Wednesday, April 10, 2013

For the love of the dead: embalming in New Zealand.

David Mahuika touches death on a daily basis. Stripped of scrubs and face mask, now wearing a pin-striped suit and blood red tie, the embalmer-in-training has left his patient upstairs on the table. Except, here they are not patients. They are called “our people”, considered friends who are visiting and treated with the utmost respect...

David was told by a mentor: you don’t become an embalmer; you're born one and remembers as a small child his first connection to the profession. “When I was about five or six I had to go to a funeral. We were standing right in front of the coffin. I wasn’t really looking at the person – I was looking at the shiny handles. That’s what caught my eye and I thought, ‘Those look neat! Shiny handles. Oh, that box looks really shiny.’ I looked up and said to my mother, ‘That box is shiny.’ And she said, ‘Shh!’ It was set in me from that time on, I think.”

The ambition caught up with him again in his teenage years, where he says he was called into it.  “At college they had career advisers and they’d come out to the classrooms and give you a sheet of all the different job opportunities. One of them had embalming written on it. I was sitting next to my friend and I said, ‘I’m gonna do that!’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Embalming! I want to be an embalmer.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’”

Embalmers are in essence, trades people, carrying out preservation and restorative procedures on deceased humans. “It’s like plumbing through the whole body,” explains Mahuika. “Basically it’s like a blood transfusion. We’re removing all the blood and putting chemicals back into the body to preserve it. I’ll leave it at that.” A polite smile crosses his lips. A more thorough explanation would be this: micro-organisms are responsible for a person’s decomposition following death. This is due to the organisms feeding off proteins. Embalming fluid acts on the proteins, killing the organisms and sanitising the cadaver. The common carotid artery is raised, usually on the right side of the neck, along with the corresponding jugular vein and a cannula is inserted into the artery to drain the blood. An embalming solution is then injected, spreading from the head to fingers, knees to toes. 

Although there are alternatives to embalming these can create problems in the time frame before burial or cremation occurs. Depending on factors surrounding a person’s death, each body has a different decomposition rate. Where one person can last two or three days without any discolouration and leaking, another will start the natural process much more rapidly, often within hours. One alternative is ‘soft embalming’ where only the visceral organs, such as the heart, lungs and liver are injected with embalming fluid. This is because some people find the straight preservation procedure too invasive. It also makes the skin and muscles feel natural rather than chemically effected. Refrigeration is also an option but this prolongs decomposition for only so long. President of the New Zealand Embalmer’s Association (NZEA), Wade Downey, says they only refrigerate a body when requested, as the health and safety benefits of embalming remain paramount. This is not only for those working with the deceased but for family wanting to view their loved one in the days following death.

A straight embalm takes around an hour to an hour and a half. However, these days few cases are that simple. Mahuika shares: “Many of the people coming in have oedema, which is excessive fluid in the tissue. A lot of people have that, possibly because of the different types of medication that they’re on. With oedema you can’t afford to break the tissue of the skin because the body will just keep leaking. That’s where your skills and training are going to come out. It has to be preservation over presentation, first and foremost.”

Downey says while there have always been requests for no embalming, people in the profession are becoming more educated to ask why. Health and safety factors are a huge priority in any funeral home where embalmers wear scrubs, knee-high gumboots, surgical gloves and serious face masks - not flimsy white ones but those of industrial, hard plastic attire. A sign inside the Davis Funeral Services mortuary door reminds staff as they exit “Have you washed your hands?” Death can be a health hazard.

The first natural cemetery for New Zealand opened in Wellington two-years-ago. It is part of an ecological movement advocating natural burials - zero chemicals involved, down to the caskets. No MDF, no glues, no embalmed bodies. The ecological view is against embalming substances used - especially Formaldehyde and other pollutants which remain in the soil after decomposition. Many funeral homes are backing this idea by providing alternative options for coffins, using untreated pine and unbleached calico. Some would ask if this is enough though and whether the embalming process takes away from the normal breaking-down of the body that occurs after death. Not only that, but if the majority of dead are embalmed before burial, does this mean that cemeteries around the country are quietly harbouring toxins detrimental to our future generation’s well being?
Ironically, the eco-friendly cemetery and the establishment that trains embalmers are in close proximity. The Wellington Institute of Technology (WelTec) offers a 15-month National Certificate in Embalming. Subjects studied include anatomy, pathology and microbiology. Students also learn about the historical development of mortuary practices. This year 23 trainees are studying the certificate at different levels. Course programme manager Michael Wolffram is seeing an increased amount of people interested in the industry. He believes this is because of the changing dynamics in New Zealand’s funeral culture and those changes as distinct to our nation. “All countries have a variety of culture around their rituals of farewell. New Zealand now has its own flavour,” he says.

Applicants to the course must be at least 20-years-old. Wolffram knows of many risks involved in the industry and surmises that younger people do not always consider the mental and physical choices they will face as an embalmer. “There needs to be maturity when deciding on a career like this; some life skills. The exposure to some of the things we see needs to be handled correctly. Many people working in the funeral industry deal with cases that have parallels in their own lives. This has an impact,” he explains. Mahuika agrees. “It’s not a profession that younger people think about because they’re too busy having a good time. But embalmers are few and far between so there is a need for more. In the past it has traditionally been a male dominated profession [in New Zealand] but now there are more women coming through and that’s a good thing.”

Wolffram counters this humorously with a comment that throughout history women from cultures around the world have had the role of what he coins “hatchers and dispatchers”.
Understandably dealing with the dead wouldn’t be on everyone’s Top Five list of career choices. There are many stigmas attached to the embalming profession. Downey says he has seen some strange characters come in with their CV. “Some people have a natural morbid curiosity but they stand out straight away. Historical movies or programmes haven’t helped. The kind where funeral directors were represented as undertakers, and embalmers were called morticians. It’s old school, old fashioned. It draws visions of a man with a top hat and a tape measure around his neck...not a good look.”

Stigmas aside, there are other unusual work place difficulties that embalmers face. Situations not thought of Mahuika delicately points out. “Some families bring in beautiful clothes for their loved one, and I mean these are clothes they wore maybe 20-years-ago. Now their loved one has put on a little bit of weight...” Perhaps people don’t realise that embalmers do more than just preserve a body.

They wash the body. Dress the body. Apply cosmetics to the body. “It’s amazing the reaction that you will get from different families,” Mahuika smiles. “Some of them will hug you; some of them will kiss you. That gives me a lot of job satisfaction. The fact that I’ve looked after their loved one; I’ve taken care of them. This is a good profession that gets a lot of respect.”

Mahuika has experienced the more morose questions time and time again but shrugs them off unfazed. “People always ask if I get scared. I tell them, no, it’s not like that at all. Why would I get scared for? And they say, ‘ know...’ and I say, ‘The only ones you have to be scared of are the ones that are walking around.’ Then they say, ‘Do you ever see any spooky things?’ And I say, ‘No, I don’t see spooky things.’ As an embalmer I ask people, ‘Do I look like death?’ and they say, ‘No.’ He summarises emphatically, “There you go – you don’t know who’s a funeral director or an embalmer. And Downey concurs. “When people find out what you do they’ll either talk about it all night or distance themselves. People think you carry death with you or that you’re unclean. They see the gory side. I’ve stopped telling people what I do. I say I stack shelves at the Warehouse.”

It would be easy to think a person might get hard-hearted seeing so much death on a frequent basis. Not everyone’s passing is pleasant and not everyone’s ending is acknowledged. Embalmers can never anticipate when a case will throw them an emotional curve ball. “The people who I feel very sad for are the ones who have no service. It’s just straight to the crematorium or straight into the ground. I find that sad because, you know, these people were walking the earth and no one really cares. We get a few cases like that and no one would ever think these people existed,” Mahuika says. He looks down and studies his hands, quiet.

“When I first joined the industry I used to drive the hearse. I would think to myself, ‘Whoa, look at all these people walking ’round. Just think, one day they’re going to be lying in a coffin.’ I used to think like that. But now I say, ‘Get on with it and live life to the fullest’.”

Back upstairs in the mortuary he places a protective hand on the embalming table where “his person” lies. This is not a domain that most would find comfortable, but Mahuika, somewhat ironically, thrives here. “I guess for me personally, I’ve had quite a bit of grief in my life. I look upon it as, well, I know how people are feeling. They’re grieving like hell. I think, ‘Here’s their loved one’. At the end of the day I’m going to make this person beautiful because they were living, breathing like us.”  He looks around at the tables, the tools, thoughtful in his approach. “I just want to make them beautiful for the family and, hopefully, that will ease their grieving.”

(Please note - this was written as a university assignment piece in 2009 so the information has in all likelihood changed, as have the positions and opinions of people interviewed. It does remain however one of the most fascinating pieces I had the opportunity to write about and my thanks to Davis Funeral Homes at Dominion Road, Auckland for their openness and availability through the process.)

Friday, January 06, 2012

Worldwide treasure hunt.

When I was growing up I wanted to be a pirate or an archaeologist. Ideally, a bit of Captain Jack Sparrow meets Indiana Jones. Well, here’s the thing…I’ve discovered a hobby (or possible addiction) which allows me to be both professions rolled into one.

It’s called Geocaching.

And it’s like a worldwide treasure hunt.

A geocache is a hidden container – honestly the places some people put them are astounding – which players locate using a GPS (Global Positioning System) device. The concept started back in 2000 by an American guy called Dave Ulmer. On May 3, he hid the first ever geocache, a black bucket with some goodies, in the woods near Beavercreek, Oregon, USA. The coordinates were: N 45° 17.460 W 122° 24.800You can read the full story here

Since becoming an official “hunter” around a month ago, I’ve found caches under a snow-covered bridge, in a dank tree hole and at a café where you had to say a code phrase to the chick at the counter. I’ve also heard stories about stashes discovered behind raging waterfalls, near famous works of street art and up sheer cliffs that appear inaccessible.

The awesome thing about geocaching is anyone can do it. Each hide is rated at a particular degree of difficulty so you know from the outset what you’re getting yourself into. [Cue Bear Grylls theme music!] Sure, many are not for the faint-hearted but others you can take the kids on, no problem and you never know what you’re going to find. A log book and pen or pencil is always a definite so you can make your mark and one item frequently parted with that I’ve noticed is foreign currency.

This is adventure with education. I look at it as upgraded orienteering – a modern day equivalent of the compass without disengaging from the learning side of things, such as knowing how to read coordinates and telling which way is north while having fun doing it.

In the words of the Captain: “Not all treasure is silver and gold…savvy?” Sometimes that’s just what the booty’s wrapped in, aye. Happy hunting.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

And Then There Were Three.

Choosing a Top 100 whatever is easy.
Narrowing it down, is not.

Personally, I don’t place much emphasis on what The Times newspaper says you should experience, taste or visit in your lifetime. To me that’s just some editor with a half page gap to fill on page 7 of a Holiday Special Edition. I know. I’ve had to write them before.

This week I was challenged to think about what my Top Three Books are. Now this was not an easy task. I’m an avid reader and nothing puts me more in my Happy Place than an unknown title, with euphoric ink scent, picked off a shelf at a second-hand book store.

Seriously? Three? If I was allowed 10 that would be a different story…many different stories. But no. I am given just three. So these are the ones I choose…

'The Elements of Moral Philosophy' by James Rachels. It’s a book I came across in my first year at university. One of those ones you look at and think, ‘This is going to require concentration…’ which may not sound all that appealing, but from the first page I was hooked. It deals with ethics and explores different moral theories such as Utilitarianism, Egoism and the Social Contract Theory – put simply it’s a challenge to the way we live – for the greater good of ourselves and others or survival of the fittest? Where other philosophers have put people to sleep in their explanation of morals, Rachels managed to write in understandable terms and include relevant examples such as what would you do if put in the position of giving up your own life to save a thousand others? Well, that’s always something to think about, isn’t it…

'Letters of a Portuguese Nun' by Myriam Cyr. History, mystery…what more does a romantic heart need? First published anonymously in 1669, the debate
continues about whether Mariana Alcoforado (1640-1723), a 17th century Franciscan nun, wrote five love letters to Frenchman Noel Bouton, Marquis de Chamilly (1635–1715) a fighter in the Portuguese Restoration War. The correspondence caused a sensation; raw in their honesty, intimacy and yearning. What of faith and a life consecrated to Christ though? Myriam Cyr explores the historical accuracy of whether the nun, her lover and the letters ever existed and the likelihood Mariana penned those passionate epistles. Perhaps this is one story whose origins will never be completely known and that, for me, is good reading.

'Adventures of the Wishing-Chair' by Enid Blyton. Ahh the memories of Mollie, Peter and Chinky the pixie. [insert smile here] All of Enid Blyton’s novels are an adventure so it was hard to select a specific one. Although I’m going with this particular title, the author is the influence. My eldest niece recently discovered The Famous Five and part of her delight is knowing how many books are in the series. I understand her enthusiasm. I’m still drawn in by the characters, places and dialogue. Although I can lie back on a lazy Sunday afternoon with a Blyton in my hand knowing I’ll have consumed it in an hour, I can’t pass them by. They are a reminder of a childhood filled with magic and imagination; where anything seemed possible if you bought a rocking chair at an antique store owned by fairies.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Looking for answers.

We live in a world of sorrows.

A world soaked in conflict, injustice and poverty.

We live in a world touched by disease, that which is incurable, that which is unstoppable.

We live in a world where today’s newspaper is someone’s bedding and a cardboard construction against an unused wall is called home.

We live in a world where you’re too old, too young, too immature, too independent, too co-dependant, not spontaneous enough, not sensible enough, too this, too that but never enough.

We live in a world where tears go unnoticed; where the burdened become someone else’s responsibility and stay medicated to disguise the pain.

We live in a world where hopelessness twists its tendrils into the cavity of damaged hearts and optimism seeps through the once half-full glass leaving it drained dry.

We live observing the innocent abused, their youth spent in a pendulum-like existence choosing to fight or fly, destination unknown.

We live in a world where confidence is foreign or deemed arrogant.

We live in a world where predictions are promises of disasters to come, counting the seconds until it’s outside our door. Knock, knock…who’s there? Do we answer?

We live in a world where faith is mocked, seen as a crutch, a disability, for believing in Something or Someone who may have another point of view.

We live in a world where courage turns its face away because it’s “not my problem” and what’s right or wrong no longer has distinction because interpretation and perception are ambiguous.

We live in a world of mistakes, regrets, brokenness and disappointments.

Why then, why then, is this world still so, so beautiful?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Confession of a gay girl.

Some things you just can’t understand. I was born a girl, grown into a woman. A woman who likes women. But I didn’t ask for this.

My first memory of same-sex attraction was when I was 16 in my second-to-last year of school. A random comment made to me by a female friend, met my: “Why? Are you interested?” with a wide smile, raised eyebrows and…nothing more.

My twenties were spent shoving the “elephant” behind the curtain, attempting to hide it, purge it, deliver it, ignore it and lie about it. Addressing it became more of an issue than pretending it wasn’t there anymore – but truth won’t stay hidden any more than a candle can restrict how much light it emits. To be fair, it was a pretty big elephant.

My coming out was, for some, a huge insult to their outlook on life. It was an affront to the God I claimed faith in, loved with all my heart and wept before to please, please, please change me. Words were not needed; the disgust written in several friends' eyes was a visual megaphone. It made me realise how much effort we put into feeling accepted - and how much we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn who we truly are before being moulded into a form so unlike that which we were designed to become.

The difficult thing is that I’ve read all the arguments; the verses, the quotes, the discussions about being gay. I have learnt from challenges already faced and would be naïve to assume the battle is over. I know what it feels like to come eye to eye with something you fear and accept it really is real, no matter how much you’d like to escape it. Unfortunately some things can’t be explained or simply given a dictionary definition which will prove satisfactory to an inquisitive heart. In short, I don’t have all the answers.

I don’t know why. I sure as heck don’t know why me. What I do know is that my sexuality doesn’t define who I am. And it’s not that I “just haven’t met the right man yet”. I have a couple of extremely attractive male friends who would be perfect husband material! And it’s not genetics; abnormal chromosomes or “she must have excessive oestrogen”. And no, there’s no history of abuse – mental, physical, spiritual or otherwise – in my younger years, teens or beyond. I’m just me.

And to be honest, I wouldn’t want to be anyone else. This is my life; the adventure I’ve chosen and if I have to do it riding a rainbow, at least I know it’s going to be colourful.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Running out of Vegemite at the half-year mark.

Today, six months ago, I left my homeland.
I left with a pack on my back, a pack on my front, packing my undies. Figuratively speaking.
It seems then like a good time to reflect on what has happened since that October 1, 2010 departure date and think about what the next half year might bring…
I don’t want to do the “unless you’ve been there you won’t know what it’s like” deal but I probably will so just step into the roller coaster seat behind me, strap yourself in and pull down the bar – right now I don’t know where this is heading…
To come to the other side of the world I gave up my job as a reporter, the best house I’ve ever lived at, my car which boy racers tried to drag me off in and the security of feeling settled. All these might not seem like much, and realistically, they aren’t. But when the list becomes more serious like not being able to watch my nieces and nephew growing up or spending time with family on their birthday or Christmas and having to wait for updates in the early hours of the morning when a friend is battling Death and not knowing what the outcome could be leaves you feeling extremely separated and, to be blunt, selfish.
Why selfish? Because I chose this. I chose to save for two years straight with the intention of leaving. I chose to leave and not come back for a decent amount of time. I chose and choices have consequences.
But here’s the thing: I only have one life. And I don’t want to be one of those people who get to the end of theirs and say I never did anything because it wasn’t convenient or the right time for others. Doing that would be denying the opportunities life brings my way and although I’ll put my hand in the air and admit, yes, there are extremely lonely days here, there are many when the sun shines too.
So this is what I know:
- From my window I can see the steeple of a 900-year-old church. I semi-sung Christmas carols with its choir. I have never sung in a 900-year-old church before. I couldn’t do that in New Zealand.
- I have eaten paella (pay-a-yah), a Spanish rice dish, traditional to the country. No matter what people say, authentic dishes always taste different across a border or vast expanse of water. The authenticity of local produce and ways of cooking are lost.
- I am part of a community here, with people who recognise me on the street and know my name – I’m not just, “One of those girls from New Zealand living on Tory…”
- I made it to Ireland. This is probably my greatest personal achievement while being over here, so far. It was on my Bucket List (with stipulations) and I made it with two days to spare.
- I am getting to do and experience things I may never again do in my lifetime.
Will I have changed when I return? I hope so. These six months have shown me what I have back home in Aotearoa but also what I have to look forward to while travelling. And when I board that plane at Heathrow, NZ bound, I’m sure the time spent here will have felt like a single breath.
But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the next six months proved to be even more exhilarating than the previous ones?
I for one, am counting on it.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Set in stone.

Most of us, it seems, are dictated to on a daily basis.

Time to wake up. Time to take the kids to school. Time for the morning meeting. Time for dinner. Time to go to bed. Time to go to sleep. Time to do it all again.

I made my entrance into the world at 7.56am. I know this because it was recorded (and the fact that 11 minutes earlier my twin's was also).

Taking a moment to find the definition of 'time' I discover it means a temporal length of an event or entity’s existence. So technically we not only live within the parameters of it, we are ourselves a time zone. We are a space; a spell; a stint; a stretch; a span. Whatever way you look at it we have a beginning and an end.

For how long though? How much time do I have left? How many hours, months and seasons do I have to play with – because at the end of the day, well, that’s one less left in my existence. And who knows if this day I’ve lived half my life or whether tomorrow I have only a handful of breaths to do with what I choose.

And what I choose counts because time waits for no man. It’s been like that since the beginning – but let’s not get into that discussion.

I think Eleanor Roosevelt had it right when she said: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift which is why we call it the present.”

One day; 24 hours; 86,400 seconds. Time may be up my sleeve but it’s out of my hands to change it.