I spend my time with dead bodies, cleaning them and preparing them for funerals. It’s delicate work. Go ahead, ask me anything.
Jenn Park-Mustacchio is a licensed funeral director and embalmer who works in New Jersey, USA. She studied anthropology and human biology at the University of Pennsylvania, and has been in the funeral industry for 14 years. She answered reader submitted questions on theguardian.com.
Typically, my day begins when someone dies. Since I’m a trade embalmer, I don’t handle the first call or transport of a deceased person (although I’ve previously done both). My boss calls me, and I arrive at the funeral home shortly after the deceased has been taken into our care to begin the embalming process. I suit up in personal protective equipment (a gown, apron, shoe covers, gloves etc) and evaluate the person to decide how I will proceed. Every case is different and requires a special combination of fluids (which are mixed according to the height, weight and physical conditions of the deceased). I mix the fluids accordingly and begin to set the features.
Setting the features involves closing the eyes and mouth and placing cotton in the mouth to give the person a more natural expression. Next, I gently flex the arms, legs and fingers to relieve the muscle tension or stiffness of rigor mortis. I position the hands one over the other, wash the body, cover the genitals (to preserve modesty) and prepare the tools I will need to embalm.
Typically, we use a scalpel to make a small incision near the right collarbone. From there, we search for the common carotid artery and internal jugular vein. A small incision is made in each. Arterial tubes are placed in the artery (one is directed towards the heart, while the other is directed towards the head). A drain tube, or angled forceps, is also placed in the vein to facilitate drainage of blood. The hose, connected to the embalming machine, is then connected to the arterial tube directed towards the heart. The embalming machine is then adjusted to regulate pressure (the force of the fluid) and rate of flow (speed of the fluid). These knobs are adjusted differently during embalming for each case to create the optimum rate of injection for the body. The machine is switched on and the fluid begins to move through the hose, through the arterial tube and into the body. As the embalming fluid is pushed through the arterial system, the blood is forced out through the jugular vein.
The body is vigorously massaged with a soapy sponge to help facilitate drainage and distribution of embalming fluid. The tissue will begin to firm and take on a rosy appearance, which is an excellent indication of adequate distribution and a successful embalming. The tubes are then removed, the vein and artery tied off and the incision is sutured. Next, the cavity is treated. Fluid is suctioned from the hollow organs with an instrument called a trocar, then a high-index (very strong) fluid is placed into the cavity and the incision is closed with a small circular plastic button like device referred to as a trocar button. The deceased is again washed. Their hair is combed and cream is placed on their face to prevent skin dehydration. The deceased is then covered and will remain in the preparation room until they are dressed, cosmetized and ready to be placed into a casket for viewing.
Typically the viewing takes place a few days after death. So I will clean up the prep room and leave until it’s time for the next embalming or until its time to dress and casket someone who’s been previously embalmed.
*The above is a description of a “typical” embalming. If a person dies tragically (murder, suicide, automobile accident) the embalming process is drastically different.
Tell us about something surprising, or unexpected, that happened to you while working:
I’ve had several interesting things happen on the job, but one particular moment comes to mind. I went in for a 3am embalming and heard a strange whisper. I quickly fumbled for the lights and, upon turning them on, figured out that the noise was coming from the occupied stretcher. I approached with caution expecting the person inside could be alive. However, upon unzipping the cover, I found a tape recorder (that I later found out was playing a Buddhist chant). The next day the family explained that, ideally, a monk would be at the place of death to chant when the soul exits the body. Chanting calms the soul, which the buddhists believe, is in a state of confusion and fright after exiting the body. The soul of the deceased must be put at ease with food and chant throughout the difficult time of transition. This particular experience was both enlightening and frightening!
What makes for a really good day at work?
My job is fulfilling when a particularly difficult case comes out better than expected. If a family decides to keep a casket open, when they previously thought they wouldn’t be able to, or when someone compliments my work. The best compliment I got was from a woman whose daughter died of bone cancer. She took my hand and said, “Thank you, she’s so beautiful, she looks like she could get up and dance.”
What is your salary? Do you get benefits?
The median annual income for funeral directors in the US is over $52,000 (with the annual salary in New Jersey averaging above $79,000). Regulations vary state by state, but here in New Jersey we are embalmers/funeral directors and are licensed to handle all aspects of the funeral (from first call to final disposition). In other states they have separate licenses for funeral directors and embalmers.
Even though I am licensed to perform all aspects of the business, I work as an embalmer because I enjoy that particular aspect of the business and found that it allows me to spend a significant amount of time with my family. Trade embalmers, like myself, are paid by the job. Usually we work for more than one location and will embalm, dress, casket, cosmetize and do restorative work. Trade embalmers have the potential to make significantly more than the average funeral director depending on how many locations they work for and how busy those locations are. However, we do not receive health benefits because we are not full-time employees.
Have you ever made a mistake at work?
I’m fortunate enough to say that I have not made any major mistakes. When I was an intern, I was super careful and very aware that any mistake I made could potentially affect the grieving process of the deceased friends and loved ones, so I always consulted with senior funeral directors if I was unsure of what to do or how to proceed with difficult cases.
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