Like Hyenas

I will forever remember the first embalming that I performed on my own. It was late in the evening maybe ten or eleven o’clock, well after sunset . The director and I had just picked up (“received” in mortuary lingo) a deceased man from his home  and were now back at the mortuary where we transferred him to the embalming table. The director said that he was going out to grab something to eat before he could get started on the preparations. He gave me  instructions to start the process and told me to complete as much as I could on my own. In preparation I tied my hair in a bun, suited up in my white embalming smock, shoe covers and blue latex gloves. Imagine a reverse Smurf in small human form. At this point I was comfortable “setting” features (closing the eyes and mouth for a pleasing, natural look) and “raising” vessels (finding the artery and vein needed for embalming)  on my own, so I knew I could complete this much while the director refilled his calories. The room was bathed in bright fluorescent lighting, I was surrounded by stark white walls and the white porcelain table  bearing the dead man was in the center of the room with the foot end butted up against a set of white cabinets and counter-top, a sink, drain and the embalming machine. I pulled out the chemicals that were needed and lined them up next to the machine to wait until it was time to mix them all together.

I enjoyed this time of getting to know my patient. He was long and thin, a real “tall glass of water.” He had brown hair mussed from being bed ridden and ill. He wore red sweat pants, a white t-shirt, and white socks which were all stained and wrinkled from long wear. I placed a clean towel over the private areas, then carefully removed his clothing keeping the towel in place for modesty. He had died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. I remember how his limbs were pulled unnaturally and his muscles and tendons were stiff, making it a chore to straighten them out. I also spoke to him. I told him that once this part was over, his family would be grateful of seeing him at peace when they came to say their goodbyes. It was the first in what would become a natural routine for me, talking to the dead people in my charge. Maybe it was an attempt to give them, or me, some kind of comfort, maybe it was because I felt they deserved the kindness, the company. I don’t know if the “spirit” stays with the body, but I know it felt like I should give them some sense of substance because they had lived and were loved, even if their physical heart was no longer beating.

I kept talking, I told the dead man how beautiful his wife was and that she was going to have a hard time now that he was gone but she understood he had to go (all of these things I had witnessed when we “received” him from his home). Once I had the man disrobed, modesty towel in place, I pulled out all of the instruments that were required for the procedure and laid them out neatly on the embalming table so that they were easily accessed when needed. I turned on the tap and directed the long hose from the sink to pour water down one side of the table. I washed the man’s face with soap and fussed over closing his eyes and mouth so that he would look peaceful, at rest. I shaved the bit of stubble from his neck and chin making sure to get as close as possible without causing razor burn. Then I made the required incision and prepared the vessels for the embalming. Once I was finished with this, the director  had not yet returned, and so I waited, but not for long.

It was getting late, and I was sure the director would be back at any moment to help and manage things, so I continued the process on my own. I mixed the chemicals, attached the hose of the embalming machine and flipped the switch to on.  As the machine churned fluid into the man’s body, the gentle whir of its motor  and the soft splashing of the water spilling from the hose were the only sounds in the room. I poured soap over his limbs and massaged his muscles, (this is to help facilitate blood flow and ensure that fluid is getting to all areas of the body.) I went slow and watched everything carefully. Walking around from one side of the table to the other assuring that I wasn’t missing anything. Before long I had completed the process and was in the final stages of washing the body. That is when the director finally walked into the room. I asked if everything was okay, since he had been gone so long. He chuckled and revealed he had been in the front office the whole time! He confessed of sneaking in to check on me throughout the evening and that he had never even left the building! He had meant for me to do this on my own all along. He walked up to the man on the table with a huge grin as he inspected and then praised my work. That was a proud moment for me, another test passed!

I was also beginning to learn that most funeral directors have a wicked sense of humor. The next morning, I walked into work, chest puffed out, head held high, remembering my big accomplishment from the night before. I was greeted by the funeral home manager as I walked in the door.  Usually a jovial guy and always ready with a quick joke at your expense, so I was shocked as he walked up to me with purpose and a stern demeanor and immediately asked, “Who embalmed Mr. so and so last night?” I froze, then slowly in a smaller than normal voice answered, “I did.” He paused and said, “Follow me.” He turned on his heel and deliberately stomped away towards the embalming room. As we walked down the long-carpeted hallway, the walls seemingly getting narrower the closer we got to the door of the embalming room. My head was reeling, what could have happened? I set the features, fluid was fine, body washed, cream on the face and hands, body covered with a sheet! As we entered the room the senior embalmer was already there standing over the man with his arms crossed. Oh man, this was serious, what did I miss?! This is what a deflated balloon must feel like. The fluorescent lights of the room felt hot, like a spotlight in an interrogation room. Then the sheet was pulled off of the table exposing the man that I had embalmed, by myself, the night before. Modesty towel still in place.

They both stood back with arms folded and asked me to look at this man lying on the table and explain to them what was wrong. I did this, citing everything I had done the night before step by step, I stated the fluid mixture, I massaged every limb, every appendage had good fluid, I closed the eyes, cleaned and trimmed the nails, and he looked good! So, I turned to them both and said “Nothing, there is nothing wrong with him.” A moment of tense silence and then,  laughter?! Like hyenas they laughed, and I was so confused! Once these men were able to catch their breath I heard the most beautiful words, “Nope, there is nothing wrong with him, you did a great job!”

2 thoughts on “Like Hyenas

  1. There is always time to have a good laugh, and it is many times at the expense of the newbie. They modeled a great sense of humor that is needed from time to time, even in the mortuary business.

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About Chelsea Tolman