The True Value of Embalming
Article by Jeff Seiple, Georgia Campus–Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Recently, I attended the funeral of my grandmother in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. This funeral was not unique nor out of the ordinary by any means; it was very simple and, in fact, some people might say it was just another 2:00 o’clock funeral. We did not have many people attend the visitation nor the funeral. Many of her “cronies” were either institutionalized or had passed on—as we all like to say!
Moreover, grandma, as my wife and I called her, had languished in a nursing home in Marietta, Georgia, for three years. During that time, she lost weight , battled heart problems, and finally succumbed at the age of 86. However, during those years prior to death, we would drop in to visit her on a frequent basis and listen to her tales of the past. She definitely possessed a great long-term memory!
At the time of her death, my family contacted an embalmer/ funeral director friend of mine to have her embalmed and shipped from Atlanta to Beaver Falls. My family and I chose to have her laid out at the firm I started with—Campbell’s Funeral Home in Beaver Falls, PA. Campbell’s is a fiercely competitive, independent funeral home in that area of Pennsylvania. In fact, their ability to deliver service is second to none. There credo was and still is: Campbell’s, “The People Who Care More!” Certainly every facet of their business model is centered around those words. Literally, everything from their outdoor advertising campaign to what color the candy is in the candy dishes is closely and strategically planned for the purpose of creating brand awareness.
With that in mind, we arrived at Campbell’s for the family viewing. As we prepared to view my grandmother, my family and I celebrated her passing by reflecting upon positive sentimental moments from her life’s history. During this time, everyone acknowledged, out loud, how tranquil and peaceful she appeared to be. As it came my time to view grandma, I naturally inspected her overall appearance. As an embalmer, I was pleasantly pleased with how her features were set. Her lips, in particular, were set by a true artist. The quality of the embalming, along with the appropriate amount of applied cosmetics and liquid tissue builder, was impeccably accomplished. It was as if the embalmer adhered to what I have said for years which is: “Sometimes less means more!”
In addition to the initial preparation, grandma was perfectly positioned within her casket. She appeared as if she were taking a peaceful nap. The memory picture could not have been more pleasant. As I further examined grandma’s overall repose, I realized the quality and pride that the embalmer exhibited in his effort to please our family.
If you ask my family, today, what aspect of grandma’s funeral impressed them the most, they would respond by saying, “Grandma’s presentation!” Obviously, this implies the fantastic embalming, cosmetic, and positioning jobs that were achieved. I guarantee that my family does not remember the brand name of the selected casket, the interior color, or whether it was an 18 gauge sealer or so on! However, they understand exceptional embalming. They probably understand this more than the average person because of their connection to me and my commitment to practicing and teaching in the area of embalming itself. However, they are also consumers and believe in obtaining value for the dollars spent. What about the families that you serve?
There is a shared belief that all embalmers are taught in mortuary college from day one which is: “The casket is merely the frame around the picture.” In embalming, what truly lies within a casket is really a masterpiece painting. Each “picture” or embalming is painted by a unique Picasso, Rembrandt, or other artist. Without a doubt, the embalmer who embalmed grandma understood this concept and applied it to his craft. I have always thought that great embalming justifies our very existence! In other words, it presents us with a framework to accentuate and market all merchandise along with the ability to offer a tailored service toward the desires of that individual family. In short, it gives meaning to what we do!
In today’s busy world, it seems as though the assault on the traditional way of conducting a funeral has become more mainstream. People are in a rush to bury, cremate, and/or to memorialize their loved ones in the shortest period of time. In some cases, they have forgone the embalming and viewing experience in order to achieve disposition by dinner time. Is it possible that discounters, casket stores, event planners, and concierge services, just to name a few, have entered the death care field in various markets throughout the country in order to pacify and pony-up to these people? Moreover, have they chosen to take a different path or road in order to make a sale at the expense of truly servicing and advising their following? The question still begs to be asked: “can they deliver good embalming results?”
Even though we have had to adjust to many changes, we professionals have always maintained a unique edge over all of the “wanna-be’s.” We are licensed as embalmers and can deliver the most important function within our businesses to the consumer—good embalming!! Have we forgotten just how positively this one aspect of our service impacts families and our funeral homes?
The true value associated with good embalming lies in its ability to provide a family with a meaningful presentation and experience in grieving. It further provides the survivors with the confrontation of death and acknowledgement that a meaningful and purposeful life has been lived. Psychologically, we know this becomes one of the first important steps for the survivors when we consider the road to grief recovery.
Are embalming and the presentation of a body overvalued? I do not think so. Moreover, I feel the process of good embalming, along with the correct presentation of the body, is possibly undervalued. Oh yeah, my family and I felt that we received value for what we spent on Grandma’s funeral. You cannot place a price on quality embalming and presentation. If anything, good embalming and the process of visitation and viewing are priceless!
There is an old saying that goes something like: “Stay with the one who brought you to the dance.” In other words, perhaps our true calling, skill, and ability to outshine all others now and in the future remains in the embalming arena itself. Let us continue to dance! It is our ability to enhance value in this one particular area that separates us from all of the others in our field. As funeral directors, we understand that families come first and that good embalming and presentation are critical to our success! Perhaps we have chosen to take a different path, as compared to others in deathcare, because we truly exude a “Spirit to Serve!”
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost
About the author:
Jeff Seiple serves as the Anatomical Coordinator for the Georgia Campus of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Suwanee, Georgia where he manages their body donation program. Jeff is a licensed Funeral Director and Embalmer in Georgia and Florida.
Prior to this, Jeff taught embalming at Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in Atlanta for a number of years. He has a B.A. in Business and Economics from Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania. He holds an M.B.A. in Business from Brenau University located in Gainesville, Georgia.
Over the years, Jeff has been a featured speaker for various associations such as: the Georgia Funeral Directors Association, the Georgia Funeral Service Practitioners Association and the Independent Funeral Directors of Florida. He has been a regular co-presenter for the annual Georgia Academy of Embalmer’s Clinic for many years. Last, he is a contributing author to the booklet: Alpha to Omega in the Preparation Room.
He can be reached at: email@example.com