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Confessions: Putting the ‘Fun’ in Funeral

WARNING: This post features photos of actual dead people. (photos from the bowels of the internet) If you are dealing with grief, are soul-searching, or are not mentally in a good place, this post may not be for you. If you feel you may be disturbed by this, please skip this. This is the raw truth. Viewer discretion is advised.

Once upon a time, I was the office manager of a funeral home.

Let me cut to the chase here: It was the best job I’ve ever had.

But alas, insurance woes brought me into several other lines of work, and I have now settled into another job I also enjoy; but admittedly, funeral service has been my most favorite of them all. I found it extremely fulfilling. Not everyone feels this way… It really depends on the individual, where they’re at in life, and several other factors. Quite frankly, you have to have the heart and soul for this line of work. It is not for everyone.

I found my way into the funeral industry one day while I was job searching. I had quit my job at a local grill and I was in my car one rainy afternoon looking around the old fashioned way – just walking in and asking. Lol. I was on my way to a dialysis place when I got a call from a friend. He told me that the local funeral home needed an office manager NOW, because they had a service to get ready for and they needed computer things taken care of. He wanted to know if I could do it. He knew I had a lot of experience with dead folks in my life (preachers kid remember), so he knew I could handle the line of work.

This was St. Patrick’s day 2010.

I drove over immediately and managed to figure out printing some memorial folders (little paper folders that are given out) and saved an old lady’s funeral service that was going to be that evening, and before I knew it, I was hired on the spot and I spent the next several years there.

I typed obituaries, I made memorial stationary (signature books, service bulletins, memorial folders, temporary grave markers), did funeral billing and accounting, advertisements, filed insurance claims, helped arrange flowers, casket bodies, cleaned the building, made sure the funeral home was in compliance with preneed law, maintained all death records, scheduled arrangement conferences, submitted annual reports, and maintained price lists.

In my time working there, I learned a lot about what happens to our bodies after we die. You’d think knowing would have freaked me out, but actually, it made me feel a LOT better. There are a lot of misconceptions about funeral homes, and what actually goes on in them.

I put a post on my facebook asking my friends to list some of the things they want to know about, and I’m going to answer them below. Without further adeiu, let’s put the ‘fun’ in funeral.

Is it true that when people die that their finger nails keep growing?? I’ve heard this all my life but never knew if it was true…

The fingernails DON’T grow after death. It can APPEAR like they are growing, but this is actually due to the skin shrinking around the cuticle. The skin drawing up makes the nails look longer.

Do embalmers have to take cosmetology classes to learn how to style a deceased person’s hair and makeup?

According to my former boss, to become an embalmer in the state of North Carolina, you have to go to school for 2 years for funeral service, then perform a minimum of 4,000 hours under an apprenticeship before taking the state board test for licensure. As part of the schooling, hair and makeup courses are generally given. I will say that a morticians makeup kit is not like regular makeup at all. Regular cosmetics are made to react to the warmth of our skin. Because dead folks, well… no longer have this feature, the cosmetics used on them have more of a wax-like consistency. I’ve used living people makeup & it doesn’t spread or blend well AT ALL on the dead. Some people do okay with it, but I personally found it harder to work with. Morticians makeup also has SUPER high coverage, because its designed to cover bruising from i.v’s, etc.

Hands before embalming, immediatly after embalming, & then with makeup applied to hands.

Are people allowed to try out caskets before purchasing them?? 😬 I don’t want to purchase anything if it doesn’t fit….

Just ask! Lol. It’s an odd request for a funeral home to get, but i’m sure its not the craziest. Lol. I’ve actually been used as a body-double for a casket with rounded corners that was marketed toward elderly ladies… That casket appeared to be much smaller than other models at first, so to be sure, I got in it. Lol. We really weren’t trying to be disrespectful – it was a serious question, and at that time, I was the perfect old-lady size. I’ll go the extra mile & tell you that caskets are extremely uncomfortable. No lumbar support. Lol The ‘mattress’ inside is VERY thin & ‘wirey’ and is only meant to serve one purpose, to hold the body in place and that’s all. The pillows actually aren’t bad though! I think they feel really comfy! Lol

I’ve heard they cut tall people’s feet / legs in order to get them in caskets…

This is not true. Although funny to think about. Lol The answer is actually within the casket. Caskets are sorta sophisticated inside. The ‘mattress’ can be cranked to lean toward the head or toward the feet. To fit a taller person in, you crank the feet side of the mattress downward so it leans down & provides them more room. The fabric around the edges of it is there to hide the spots where the casket crank goes to perform this action. Its hard to explain unless you see it in action.

American Embalmer Richard Burr, embalming a dead soldier during the Civil War. Embalming entered American funeral practices during this time, due to the high volume of soldiers bodies’ needing to be sent home.

If someone had to have an autopsy, does the coroner put the parts back inside the body?

Yes. Sometimes the parts that had to be removed are sent with the body in a separate bag, but we always put them back inside the body and finish sewing the chest back up.

Are little people buried in smaller caskets?

The answer is… it depends. Most little people have a standard shoulder width, which puts them looking much better in a normal casket. Usually its done by the shoulder width. They may look cramped in a youth sized one. BUT, if the condition they have that caused their stature is severe enough, they may have tiny shoulders and actually would look better in a smaller casket… It depends.

Why do funerals cost so much?

The funeral home I worked for was privately owned. ‘Corporate owned’ funeral homes (that’s what I call them anyway) tend to have higher pricing because most of the time, they are not allowed to set the pricing themselves – it is decided for them. You’ll know if a funeral home is under an organization like this if you see the words, “affiliated with, partnered with,” or “by [name] memorials” on their sign… I still to this day encourage people to shop for a funeral. Its just like buying a car. It SHOULDN’T be, but it is. Funeral directors are the only ones licensed in North Carolina to ‘sell’ you a funeral, and part of their job is to help guide families toward decisions that they wont regret later after their grief has started to become more tolerable… I worked $12,000 funerals and I worked $3,000 ones… A good funeral director wont play on a familys grief in order to make a buck. They will instead help them make informed decisions that arent from grief or from too often, guilt, but from practicality. Because the funeral home I worked for was privately owned, the pricing was much lower because they can control it at will. Funeral costs are determined by the following (basically this is everything a funeral home has to pay for)…

Embalming chemicals… the carcinogenic risk the embalmer takes while performing this duty. (Formaldehyde is a strong cancer causing agent) … the cost for the biohazard removal service (blood stained clothing, underwear, etc)… Staff hourly pay – staff are used for the body removal, church services, graveside equipment setup (tent, chairs, carpet), office staff, cremation pickup, drivers, etc… Gas for all funeral cars (flower van, limo, hearse, body removal van – all of which have low gas mileage)… Gravedigger/ Vault Company fees… Obituary costs are determined by each newspaper, and usually cost per line… Funeral stationary & card stock… License fees. This can be from staff funeral service licenses, to business licenses, allllll the way to music licenses (in order to play or record licensed music at services)…. Caskets… Vaults… The answering service (People no longer have to live inside funeral homes like they used to. Now we hire answering services so staff can sleep in their own homes at night. They are trained to take ‘death call’ information and to call the scheduled person at night to remove a body)… Power bill… Water bill… Property taxes… Crematory fees (our funeral home didn’t have a crematory, so we had to transport them to a nearby one and pay them)… Clothing for people who are unclaimed… and aftercare services (grief counselling, etc). There’s A LOT that goes on behind the scenes. With every funeral a service provides, they themselves are writing out A LOT of checks to other sources in order to get things rolling.

Do dead bodies keep moving after death?

I never saw one move, but I did hear someone “breathe” (they didnt breathe really – it was just gas buildup being released from the mouth) I’ve heard of some doing this, but I think most is itban legend. They do appear to move during a cremation, due to skin tightening, expanding, etc…

Is it true they cut the clothes to put them on so everyone has “hospital” style backs? 😆

Yes.

Normal dressing is nearly impossible once a body has stiffened, and awkward as CRAP. I’d say that 99% of funeral homes cut the top garment straight up the back and then tie it around the back of the neck. I think its safer this way just because, too often, families would bring in something that wouldn’t fit the person anymore. This way, it can be made more presentable regardless.

How long can a body last once its embalmed?

Instead of getting into the nitty-gritty of this, I’m going to post some stuff below. WARNING – Viewer Discretion Is Advised. These are things you don’t see every day.

The condition of an embalmed body years down the road can vary GREATLY and depends on many factors… embalming chemicals used, cause of death (drug overdoses are more difficult to embalm due to condition of veins, also certain cancers, etc), soil temperature, soil type, weather, flooding, vault, depth, etc. In MY opinion, most bodies I think would still be somewhat recognizable after 30 years… That, to me, is comforting.

The following photos were taken of exhumations that were performed due to suspicion surrounding their deaths…

This woman had been dead and buried for 17 years when this photo was taken.
After 28 years buried

But then there are some pictures of people that are rotten skeletons after 5 years… (those photos I won’t post) There are just too many factors at play.

I heard mouths are stapled shut. Is this true?

Sorta. They are actually WIRED shut usually. This is done by using a device that forces a tiny wire through the gum line. (Ouch) Its done on both top & bottom gum line, & then you can twist the wires together (like a bread tie), and this forces the jaw shut and keeps it in place. This is referred to as “setting the features.” It can be done through the nose too, but I’ve personally never seen that done. Eyes remain closed due to having eye caps insterted. Eye caps look like hard plastic contacts with tiny ‘grips’ on them. They are designed to go over they eyes in order to maintain their form under the eyelid (so they don’t look sunken), and to grip the eyelids together.

A set of eye caps

Do crematoriums smell weird when the people are burning? Do you get the whole body or a small sampling of your loved one? Lol

I went to a crematory one time. I didn’t notice a smell. The crematoriums get so hot I don’t think there’s anything to really cause a smell. It may depend on the machine? I’m not sure really… & you get the WHOLE body back. 🙂 Whats known as ‘ashes’ is actually not ashes at all. Its bone. Literally. Powdered bone. If someone had bolts in their legs, you’re even supposed to get those back too! The only thing you may NOT get back is a pacemaker. These have to be removed if the person had one because if not, it can blow up & mess up the crematory. Lol. Some places may even give that back too if they feel like…

What if you’re a john doe and no one picks you up… do you get donated to goodwill in an urn?

In the instance of an unclaimed body, this can vary I think state to state…. (In North Carolina, see sections General Statue 130A-415, sections J & K. Its lengthy. Lol) As far as the Goodwill thing goes, you wont get put there ON PURPOSE hopefully. You’d be surprised what I’ve found there. I’ve seen MANY empty urns there (most people have no idea), and actually one with cremains inside before. It had been sealed pretty well and maybe the staff just thought it wouldn’t open and was a doorstop? ‘Cremains’ are bagged and tagged with a cremation I.D. #, and the name of the crematory, so should this happen anywhere, the person can be named & traced. I alerted the cashier to this & she was horrified. I’m not sure how the heavy urn got through their screening process and onto the shelf for sale, but it was most likely on accident. When someone dies, people get overwhelmed when they go through their belongings and sometimes they blindly get rid of everything… even their great grandma LOL. After a body is burned in a crematory, the skeleton and raked out of the machine and the bones are then placed into a washing machine looking contraption called a ‘cremulator’. The staff insert heavy balls that crush up the bone into powder when the machine is turned on. (There are newer methods to do this I tihnk now, but this was the method I became familiar with) That’s how they become powdered. My boss told me once that for whatever reason, most of the time, a persons cremains come out to be within just a few ounces of their birth weight. Trippy right?

Could I be taxidermied after death?

Technically? Yes.

Legally? No.

Taxidermy is a preservation process that includes removing the skin and placing it onto a lifelike form; whereas human embalming is a process that leaves the whole body intact and pumped full of chemicals… lol. Though there IS a dude that actually was taxidermied (is this even a word? Lol), and i’ll leave the link here: So disrespectful and insane

What is a ‘green’ burial?

Green burial is a term used to describe funeral practices that are environmentally friendly… A green burial, for example, could be having no embalming (not required in first 24 hours after death, or if not being viewed), no metal casket / concrete vault at all, etc… No embalming = no chemicals in the ground… Anyone can have a green burial, but it needs to be discussed with the funeral home. There are biodegradable caskets too – made out of whicker, cardboard, etc… As for cremation, there are even cool little biodegradable urns that look like seashells that can carry your ashes out to sea. Lol (Warning. This video has a cheesy rating of an 8)

Were you ever scared of being around dead people?

No.

I’m way more afraid of living people, and I don’t mean that as a cliche’ either.

I grew up constantly viewing bodies in funeral homes. I grew up watching people die. Dead people were always my homies. Lol. I was never afraid of them. My religious beliefs dictate that I view a dead body as nothing but an empty vessel, and everyone know that is true if you’ve ever touched one. You KNOW just by the touch that they are no longer in there. It’s strange. I did have an experience once when the power went off while I was putting something up in the embalming room, and I had to feel my way to the door and it was admittedly, rather unsettling. That’s when the grudge images set in. LOL I was more afraid of the darkness than the dead folks in the room. (weird I know)

A funeral song you’re tired of?

Go Rest Hugh on that Mountain.

It got so old.

But, hey – whatever helps people, I’m into it.

A funeral song that is popular where I live is this one (I filmed part of it at a church meeting in 2014 here), but I actually love it and don’t get tired of it at all:

Did you ever see any funeral home drama go down? Lol

Oh yes. Lol. Mostly with families, but there was some staff drama at times too. I can’t disclose any of it, but you have all the same drama you’d have at any other job, especially working with the public… We had irate people too. Family drama going down right in front of the body… all kinds of mess. Death brings out a lot in people you wouldn’t normally see. Funeral homes are somewhat competitive with each other also. They all keep tabs on each other and know how many families the competition has served, especially in smaller cities where the county death toll isn’t as high annually. Every funeral home should strive to be the best in their area.

What’s the saddest thing you’ve seen?

One of our staff members on the table.

That’s the only one I’ll mention.

I heard you embalmed your own grandfather. Is this true?

I did not embalm him.

I can’t, because I am not licensed, and I do not know the in’s and out’s of this process, just basics. There’s a lot more to it than just cutting an artery and pumping the arterial fluid in… You need some extensive knowledge of anatomy. I DID do some of his makeup, dress him, and put him in his casket. (This is done with a special crane-looking device. I forgot it’s name lol) The most liberating thing in the whole world for me, was seeing my grandpa in real underwear. This may sound weird at first (lol), but let me explain: He was in diapers for a very long time before he died. Like, years. My boss had put him in boxers so I wouldn’t have to do that. (Funeral directors are supposed to be very respectful and cover a person’s private areas with towels when they can, same thing with women’s chests also) I took off work to spend the morning at the funeral home. I felt I owed that to my Papaw. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I’ll never forget it. I talked to him for a long time. It was special, and not creepy at all. I’ll tell you this though: If I were licensed to embalm, I would have done that for him too. I know of embalmers that have embalmed their own children. It’s a sacred act for most people – they want to take care of their own. Some can’t though, and I totally get it.

Is cremation or burial better?

Cremation is cheaper, but truthfully, I find them both to be equally gruesome. Lol Both can be equally friendly to the environment (just don’t be embalmed if you’re buried). and YES – you can be embalmed AND then cremated (like if you want your family to view you for a few days before). I believe religiously in the resurrection of the physical body; so most people where I live go with burial because of this… BUT, if that’s the only reason, then I personally think that’s dumb because if Jesus Christ can raise himself from the dead, he can surely reassemble all your parts together, wherever they are, even if they are now bone dust. Cemeteries are made so stones are facing the east so when Jesus returns, bodies will rise facing him. That’s really unnecessary though in my opinion. It’s more symbolic than anything, and I get that. 🙂

A photo of a green burial.

Stages of decomposition?

I like this to-the-point description from aftermath.com…

Human decomposition begins around four minutes after a person dies and follows four stages: autolysis, bloat, active decay, and skeletonization. Keep in mind, this process is what happens as long as the body remains undisturbed. Embalming and/or being sealed in a coffin can delay the decay process for years or even decades. 

  • 24-72 hours after death — the internal organs decompose.
  • 3-5 days after death — the body starts to bloat and blood-containing foam leaks from the mouth and nose.
  • 8-10 days after death — the body turns from green to red as the blood decomposes and the organs in the abdomen accumulate gas.
  • Several weeks after death — nails and teeth fall out. 
  • 1 month after death — the body starts to liquify.
  • To read more (no photos) – please visit: https://www.aftermath.com/content/human-decomposition/

What do they do if someone is in a really bad state of decomposition, or looks horrible due to their cause of death?

It depends.

Let’s say someone died from a gunshot wound to the head. The damage is either really bad (a blowout), or completely fixable (clean entry/exit). If the shot area is a clean entry/exit, that area can be filled with a special clay and covered with makeup so the family can have an open casket. Bruising can also be covered. (Funeral makeup is Jeffree Starr approved for it’s coverage) If it’s completely horrid, we advise the family have a closed casket, due to the injuries possibly causing very harmful distress. If there IS no head or face left, and the family is adamant about viewing (no judgement here), a head can be molded to ‘represent’ the decedent. It’s not going to look like Michaelangelo, but it can be a representation.

There are times that a body was found a very long time later, and the state of decomposition is too far gone. For this, a closed casket or cremation has been recommended. For a casket, the body is placed in a bag to conseal smell and/or fluids; however, the body is still treated with utmost dignity and respect.

Multiple questions from this person… Do people that died with communicable diseases continue to be contagious after death? If so, what do they do to keep diseases contained? How long do parasites survive after host dies? Do they use the same makeup kits on all deceased? Do bereaved loved ones get to decide how to present deceased? Like how much lipstick or if they want mascara, etc…

Any disease that is transferred via body fluids can remain potentially contagious. Funeral personnel have to be knowledgable about bloodborne pathogens, especially the Embalmer. I was always told to treat EVERY cadaver (aka a dead body) as if it had a communicable disease. Due to HIPPA laws surrounding medical records, it could not be disclosed to us if the person had AIDS, for example, when we remove the body from a hospital… so we always had to be careful. Direct contact with body fluids can be risky if you have a cut on your hand for example… Body fluids can be ANY body fluid, including poop. Its not just blood we worked with. Funeral folks also work with sharp objects like needles (there’s more but I wont go there), so blood contact can be very dangerous. Funeral professionals have to go through annual training in order to meet OSHA standards. Without knowing how to prevent it, you could always contract hepatitis B, C, HIV, tuberculosis, cholera, etc. The only way to contain this was to prevent yourself from contracting it from the body in the first place… The public should be safe from contracting anything as long as they don’t go messing with the body. Lol. There ARE instances when a persons skin has been removed by an organ donor company or something and in those cases, in order to protect the public, sometimes plastic clothing is used to keep nosey people safe. Lol Now as far as the parasite question goes… Since a parasite requires the host to be living in order to mooch off of it and continue its reproductive cycles, I suppose they eventually die. For the last question, I personally think personalization is very important for family closure. A lot of families gave us requests for glasses on/off, brought us their lipstick, etc… We never did full-glam or anything (LOL), unless requested. I did eyeshadow for some women a time or two, when we noticed they were into the Amy Winehouse look like I am. Lol

If I know someone is dead, should I call the funeral home straight away? I don’t see a point in calling 911. Lol

No you fool! LOL

You better call 911 and cover your butt!

Just because someone looks dead, or even feels dead, doesn’t mean that they are! People used to be buried alive because of this mess! Lol You have to be PRONOUNCED dead by a medical professional. That means heart, lungs, and brain gotta all be dead.

In other countries, stuff like this can happen… https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2017/12/04/two-doctors-fired-after-dead-baby-wakes-up-way-funeral/919346001/

Don’t worry – in the U.S., its almost impossible to be buried alive nowadays… By the time you are going to be cremated, you will have shown discoloration and be in full rigor-mortis (stiffening of joints and muscles) before you go in. If you are embalmed, your carotid artery in your neck will be severed and you will be dead before this happens… If you do green burial, before you actually die, you can request your carotid artery be cut regardless. (I don’t know if this is standard practice or not)

… … … … …

To close, I will leave you with this LOVELY video of young woman in funeral service in Kentucky. She is somewhat flamboyant, and into ouija boards for some reason (lol), but when I worked in that funeral home office, I felt EXACTLY the way she feels. She has a lot of good and interesting things to say. Its a short one, but worth the watch, because it conveys what I’ve been trying to say: Its a fulfilling place to be.

One thing is for sure.

We all gonna die.

Some people don’t like to know these things. But for some, like me, it gives more comfort about it someday knowing what will be happening… It makes the unknown a little less scary.

I am very death positive. This has become a popular term among the ‘death community’. It is a term used to describe a more positive attitude toward being around death, talking about it, planning ahead, etc. I encourage everyone to have this attitude, because there is nothing we can do to avoid it in the end. These conversations are important.

BONUS VIDEO

” 1988. My dad yells at me and Ed for dancing in the funeral home again”