If I might make a rule, please let me view the body before setting a service and viewing date with the family. Ideally, I like to have three days for a reconstruction case. I need to give the chemicals time to permeate all tissues of the body so I can have a firm, dry surface when I start working with my waxes and cosmetics. I need to see that any bones and tissues glued together are not going to separate when the body is slightly manipulated. I need to check for leakage from incisions, or bleaching from topical chemicals. I can do great work if the family and the funeral director understand that I don’t always know what I’m in for until I start.

But in reality, not all grieving people can be reasoned with. They want to see him NOW, or if not now; this afternoon. They assume we can just work harder, work overtime, stay all night, and while I would do this for any of my cases, I can’t rush the process of formaldehyde denaturing protein and tissue becoming dry and preserved. Families have no concept of exactly what goes into putting together a head after it has been shattered by a bullet; why would they? I didn’t even want to guarantee them a viewing at all; as I’ve said before, if the face is obliterated, then anything I can build in its place won’t really be him and the family might not get that sense of closure.

No one accepted that answer. The viewing was set for 18 hours later and the body wasn’t even released from the medical examiner. There are times when I will assert myself and explain that something simply isn’t possible and times when I’ll just decide to do my best and hope the family will be satisfied with the effort. Perhaps because this was a teen suicide, I didn’t feel like telling them no.

My funeral director called me and told me the kid still had a face, so I canceled a hair appointment and turned down two other offers of work. Fortunately, much of the bones of the skull were present and able to fit together, so I set about wrapping them in cotton and soaking the wrapped pieces in chemicals to dry out the adhering skin.

I don’t like using a baseball cap to hide a bullet wound. It looks unnatural; often the hat doesn’t go with whatever else the family picked out. It’s also an admission of failure on my part; the family is paying me to restore a natural appearance, not put a hat over it. Since this was a young person who would be viewed in jeans, he would not look terribly out of place in a cap, but I decided to restore the hair around the entry wound in case the mother lifted the cap off, since this was to be an overnight viewing. (Another thing I don’t like to guarantee until I’ve seen the body!)

Plus, the mother asked if she could see his feet. If she’s going to look at the feet, she’s going to look under the cap. [This isn’t the first request I’ve had to view the feet. I’ve also had parents who fully undressed the body during a viewing on a table. This is the last time they will ever see him and I can understand their desire to see ALL of him.]

I keep a couple of long wigs on hand for black women or young women who perhaps lose their hair after an accident or medical procedure, so I clipped some hair from one of them. After piecing the head together, gluing and clamping, reinforcing with strips of cotton and more glue, then suturing the face over all my work, I stuffed some phenol-soaked cotton into the entry and exit wounds and returned the next day.

The tissues were dry and ready to work with. The frontal facial bones were mercifully undamaged. The plates of the skull I glued together did not shift and there was no leakage. This case was coming along much better than I expected, and the actual restoration of his head only took six hours.

More layers of cotton and glue over the bullet holes, and then I was ready to add my clipped hair. It didn’t lie perfectly in place with his natural hair, but it did the job. If you looked closely at it, you would be able to see that something was off, but if someone were to just take a glimpse under the cap, nothing would look amiss. I didn’t want to use the cap at all; he looked that good.

I cautioned the family to be very careful with his head. Touching the face would be fine.

He held up perfectly for the service and viewing. I’m very proud of my work on this case and glad I could give this family what they wanted, but luck played a huge part. If he had angled the gun differently, I might not have been blessed with such great results. If he had been older with poor arterial circulation; if he had sustained a shattered orbital cavity or mandible; or if I hadn’t been able to turn down those other two cases, I might not have done as well here.

I work with a lot of families who want their viewings and services as soon as possible, and generally I will tell them I can’t guarantee that until I have seen the body and have a better idea of what I will need to do for adequate preparation. Ideally, I like to look at the body before even meeting with the family; that way I can bring up certain things during the arrangement like facial hair preferences. I feel that telling the family during an arrangement “I noticed he has a beard; would you like me to leave that in place or remove it?” sounds more professional than asking “Did he have a beard?” The first example sounds more like I came prepared.

While this is essential for medical examiner or autopsied cases, it’s a good idea for hospital deaths as well. The body may be jaundiced, edematous, or the skin may be slipping off. Drugs and medical procedures can cause swelling, bruising and leakage. Also, keep in mind most families will not be up front about their mother weighing 400 lbs and you absolutely don’t want to find that out as you’re preparing to start the embalming. You don’t want to set a short-notice viewing for such a case and then discover you’ll need the assistance of another embalmer and a rush delivery of an oversize casket!