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.)