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I suppose what my brother in law does for a living gives a lot of people the creeps
January 8, 2007 8:47 AM   Subscribe

"He shaves Lady X in swift, efficient strokes, and there is something gentle about this, something almost ancient. Like the ritualistic washing of a body in some cultures. It looks tender, at least until Joe uses a small hose to aim a stream of water down Lady X’s face to remove the cream — that somehow reminds me of the rinse cycle in a carwash."
posted by maudlin (55 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
“I like to clip the nose hairs,” Joe says while doing so. “It’s the little things that make a good embalming.”

I'm looking forward to my cremation.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:50 AM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


See also The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by writer, poet, and undertaker Thomas Lynch.
posted by peeedro at 8:59 AM on January 8, 2007


For most deaths I usually try and clean a little. Sometimes we take the linens the body was lying on and dispose of them for a family.
And for that, we thank you. My dad died of a sudden, catastrophic aortic dissection, which results in gallons of blood being spilled. Thankfully, mercifully, it was cleaned up before my mom got home from the hospital.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:00 AM on January 8, 2007


This is a fantastic post. When she mentioned at the end that some bodies are laid to rest wearing only the top portion of their clothes, I got all indignant and thought "I definitely don't want to be buried with no pants!" What a bizarre thought.
posted by spicynuts at 9:14 AM on January 8, 2007


I was gonna go fix something to eat but, um, it can wait.
posted by chillmost at 9:20 AM on January 8, 2007


That was awesome.
posted by jmhodges at 9:22 AM on January 8, 2007


That was really fascinating.
posted by amro at 9:27 AM on January 8, 2007


"Somewhat desensitized by too many Bruckenheimer CSI franchises..."

Indeed, it sounds like the author has watched far too much TV altogether.

I am easily fed up with people who exoticise death because their only exposure to it has been thoroughly mediated. This writer does his friend and his friend's profession a disservice by filtering the whole experience through a mixture of bug-eyed comic horror and clinical irony. Also, the writer seems to be impressed by her (I'm guessing it's a her, based on the Burt's Bees) own fortitude in braving this ordeal in order to regale us with this lurid account from BEYOND THE GRAVE, which rubs me the wrong way.

If there's anything I've learned from growing up as a writer, it's that one's better writing often flourishes in spite of, not as a product of, one's over-active imagination
posted by hermitosis at 9:30 AM on January 8, 2007


This writer does his friend and his friend's profession a disservice by filtering the whole experience through a mixture of bug-eyed comic horror and clinical irony.

I'm looking forward to reading ColdChef's take on it.
posted by amro at 9:33 AM on January 8, 2007


i've known a few funeral directors, and they've all had great senses of humor like the guy in this article. i've always wondered if you need it going in, or if you develop it as a way to stay sane after you've been doing it for a while.
posted by sonofslim at 9:44 AM on January 8, 2007


Remarkably... not at all eponysterical. Thanks for the post.

This would have been impossible before Six Feet Under. She wouldn't have read it, nor would we have read it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:53 AM on January 8, 2007


I was also thinking "Wow, cremation sounds so much better" and then I remembered this. I mean, I'm no 600 pound guy, but still. Gross.
posted by mckenney at 9:54 AM on January 8, 2007


Nice article, thanks.

I considered pursuing that line of work, but possibly because of the notorious insularity of the industry (The family business aspect, smaller operators getting gobbled up by big companies) I got the brush off whenever I contacted businesses asking if they could point me in the right direction or even provide basic information about training and careers.

Maybe they just thought I was a necrophiliac on the make.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:55 AM on January 8, 2007


hermitosis nails it. Writer, get over thyself. If it's a good story you're telling, don't get in its way.

The most memorable character in Last Orders, which won the Booker Prize in the mid-1990s, was a dignified undertaker. If you're into this sort of thing.
posted by ibmcginty at 10:05 AM on January 8, 2007


I used to like watching Six Feet Under but was always puzzled why North-Americans actually get embalmed. Coming from Europe that tradition seemed totally weird to me. We generally burry or cremate our dead in closed caskets, and only the close relatives sometimes take a look at the unretouches body.
Inspired by this post I googled for it. The answer is basically a financial one [it's a very old article but a nice read and things probably only got worse in the last 40 years.]. Undertakers make a lot of money on caskets and if the casket can be left open because the deceased doesn't look dead, they can talk their mourning clients into upgrading to a nicer, more luxurious, and definitely more expensive casket. Plus the embalming and the restoration of the body also rakes in a couple of hundreds (maybe even thousands?) of dollars.

I want to be cremated in a shroud. And then my partner will mail my ashes around the world to my friends, who can do with them however they please.
posted by kika at 10:15 AM on January 8, 2007


hermitosis nails it.

No he doesn't. It was a fun read. Not everything has to be sober-sided expertise.
posted by languagehat at 10:19 AM on January 8, 2007


Terrific find, kika, thanks for linking to that Jessica Mitford article.

And then my partner will mail my ashes around the world to my friends, who can do with them however they please.

Well... to each culture its own, on this matter, I guess.

LH-- wow, you are just caricaturing it up all over MeFi today. The article is entertaining and worth reading, but the author's interjections are distracting. She is too taken with her own cuteness.

Also, everything has to be sober-sided expertise.
posted by ibmcginty at 10:29 AM on January 8, 2007


I also look forward to cremation.

Imagine all those people moving on to the afterlife, unpantsed.
posted by surplus at 10:30 AM on January 8, 2007


Nice find, maud!
posted by Dizzy at 10:30 AM on January 8, 2007


I suppose it's my own fault for reading this while eating lunch.

*turns green*
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:36 AM on January 8, 2007


I thought it was a good read, though it did seem like a high-school newspaper article (a very good one).

I am easily fed up with people who exoticise death because their only exposure to it has been thoroughly mediated.

I don't think that's what she's doing at all. The job seemed routinely grotesque; hardly exotic. And (IMO) the whole point of it was an examination of unmediated *funeral* preparations, not death itself. Actual death is much tougher to write about.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:43 AM on January 8, 2007


In the article McKenney linked:

"...the funeral director said they'll notify the family to assure them their loved one wasn't harmed.”

I believe they were referring to the 600 pound man. Did they seriously call a family up and say, "Your 600 pound dad was being cremated and his fat ran all over and almost burnt out place down, but don't worry nothing happened to him."

I'm a tad confused by that.
posted by Phantomx at 10:45 AM on January 8, 2007


Thanks for posting this. I perform autopsies as part of my job (pathologist) and the most technically challenging portions of the autopsy are avoiding making the mortician's job more difficult.

One major faux pas to avoid is making additional holes in the skin while opening the deceased. We call this 'button-holeing' the patient. This is somtimes difficult to avoid when you ram a scalpel up under the skin of the neck and into oral cavity so you can remove the tongue and larynx. It also happens a lot when you are peeling forward the scalp to remove the cranium to get at the brain.

But the thing that really pisses off the morticians (I've had them call and yell at me for it too!) is when you inadvertently slice through the carotid arteries trying to free up the neck structures that have to come out (trachea/esophagus). I guess they have a lot of trouble embalming after that.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 11:02 AM on January 8, 2007


"...Suddenly I’m standing next to five dead bodies.

Five. Dead. Bodies."

"Their eyes are closed and their skin looks waxy and I cannot help thinking of horror movies and zombies and creaking limbs that move even after life is long gone."

This is the kind of stuff I'm talking about. And whether or not her actual experience was unmediated, her account of it is packed with so much affectation that she basically demonstrates her inability to cope with such an experience or articulate it without leaning on every stereotype (or cute stereotype reversal) that she's ever seen or read.

And it's not like I'm averse to levity. Her brother-in-law actually sounds like an interesting and amusing fellow, and a better account of his work would be welcome. Unfortunately this essay sets us up to find out about the in-law and the process of embalming, and ends up being mainly about the writer, s'all I'm saying.
posted by hermitosis at 11:16 AM on January 8, 2007


I maintain a website for the godparents of my kids, a family with a funeral home in a small town. All five of their kids have worked since grade school at various activities including those in the story.

I do their work for trade. They get my code now and the parents have agreed not to have sex with my body later. I remind the kids: No clown make-up.
posted by hal9k at 11:23 AM on January 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


If you're able to stomach it, this Flickr set from the (now sadly MIA) underbunny shows some of the minutia of undertaking we normally don't get to see.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 11:25 AM on January 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


I have enoyed both Lynch's books and Mitford's The American Way of Death. Interestingly, Lynch really dislikes Mitford, and has written at least a couple polemics essays rebutting her work.
posted by everichon at 11:27 AM on January 8, 2007


"He shaves Lady X in swift, efficient strokes, and there is something gentle about this, something almost ancient. Like the ritualistic washing of a body in some cultures. It looks tender, at least until Joe uses a small hose to aim a stream of water down Lady X’s face to remove the cream — that somehow reminds me of the rinse cycle in a carwash."

OK, I didn't RTFL first, because I figured the Bulwer-Lytton Erotica awards were out again.

But really, this was an excellent blog post, not a magazine article. I'm sure an editor could have fixed some of the more glaring problems. But what are we, a writing workshop?

It was interesting, and more real reporting than most bloggers do in a year (I speak from experience). Good find.
posted by dhartung at 11:27 AM on January 8, 2007


My dad was an undertaker for many years. I always found the gentle sense of humour developed by him and his colleagues impressive. They saw some horrible things but the only time anything really got to them was when kids died. A lot of people started working and left - some people just can't deal with it. But it's something you develop once you get used to death and realise it's a normal thing and it's OK to not be sombre all the time, as long as you're still respectful to the memory of the deceased.

My dad is/was certainly quite critical of embalming - it's not that popular here in the UK, but I believe his viewpoint is that a lot of it is about cash and is generally not needed. I don't know how true that is.

The thing about the sweetness of the smell I completely get - I could always smell it on his clothes after he got back from work. Ever cooked chicken and put the leftovers in the fridge? Smells like that.

I think I may have just put a few people off chicken. Sorry about that.
posted by terrynutkins at 11:39 AM on January 8, 2007


And whether or not her actual experience was unmediated, her account of it is packed with so much affectation that she basically demonstrates her inability to cope with such an experience or articulate it without leaning on every stereotype (or cute stereotype reversal) that she's ever seen or read.


I skimmed the bloggers bio and nowhere can I find any claims to aspirations of being a 'writer'. This a BLOG POST. On a personal blog. Since when are we expecting blogs to be anything more than a person relating an experience? If this blog is suppposed to be a representation of works of a professional or aspiring professional writer then I agree, but it is not and doesn't claim to be. As a narrative about an experience very few people get to see from the inside, it more than succeeds. It's not the next winner of the Booker Prize, obviously, but noone claimed it was intended to be.
posted by spicynuts at 11:46 AM on January 8, 2007


I relent, for a blog post and not an article it is pretty good.

I suppose we are less a writing workshop than a highfaluitn market-research focus group. I say it needs more Ingredient X!
posted by hermitosis at 11:49 AM on January 8, 2007


A few years ago I read a book about death - stiff by Mary Roach- an entirely fascinating look at what happens to our bodies after we die. Embalming, research, etc. - the book runs the gamut. This essay reminded me a bit of the book, but the humor in Roach's novel was better (more the general absurdity of death and what follows, much much less of the "holy cow a DEAD BODY OMG" bit).

Worth a read if you're intrigued by this sort of thing.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:53 AM on January 8, 2007


(Though let the record show that it was primarily her attitude and opinions I found objectionable, which are fair game.)
posted by hermitosis at 11:54 AM on January 8, 2007


I understand the reservations some people have about this blog entry. The variations in tone can be awkward, and she does use some online affectations such as single.word.sentences. In its current state, this blog entry is not a professional piece.

Yet I thought she hit the right balance in several places, including the paragraph I excerpted, and overall, I thought it was a vivid, unusual blog entry and well worth bringing here. But it doesn't bother me if anyone disagrees.

(And yes, live frogs, I was reminded of Mary Roach's book. This writer isn't Roach, but few people are.)
posted by maudlin at 11:59 AM on January 8, 2007


I thought it was a vivid, unusual blog entry and well worth bringing here.

Agreed.
posted by spicynuts at 12:38 PM on January 8, 2007


Well worth the read, but I could have done with a little more respect on the writer's part.
posted by puddinghead at 12:49 PM on January 8, 2007


I've noticed in the black communities of Philadelphia that I work in that funeral directors tend to be a little flossy. By style of dress and vehicle choice they are generally indistinguishable from preacher men and pimps.
posted by The Straightener at 1:05 PM on January 8, 2007


Stiff by Mary Roach is excellent.

Though I have to admit I liked it primarily for the gruesomely creepy bits.
posted by Artw at 1:08 PM on January 8, 2007


I thought it was a great read, and I had empathy with her reactions. They helped connect me to the moment. So, fnord.
posted by cavalier at 1:28 PM on January 8, 2007


Fantastic and fascinating post, maudlin. Thanks for sharing it.

As for the "OMG DEAD BODIES", I've seen only one dead person in my life and I'm sure that my reaction would have been similar. I might have even written that reaction into a blog post.

I've also wondered about a mortuary career, but I think I'd rather stay in the front office, thankyouverymuch.

*waits impatiently for ColdChef to show up*
posted by deborah at 1:46 PM on January 8, 2007


Very interesting read, not at all morbid, yet not completely clinically detached; I found it a quite entertaining piece.
Only one small complaint:
I ask if they need to leave those blocks there forever, and Joe tells me no, the bodies become stiff and hold their position. He demonstrates by removing one of the blocks behind the head of a dead man in a nearby gurney: the head moves only slightly, somewhat gummily on the stem of his neck.
Rigor mortis is, as far as I know, fully attained about 14-16 hours after death, but it doesn't last forever; the muscles start deteriorating really fast, so after 24 hours most of it is already gone and the body becomes floppy again. Sorry, but this is a pet peeve of mine, it has always bugged me when for instance on tv shows corpses are found, stiff as a board (and completely clean, if a bit pale) after several weeks...
posted by PontifexPrimus at 2:07 PM on January 8, 2007


I saw a TV doc on mortuary school a number of years back. Seemed to me that about half the class were goths. Funeral folks look as conservative as possible though, so they face the future dilemma: trade their black scare wear in for Leave it to Beaver tie and trim, but get to hang with the corpses all day long. Sorry kids, can't have both.
posted by dgaicun at 2:11 PM on January 8, 2007


I am very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very squeamish.

Also horribly curious. (Bad combination).

So I was glad for the cutesy authorial asides starting off the piece - I appreciated the initial hand holding effect.

Very glad I finished it. What a great blog post and it has softened my view of embalming as a snake oil business - previously informed only by the superbly critical Mitford book - and the excellent update she did years later for, I think, Vanity Fair mag.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 2:14 PM on January 8, 2007


This is very interesting. It was only a few weeks ago that I, along with some family members had to go and dress the body of my mother as the embalmers didn't know how to wrap a sari. There was nothing OMG DEAD BODY! about it. It didn't even feel like there was a dead person in the room, just a dummy, almost.

I was surprised at the gentle way the embalmer looked after my mum, the way she ensured no limbs flopped over the table as we were moving her around and how she even stroked her forehead at one point (not at creepy as it sounds).

We got to dress my mum in her favourite sari and some beautiful imitation gold jewellry and it was just fitting to send her off into the Eternal the way she had been in life. Some people have mentioned the pointlessness of having the body emblamed but the viewing (which family members could attend) helped bring a lot of closure for many of my relatives.

In theory none of it is necessary. No service, no coffin, no burial. It is just a vessel after all, if that. But we're human and we have our little human quirks and the money we spent on her funeral, I believe was well spent. It was a tribute and a celebration of her life, if nothing else.
posted by liquorice at 2:37 PM on January 8, 2007


Anybody want a hot mortician calendar?
posted by miss lynnster at 2:45 PM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


For some reason this made me think of my hometown. Across the street from where I attended junior high school was a generic Mexican restaraunt.

A few years later, that restaraunt had turned into a funeral home, and happened to be where my grandmother's funeral was held.

I couldn't help but think "I've eaten tacos in this room."
posted by mrbill at 2:53 PM on January 8, 2007


Life is funny mrbill. What a poignant recollection.

You’ve got to love a guy who once sent out a picture of himself in mortuary school holding up a corpse’s hand in the thumb’s up position, with the text “I PUT THE FUN IN FUNERAL” underneath.

maudlin, Marvelous find. I loved Linda's vivid and engrossing writing. Don't think I could have hacked reading about embalming if it hadn't been warmly human, silliness and all. Queasy-making but fascinating reading. And not as gut roiling as i_am_a_Jedi's comment. I wish I had more of a pathologist's or doctor's stomach when it comes to blood and guts but I don't, at all.

I've only seen two embalmed people and I resented their artificial look. It disturbed me. But I found cold comfort in seeing their corpses, the emotional closure of it, the finality, even when the finality had a temporary taxidermy twist to it.

Having seen the ashes of a couple of people who'd been cremated, it seemed too ephemeral and I thought I'd like to be buried, no embalming. I've enjoyed sitting in or going to graveyards, keeping company with and contemplating the dead and hoped that somebody some day would like to sit beside my grave.

It's interesting how people deal with corpses, like the Tibetan Sky Burial in which the corpse is offered to the birds or the marvelous coffins of Ghana (imagine being buried in a cell phone, Coca Cola bottle or a turkey).

Anyway, thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 3:33 PM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Mmm. Death. My favorite subject.

Great post, thanks!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:47 PM on January 8, 2007


When my father died last year, we debated about having an open-coffin viewing. Unfortunately, my brother cried over him, which left a big gray spot on his forehead where his makeup used to be. We chose to close the casket.

I'm going to be cremated.
posted by kamikazegopher at 7:19 PM on January 8, 2007


I find it strange that no one has mentioned the traditional Jewish funeral.....

No autopsy, unless required for a criminal investigation
No enbalming
ABSOLUTELY no cremation

Further, washing and dressing the body for burial is not done by the funeral home staff, but by a funeral committee from the synagogue. From the beginning, the body will not be left alone. Someone from the synagogue will stay with the body right up to the point of burial. The casket is a plain pine box. Interment is generally within 24 - 36 hours of the time of death, as soon as the family from out of town can get there.

Quite different from what Linda has described, though I found her account fascinating. Her blog got 84 comments, of which 84 were positive, something I've never seen on a blog with a large number of comments. Great job, Linda!
posted by PlanoTX at 7:59 PM on January 8, 2007


This was great, thanks. Well done. :)
posted by blacklite at 8:35 PM on January 8, 2007


Feed me to the bears, I say.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:19 PM on January 8, 2007


I see I am about 6 posts too late to recommend Roach's Stiff, which this post reminded me strongly of. Ah well.
posted by internet!Hannah at 9:41 PM on January 8, 2007


Damn, I saw this and thought they were talking about this Lady X.
posted by Poagao at 1:34 AM on January 9, 2007


I find it strange that no one has mentioned the traditional Jewish funeral.....

My mum's requested a Jewish funeral specifically so that no-one argues over what to do when she dies, as it's so clear what needs to be done then.

I wound up having a very corpsey Christmas -- I bought Stiff for my mum and read it first, I was in Vancouver so had a look at Bodyworlds (really interesting), some friends bought me a copy of Anatomy for Beginners for Christmas, and last but not least I stayed with my cousin in Vancouver who is a pathologist.

It was very interesting talking shop with her because although I've known her all my life I've recently become a registered nurse so we were able to talk shop -- learnt funny things like how autopsies always make her hungry because they're so labour intensive!
posted by Silentgoldfish at 5:40 AM on January 9, 2007


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