Journal & Herald, July 21, 1997

Funeral director job not for everyone


The heart has stopped. Brain waves cease to exist. Death has taken over.

In the most blatant terms, the body will be retrieved from its place of death and, if the family wishes, pumped full of preservatives.

Embalming. The thought makes some queasy, others curious. For most of us, an embalmed state is how our loved ones will last see us.

Undertaker, mortician, funeral director - over the years, those who deal with the dead have been called all three.

Their occupation surrounded in a bit of mystery and on the receiving end of a few jokes.

But there is nothing mysterious about embalming. Of the duties undertaken by the funeral director, embalming is a small part.

Funeral directors are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Death is not considerate.

"Most of the times when we're called, we initiate a response to the place where the person died," Roger Carlson, funeral director at Winsted Funeral Home, said. "We make contact with the next of kin to determine wishes and discuss final plans."

If requested, the body is embalmed. Embalming is only required if the body will be transported across state lines, transported by an airline, death was due to a communicable disease, or burial will take place more than 72 hours after death.

Carlson said it is difficult to have a visitation without embalming, as the body begins to decompose immediately after death.

Bruce McBride, owner of the Paul-McBride Funeral Home in Lester Prairie, said an average embalming takes two hours.

"(Embalming) is pretty simple," said Carlson. "We use the body's circulatory system," he said.

The primary preservative in embalming fluid is formaldehyde. Because blood gives skin its color and is removed during embalming, the fluid also contains dyes to give a pink color to the skin.

Embalming fluid goes by several brand names, such as Plasdopake used by the Chilson Funeral Home in Winsted.

The first step in embalming is washing the body with a disinfectant soap to prevent the spread of germs.

The clothes worn by the person, needles, and blades used in the embalming, are picked up by a company that specializes in disposing of contaminated material.

The 16-ounce bottle of embalming fluid is placed in a pump and diluted with two gallons of water. Kevin Chilson of Chilson Funeral Home said it takes an average of four gallons of fluid for embalming.

The fluid is injected into an artery, such as the femoral or carotid. It goes into the heart and through the circulatory system, pushing out and replacing the blood, which leaves the body through a vein. McBride uses the jugular vein.

The funeral directors also use various tools to remove blood clots and open veins where the flow of the embalming fluid is being impeded.

Blood and body fluids go into a receptacle, much like a toilet, where it is then flushed into the septic sewer to be treated at the waste water treatment plant. If the person died of a contagious disease, the blood and body fluid is first treated with disinfectant.

Carlson said there has been talk of requiring funeral directors to retain the body fluids and have them picked up by a specialized company. He added body fluids are a small part of what goes into a sewage waste water treatment system.

Chilson said due to privacy laws, if the person died of hepatitis, AIDS, or other contagious disease, the funeral director cannot be told by the health care facility.

Chilson said he has been told such information by the family, which he appreciates.

"To protect ourselves, we've been advised to treat everyone as if they died from a contagious disease," he said.

After embalming, cosmetics are used on the body's face to make it pleasant for the visitation.

If a woman has died, the family is asked to bring in the cosmetics she used. The woman's hair stylist is also asked to do the deceased's hair.

Hard and soft waxes are also used for restoration if there has been trauma to the body.

The length of time after the body is embalmed that decomposition will set in is determined by the thoroughness of the embalming, McBride said. Age, cause of death, weight, and length of time between death and embalming are other factors.

"It's not meant to last for the long term," McBride said.

He added there are different types of embalming. Bodies that have been donated to science use a different type of chemical, as the concern is long-term preservation, not looks.

The tradition of embalming is unique to the United States and Canada, said Chilson. He said in Europe and especially third world countries, embalming is not a common practice.

Embalming began to receive acceptance during the Civil War, Chilson said.

"Many soldiers were buried on the battle field, but many were also sent home," Chilson explained. "The embalmer usually had a medical background and would set up a tent on the edge of the battlefield. The fluid was put in by gravity, much like an IV," he said.

Chilson wasn't positive, but thought the Civil War embalmers probably used a combination of formaldehyde and arsenic. "Arsenic is one of the most powerful preservatives," he said.

Transporting the dead soldiers home was a low priority. "A month would pass (before the body came home) and the local towns people would be amazed they could still have reviewal," Chilson said.

Funeral homes have only recently come into acceptance, primarily during the late 1940s and 1950s. Chilson thought many would remember when the funeral and embalming was done in the home.

In the past, many of the funeral tasks were done by the women of the church. "They would bathe and dress the body," Chilson said.

The family would go to the local man who made furniture and he would make the coffin. Chilson said the term "undertaker" came from, as time progressed, the man who made the coffin would undertake more of the funeral responsibilities.

Embalming was done in the homes until the 1930s.

"The undertaker would bring in his buckets and chemicals and a cooling board," Chilson said. "He would suspend the cooling board between two chairs in the parlor and do the embalming there." The wake and reviewal also took place in the parlor.

A door badge - a large black bow hung on the door - was also a tradition, letting others know there had been a death in that family.

Even though there have been changes over the years, Chilson said funerals are still steeped in tradition. Following a tradition isn't always easy. All three funeral directors agreed this business is not for everyone.

"Emotions run high," McBride said. "You learn to cope."

Back to Archive Year List | Back to 1997 Archive List

Howard Lake-Waverly Herald & Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal
Stories | Columns | Obituaries
Community Guides | Special Topics | Cool Stuff | Search | Home Page