I feel the same way about some things they might do as well. I personally could never fireman-carry a body, even one as small as myself. That feels demeaning to me. That is the way I’d imagine someone walking off with an animal he had killed for food, or how a man absconds with a captive woman. But, I have wrapped a body in a sheet and dragged him down a spiral staircase when I was by myself and didn’t have any other way to get him out of the room. Some people would look down on that and say I should have called in an assistant. Others would have fireman-carried him. [The decedent was alone in the house. If any family had been nearby, even if they were not witnessing the removal, I would have called an assistant. Often, many families offer to assist with a removal and I will always allow it. And, any time I do have to drag a body, I always support the head and treat them as though they are alive.]
One thing I just plain wouldn’t do, for the longest time, was turn a body face down on my table so that I could repair any wounds or incisions that might be on the back. Usually I’m looking for bullet wounds or protruding broken bones, but some autopsies cut into the spine or go up the backs of the legs. These need to be repaired before the body is dressed, so what I would do is call an assistant who would hold the body on her side while I sutured. It just seemed crude disrespectful to turn someone entrusted into my care into an unnatural position that looks uncomfortable. No one lies face down with arms at sides or arms crossed and much of the bodyweight on the chest and face.
But there’s always that day when you don’t have time, or when no one is available, so you turn the body over on your table. It’s not like it’s illegal or anything. It won’t hurt. And now I have no problem doing this. I have also worked on the floor with a body suspended above me, repairing a shotgun head wound. [My very first restoration, one rare case of a suicide with no autopsy. I had to work from inside the exit wound to repair the facial bones, rather than being able to neatly lay them out and glue them in place.]
Sometimes, other embalmers tell stories of certain measures they have had to take in order to create a viewable appearance. Occasionally, a decedent will arrive with a protruding tongue, often the result of a hanging; tissue gas [related to decomposition] or facial edema. Sometimes, the jaws can’t be pried apart. The teeth are clenched and the tongue is sticking out and the lips can’t cover it, and there are some embalmers who will…well, I think you know where I’m going with this. They don’t like to do it, but they can if they have to.
And I already know I couldn’t. I would rather deny a family their viewing or show the case as is, because as much as I believe in the importance of what I do, it’s not the most important thing in the whole world. Not more important than NOT cutting off body parts of people in your care. Clearly, we cut bodily tissues in doing what we do; I’ve made 10-12 incisions in one body before. But the person I picked up from his home after I assured the family I would take care of him left my custody and care with the same number of body parts he had when he came in. At least I can say that much for my work.
And some families will actually ask you to do such a thing. In a situation like that I would try to find another embalmer who could make it happen. I don’t think it’s absolutely never OK; I just know I can’t do it. If another embalmer can, that is his own limit and it’s different from mine.