5 Horrifying Truths About Funeral Homes (From an Undertaker)
We are the architects of some of your worst memories: a dimly lit funeral home, adorned with flowers, and usually a now-deceased elderly relative or family friend on display for everyone to gawk at. For the last seven years, my job has been to recreate that same scene hundreds if not thousands of times.
My work as a mortician and funeral director has exposed me to a part of life that is always in the back of our minds, but that we perpetually shut out. And yes, it gets ugly ...
Embalming Is More Gruesome Than You Think
First of all, we really do try to be as gentle and respectful with the bodies as possible. But ultimately, the process of getting a body ready for viewing is something most normal people would call "nightmarish."
"Whatcha got in there? Blood? Yeeeeeeah, that's gonna have to go."
The first step to embalming someone is to check the paperwork, to make sure the person we have on the table is in fact the person we're supposed to embalm -- it is surprisingly common for the hospital or nursing home to give us the wrong body. After that, we disinfect the body and begin a process called setting the features, where we pose and manipulate the person's face to give them that "just sleeping" appearance. Since your eyes have a tendency to recess into your head postmortem, we put in little plastic cups called eye caps to avoid that sunken look. The caps also have little plastic ridges that dig into your eyelids to keep them from popping open during the viewing. While that would be considered hilarious in, say, an Adam Sandler movie, it's really the kind of thing we try to avoid.
Next, we take a device called a needle injector and shoot a needle and wire into your gums. We thread the needle around your upper and lower jaw (and sometimes up through your septum) to keep your mouth closed and centered. We also take this opportunity to pack your nose, rectum, and vagina (where applicable) with cotton to prevent "leakage" into the casket.
You'd be amazed at how watertight your body isn't.
The next step is arterial embalming. We take two cannulas and insert them into a major artery and vein -- usually your common carotid and internal jugular -- and then drain your blood, replacing it with a cocktail of embalming fluids and water called formalin. We massage the body to relieve rigor mortis and push the formalin into the tissues, which can sometimes push blood clots into other areas of the body, and can cause erections in men. Sometimes, the pressure relieves itself naturally after a few hours. Other times, we have to duct tape the optimistic gentleman's woody to his leg so that it isn't a distraction during the viewing.
Once that is done, we aspirate your abdominal cavity. After you die, blood pools in your organs, and arterial embalming removes only a fraction of your body's blood. We also do this to remove various other bodily fluids, as well as any urine or feces that wasn't expelled when you died (which totally happens). To do this, we use a vacuum-like device called an aspirator that has an enormous 20-inch needle topped with one of these tips that totally aren't based off medieval torture devices:
"Dammit, where is the big tip!"
We insert the needle above your navel and then sweep it through your gut ("fanning") to suck everything out. During one of the first embalmings I ever did, I wasn't paying attention, and the aspirator got backed up. I had forgotten to put on the mask you're supposed to wear, so when I pulled out the clogged aspirator, it sprayed poop everywhere, including in my mouth.
Yes, welcome to my world.
We Can Repair Almost Anything
The majority of people who come into our home have at least one open-casket viewing, even for those who choose cremation. This can present a problem because of the staggering number of very violent ways you can die. We had a homicide victim who had been stabbed over a dozen times and then set on fire. We've had a depressing number of people with self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head and chest. I've even dealt with a decapitation. And, with very few exceptions, they've all had open caskets.
And even a couple of marionette funerals! Or they could have been, if anyone ever picked that option. But very few ever do.
Restoration is as much an art form as it is a science, and with a good mortician, there's very little that can't be fixed. We have a wide range of tools at our disposal, depending on what needs to be done. Some of the stuff is pretty basic, like covering bruises and cuts with wax and cosmetics. If the person had heavy injuries to their head, we can rebuild large portions of their skull using a special type of putty, wax, or plaster of Paris. We can reattach severed limbs using special materials to rebuild the damaged bone and muscle.
So for instance, to fix a decapitation, you use a wooden dowel to rejoin the head and body, then suture the neck back together. With a little wax and cosmetics, they can even wear a normal shirt or dress. And in cases where we can't fully repair everything, sometimes simple tricks like tilting their head a certain way, putting a hat on them, or just dimming the lights is enough to conceal the problem. Remember, the body just has to lay there; you don't need your fixes to hold up for a wide range of Weekend at Bernie's shenanigans.
"Grandma looks so natural. I don't remember her ever owning a Native American headdress, though."
One of the most difficult clients I ever had was a guy who had been run over by a forklift and dragged several yards. He was torn in half below his midsection, with multiple puncture wounds and mangled legs, on top of abrasions and injuries to his face. We had to embalm the sections of him separately using a technique called sectional injection and let him sit overnight until everything was firm and dry. The next morning, my co-worker and I spent half a day piecing this gentleman back together, stitch by stitch. I sutured his abdomen back together, sewing around his genitalia and buttocks, while my co-worker held his legs up so I could get a good look.
When we were done, he was able to have an open casket. And that's why we go through all of this. It matters to people to be able to see their loved one a final time, as they remembered them. There is a reason humans have been doing this for thousands of years. Even if it is just for the family, those 10 minutes matter.
Or, if you're Egyptian, those 10,000 years matter.
But keep in mind, the ugliness doesn't start with the body preparation ...
Removing Bodies from Homes Is Just the Worst
When you die, your family decides what funeral home they want to use, and then we get a call to come pick up the body. Doing a removal at the hospital or a nursing home is generally pretty easy. You show up, make sure all the paperwork is in order, and collect your passenger. Doing a removal at a private residence, however, can be a ... well, a nightmare.
With the exception of patients on hospice, people who die at home usually die suddenly or unexpectedly, so the family is already experiencing a higher-than-normal level of grief, and then I show up to take their loved one away. I am not always a welcomed house guest, which is understandable because, let's face it, I'm basically the Grim Reaper to them.
"Sorry for your loss."
"Oh yeah, then why does funeral home start with f-u-n?"
We are always respectful of the families and give them time to say their goodbyes, but at the same time, we have a schedule to keep and need to get the body back to the funeral home as soon as possible. It becomes a very delicate balancing act between giving the family their space and getting your job done in a timely manner.
Even getting everything ready for the removal can be very upsetting to the family. We always plan out our escape route and rearrange furniture so that we don't trip over a wayward coffee table. Unfortunately, family members tend to want to keep everything in the person's room as they left it, and I'm in there touching their stuff and moving it around, already reminding them that their loved one is no longer around to complain. This is one of the reasons that we usually ask that the family wait in another room or outside until we're done.
"Make sure you leave Grandpa's marbles on the floor, next to his banana peel collection. He would have wanted them that way."
Another reason is that ... bodies get dropped. It just happens. Again, funny when Rob Schneider does it in a movie, not so funny when the family is standing around wailing in grief.
I once went on a removal for a very large woman who had died in the second story of her house. Because our stretcher doesn't do narrow stairs very well, we decided to carry her down to the first floor. I was designated as part of the three-person team to carry her down, while the other two FDs waited with the stretcher below. I was backing slowly down the stairs, holding the woman's feet, when one of the two guys carrying her upper body stumbled and caused them both to drop her. She immediately began sliding down the stairs, and when I wasn't able to stop her by myself, I abandoned ship and began running down the stairs with this poor woman tobogganing after me like I was Indiana Jones.
An apt comparison, because I, too, hate snakes.
One of the guys at the top of the stairs slid down after her and was able to nudge her far enough that she turned diagonally and got stuck between the two walls. After taking a minute to catch our breath, we picked her back up, put her on the stretcher, and took her outside to her waiting family.
So, yeah, not the sort of thing you want spectators around to witness. Speaking of which ...
Grief Makes Families Insane
The death of a loved one is unique in that it's pretty much the only life event that allows you to disregard every rule that society has established for polite interaction with other human beings. We deal with this on a daily basis and try to acquiesce to the family's wishes, no matter how irrational or offensive it might be. You just don't argue with someone in that situation.
"I SAID I WANTED THE BACON SLIGHTLY CRISPY! THIS IS MODERATELY CRIPSY! YOUR COOKING KILLED MY MOTHER!"
So, we've changed directors in charge of arrangements because of some imagined insult to the family, and I've been pulled off funerals because some fundamentalist religions forbid women from performing mortuary duties. But sometimes I'm simply not able to do what they ask, whether it's because it violates their budget, the law, or the fundamental nature of reality. This can present a problem with a heavily grieving individual or family, who cannot understand why I can't fulfill a simple request, especially because their loved one just died!
For example, before viewings, we generally have the family choose the outfit for the decedent. Families like to choose something that was meaningful or special to the person, like a family who brought in a slinky red dress that their mother had been very fond of when she was younger. Unfortunately, the dress was a size 4, and the woman in question was, conservatively, a size 14. I very politely explained that there was no way for her to fit into that dress and asked that they choose something else, but the family insisted. I explained that even if we cut the dress, which we sometimes do if we need to fudge a few sizes, the laws dictating the conservation of volume would prevent their mother from fitting into it. They remained adamant, so we did the best we could to shoehorn this poor woman into it.
"If you think about it, you have to see how this is actually Archimedes' fault."
Sure enough, during the first viewing, the family was horrified, and they tried to blame me. Thankfully, one of the more level-headed family members pointed out that we had strongly advised against it and calmed them down enough to send someone for a new outfit that we switched between viewings.
And then you have to worry about mediating within the family itself. You would think that the death of a loved one is a time to put aside petty differences, but, since the second stage of grief is anger, many people see this as the perfect opportunity to dig up the hatchet. Disputes can range from deciding whether to have a burial or a cremation to arguing if Uncle Ned's or Aunt Edna's flowers should be closer to the casket. We try to encourage compromise as much as possible, but legally, the executor of the will has the final say on funeral arrangements. So by siding with them, we become the bad guy.
"Well, it's mostly because your mother has the legal authority over the funeral, but also, your ideas are just really bad."
Sometimes people just don't like each other, so we have to have segregated viewings and make the different factions take turns, which ultimately gives everyone less time to pay their respects. We've had plenty of fights break out, and we just let them duke it out or call the cops -- we're not allowed to interfere (a director once got cold-cocked trying to break up two brawling women). Really, this is a good life question to ask yourself: "Will people be knife fighting at my funeral?" If the answer is yes, maybe now is the time to sit everyone down and clear the air.
It's Still a Business
Not terribly long ago, running a funeral home was a very shady business. In 1963, Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, a book that exposed a lot of illicit practices, such as misleading families on prices or insisting that things like embalming were required by law, even if the person was being cremated (it isn't, and now we're required to tell you that). It was bad enough that, in 1984, the FTC passed a series of laws collectively called Funeral Rule that heavily regulated the industry and made everything much more transparent.
Still, there are ways to make money without outright lying.
For example, selling caskets with extended warranties. No, really.
By law, we are required to have a selection of inexpensive caskets prominently displayed in our showroom, but even so, we might have more expensive options under better lighting, or position the label in a way that emphasizes the visual of the casket and draws your eye away from the price tag. We also use basic human behavior to our advantage. Cracked has mentioned before that most humans turn right upon entering a store, and that holds true in the funeral home as well. When you enter our showroom, you'll automatically turn to the right -- and be looking directly at our more expensive caskets.
"This casket is made of 24-carat gold and is stuffed with California condor feathers. We call it the 'Ehhhh, So-So' model."
Keepsakes are another big moneymaker -- thumbies, jewelry for cremated remains, candles, stationery, engraved photo frames ... whatever your heart desires, all prominently on display. Homes will bundle these things into a package and give it a nice, inconspicuous headline. On our price sheet, the best and most expensive package is labeled "Traditional Funeral." It also plays to a consumer's expectation that package deals have an inherent discount, but if they actually look at the itemized price sheet, everything costs the same as it would a la carte.
Something else less-scrupulous funeral directors can take advantage of is the unspoken fear that people have of "icky" parts of death. There's a very popular perception that embalming preserves the body forever, which people take comfort in, because nobody wants to imagine their loved one decaying in the ground. In truth, embalming fights off decomposition for a few weeks at the most; it is meant purely to preserve the body through the viewings. Nevertheless, funeral homes still offer things like expensive leak-proof or hermetically sealed caskets. Legally, they can't tell you it will prevent decomposition, but the implied understanding is more than enough to get the message across.
"Please, enjoy this Tales From the Crypt DVD while I see if we have any non-sealed caskets left."
But no, it's not all one big scam. At heart, this business is still about giving people the send-off they would have wanted, and that provides the most comfort to the family. One of the things I love about my job is being able to create a special, personalized experience for each person, even if it's just little stuff.
One of my favorite funerals was for a guy who had been very into Renaissance fair-type events, so a bunch of his friends and family showed up wearing medieval clothes and spoke to everyone in old English. Another client wanted to be buried in his car, so we had the viewing out in the parking lot. In a funeral home in Pittsburgh, a lifelong Steelers fan had a viewing where he was positioned into his favorite recliner with a cigarette and beer, wearing his jersey, while a TV played Steelers highlights.
Friends and family were free to shout his favorite curses at the TV.
Not that it's all about elaborate customized ceremonies for people with tens of thousands of dollars to throw around. Sometimes it's just little touches that don't cost anything. One time, we held a funeral for a young boy and, understandably, the family was taking it very hard. The family mentioned that the boy had been a big fan of Wegmans, so on the way to cemetery, one of my co-workers bought a bunch of balloons from Wegmans and brought them to the family, who released them at the end of the ceremony. That's all -- just a tiny gesture, but the family was touched by it. And it's such a fulfilling experience to be able to bring that kind of relief to people who need it most on a daily basis.
So if you're still wondering what could make someone want to work with dead people day in and day out, that's why.
The one-on-none conversations are a perk, too.
Related Reading: Your doctor has a lot of things he'd just love to say to you, but can't. That's why we let a doctor write all that stuff in a Cracked article. And if you've ever wondered what life is like inside Scientology's secret space navy, we've got that too. We also spoke with a refugee from a Christian fundamentalist cult. And if you've got a story to share, hit us up here.