I was optimistic when I opened the bag. For jumping off a bridge, it wasn’t too bad. He was in one piece; many jumpers are not. I’ve seen some that look like human gravel; they can’t be dressed and it’s hard enough just to move them. But this kid was in one piece, so I began what would be four days of restorative work, ending with the family not being very happy with the appearance.
I mean, they didn’t flat out say they weren’t happy. They didn’t say it didn’t look like him, or that they didn’t recognize him, or that they wished they hadn’t viewed. (At least not to me; maybe they did later.) But I can kind of tell. Usually, when they look in the casket and are completely silent, it means they didn’t really like his appearance. When they are allowed an hour of viewing and leave before that time is up, they probably weren’t satisfied. And since I was just the embalmer, and the one who greeted them at the door and led them to the body, I won’t have the chance to know what they really thought.
I can almost always make a damaged face look good. But can I make it look like him? Like they remembered him? Can I capture a person’s exact resting facial expression, his skin texture, his bone structure? Only the family can tell me. And that goes for a standard case as well. I’ve had a few cases who were no-problem traditional church viewings and the family later told me “it just didn’t look like my mother.” And I can’t tell them they were wrong. It doesn’t matter if she died peacefully and I used her personal cosmetics and worked from a photo and her clothes fit well and the lighting was good. If they say it wasn’t good enough, I can’t argue with them. They know more.
I don’t know if this most recent family saw their son shortly after death. I don’t know who found him. And I don’t know if someone else could have done a better job. Meaning, another local embalmer; clearly, there’s going to be someone somewhere who is better than I am. Perhaps a professional wax sculptor.
I do know a lady who is better than I am at sculpting a wax head. She showed me a recent case of hers, completely decomposed, dead about three months before being found and the family wouldn’t take no viewing for an answer, so she made a wax head. The family ended up being very happy and saying it looked just like him. I made a mental note that this is someone who is better than I am and she should be the one to call if I ever need a whole head built.
But I don’t know if that’s really better. I don’t think that’s my style. If you look at a body I have prepared, you are looking at mostly human material. Depending on the severity of any injuries, you may also be looking at wax and clay and cosmetic, but it’s mostly him. If the person doesn’t have any face at all, I call the case not viewable. What’s the point of looking at a mound of wax? If all you want is to see his image, you may as well look at a photo.
I conferred with another embalmer, a restorative art teacher who gives presentations all over the country and who once gifted me a cosmetic kit because he said I seemed “dedicated.” I explained that I actually did a very nice and thorough job with the embalming itself, but that I couldn’t quite deliver a perfect viewing and that it was most likely due to the amount of structural damage in the frontal facial bones or to the skin texture itself. He asked me if I had removed the face during my work and said it was necessary for a complete repair.
And I didn’t literally skin this person’s face off his skull, because I’m mainly just an embalmer and not so much a serial killer. There are some things other embalmers do that I can’t bring myself to do. Cutting out a protruding tongue, severing a trachea to prevent purging, slicing tendons to facilitate easier positioning in the casket, removing breast implants because otherwise they get the crematory all gross. Maybe I’m not the best embalmer but all my cases get buried with their body parts still attached to them.
But as for removing the face, I can see where he is coming from. In an autopsy – and in my state, all suicides are autopsied – I have access to the skull from about the forehead to the occiput. If there are any broken bones from the nose to the chin, I can’t fix those, and the face will look misshapen.
Can I do it? To give a family a perfect viewing? It would open up (ha!) a new world of possibilities. Except I don’t know how to do it, and I’m afraid to Google it. I might get…visited.
Not everyone gets to be viewable. Not everyone gets to view in the family’s chosen conditions; perhaps in their home for days on end in natural light (which I have arranged for families after the medical examiner warned me the case was not viewable at all). Some cases can only be viewed from a certain angle, easy to set up with the right casket and the right venue and strategically placed floral arrangements that direct the viewers to stand in the spot that shows the good parts and hides the bad parts. Some people can only be considered viewable by immediate family; maybe they died of a long illness with emaciating effects and their close family members were present the entire time and were familiar with the illness, but no one else saw them or would understand what they had been through. I’ve arranged some viewings where only a silhouette could be seen, because at least that was better than not viewing at all.
I’ve arranged a lot of viewings of decedents who died in disfiguring ways and required several days of restorative work. These were instances where the family was encouraged by the medical examiner and other funeral directors not to view. I was able to create good outcomes, but in those situations, I controlled every aspect of the viewing. You need this type of casket and it will go against this wall and we will use these lights and he can’t wear this kind of clothing. In this case, the family chose a full couch casket (entire body visible from head to feet) and they walked all around the casket and viewed the body from every angle, including from the feet looking up at the face. No one looks good like that. This was not a body to be viewed like that, but it was for cultural reasons.
I hope this family would say that viewing their son after my work was better than not at all. I hope they weren’t terribly disappointed or feeling ripped off or wishing they hadn’t viewed. I believe in the value of viewing, or else I wouldn’t do this job.
I once let an 11-year-old girl view her brother who had been mangled in a motorcycle accident. He collided with a semi. No embalming, no washing, no dressing, nothing at all done to make him look good. When I opened the bag I saw the kid first and the accident second, so I thought maybe the family would feel the same. I had only been in the business three years. It was a judgment call to make, and I made the right one. That family left the viewing laughing and hugging me. They came repeatedly to see him again. Sometimes it’s not about how good you can make them look. Sometimes I don’t know what a family really needs, but that family needed to see their son and didn’t care what he looked like. I’m glad I was able to give that to them. I’m glad they didn’t get another director who would have told them no.
I really did do a good job. I plastered the broken skull together. I repaired some very deep lacerations with hidden sutures. I didn’t forget about the rest of the body; the inevitable compound fractures and smashed hands that you get from jumping off a bridge. I fixed the fist-sized hole in his head. The body was in good condition and the head held together well for the service.
But the family didn’t know any of that. No families do, unless they are in the business. No one knows exactly what a viewing like this takes. And I’ll probably never stop thinking about the times when I don’t know if I could have done better, if I should have tried more, if I should have sought help from someone else, or if this was a family who should have been told no.