I Don’t Smile When I Embalm Bodies

February 10, 2013
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Article from: Caleb Wilde, CalebWilde.com

Earlier this week a contentious discussion brewed on my Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook page.  And I’d like to address the topic in my blog’s forum.

The discussion was kick-started when I posted this status:

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The second comment on the above status was from a fellow embalmer named Allison, who said this:

Allison’s initial comment eventual prompted this comment from a former embalmer named Kristie.

First off, let me say it’s possible for an embalmer to be both 100% for tissue/organ donation and not enjoy the process of preparing a donor.  It’s possible for us to be both professionals and human.  I’m one such funeral director.  I am firmly and unequivocally a supporter of those who choose to find life in a tragic death, and yet when a donor body comes through the morgue door, it’s not Christmas morning.

I know that the best donors are usually young and they usually die from tragic (not necessarily violent) circumstances that leave their body in decent condition to be harvested.

I have immense respect for families who — in the midst of incredible tragedy and darkness — find a way to overcome their pain and chose life by allowing for the harvesting of a body they love so dearly.  This act of donation is one of the few genuinely unselfish acts to be found in humanity.

Yet, while I recognize the intense moral beauty and life saving value of organ donation, I’m less than excited to embalm and prepare a donor’s bodies.

Each funeral home and funeral director is different.  Some funeral homes are large enough to have shift work; still others are large enough to employ full-time embalmers, who basically embalm body after body all day.  Some funeral homes have secretaries, prearrangement directors, at-need directors, full-time pick-up people, etc., etc.  But for many of us small firms, we play role of embalmer, secretary, pick-up/livery person, funeral director, at-need director and pre-need director.  We’re on call 24/7 and rarely have an uninterrupted holiday.

Our personal lives are not just blurred with our professional lives, they become one and the same, often resulting in sad endings.  Divorce.  Depression.  Burnout.

Our pay doesn’t always justify what this profession takes from us.  According to the BLS, the average embalmer makes $45,060, which isn’t bad until you consider that the salary often comes at the expense of our souls.  I’ve worked 20 hour days.  I’ve worked 100 hour weeks.  Most months I get two days off.  This month, my weekend off happens to be this weekend and with the snow coming, I may have to work the plow on one of my “days off.”  And when I am home, it’s hard to get comfortable as I’m one phone call away from going back to work.

I was up until 12 midnight writing this post and then at 3:30 AM I was called into work.  I won’t be finished work until roughly 5:30 PM.

Here’s a picture of me at the nursing home at 4:40 this morning.  The smile is real … the nurses were making fun of me for taking the photo.

And although this isn’t about me and the burdens I carry, I will say that my experience isn’t exceptional.  The at-need demand, emotional and long hours take their toll on us as people.

So, when the heart is donated and I have to raise six arteries instead of one, I don’t smile.

When there’s bone donation, I don’t look forward to moving the Styrofoam rods around to make the appendages look natural.

When skin is grafted, I don’t smile when I’m cleaning the seepage off the floor.

When I get various liquids on myself because of the intrinsic messy nature of donor bodies, my face doesn’t crack a grin.

Unless I’m listening to stand-up comedy on the morgue’s radio, I don’t embalm bodies with a smile.

I appreciate Kristie’s assertion that she has never thought about complaining when preparing a body.  And I appreciate that she always sees it as an honor.  I will be the first to admit that Kristie is probably a better person and funeral director than I am.  Maybe her suggestion to Allison (that Allison should find another profession) applies to me as well.

But, I, in contrast to Kristie, think it does us funeral directors well to be honest.  Maybe not in a public forum like I’m doing now, but we need to recognize that we’re both professionals and human.  We love to serve you, but there’s times when we too need to be helped.  We need to fight that perception that to be a professional means being an unfeeling robot.  We need to ask for help, sometimes we need to seek counselling.  If you’re a funeral director and you don’t embalm donor bodies with a smile, it’s okay.

Caleb Wilde

I'm a sixth generation funeral director. I have a grad degree in Missional Theology. And I like to read and write. Connect with my writing and book plans by "liking" me on facebook. And keep tabs with my blog via subscription or twitter.
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