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December 10, 2008

bookofjoe Careers: Embalmer


This new feature will feature interesting paths that may not at first glance — or even on subsequent glances — seem appealing but that, if allowed to, will grow on you if you're suited for such.

Today's inaugural choice highlights Alan Feuer's October 14, 2008 New York Times article.

    In the End, There Is a Drain

    The deceased — in life he was a doorman — was lying on a gurney in the basement. He was naked, as wrinkled as a rhino, and face up on a sheet.

    Around him in the clammy room were the tools of his embalmer: the trocar that had emptied out his stomach, the scalpel that had dug into his jugular, the Duotronic pump machine that had given him that vinegary odor from the fluid it had put into his veins.

    He had come to rest at last: here, at the inevitable endpoint, in a small embalming room in Harlem. A necessary place, no doubt, but one whose actuality, whose actual existence the human brain will often keep at bay.

    “No one wants to hear about embalming,” said the room’s owner, Isaiah Owens, proprietor of the Owens Funeral Home on Lenox Avenue and 121st Street.

    It is Mr. Owens’s belief that people talk only about the pretty things in death — the speeches or the flowers at the funeral — and that to merely say the word “embalming” is uncomfortable because “what it means is that the person’s really dead.”

    His embalming room is certainly uncomfortable: a starkly lighted chamber with a tangy iron odor, a silence one can feel, and the subterranean dankness of a crypt. A metal shower head hangs from the ceiling to wash away the occasional toxic spill. Two white marble tables, themselves as stiff as corpses, occupy the center of the floor.

    As Mr. Owens likes to say, the most important purchases in life are for your death — and embalming is critical among them. A “straight case,” as he calls it (on a body that was relatively healthy), will cost your survivors in the neighborhood of $400. Those involving hospitals (or medical examiners) will cost them slightly more.

    An ancient art, embalming was invented by the Incans and the Egyptians, both of whom, for reasons related to climate, favored making mummies of their dead. Europe came late to the game and had sporadic practice even through the middle 1600s. It is said that the Chinese of the Han Dynasty were experts in the art and that their bodies are perhaps the best preserved.

    Today’s embalmers spend two years in mortuary school, where they learn to draw the blood (from any of the body’s six main arteries) and to empty the stomach. As a general rule, 30 minutes is required to fill a corpse with arterial firming fluid, which also adds color to the body. Mr. Owens, a purist, often opts for Index 32 lithol from the Embalmers’ Supply Company.

    As the process was a mystery, he graciously explained it: First, he said, you scrub the skin, clean the nails, shampoo the hair and massage the limbs to break up rigor mortis. Then you sew the mouth shut and carefully pose the features, as a body will go stiff.

    Afterward, you begin to drain the blood and fill the veins with fluid. You remove all food and feces from the stomach and intestines. You aspirate the body with an air pump. It gives the cavities that healthy, rounded look.

    At the very end, he said, you wash the corpse again — and this time, check for holes.

    “It’s strange,” Mr. Owens mused the other day, “but no one knows how this is done. Everyone should know. It happens to everyone, all around us, every day.”

    By then he had returned to his office, where his secretary and accountant worked beside a coffin. It was open. Inside was a corpse.


Think this might be your calling?

Well then, you're in luck.

The Times kindly provided an interactive feature along with Feuer's story.

December 10, 2008 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Hey, if I study up and practice real hard (with my Learn-at-Home Internet Embalming Course, of course), can I be "Official bookofjoe Embalmer"?

Posted by: Flautist | Dec 11, 2008 10:03:17 AM

Come to think of it I knew another preacher/pastor who also worked in a funeral home (directly with the dead I believe) and he was a perfectly normal, nice, good person. So not all pastors and not all embalmers are nutcases, haha!

Posted by: Lilorfnannie | Dec 11, 2008 9:32:21 AM

I knew someone once, he worked in a funeral home. He did not go to school for it I believe, but said he got started in it as a teenager when a (distant?) relative died. The funeral director was short-handed and asked if he wanted to earn some money, and one thing led to another and now he is in his early to mid-20's and it is his career. He embalms them and everything. His other career is a preacher/pastor. However he was conservative to the point of near cult-ness. Now I know conservative and 90% of people would call me "conservative" (whatever that really means) but this guy was way over the line. I broke off contact with him when he told me I was full of the devil and he commanded me in the Name of Jesus in an email never to speak to him again. Well actually I wrote back to laugh at him but then that was it :-) He was an utter loon.

Posted by: Lilorfnannie | Dec 11, 2008 9:07:29 AM

There are a few drawbacks: SCA, Orthodox Jews, accident and murder victims who are not found for months after their death, military deaths without enough body parts to embalm....

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Dec 11, 2008 9:06:10 AM

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