This Reader Question, about working on a headless body, comes from my mom:

“Was the head missing? If it’s just detached, do you fix it up enough to put it with the body? Do people bury just the body? Do people just bury whatever pieces they have?”

In my career, I have only worked on three headless bodies, not counting the family of three who died in an explosion and were brought to me in several small bags. Although it is possible to embalm a body and head (or other limb) separately, keep in mind that most American families in general do not choose an open casket, and are less likely to do so when they know there has been a disfiguring accident. And most people who were decapitated didn’t have one unlucky run-in with a blade – it was probably a car or motorcycle wreck, or a brutal homicide. In addition to a decapitation, there is likely to be extensive fracturing of the skull, mutilation of the face or other trauma to the body.

The first headless case I got was an ATV accident. The body arrived with the head and hands in a separate bag, and the head was caved in. This was a case where the family and the funeral director were unaware of the extent of the injuries, and I was asked to prepare the body for a short viewing without embalming. I opened the bag and said absolutely not…”his head is in a bag by his feet.” So he went into the casket as he was, had a simple burial, and a year later more of his remains were recovered.

In that situation, most often the family will choose to have any additional material cremated.

I always say, if there is something left of the face, I can fix it. Most facial restoration involves filling in a depression in the facial bones with a hard wax, then cosmetizing over it to resemble skin. But if the face isn’t there, I have nothing to fill in. I need at least a little bit of a forehead, a cheek, a jawbone; something to give me an idea of the shape and size of the head. If there is no forehead and no eyes, I don’t know how far apart the eyes are supposed to be or where the nose is. Many of our facial features are the same size, and I depend on knowing the size and position of one feature in order to correctly rebuild another one.

In the event of the face and/or head being completely missing or obliterated, it’s best not to view regardless of any attempt at restoration. Tell the family no. Tell them that as a professional, you recommend not viewing because the remains will not be recognizable as human or at least not as their loved one, and try to get them talking of the last time they were with him so they will be encouraged to remember him as he was. Sure, you could attempt to rebuild what is gone, but it would look like a wax doll. Sometimes not viewing the body really is the best choice, even if making that recommendation hurts my pride and dashes the family’s hopes.

(I have never had a family insist on viewing headless or faceless remains, but I have had families insist on viewing remains that were decomposed, mutilated, or unrecognizable. I recommended against it and had them sign a waiver, and none of them later regretted the viewing. They even spent a significant amount of time with the remains.)

My second headless body was the result of a car explosion. The recoverable remains were in several pieces and were basically just charred bones with clothing fragments attached. The lower jaw was recovered. He was to be shipped, and all I did was pour cauterizing fluid all over the remains, wrap them in a plastic pouch and write “not viewable” over all paperwork for the receiving funeral home.

My most recent case was a homicide victim whose body was underwater for several months. He was reduced to nothing but sludge and was impossible to embalm arterially. His skull and facial bones were missing and the remaining skin of his head was attached by a flap of skin and completely flattened. It was determined he died of unspecified homicidal violence, but it would be impossible to know the exact injuries he received or whether any mutilation was due to the manner of death, the decomposition or marine life.

I covered him in strips of cotton, poured cauterizing fluids over him, and kept him in the cooler overnight. The next day, I prepared a strong solution using fluids meant to mask decomposition and hypodermically injected his limbs and trunk, then flipped the body over and repeated the procedure. I dusted the entire body with topical powdered formaldehyde and wrapped him in more phenol-soaked cotton.

Afterwards, I wrapped his limbs in plastic wrap and lifted the body on the mechanical lift so I could get all the way around him with the rest of the plastic. The skin was too soft to suture, so I needed the plastic to hold him together in one piece. He was then covered in a mixture of baking soda and cat litter – listed in my reports as a “clay hardening compound” – and wrapped in several sheets of heavy plastic, then placed in a bodybag with more baking soda.

Preparing non-viewable bodies is somewhat easier because you only have to focus on preservation (this case was shipped via airline) and odor control. I much prefer plastic wrap over plastic mortuary garments. The garments tend to rip easily and cannot be custom fitted. Also, the cat litter was much better than the baking soda at controlling odors, and was also useful in cleaning up the fluid spills and masking the odors left behind in the medical waste bin. I used to frown on embalmers using cat litter in bodies because it seemed lazy, but it’s definitely a staple in my supply case from now on.