Funerals and Funeral Directing
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There does not seem to be a fixed pattern to what people say at the moment of death. From the experiences of the class speakers that have actually seen people at the moment of death there is nothing noteworthy to report. On the other hand, historically there have been some famous lines that have been recorded. The fact they are rare makes them important. For example, Luke claims that Christ's last words were, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit." Many others have repeated the same sentence at the moment of death. When Ethan Allen was told that the angels were waiting for him as he lay on his death bed, he blurted out, "Waiting are they! Well, God damn them, let them wait!" Nathan Hale said the famous words, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." Brian Piccolo said to his wife at the moment of death, "Can you believe it, Joy? Can you believe this shit?"
I have heard there is a "death rattle" when a person dies. Supposedly, upon expiration a noise is sometimes made that inspired the term. Again, pathologists, rescue personnel, nursing home attendants, and doctors that I've talked to have not experienced that phenomenon.
Because all the muscles relax following death, bladder and rectum control will be lost. It is not uncommon for a person to defecate and/or urinate after death. As far as the eyes closing, it would have to be done as one were dying, or if one died in their sleep. Otherwise the eyes might remain open after death. There is no mechanism for eye lid closure after the muscles have relaxed. Attendants at the death scene might close the victim's eyes in order to avoid the "body-staring-at-you-look" that makes one feel uncomfortable. Because of muscle relaxation, the pupils of the eyes become huge. The black centers of the eyes are so large they appear very unnatural. During life most muscles in the body never relax completely. This is called "tonus." Along with the pressure of the blood which partly inflates the body, tonus prevents a sagging expression to the body. Upon death the pressure and tonus leave. Blood vessels, especially veins, open wide when the muscles around them relax. Blood then pools to the lower part of the body and some of it leaks out into the tissue fluid. The lower portion of the body becomes reddened with blood and if it remains there long enough it may turn to darker colors. (This may be noted when an injury occurs and the blood that leaked under the skin turns black and blue.) This is called, "dependent lividity." If a body is moved after dependent lividity occurs an investigator will be able to tell that it occurred.
Dependent lividity is evident in the lower portion of the deceased's back.
In order to exercise a muscle a series of chemical and electrical reactions must take place. Without getting too complicated, there are molecules in the muscle that contain energy. They are adenosine triphosphate or "ATP" for short.When you decide to move a muscle, the muscle calls for energy. The ATP molecules release energy to the cell by changing into a new molecule known as adenosine diphosphate (ADP). Lactic acid is also produced as a by-product. When lactic acid mixed with oxygen three things result: Carbon dioxide, water, and energy. That energy is used to contract the muscle cell providing movement needed for life functions. Some of the energy is used to change the ADP molecules back into ATP so the entire process can take place again. When a person dies, especially if they have a lot of oxygen in their systems, the ATP molecules will break apart and cause the muscles to contract. This stiffening, or rigor mortis, reportedly comes on instantly in some cases, although it may take several hours. The rigor will disappear after all the ATP molecules have become ADP and there is no more oxygen to provide the energy for rejuvenation. The time for disappearance is measured in hours to days. Using the amount of rigor to determine the time of death is a very inexact technique.
A typical New England funeral home
About seventy-five percent of Americans die in institutions. Most of the rest die at home. If the body does not fall under the Medical Examiner/Coroner's jurisdiction, it usually will be transported to the funeral home by the funeral director. This is rarely done with a hearse. Most often it is done with a van or station wagon. When the funeral director arrives to pick up the body great care must be utilized to avoid further traumatizing the survivors. Arrival time should be short so the family is not waiting for a long period of time with the body present. There should be no smoking or pacing at the exterior of the dwelling. Loving care should be shown when handling the deceased. The type and amount of jewelry should be noted. Soiled clothes, bedding, etc. should be removed for laundering. The arms should be restrained so they do not flop outward during transport. The body should be shrouded or covered with a body bag prior to discreetly carrying it out on a stretcher.
The funeral home's personnel arrive to pick up the body. The arms should be strapped to keep them from flopping off the gurney.
Looking at the history of funeral directing takes us back to the 1700's. At that time there were no formal funeral directors or undertakers. (Incidentally, the word, "undertaker" originally meant to undertake the funeral and get it done. It had nothing to do with putting someone underground.) The cabinet-makers of the community were called upon to make the caskets and usually had to be done overnight. Generally the women in the house took care of getting the body ready for burial. They would wash and dress it. The body was carried in the casket either by horse-drawn wagon or by the pall-bearers walking to the local cemetery in the church yard. The hole was dug by the church janitor (the Sexton). Eventually some of the Sextons realized there was money to be made in arranging the entire process so they became the initial "funeral directors."
The modern funeral director is required to obtain a college degree in Mortuary Science. They not only become experts in embalming and restoration, but must be able to deal with bereaved families, run a major business, be good at selling, be on duty 24 hours a day throughout the year, arrange flowers, and be good community members. Maintaining a good image in the public eye is extremely important.
Along with either a doctor or the Medical Examiner/Coroner, the funeral director must add his signature and other vital information to the Death Certificate. That document is then filed with the Department of Health in most states. The information is computerized and becomes the basis for many of the statistics we receive concerning how people die. Therefore the accuracy of those statistics depends on the doctor, medical examiner and/or the funeral director.
When my father died it was sudden. He had never had a problem with his heart but had suffered at least one stroke. His blood pressure was high and his diet was not the best. One night, as he was preparing for bed, he passed out and died in the upstairs hallway of his White Plains (NY) home. My mother found him shortly thereafter and knew he was dead. She went downstairs and called my brother who lived close by. She also called the police, who then notified the local funeral home after they had arrived on the scene. My mother then called me to discuss what Dad would want done with his body. She suggested it be donated to a local medical school and I readily agreed. The funeral director was notified of this decision so he would not embalm my dad because medical schools will not accept a body if it has been. Medical schools will not accept bodies that have been posted (autopsied). All of this indicated no person verified the cause of my father's death. However, the Death Certificate stated he died of a heart attack. Knowing his history I doubted that conclusion. In any case, this information was forwarded to the Department of Health to be used for their statistics. When I mentioned this to one of my uncles he said they do that all the time in Florida. That is, when a older person dies the best guess as to what killed them is put on the Death Certificate. So, where does that leave us with how Americans die? Incidentally, shortly after we had decided on the medical school donation, my mother found a document from my father stating he wanted to be cremated and that became the final disposition.
What is the job of the funeral director? One of them is to guide the survivors through the service and other arrangements that must be made. Shortly after the body arrives at the funeral home some representative must arrive to decide the answers to a myriad of questions. Do you want a service for the deceased? Do you want an organist or vocalist for the service. Should there be others included in the service such as lodge officials or members of the fire department? Should the mourners be able to say their final thoughts? Where should it be - in the funeral home, in a house of worship, etc.? Do you want visiting hours for the friends? Should the times for those hours be standard (2-4 and 7-9 P.M.) and should there be only one day for it? Do you want clergy involved with the service? With the burial? What will be the disposition of the remains? If they are to be buried, do you have a cemetery plot or should one be purchased. What cemetery? Must you buy a vault, and, if so, which one. Where in that cemetery? Do you want pall-bearers? Do you want a service at the burial? If the disposition is cremation, do you want a service in the crematorium? What should be done with the cremains? Do you want a memorial service at a later time? If the disposition is to be cryogenic suspension have you prepared for this prior to the death because it requires very special treatment of the body immediately following death. If there is to be viewing in the funeral home should the casket be open to all, just to the immediate family, or not at all. Should the body be embalmed? Is restoration needed and is it practical?
Isn't it amazing a person has to answer all of those questions in a matter of minutes to hours? Do not plan on shopping around! There is very little knowledge of prices. There is little knowledge of funeral requirements, burial and disposal laws. When one buys a house or a car there is usually time to compare prices and products. The third largest purchase for most people will be a funeral. This purchase will be done under the mental strain of grief, with incomplete knowledge, and very quickly. Couple all this with the probable influx of cash from life insurance, inheritance, etc. and you find a consumer that is an easy prey to price gouging.
The number 1 profit-making item in a funeral is the casket. It is important to know the truth about caskets! Most funeral homes will have an area for displaying them. Since they take up considerable space some of the homes may have one or none on display and will work from a catalog instead. It is important for the funeral home to set up the display so the beauty of the casket is apparent. The highly-polished oak, cherry, and mahogany woods are beautiful. The metallic caskets, in their variety of colors and finishes, from rich bronze and copper to sparkling stainless steel, are truly a work of art. There are fiberglass caskets on the market. (They last longer under ground than the others but cannot be used for cremation because of the smoke and sooty deposits.) Lighting and interior decor are important to make the selection meaningful. Arranging the caskets according to some price pattern may also play a large part in the sale. Keeping the lower-priced models away from the forefront makes good business sense unless they are use to show contrast so the higher-priced caskets will sell.
In 1995 if a funeral director purchased a low-priced casket it would cost approximately $125. That same casket would be sold to the customer for $300 to $600. A 19-gauge steel might cost $500. That would sell for $1300 to $1800. A solid bronze casket would cost about $2900. It would sell for $7000 to $9000. On the low end of the scale are cardboard containers that are usually used for direct cremation rather than in-ground burial. The high end of the scale is open-ended. Pine's Funeral Home in New Paltz had a solid bronze casket with gold-plated fixtures that retailed for $7000. There was a bronze casket available that was 1/2 the weight (and no gold) for $3600. Their solid copper one was $3300, and the 18-gauge steel was $1700. The 20-gauge (the higher the gauge, the thinner the metal) steel casket was only $760.
The caskets come in several sizes to accommodate adults and children. Special sizes can be ordered with delivery usually taking less than 24 hours. Some have a theme that is incorporated in their design. There may be urns inscribed in the side corners. They may be related to the military. There were some that were futuristic, and some that were considered traditional. Colors for kids' caskets are blue, pink, gold and some are white.
Pine's Funeral Home in New Paltz had an antique, wooden casket that the kids found interesting. It was used prior to modern embalming. After the body was placed in the bottom resting on a small board, a copper tray of ice was put over the chest and abdomen. The tray was shaped so that a hole was over the face. As the ice melted the water would drain through a tube into a container under the casket and on the floor. When the lid was placed on the top and the small door in the upper part was opened, one could look down at the deceased face but not see the ice. The cooling effect of the ice kept decomposition odors to a minimum. This type of casket became totally obsolete following the introduction of modern embalming.
Ice was placed in the compartment with the hole for the face.
A casket may have a split lid so it could be entirely open or have just the head half open. In the latter case, there is usually a drape that will go from the top, closed portion down around the waist so the bottom have of the body is not visible. (One of the students in class was caught with her cousin trying to peer under the waist drape covering the lower part of her aunt lying in the casket. Both were looking to see if the aunt had shoes on (she did).) Rarely are both halves open because it doesn't make the deceased look peaceful and serene. Sometimes the right shoulder is depressed slightly to avoid the "on the back" appearance. Positioning of the hands is important. They may be cupped slightly for a more lifelike appearance, and may hold a Bible, Rosary, pipe etc.
The inside is designed for comfort (?) as a rule. At the bottom of the interior there is usually a bedspring of sorts. (The least expensive models may have only a padded fabric on the bottom.) It may consist of metal straps running from one end of a metal frame to the other and from side to side. There may be an actual bedspring with the small springs sandwiched between two metal frames. The head and foot end may each be cranked up so the body does not look like it is down in a box. To close the lid, after all is said and done in the funeral home, the body has to be cranked back down. On top of the bedspring there may be a covering that could be cloth, a cotton pad, or a mattress. On top of that is the material that is part of the casket's decor. It might be a rich velvet, satin, or cotton. There is a place in the lid to put an insert such as a religious or Masonic icon.
On the end of many caskets there is a plastic vial that screws into the body. It makes a water-tight seal. Vital information about the deceased is placed in that vial, such as the name, cemetery location, date of death, etc. These have been very useful in returning the remains to the proper place after some disaster or mix-up has caused a problem. For example, in some of the hurricanes that have hit the southern part of the United States caskets have floated to the surface and away from the burial site. If there is a lot of water on the Earth's surface and the soil is sandy or not compacted, a casket could float out of the grave because it is quite buoyant. In hurricane Camille there reports of caskets coming up from the ground, being ripped open, and having the remains deposited in tree tops. Myles McGrath told us how the shrimp fisherman in Louisiana pulled in many floating caskets from the ocean after the storm.
On the lid of the above casket is the plastic vial. It screws into the open hole at the center right casket corner.
The vial (upper corner) containing important information about the body in the casket helps to identify the remains.
Normally a funeral home will not allow a casket to be sold for any purpose other than what is intended. The casket is treated as a beautiful piece of artwork, and is almost regarded as religious icon. To have a casket used in a parade, pep rally, circus, or some other non-funeral function is akin to blasphemy. Realizing how important a casket is to a Death Education class resulted in my obtaining two of them for educational use. Some interesting stories lie behind both.
A friend of mine in a neighboring village called to ask if I was interested in a metal casket they found in a dump on their factory property. Realizing this was an exciting gift, they recovered it, repaired the damage, and painted it red. I went one Saturday in my truck to transport it home. The end stuck out the back. There were some motorcyclists in a gas station and while I was pumping gas the remarks were indicative of how people see caskets when they are not in their proper setting: "Look at that guy! He has a casket in the truck! What the Hell is he doing with that?" Not one would ask me directly as I passed them on the way inside to pay the bill.
As I was pulling into my home with it the 6-year-old kid next door was following in their car. They pulled up along side and the kid asked, "Is that a coffin?" When told it was he said, "Is there anyone dead in it?" I told him what he wanted to hear and then told his mother I was short a cooler for a beer party and borrowed it for that.
It was in my garage for the rest of the summer until it could be taken to school. One neighbor refused to enter the garage again after the first encounter startled her. The UPS man told me that he was happy it was to big for him to take if I was planning to ship something in it.
Being involved with teaching scuba diving I tried to conceal it from the students. That is next to impossible. The shape is a dead giveaway even when it was covered with a tarp. The next 2 photos are what the casket looked like prior to transporting it to school:
The second casket was donated by Pine's Funeral Home. They also saw the value of using it for teaching Death Education. That one was oak and had a beige-colored satin interior. (The metal casket had no interior material.) Its worth was over $2000. That one was used in class because of its fine quality. Both caskets were stored in an office I shared with another teacher. At first she was slightly uneasy about them being behind her desk but finally regarded them as just another piece of office furniture.
On Parent's Night my colleague met individually with her parents in the office. (I used the classroom for parental meetings.) During times where she would be discussing a student's classroom performance with a parent she would notice they had shifty eyes and a lack of quality concentration. Sometimes one of the parents would get up enough courage to say something like, "Is that a casket?" From that point on a large amount of the allotted time for each interview was blown over the origin of the two caskets.
The casket donated by Pine's was slightly damaged. They would not have been able to sell it even though the damage was slight - a slightly broken end pallbearer's handle. In the past when something like that happened it was usually donated for the burial of someone that could not afford to have a funeral. When I brought it into class it was studied in great detail. The students were able to see how one is put together, how a body is casketed, and how it feels to get in a casket and be carried by other classmates. The classmates experienced what being a pallbearer felt like. I climbed in it after cranking up the head end, and assumed the typical layout position. My head is to their left and is my face was tilted slightly toward them. My hands were crossed on my chest. I would have a serene look on my face. There was usually dead silence in the classroom as the reality of what could be sank in. Usually I'd either wink or stick my tongue out to break the ice. On the average, only about 1/3 of the students would climb into the casket, and some of those would not allow the lid to be closed. There is something about caskets that keeps people away! It was soon discovered that heavy use by the students climbing in and out was causing massive damage to the satin material stapled to the interior so it was curtailed in later years.
What are the chances of purchasing a reusable casket for a funeral? Like something out of an old comedy routine, it would save a lot of money if one were laid out in a casket that belonged to the funeral home and just prior to the final disposition the body was transferred to a less-costly container. That sure sounds like a great idea, but don't hold your breath too long waiting for it to happen. In fact, when it has happened, various associations that funeral directors belong to put a stop to it because of the financial threat the reusable casket poses.
One student asked if the funeral director could switch an expensive casket for a less expensive one at the cemetery when the mourners leave. That would be next to impossible because of the number of factors that would have to meld together. The funeral director would have to be unethical and overcome the penalties if caught. Their business would evaporate. The funeral director would have to involve the cemeterians and the vault delivery people. After the mourners leave the vault company representative lowers the lid on the bottom of the vault that is in the ground and contains the casket. The cemeterians are waiting, either alone or with a crew to start putting the dirt on the vault. Add the factor there might be other people visiting the cemetery and they would consider it mighty strange if a body was being hastily switched from one casket to another.
When caskets arrive they are usually inspected by the funeral director for flaws. If found they are usually returned. If the casket was needed for a burial and not to be used in the funeral home display the turn around has to be rapid. It has happened when flaws were not found disastrous results occurred. Once pallbearers were carrying the casket out of the church, the bottom broke loose and the body fell out. The deceased remained on the steps outside the church (it was covered) until the funeral home could bring a replacement. Litigation to the tune of several million dollars was initiated.
Because caskets are a major source of the funeral home's income they must be marketed well. If there is a room for displaying them it should be well-lighted, decorated pleasingly, and provide the bereaved purchaser various options from price to exterior composition. The following advertisement from The Director 4/78 illustrates the options available to display the casket:
The following are casket advertisements. The demonstrate the variety and "beauty" of caskets:
Batesville Casket Company even offered to plant a tree seed for the purchase of a wooden casket. At the time environmentalists were complaining about tree destruction for the manufacture of caskets:
Costco, the large discount warehouse, has caskets available for purchase. The following are from Costco Warehouse in Lantana Florida (2008):
On line Costco advertises a Solid Cherry Wood Casket. It weighs 240 pounds and can be overnighted to a funeral home in the United States. The exterior measures 84" L by 28" W by 24" H. The interior width is 24" and the length is 84". The cost (3/08) is $2999.99.
The above form (PO 0315288) was picked up in the Lantana, FL Costco in January 2009. Similar forms were picked up in preceding years. The casket costs have not changed since 2007. The PO # in January 2007 was 0203211. The PO # in January 2008 was 0203256.
The following photos were taken during class field trips to funeral homes:
Copeland's Funeral Home in the Casket Room May 1990
Pine's Funeral Home - $475 in 1990
On the left is a $550 (1990) casket that does not have the quality or price of the Mahogany one with Nate on the right
Eric Kretchmer at Pine's in the Casket Room
The burial of wooden caskets generally causes them to leak although one company is now offering a plastic tray for the bottom. Also, wooden caskets are porous and let gases diffuse through the wood. Because metal caskets don't do this, it is possible to place a rubber seal between the lid and the bottom to make it water tight. Because the body emits gas during decomposition the seal has to allow the gas to escape. So, the rubber seal is designed by its shape to allow gas to escape but not let water in. The seal runs the entire perimeter of the top of the lower part of the casket. When the lid is closed, it is drawn down and locked in place insuring the integrity of the seal. The seal presents a problem when a body is shipped by air. If they fail to leave the casket lid ajar, as the pressure drops in the plane the air inside the casket will leave through the seal until the pressure is equal. As the plane descends and repressurizes the seal will not allow the gas to return to the interior so the casket may collapse.
According to the interviewed cemeterians, few, if any, caskets in our area of the northeast will last more than 25 years in the ground unless they are somehow protected such as being enclosed in a water-tight vault. There are some unusual cases where a casket here or there did last longer but they are rare.
One of the stops our class made on the annual field trips was to the Wilbert Burial Vault Company in Poughkeepsie, New York. Wilbert is a leader in the field and has subsidiaries in many locations although the Poughkeepsie site was finally closed . The vault is made in a steel cast that is upside down. The concrete is poured from a movable container on the ceiling into the cast. It is vibrated down and around so there are no air holes creating structural weakness. The steel frame is removed and the concrete container is turned upright. Since concrete is porous a liner must be inserted covering the interior of the vault. It is plastic and is sealed against the concrete. If one wants a more expensive vault, a liner of copper, bronze, or stainless steel can be fitted to the interior of the plastic. That should make the entire unit waterproof once the lid (made in a similar fashion) is sealed to the bottom.
The exterior can be finished in a pattern. It may be painted. There is a place for the name of the deceased. There are rubber decorations that can be glued to the exterior. These are made in molds and are in the shape of a cross, Masonic symbol, flowers, etc. There are vaults made for children's caskets. There are even vaults made for cremains.
Today, funeral directors go to college for a minimum of 2 years to learn the profession. If a candidate to the school has a college degree prior to enrollment the Mortuary Science Degree will only take one year. In the school there are classes similar to most colleges and then there are the classes that are specifically for the business. The student takes Psychology in order to be able to deal with a family's grief, they take some business courses to learn to market various parts of the funeral, and they master courses to learn embalming and restoration. The laboratory areas are designed for student observation as well as student participation.
There is an internship period following college. The student selects a participating funeral home and works there for a year. They participate in every aspect of the funeral. Following that period, employment is sought after in a funeral home near where they wish to settle.
In the funeral home there is an area that is known as the Preparation Room. It is here the body is changed from looking like death to becoming a "memory picture." Through the use of embalming and restoration what may not have been a pleasant sight becomes one. The room may be tiled or painted with a washable paint. Typically it has a stainless steel or porcelain table where the body will be worked on. At the end of the table there is a toilet without the lid or seat. Chemicals and body fluids drain into here and are then disinfected before entering a special holding tank, although some drain into the local sewage system. The entire room is usually designed so it may be washed down to destroy infectious diseases and unsightly stains. There are cabinets containing instruments, protective apparatus and garments, chemicals, and cosmetics.
The late Terry Copeland in the Preparation Room
A Mortician waiting to have the body delivered to the Preparation Room
An Embalming and Preparation Room at a school for Mortuary Science
Embalming is not required by law. However, there are persuasive reasons to have it done. As with milk sitting out on the kitchen counter in a warm room, there will be odors associated with decomposition after a period of time. It is readily identifiable and is almost impossible to mask. The onset and intensity of the smell is determined by many factors. The warmer the body (up to a point), the more humid the environment, the amount of mold and bacteria inside the body, and the cause of the death are the major ones. Milk in the refrigerator will keep longer than milk on the counter. Decomposition is hasten with warmth and moisture. If the exterior skin of the body did not remain intact, such as with an autopsy, puncture wound, trauma accident, etc., the saprophytes introduced will start devouring the interior rapidly. If a person dies from a disease caused by microorganisms that break down tissue the odor will also be intensified. So, if one suggests to a funeral director that the embalming be skipped they may encounter an argument in favor of a closed casket resulting in no viewing.
Because decomposition requires warmth and moisture, the aim of embalming is to remove the water. Formaldehyde is a powerful desiccant. Crystals of formaldehyde dissolved in water make a solution that is capable of drawing water out of body cells and binding it up. The aldehydes also get into the cells and coat the interior making the water in the cell useless in the support of decomposition agents. So, the idea of embalming is to get as must of this formaldehyde solution throughout the body to remove the water in order to prevent further decomposition.
An ad by Champion Company for marketing its brand of embalming chemicals
Ads for embalming chemicals, some containing dyes to add color to the tissue for a life-like appearance
The body is treated as a person would be during surgery. Since there is a lot of blood removed from the deceased the procedure must be treated with great caution. Blood transmitted pathogens, such as Hepatitis B and AIDS can be a very real threat to the embalmer. Double gloves should be worn. Disposable gowns, shoe covering, and masks over the eyes, nose, and mouth are a must. Every body must be treated this way because it is never certain which cadaver is contagious and which isn't. Final cleanup must be done with the thoroughness used in most hospital operating rooms.
To replace the blood with embalming fluid an incision is usually made at the base of the neck. Through this incision the jugular vein and carotid artery are pulled up and the surrounding tissue is cut and scraped away. Two sutures are loosely tied around each of these vessels and then the vessels are cut between the sutures. An arterial tube is inserted into the carotid artery part that goes down into the body and the suture is tied tightly to hold the artery to the tube. The same thing is done to the jugular vein and a drainage tube (cannula) is inserted and tied off in the end coming from the body. The drainage tube has a sliding rod inside it to control the flow coming out of it. A rubber hose is connected to the arterial tube. The other end of the hose is attached to the embalming machine. As the embalming machine pumps fluid into the carotid artery the blood flows out of the drainage tube, down the table, and into the toilet. The heart may be by-passed as the embalming fluid runs down the lower aorta through the capillaries, and up the vein to the drainage tube. It is possible to do the entire body, including the head if the conditions are good. "Good" means the vessels are large as in a younger person, and the procedure is done within one hour of isoelectric. In fact, the embalming fluid itself may cause the blood vessels to get smaller because of the drying effect. One funeral director injects a chemical, such as sodium citrate, prior to the embalming fluid because it coats the vessel walls and keeps them open. Many times the head has to be done separately by inserting the arterial tube in the carotid artery to the head (the other end of the previously made cut), and the drainage tube in the jugular vein from the head.
On the left is the jugular tube outlet before the embalming machine is turned on.
On the right is the flow of blood out of the tube after the embalming machine is activated and the slide valve is opened.
Embalming machine advertisements
Pine's embalming machine. The chemicals are put in the glass container and they a pushed into the aorta through the plastic tube.
The above are ads for the arterial tubes and venous tubes for passing the embalming fluid through the body.
Final suturing is done to close the incisions after the embalming fluid is perfused through the body and then the head.
The destruction created by accidents and autopsies may cause the embalmer to do the arm(s) and/or leg(s) separately. For this the subclavian artery and vein are raised from the area just below the armpit, or the femoral artery and vein are raised from the groin area, and the procedure proceeds in a similar fashion to that just described.
The embalming machines look old-fashioned. They have a dial on the front next to a pressure meter. They have a switch controlling the flow - steady or pulsating. There is a glass tank on the top that holds the mixture of chemicals used for injection. About one gallon for each 50 pounds of body weight is injected. The mixture for a 150 pound cadaver will include water and may include some of the following:
Formaldehyde at a rate of 16 oz. of 18 index. The index is the strength. If decomposition is underway the index number will be raised. If the formaldehyde strength is too strong the tissues start to get leather-like. If the solution is weak decomposition may start. So, the embalmer has to determine the correct amount from the condition of the body.
Anticlot chemicals to dissolve blood clots that might restrict the flow.
Humectants to make the tissues more pliable.
Suntone which is the trade-name for a tinted material. It ranges from pink to deep tans. If this coloring agent was not used the body would not look natural. In fact, Caucasian skin would look gray after the blood is removed. The color, then, should match the natural color of the deceased when they were alive and healthy.
Flextone (trade-name) which produces a mild, flexible rigidity to the tissues.
Lyf Lik (sic) (trade-name) which reproduces skin texture.
As the fluid is injected it may encounter a blockage. The pulse switch is thrown and the fluid is change from a steady flow into a mini-battering ram. This would be used in conjunction with the slide valve in the drainage tube.
Embalming is used mainly to get a body through the funeral without problems. If is is not done properly the products of decomposition can be quite embarrassing. If the body was posted (autopsied), or the skin opened in other ways (shootings, stabbings, drowning with the invasion of sea life, etc.), the decomposition process is more rapid. Veins may begin to swell and distend, the purging of food from the stomach may occur, leakage around the eyes is possible, gases and odors are emitted, and skin discoloration changes set in. Sometimes the body has to be returned to the preparation room for a more thorough application of fluids. Also, if a person is jaundiced (i.e., they have yellow bile in their blood and skin) the embalming fluid may react with the bile to produce a vivid green color. To avoid this other alcohol and aldehyde-based embalming fluids are used. If the deceased had been taking the drug Methotrexate for the treatment of cancer it will react with the embalming fluid and causes swelling. The cancer drug Cytoxan causes the tissues to become dark and look like mud.
Embalming an infant is difficult. Normally the body is buried without any formal preparation. At times it may be necessary to apply preservatives. This might be done to reduce or retard decomposition. In this case, the funeral director may place the body of the infant in a preservative pack, which is a pouch where the body can be covered with powerful embalming powders. The pouch may then be wrapped in plastic and placed in a casket that will remain closed. Sometimes when an infant dies the parents often need to have a visual contact with the body. There are important psychological benefits to seeing the child before final disposition. For this reason, there may be some justification for having the infant embalmed. Unfortunately, this is not an easy task because the vessels are so small. The body of an infant may be embalmed through the vein in the umbilical cord if it is still attached. Or, the aorta, near the heart, can be raised from an incision in the thoracic cavity and the chemicals introduced there.
Embalming is not an eternal preservative. After a period of time the body will decay because the formaldehyde converts into a gas and slowly leaves the body. How long this takes is so variable it is very difficult to predict. It has to do with how much formaldehyde was injected in the first place, what the condition of the body was after death, where and how the body is buried, and to what extent the internal organs were trocared (see below). The body may begin to decompose within a two-week period. However, there are some that have been remarkably preserved after many years, but these are exceptions.
Historically, embalming may have started with a person by the name of Holmes during the Civil War. To have bodies returned from the battlefield was a logistical problem because of the distance and time. In the late 1800's the embalming fluid contained arsenic, a very powerful preservative. Bodies embalmed that way may still be in good condition. However, somewhere I discovered a maid and butler swindled their employer out of $5,000,000 in 1906, killed him with arsenic, had his body embalmed, and got away with the loot because the murder weapon was masked by the embalming fluid. It is said, at that time arsenic was outlawed as an embalming agent.
After all the chemicals have been injected there are still several areas that will not be properly treated with preservative. The thoracic (lung) and abdominal areas have vast spaces that will not receive adequate formaldehyde treatment by arterial embalming. These areas can produced super problems such as gas distension, horrendous odor, and purging. The bacteria, Bacillus Welchi is mainly responsible for this. (Hunters gut their big game to avoid similar spoilage!) The skilled embalmer will treat these cavities with the trocar.
Ah, the trocar! Picture a hollow tube, about 18" long, sharp on one end, with an entrance hole on the other end, and several smaller holes on the sharp end. It may be used for suction or injection. The trocar is first inserted (thrust) into the abdominal area at a point about 2" above the naval and 2" to the left. As the instrument is worked back and forth in the abdominal cavity it is aspirating as much of the contents as possible. Fluids, stomach and abdominal contents, small intestinal contents, large intestine gases and fecal matter, and minced tissue go into the vacuum line and into the disposal system. Then the trocar is connected to the pump so 3-4 ounces of concentrated formaldehyde cavity fluid can be shot into the abdominal cavity. Next it is inserted along an imaginary line from the left hip to the right ear and just below the ribs. From this vantage point the heart and lungs can receive the same treatment as the abdomen did. The holes left by the trocar may be closed with cotton, suture (rare), or a trocar plug, which is a plastic plug that has threads so it can be screwed into the dry skin.
John Howell holding the trocar at Pine's Funeral Home
The trocar in the abdomen during the embalming process
If the body is so decomposed that restoration would be a waste of time, a Ziegler Sealer Casket may be used for the remains. It has a positive seal between the lid and bottom. The lid is held in place with 32 screws. Prior to closure the body is covered with preservative chemicals.
To keep the mouth from drifting (opening) it will be sewn or wired together. Some funeral directors will used a tack gun. It fires a short piece of stainless steel with through the gum on the bottom of the mouth. Another wire is fired through the upper gum on the other side. The two wires are then twisted together to hold the mouth shut. Others prefer to sew the mouth shut. In this procedure a suture is put through the lower gum (septum, inside the mandible) with a needle. It is then passed up between the upper lip and the gum into the nasal cavity. From there it passes through the center tissue of the nose and back down into the mouth. When the 2 ends are pulled tight the mouth will close. The lips will be molded together, possibly very slightly parted, with the upper lip slightly protruding. The mouth can be padded with ordinary cotton to bring the lips into an acceptable position. Vaseline may be used to lock the lips together. If the teeth are missing there is a face-former that can be inserted to fill out the area. This piece of thin plastic has small points that stick up to catch the skin.
To prevent eyelid drift eye caps are inserted. These small plastic caps are in the shape of an eyeball and also have spikes on their surface. When the eyelids are pulled over on them the underside catches on the spikes and prevents the eyes from opening.
The above aids are designed to fill out body parts, keep the eyes closed, prevent mouth drift, etc.
In the restorative process there are many tricks that come into play. Some of the work is done from photographs. Some is done using known facts about the dimensions of human beings. For example, the nose is usually 2 1/2 times the length of the eye. That would be helpful in reconstructing a nose. Swelling can be removed by simply scrapping the material from the inside of the wound using the Tissue Reducer (above) after it is dried. Padding can be added by placing cotton under the skin of the eye, mouth, and nose. This will help to eliminate wrinkles. Sunken features may also be filled in with a tissue builder. This material is injected and hardens quite quickly when it contacts moisture. Because the sites of injections will have a brown spot, they are done at discrete locations such as between the fingers (to build up the back of the hand), from under the hair line to the cheek, or from the mouth to the cheek. If hair is missing from an exposed area it can be replaced from the back of the head. The areas that come under consideration for restoration are the head, neck, and hands. Most other areas are covered by the casket or clothing.
When a part (e.g., an ear) has to be replaced on a body it is easy because the body can be thoroughly dried with formaldehyde so embalming waxes, household silicones, epoxies, and other glues will adhere. Cosmetics are then used to cover the contact points. The cosmetics are softer than normal, because of the cooler body temperatures, but are quite similar to cosmetics purchased in a drug store. In fact, some funeral directors use regular cosmetics because they are non-toxic unlike the restoration cosmetics. The cosmetics can be applied with a regular paint brush. This will allow skin texture to be accurately reproduced by using the end of the brush for stippling.
Restoration and embalming implements displayed at Pine's Funeral Home
New Paltz had one funeral home for many years. It was known as Pine's and was established in the 1890's. Others tried to break into the business over the years without success. The Pine family had owned and operated the funeral home located on Main Street from its inception. Many members of the family were funeral directors and embalmers. For years they operated a fine and traditional business in a convenient location.
At one point Pine's Funeral Home hired Mr. Terrance Copeland to be their funeral director. He was there for so many years, and was so understanding and helpful to those needing funeral service, Terry was highly respected. When one thought of Pine's they thought of Terry.
When Death Education was started in New Paltz High School Terry was on the School Board. Working closely with the author of this text, Terry was instrumental in getting the votes needed to allow the course to proceed even though it was controversial. Terry came to the school to talk to the students about funeral directing. He open the funeral home to all the students so they could see its operation, inspect the Preparation (Embalming) Room, view the caskets, and answer the many questions the students had. He was able to walk all of us through the many facets of a funeral and showed us he was friend with a necessary job.
In the late 1980's the Pine family and Terry Copeland had a falling out and Terry left the business. For a time he was working in the capacity of temporarily relieving funeral directors in the local area when they needed a vacation or help when there was a large funeral. Times were tight. Although it had been unsuccessfully tried before, Terry did the unthinkable and decided to build a new funeral home in New Paltz. He would directly compete with Pine's Funeral Home! In the meantime, Pine's had hired Myles McGrath to be their funeral director.
Copeland's Funeral Home opened, and from the beginning people started using their services. The funeral home is big, modern, and had many rooms for large and small funerals. Most of all, "their" funeral director ran it. Death Education class now had 2 funeral homes and 2 funeral directors to visit and have as speakers!
From Copeland's Funeral Home, Terry and Tim Copeland's visit to the Death Education Class:
Terry Copeland: Death really hurts. I don't know if you have ever experienced a death in your own life, but there are natural feelings that go through a person that will be the whole gamut ranging from insecurity to knowing that part of your past is gone and will never be replaced. There will be things that you wish you had said but didn't. We see funeral directing as a chance to work with a family to serve them fully. We regard every funeral as the most important we ever do because it is that family's funeral. All of the things that we can do to lighten the load of that family during that tragic period of time, by loving them and caring for them is part of what we see funeral directing is all about.
Getting back to funeral directing: Our son Tim is now a fully licensed funeral director in New York State. My wife, Pat, has worked with me since the day we started planning our funeral home. It's a family run and family oriented funeral home. It's very usual for me to be able to work with my child and my spouse every day.
Q. If a person did not want to have a public viewing or embalming could they do it through your funeral home.
Terry: Yes. They could come into the preparation room and view the remains. We would cover most of the body with a sheet so it would be presentable.
Tim: There was a family from California. The brother wanted to see the him. We gave him a brief time, about 45 minutes, to see his bother. That was good because he had not seen his brother in 3 or 4 months. That allowed him to get back in tune with his brother. Since it was to be a cremation it was good that he saw him.
Q. If a person did not want a casket, embalming, or a funeral and wanted to be buried in the local cemetery in just a shroud, could that be done?
Terry: That would be tough. The cemetery would have some say in that. Chances are, what we would end up doing is supplying a simple cardboard box. Chances are, that is the minimum the cemetery would require. In that case, they would have to be buried in the Special Needs section. Cemeteries have their own set of rules. Many in our area insist, with an earth burial that there be an outer concrete box or vault. The vault will keep the grave from collapsing. That is the primary purpose of it. Cemeteries are being sued for million-dollar lawsuits. If you put a wood casket in the ground the earth and chemicals will attack the wood and cause the collapse of the casket. If you are walking through the cemetery and the vibration causes an opening, your leg may go down and it may break. The lawsuit would state that the cemetery created a nuisance. So, Special Need is an exception.
Q. Special Need means you are poor or you (are unknown).
Tim: "Poor" is not a good word for that. I would say they are people that just do not have the funds. There are some people that have nothing. We have come across cases that have had as little as $250. We do the best we can, even under those conditions, and will take care of them.
Q. If I decided to be buried in the New Paltz Cemetery and did not want a vault what would happen?
Tim: You would go to the Special Needs section of the cemetery. The disadvantage to that is that the graves are all in a row, in a back corner of the cemetery, and you do not have a choice. The other disadvantage is, unless you mark it right away you might not find that grave again. You have to request this in order for it to take place. Most cemeteries will require a minimum of a grave-liner with will stop the ground from collapsing. They are afraid of being sued. If it costs you, let's say, $500 to keep them from being sued they are going to do it. The Special Needs section is a very small section of the cemetery.
Q. Once in a while I am in a cemetery I have noticed concrete grave liners stored in the woods behind the main area. Are those given to the people for burial if they cannot afford one?
Terry: Oh, no! It is the cemetery's feeble attempt to compete with the vault company. They sell them to the family for a greater profit that we would do.
Tim: The advantage to using a vault company is that they are in the business of vaults. That's where they are. The quality is there. When you visit the funeral home I will show you a cross-section of a full-size vault. You can see why it is a good product.
Q. When you did your first embalming did it bother you?
Terry: Yes! The first time I was in a preparation room the embalmer was some sort of a comedian and I didn't realize that when you die your arm might be locked into an unusual position until the chemical process is through. The arm came off the table and I had bent over to pick something off the floor. The arm can up and hit me in the butt. I hit the ceiling which was about 18 feet high. It scared the hell out of me!
Tim: The greatest fear of embalming for most of the beginning times is that the person is still alive. That goes for any body - for those that have been in an accident, or an older person - there is a slight chance they could be alive.
Terry: Part of the law states the commissioner signs the death before the death. Before you start the embalming process you must check the carotid area for a pulse. Sometimes you check the femoral area. You have to look for any moisture underneath the nose. You listen for the heart beat. You must be satisfied in your own heart and soul that the person is dead. I have never had any mistakes although it would probably break my heart if I did. Remember, they have been certified dead by others prior to this. If I was fortunate enough to catch life there, I might be responsible in getting the rescue squad and saving the person.
Q. Has it ever happened where a funeral director detected life?
Terry: Several that have been publicized in the papers. One person was removed to the funeral home and just prior to embalming, one women who had been expecting a baby had movement in the abdomen the funeral director detected. He called for medical help. They found she was in a state of suspended animation, or something of that nature. They came and got her and did a cesarean section, and they both lived!
Tim: But, believe me, 99% of the time I can guarantee you death has occurred. Rigor mortis has set in and the body parts will be stiff. The only time you will have rigor mortis is if there is death.
Terry: It is so rare I have heard of things like this happening only 2 or 3 times in 30 years!
Q. If you embalm a pregnant woman does the infant's body get embalmed also?
Tim: The formaldehyde is transferred through the umbilical cord. I have embalmed people from just after birth to the age of 103. No matter what the age, it is a gift I have been given to give to another family or to another person.
Q. Why do you say that?
Tim: A family has entrusted me their loved one, or this body. I have been entrusted with this body to the point they trust me 100%. They leave the funeral home, the door shuts and locks. I am in there and am going to carry that person from the point where they died to the point where they will be buried or cremated. It is an unbelievable responsibility that a lot of people do not understand. There is a lot of caring for the deceased and it is an awesome responsibility.
Q. What do you think of cremation?
Terry: Cremation does not happen that often at our funeral home. When it does happen the majority of our cremations are "traditional." Instead of going to the cemetery, we go to the crematorium. After that we find most of our families will bury the ashes that are left. So, we are not seeing much of a difference.
Q. When the Rescue Squad visited us they were very concerned by Hepatitis B. That particular virus may be more dangerous than the HIV virus. What do you know about that?
Terry: I just went through a training course in blood-borne pathogens. Hepatitis B is very dangerous. For example, if you took a quart of HIV virus and dumped it into a reservoir, the chances are that no one would get AIDS from that. If you took an ounce of Hepatitis B, and put it in the same reservoir, the chances are you would infect hundreds of people. The virus will stay in your system for about 8 months and about 12% of those that contact it will die. It is a slow death. It can be contracted from the air. So, while you are cleaning the buceal, nasal, and eye cavities if you put any pressure on the chest you could have airborne infectious agents.
Tim: It is very virile. It will break down all of the functions of the kidney and liver. It might attach itself to the nervous system which might be worse if it shuts down the heart and lungs. It has similar symptoms to AIDS. The scary part of Hepatitis B is that it stays around. AIDS virus has been known to be wiped out if a body is cooled. (Under cooling) it will almost always be knocked out. The AIDS virus is very fragile. It is kept alive by 98 degrees plus a dark and warm environment.
Q. When you get a cadaver in you funeral home do you know if it is infected with a disease?
Terry: The toe-tag usually says, "Use Universal Precautions!" We treat every body as if they have diseases. The embalmer has gowns, gloves, and there are certain signs that will get us on to the phone with the doctor if need be. We were single gloves on most bodies. We do not touch a body without gloves.
Q. How do you get Hepatitis B?
Terry: Contaminated blood is the biggest source. It is interesting with Hepatitis B: If we do not sterilize our table, which we do after every embalming, and if there is a blood droplet present we could get the disease,
Tim: It's just like AIDS because it is blood to blood contact. Also, you don't want to touch any mucous membranes. Any body fluids can be dangerous. One of my biggest fears is open sores on my hands. If I work out I will wear gloves on my hands. At school we had bodies brought into our morgue in order for us to practice embalming. The bodies would be brought from Albany Med. They were not allowed to bring any contagious cases. One came in and the body was a bronze color. That usually means Hepatitis. It was to the point where I wanted to be more than cautious because this person had gone through a traumatic death. We treated every body the same because you just don't know and that method of operation has carried over into my profession.
Q. How long does it take you to prepare a body?
Terry: I am a perfectionist so it takes me an hour to an hour and one-half.
Q. How many can you embalm in one day?
Terry: I would love to do more than one per day. We have done as many as three of four in one day. Most of the time Tim and I work as a team and it might take one to one and one-half hours. If there is an accident with a lot of restorative work to do it might take longer.
Q. Why did you get into this profession?
Terry: When I was 4 or 4 1/2 years old, I remember my Dad in pain. After he died I walked into that funeral home and saw my Dad in peace in the casket. I think those are my roots beneath why I even thought of funeral directing.
Tim: Obviously I grew up in and around the business. I have been around the business all my life. I never thought seriously about it until I gave it a shot by going to mortuary school. As I got further in the college I realized I had never done better in any other school. I gave it a day-by-day thing. I didn't jump (into it). I just kept saying, "Try it and see what happens." Suddenly you discover you are there for people during their toughest times. I've discovered that as I get further into the business I become happier because I am helping people. Now I am able to work with my family which is even better for the future. I am glad my father never pushed me into the business. It's not the type of business you should be pushed into.
Q. What if I wanted to purchase a casket for my family to use as each one of them died?
Terry: I do not believe in that. We do not have a rental casket. I can supply a casket that would cost less than the rental casket and would look just as nice. If they have no money I will arrange to have a casket there they can be laid out and buried in. I cannot think of a situation where I could not give them something for free rather than selling them a casket for home. Believe me, you cannot keep a casket dry. In a very short time it would be rendered useless. In other words, if there is too much moisture the joints come apart.
Q. But caskets are so expensive!
Terry: It can be expensive but I can sell you a casket for $450.
Tim: I can also sell you a casket for $72,000.
Q. What is the most expensive casket?
Terry: The sky is the limit. The minute I throw out a price you will say, "Oh, my God." There is a casket that is solid bronze, that is sand-molded and it is $25,000. I haven't sold one in 30 years.
Tim: I just saw a wood casket in Marcel's Casket Company. It was going to be sold for $112,000. It was all hand-carved.
Q. What is the most expensive one you have sold?
Terry: Probably one that was about $30,000. Again, it is the family's choice. I do not have that one in stock. But if that is what they want I will call and have it delivered.
Q. Would you be cremated?
Terry: I wouldn't be.
Q. How much does a casket weigh?
Terry: The least weight would be about 125 pounds. That would be 20-gauge steel. The heaviest casket would be either solid bronze or mahogany. They weigh about the same which is about 600 to 700 pounds.
Q. What if someone won't fit into a casket?
Terry: Over-sized caskets are available. We had to use them two or three times. We do the measurements and call Hudson Valley Caskets in Kingston. If I call I will have it the same day.
Q. Are cemeteries environmentally sound?
Tim: Everyone is complaining that caskets are not environmentally sound. Well, cemeteries are the green-belt that nobody sees. It is the open area that has grass and trees that supply oxygen to the environment. Cemeteries are parks also.
Terry: Nature is going to win out but you have to go back to the earlier comments about vaults being required by most cemeteries. The decomposition products will be contained in the vault so it does not get into the ground water and aquifers. The body breakdown is going to go on and nature is going to win eventually. Whether you are embalmed or not you are going to return to dust. It might be 200 years and it might be 100 years. I will give you an example: In St. Mary's Cemetery in Albany, New York there was a forty-year-old casket made of cyprus. They were building part of the SUNY campus and had to move the cemetery. The casket was still intact.
Q. What happens to old and abandoned cemeteries?
Tim: Cemeteries are never abandoned in this state. The local municipality is required to care for any "abandoned" ones. They are sacred and they have to be maintained. One example of this is seen when they made the Ashokan reservoir. Prior to flooding the land for this New York City reservoir they got as many of the caskets from the cemeteries as they could. There were some that they missed. Some of the caskets came to the surface (of the reservoir) and they were recovered and reburied as quickly as possible.
From Pine's Funeral Home, Myles McGrath and Brian Denton visited the Death Education Class:
Q. What are some of the courses you have to take in mortuary school today?
Brian: The courses taken today are: Psychology, Accounting, Restorative Art, Microbiology, Anatomy, Chemistry, Small Business Administration, Ethics, Basic English, and Embalming. I went to McCallister, which is in Manhattan, and we did our clinical embalming in Bellevue Hospital. We rented Bellevue's facility. The bodies we had were the indigents, and the homeless. Those that we embalmed eventually were going to Potter's Field.
Q. When you are in mortuary school do they teach you how to market items such as caskets?
Brian: We had a Funeral Service course that taught you merchandising, how to arrange caskets, how to sit through arrangements with the family, etc. They did not give you the technique for a sales pitch. That is something you develop on your own.
Q. Caskets are the main source of profits and can be expensive. Why don't they have reusable ones?
Myles: We offer a rental casket, which would essentially be a reusable one. It has a removable Velcro liner. If someone wanted to rent a casket instead of purchasing one, as long as they are aware that it has been used before and will be used again, we have no hesitation of renting it. Our whole philosophy at Pine's is to give people choices. If people want to rent or buy a casket we have those options. If a person did not want a casket at all they could obtain some type of alternative container such as a cardboard box or pressed board box.
Q. If you rent a casket can you be buried in a cardboard box?
Myles: Generally, they use the cardboard boxes for cremations. If people want to be buried, the cemetery requires a more permanent casket.
Q. Could you give us an idea why you entered the funeral business?
Brian: I went because it didn't take as long as a four-year college. I am a "people-person." I could not sit in a room all day and put information in a computer. I like interaction with people. I don't like the type of business where you are selling things to people in a store. If I ask you how you are I want to know. That is why I've asked the question. How many times do you pass by your neighbor in the grocery store and say, "Oh, how are you?" and then keep going? If you don't care, then why ask. And, I care. That's why I went into the funeral business.
Myles: My grandmother had 13 brothers and sisters. It seemed like we were at a funeral home every year. I wasn't sheltered from funerals or calling hours as a kid. I had an uncle that died of cancer, and when I saw him in the casket I didn't recognize him because he had wasted away. That had quite an impact on me at that time. I was about nine-years old. I felt at the time funeral directors should take every precaution to prevent that from happening. I also lived two houses down the street from the State Funeral Inspector in Connecticut. As a youngster, I would work around his funeral home washing cars and things like that. Thirdly, the last reason for becoming a funeral director was because I wanted to be in an occupation where I could help people. How can you help a dead person? You really cannot help the dead person, but you can help the survivors. The purpose of the funeral service to help and serve the living by caring for the dead. I take a lot of extra time to try and present a final memory picture. I could earn more money doing something else. Time wise, it is not an easy business on my family. I am essentially on call nights, holidays, and weekends for every day of my life.
Q. If someone were to come to the funeral home and say they did not want to be embalmed, but they did want to be viewed, what reaction would you have?
Myles: The State allows each funeral home to have a policy on that. And, I'll be very blunt here. An unembalmed body, depending upon what it died of and other conditions, can begin to deteriorate very rapidly. It does not always happen, but it is hard to tell when it is going to happen. This can result in some very unpleasant things. There can be a smell. There could be a purge which is where the contents of the stomach begin to come up through the mouth. So we have made a funeral home policy that we will not, for those reasons, put on public display an unembalmed human remains. We do not feel that would be fair to the public. If the family said, "We would like to come in ourselves and see our grandfather unembalmed at the funeral home." we would allow that. It would have to be done very quickly after the death.
Q. My Grandmother was told by a funeral home that my Grandfather, who was to be cremated immediately, had to be embalmed. Is this right?
Myles: Did they have calling hours before the cremation? (Answer: No.) Then it was a direct cremation. I do not know where that happened and really do not want to know. But, if that statement was made it was a false statement.
Q. What is the worst case you have encountered, and how did you handle it?
Brian: I had volunteered before formal schooling to work in a funeral home. A woman who was 32 years-old went to work, went home and changed her clothes, drove to the Thruway and waited for someone else to come along and then ran out in front of their car. The man she ran out in front of was a married man with 2 children. It was the worse for me because I felt very angry because of those 2 children. Suicide is not the answer to anything. In this case, the man must wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. As I looked at her I was extremely angry. I think what would have surprised her was the outcry at her funeral. There were so many cards and letters, so much love displayed, and so many people there for her. If she had made one more call or did something different this might not have happened.
Myles: Probably the worst case for me was an airplane crash. There was a senior pilot that flew buy all rules. There was one morning he decided to break many rules. There was fog in New Haven, Connecticut. The conditions were bad enough to keep pilots from landing. This pilot decided to land anyway and missed the runway. He landed on the beach. The impact was not enough to kill the passengers. Somehow the aviation fuel was ignited as the passengers were attempting to escape. There was an inferno that burned to death the 26 people in the plane. The damage it did to the bodies was unbelievable. It eviscerated some of them - I don't know how detailed you want me to get. The pilot had a fight with his wife that morning and she decided to leave him. He then committed suicide and took those 26 people with him. It was a very gory situation as we took those bodies out of the wreckage. You have probably heard of "Post-Traumatic Syndrome." There are crisis teams that try to help people after they have been involved in traumas such as this. These teams of psychologists worked with the families of the survivors, the employees of the airline, and the rescue workers in order to debrief them. No one comes to the funeral director. We are supposed to be able to handle that on our own. I left the funeral business for a short time after the accident. I didn't realize why it was, but later realized I was suffering from post-traumatic stress. That was one of my toughest cases.
Q. By discussing that case here does it help or hurt you?
Myles: It probably does good. It is not the type of thing I can go home and discuss with my wife and family. I know that you have discussed this and have a much higher tolerance than most of the people in the public. I could not even talk to my friends about it and ended up holding it all in.
Q. Are there many women in the funeral business?
Brian: When I was going to school I found there were many women involved. I would say more than half of our class were women. Of our instructors many were women, licensed funeral directors. There are many women getting funeral licenses in the larger cities.Our class Valedictorian was a woman and her husband owned a funeral home with his grandfather. He wanted to join the rodeo. When they married she went back to school to become a funeral director, and he joined the rodeo.
Q. What if a person did not want a traditional funeral, what does Pine's have to offer?
Myles: There are many options available. Our sole purpose is to be able to let people have a funeral that is suited to their customs, wants, and their desires. We have a direct burial and cremation. If they want to bring their own casket, or make their own casket, we will do whatever the family requests us to do. We do not want to tell them they cannot do this or that. We want them to have options. If they have religious traditions we will honor those. If they want to sit on the floor and burn incense we will accommodate them.
Q. If a person wanted to have their body shrouded and buried in New Paltz Cemetery would you do that?
Myles: I don't think they would want us to do that. We would have to have a minimum of a rigid container. It might be a "morgue box" which is essentially a pressed-board container that costs about $150.
Q. Can anybody watch an embalming?
Myles: We have a policy on that. If it is a family member requests it, then their presence is allowed. If it is a student studying embalming or a nurse or doctor that has a reason we would allow it. We do not allow members of the general public to watch an embalming. The reason for that is if it were someone very close to you, would you want someone in the preparation room just out of local curiosity. The answer is, "Probably not." We want to preserve that trust our clients have in us.
Q. Brian, how much schooling have you had?
Brian: Mortuary school lasted 16 months. At the end of it I graduated in December of 1992. December 23rd was the graduation and on the 28th I took the National Board Examination examination which lasted 6 hours. When my residency is finished I will take the State Boards.
Q. What is your feeling on cremation?
Myles: Having seen cremations, I just would not want to be burned.
Q. Because you are funeral directors, have you ever had any unusual reactions from the general public to your profession?
Brian: I was at a party once where they had chips and dip. I reached for some, and as I was reaching someone introduced me as a funeral director. The man I was introduced to said, "I am not eating those now! I don't know where those hands have been." After that, I take my own plate and chips and don't touch those that are there. That bothered me. The ignorance of that person bothered me.
Myles: I have become so immune to it I put it out of my mind. If I go to a party and everyone is having a good time, and then someone lets people know I am a funeral director everyone kind of moves away. Our society wants to deny the existence of death. But, if we do start to talk about my job they find what I say fascinating.
Pine's Funeral Home was finally sold to a large funeral conglomerate known as Prime Succession, which became part of a larger conglomerate. When a minor problem occurred with the establishment the lease was terminated and Pine's Funeral Home finally closed its doors. The building now (2005) is the home of the New Paltz Chamber of Commerce. The Copeland Funeral Home is still doing a brisk business. However, Terry Copeland died suddenly after collapsing on Main Street. His son Tim is now the funeral director.
President Abraham Lincoln's body was taken by train to various stops prior to entombment. In twelve days it was transported about 1700 miles. This gave the public a chance to see the remains for one last time. Since his body was not embalmed well (possibly because of the gunshot to the head), the blood under the skin of the head began decomposing and turning black (black and blue). Every so often Lincoln's face had to be white-washed to keep him looking somewhat decent.
When the Egyptians embalmed their Pharaohs it took 60 to 90 days. They were a very clean people and were preoccupied with external discharges. They constantly cleaned out their large colons with enemas. As we trocar today, the Egyptians removed the intestines, lungs, heart, and sometimes the brain from the body so the dead would not be unclean. These body parts were treated separately and placed either back in the body or in separate containers. They extracted sodium carbonate ("Natron") from the Nile River. The body was soaked for months in a concentrated brine solution of this salt. The solution extracted water from the body. The skin became like shoe leather. The remains were then wrapped in layers of linen with very hot resin poured between the layers as well as in the body cavities.
In Russia's Red Square lies the body of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Russian Communist party. His body is embalmed and sealed in a glass coffin within the Lenin Mausoleum. He died on January 21, 1924 at the age of 53. Exactly what type of preservative has been used to keep the body in excellent shape is not well known. My guess is, that he was embalmed with arsenic compounds, had all the microorganisms within his body destroyed, and then sealed in this tomb for viewing.
Following the preparation of the body, and assuming there is to be a viewing by the public, it is casketed and wheeled into the Slumber Room. The casket remains open for the entire time during the day(s) for viewing. If flowers are sent to the funeral home they are appropriately arranged by the funeral director.
The usual procedure is for the mourners to arrive during calling hours (typically 2-4 and 7-9), sign their names in the guest book , and pay their respects. When the visitor enters the Slumber Room, they may talk to members the family if they wish, go up to the casket and look at the deceased, possibly say a prayer, look at the flowers and the cards from those who sent them, and then leave. Options are to sit down with the family, talk about memories you have of the deceased, and generally say things that come from the heart. There may be a service for the deceased. It could be held in the funeral home, a house of worship, a mausoleum, a crematorium, or simply one in a cemetery. At the service comments about the meaning of life and death, memories of the deceased, eulogies (eu = "good" and logy = "word"), and other comments to allow one to remember the life and times of the deceased.
In a very few communities drive-in funeral homes have been established. To pay respects you might drive your car to a picture window attached to the funeral home. There you can view the remains and sign the guest register. It's as simple as using the drive-up window in a bank. It is certainly a time-saver for those in a hurry!
The casket may be transported to a house of worship. It would be brought in by the funeral director or pallbearers. At the end of the service the casket will be removed by pallbearers as part of the service, or by the funeral director after the bereaved leave the church. The casket will be transported to the crematorium or cemetery.
If the body has to be transported over a long distance it can go by rail or air. The casket is usually shipped in a thick cardboard or wooden box. The price for rail transportation is about two times the first-class fare. For air shipment it is about two and one-half the first-class fare. In both cases the container is put in the baggage compartment. A funeral director delivers the casket to the airport via hearse, and the receiving funeral director picks it up. The body is prepared and embalmed prior to shipment if that's what the family desires.
Hearses are very expensive. Many funeral homes rent one from a larger concern and then put their removable name plaque in the window. Some funeral homes are using the "family van" type of vehicle to accomplish the same thing. When it is not being used for general funeral home business, and is being used as a hearse, the landau bar can be placed on the rear sides and the name on the door or in the window. Incidentally, the landau bar, which looks like a two-foot long, slanted, and backwards "S", has traditionally been with funeral since the days of the horse-drawn hearse. The horses were taken from the wagon harness and tied to these bars which were on the side of the wagon. That is why they are found on many funeral service vehicles today. Using a traditional hearse does have advantages. It is roomy, elegant, and has rollers along the floor so the casket may be inserted and removed without much effort.
The El Camino is often used for the flower car. To get the flowers from the funeral home to the cemetery so the grave can be covered after the burial is important. Unless it is snowing, transporting them in an open vehicle such as in an El Camino is convenient for the funeral director.
The funeral procession will be organized by the funeral director. It must be known who in the immediate family is going in what car. They have to arrange for one or more limousines if the family requests it. To keep the line-up intact the mourners may put their headlights on in order to announce to the public they are part of the funeral procession. (Some funeral homes supply magnetically mounted flags for the fenders of each car for identification.) Once the procession is underway to the cemetery or crematorium, there are standard laws that govern the right-of-way. Usually the law will be similar to the following: The hearse cannot break any traffic laws. If there is a red light or stop sign the hearse must stop. If the light is green for the hearse the rest of the vehicles in the procession do not have to stop even if the light turns red. Hopefully, this will keep all the vehicles together. Mishaps do happen. One story has the hearse quite far ahead of the trailing vehicles. As the trailing vehicles approach an intersection the hearse has already passed through (and is no longer visible), another hearse goes through the intersection from the left to the right. The procession mistook that hearse for theirs and followed it. The second hearse was part of a circus act and ended up turning into the fairgrounds with the procession following. Clowns jumped out and removed the casket that was to be used in their circus act. Needless to say, those in mourning were somewhat appalled!
I have included a General 2000 Price List from a funeral home in Florida. It includes everything one might wish to purchase for a funeral. The prices are effective as of 2000. If you wish to see this please CLICK HERE.
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