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In The Morgue

My mother met a very nice funeral director (I'll refer to her as Miss W) that was willing to let me contact her. We spoke on Saturday, and she invited me to her funeral home to watch an embalming the very next day.

I should not have expected so much of myself, I guess. My thought was that I'd go in and nothing would bother me- really! So I was very disappointed with myself when I went into the back room to change into scrubs and was greeted with the sight of two dead bodies on a metal table. It just... surprised me was all. And then my apprehension at the dead body that needed dressing. I stayed close and watched, but it was rather difficult to do at first.

(9:34:06 PM) Rin: i guess you deal with the ugly part of death
(9:34:11 PM) Rin: so that family members and friends don't have to
(9:35:19 PM) Harp: Exactly!! Ok, so when I got in there, there was an old lady, African American, who was ready for "dressing", right? Just on the table, covered by a sheet, her white hair in one braid.
(9:35:20 PM) Harp: Very sad.
(9:35:34 PM) Harp: I was feeling kinda sad about it.
(9:36:16 PM) Harp: But the embalmer guy was taking the clothes the family brought, and he was making me feel so much better. Except I took it that it wasn't an act. He was generally acting like this, I guess.
(9:36:44 PM) Harp: He took out her outfit and the wig they brought her and the shoes and was commenting on how "Grandma, we gonna hook you up!"
(9:37:06 PM) Harp: And he dressed her, underwear, undershirt, everything. OH- note
(9:37:48 PM) Harp: When someone dies, they make a sorta "plastic bathing suit for the body. Goes on first, then they dress ya. In case stuff... leaks.
(9:37:58 PM) Rin: makes sense, i suppose
(9:38:38 PM) Harp: And he dressed her up and everything, even put the shoes and stockings on. Then the beautician came in and painted her nails and put color on her mouth and face. And wow- she really did look just like she was asleep.

Right after, I felt a lot better. I was also getting used to E (embalmer) and Miss W (forgot that I'm nervous around new people). They were really cool, and very light about the work they do, which is something else to get used to! There's a sense newbies must get that "we should always be sad and solemn because this is death. I guess I'll eventually learn what the philosophy is that makes it ok to enjoy the job and to feel joy.

E had me put on gloves and a facial mask and was asking me if I'd had my hepatitis shots and all of that before he went to take care of the actual body. I was standing on the other end of the room talking to Miss W at the time, and boy, now I'm happy that I was now, because I was not expecting the body E pulled out to look the way it did. The woman was 88 years old (why had I not realized I'd mostly be working on the elderly) and a bit stiff. Her eyes were closed, but they were sunken in- I mean the actual eyeball was no longer round. Most surprising of all, though, was the fact that her mouth was wide open. Was not expecting that. But I was glad to know that I'm not the only one that wasn't expecting it.

(9:24:26 PM) Harp: There was /one part/ though, that's gonna take some /getting used to/.
(9:24:59 PM) Harp: Well, two. One is I need to stop staring at the bodies and imagining them opening their eyes and trying to strangle me.
(9:25:07 PM) Harp: The other part is closing mouths. =/
(9:25:15 PM) Harp: Well, /keeping/ them closed.


Harp: Curious about the mouth-shutting?
Rin: yes
Rin: because i didn't even realize that was an issue
Harp: I didn't either!
Rin: in the movies people always die with their mouths clothes
Rin: unless the director is intentionally going for the gross-out factor
Rin: and making their death very undignified
Harp: Oh /god/ is death undignified.

E cut the clothing off of her and washed the body off very quickly, then readied the embalming fluid. Here's the bit I meant about the thing I'm going to have to get used to-

(9:30:44 PM) Harp: Well anyhow, the mouth shutting thing. Awful business.
(9:31:05 PM) Harp: I get now why we have to learn anatomy. I mean, I got it before, but I really really get it now.
(9:31:37 PM) Harp: He's got this hook-like flat needle which he strings with thick string like... what a person would tie a turkey with, I guess
(9:32:22 PM) Harp: That goes in the lower gum, up through the mouth, in, pokes out through the nostril
(9:33:01 PM) Harp: Down again, out through the other. He tied it off, then shut the mouth. Worst bit is, the part of the string cut off gets stuffed right back into the nose.
(9:33:07 PM) Rin: O_O

And I stood there and watched him do it. It isn't so bad if you remember that they're dead and don't feel it. He then made a cut around her jugular, explaining that he needed the vein and artery there.

Harp: Oh! Yeaaaah, it was very!surprising at first. All of them were old women today who were being prepared. BUT! Having a doc!mom paid off- it didn't bug me when he did the actual embalming work... actually, he laughed at how I was staring all interested.

I'd never seen the inside of a real human before and I was surprised at how stretchy arteries and veins are, how easily they open up. A tube was fit into her artery, the other end of it fit to a machine which pumped embalming fluid in. Just as I was told, once the fluid started going in, the blood was pushed out through her veins. Well, not just her veins. Her eyes and mouth started leaking it, too, after a bit.

"Some of it's brown," he observed,meaning the stuff coming from her mouth, "She had liver problems towards the end, it seems."

There was more after that, of course- lancing the stomach to pump everything else out, and I mean everything- bile, bladder content, probably something else I'm forgetting. E was doing all of that and also closing her eyes in a more dignified way- that'll take a little getting used to, but not much- it's easier because the eyes are deflated and don't look so much like human eyes.

(9:39:50 PM) Harp: So I'm SO glad I got to see before and after. Just seeing that was like "and this is what you will do." I guess it's like... if we never saw blank canvas and paint before ever in the real world. Then we decided to become artists and /only/ then did we get to see paint brushes, canvas, and paint in tubes
(9:40:03 PM) Harp: If... that makes sense...
(9:40:12 PM) Rin: it makes complete sense

I've probably left something out- I always do. Question me, please, and I'll explain and elaborate as needed. I'm going back on the 14th and E hopes to have a "Post", which is a body post-autopsy. Means the body is open and all of the icky is outside. I don't know what we have to do to embalm in that case, but it's different. There's no straight path and each limb has to be done separately. Must be a pain.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 2nd, 2011 10:47 pm (UTC)

Harp it's Ole.

And I am never getting embalmed. Omgomgomg. Just stick me in the ground and let me rot.

On another note, you are totally brave and awesome <3 This was super interesting to read, I had no idea that people's mouths hang open when they're dead, but it makes so much sense! D=
May. 9th, 2011 10:03 pm (UTC)
Reading this from your link in the PE post--
Wow, I just could not handle that. I have a relatively strong stomach, but just reading that description makes me feel a bit queasy.
You're doing good work though. I admire that.
May. 10th, 2011 12:29 pm (UTC)
Aw, thank you, Kate!
May. 9th, 2011 10:26 pm (UTC)
On ontdcreepy, you warned us about squick. For whatever reason, nothing in this post made my stomach flip, aha. All of this was really interesting! Thank you for sharing.

Harp: Curious about the mouth-shutting?
Rin: yes
Rin: because i didn't even realize that was an issue

Never realized people didn't think about this. A few years ago, my grandfather died, and what family was up here at the time said their goodbyes at the hospital. Between sobbing almost uncontrollably, we managed some giggles about how his mouth would not stay shut. ... I realize that sounds really strange as a very, very beloved family member died some hours earlier. o_o Perhaps joking was subconsciously part of our mourning process? I don't know. That bit of conversation just reminded me about that.

And made me type a paragraph totally unrelated to your post. D:
May. 10th, 2011 12:33 pm (UTC)
It probably was- your emotions wanted out. And think about how people laugh when they're nervous, too. Anyway, I bet he wouldn't want you to feel sad, so... so it was good.

There's no such thing as "Off Topic" in my journal! :D
May. 9th, 2011 10:37 pm (UTC)
You're pretty amazing to be able to do this; I'm pretty sure I couldn't.

Egyptian Funeral Rituals took forty days, I seem to remember? A lot of which was stuff like you're doing, I guess.

Still- Thank you so much for sharing it with us, I mean it.
May. 10th, 2011 12:30 pm (UTC)
They had to do it without face masks and technology, too, eeeewie! D: I am grossed!
May. 10th, 2011 01:08 pm (UTC)
Yep. Or refrigeration.
Kinda helps explain the clouds of ritual incense, though.
May. 9th, 2011 11:08 pm (UTC)
This is really really interesting! I definitely wouldn't be able to do that job, being the empath that I am. Too much sadness. I'm surprised not a lot of people know about the jaw-popping-open thing. That's why Marley had a handkerchief around his head in A Christmas Carol--to keep his jaw closed!
May. 10th, 2011 12:37 pm (UTC)
People forget that detail about Marley in favor if... well, they actually forget he even showed up half the time. "How many ghosts visited Scrooge in the play?"
He always gets forgotten. ;n;
May. 10th, 2011 06:59 pm (UTC)
May. 10th, 2011 05:11 am (UTC)
Amazing!!! WOW. That is just so cool :D

I'm pretty sure I can never do this job because I would imagine it hurting every time a needle/whatever instrument went in. I have skinned out animal carcasses and such before but that is not the same thing...though if you took the head, hands and feet off a person I might be able to. :P Idk. I'm strange.

Anyway I will definitely love to read more!
May. 10th, 2011 12:34 pm (UTC)
I'm going back next week, so... so there will be more!
May. 20th, 2011 01:03 am (UTC)
totally interesting to read :) and I suppose, like all jobs, people just get used to it. Like imagine having to be solemn all day every day...I imagine you just end up wondering what you're gonna have for lunch once you've been embalming for a few months!(yuck! hehe)
May. 20th, 2011 02:10 am (UTC)
It's so fascinating how the entire process happens. I could never do a job like that, no matter what the idea of a dead body makes me so nervous!
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )