I would like for you to meet a friend of mine. She is not like any friend I have ever known. Not because my friends aren’t wonderful people who are all a bit twisted like me…she, by the very nature of her work, is unique. Her sensitivity and passion to help both the living and the dead are what makes her…different. She is calm in nature and has an optimistic approach to human mortality. Some of us just go to work, punch in the time clock, put in a full day and go home. Not my friend…as an embalmer she often works when most of us are sleeping. Unfortunately, she works because someone has lost their life. It is a rarity that people love to embalm the dead, but not for her. She is open to sharing her feelings about her work as she totally believes that this work is her true calling. (Thank god, not everyone could do what she does) She has told me on countless occasions that her work is the most rewarding and fascinating thing she has ever done in her life. I think there are times when she would rather be working with the dead…aka “her Peeps”, than those living on the green side of sod. She will leave the radio on in the prep room when she leaves so the Peeps aren’t alone. I think that is so sweet, I told her to make sure it was the best of the 80’s… :)
Some periods are slower than others then all at once, a flurry of funerals may take place. The grim reaper does not have an IPhone with a calendar so scheduling can be challenging. She is always on call and ready to respond when needed, and does not complain about assisting families at a very vulnerable time. She has to have excellent communication skills when dealing with families because the needs vary so drastically. She is always ready to serve…ready to give of herself unselfishly and she is a perfectionist. I have the deepest respect for her as she changes the face death into a look of peacefulness. She does this by methodically transforming what was once a live human being into a look that is restful. She fully appreciates and honors the fact that that person had a family, friends and life experiences. Who smiled when a great joke was told and cried when touched by a tender moment. These people meant something to somebody. Having someone who takes what is left after life and makes a way for us to view the dead that is acceptable so we can say goodbye is paramount to the overall mission in funeral service as it has been for decades.
She is very much aware how mortified most people are about the subject of death much less actually coming into contact with it. It is unimaginable to some that a person chooses to touch, preserve, shave or dress the dead. The chance that she has already preserved other members of the family that have preceded the newly dearly departed is very high. She treats everyone she comes in contact with as if they were one of her own family members…offering them the same level of dignity and respect. I am constantly amazed by her ability to take something that most would consider…”gross as hell” and systematically go through the process much like an artist would do when creating a portrait. Each time the canvas is prepared, and the work begins until the picture is complete. This may sound crazy but some people could possibly look more at peace deceased then they did at the end of their life. This is because extended illnesses can deteriorate the body, many times families witness the death and when the family returns to the funeral home to start the services, they are surprised by how “peaceful, and better” they look from when they last saw them.
I think after a while a person just gets used to the surroundings they are in. There are smells (among other things) associated with work that involves the human body. Like doctors and nurses in an emergency room they see things and experience horrific tasks to do what they feel is their calling. Working as an embalmer is similar; the only difference is the absence of life. You can imagine the first day on the job in either scenario…Holy cow! They could be shocked, they may get physically sick, or have trouble removing images from their minds…but they get used to it.
I have had the honor to work beside her and assist her with the preparation of the body for burial. She is masterful with her instruments and can suture like no other. She is top shelf in terms of her abilities regarding restorative art. How someone dies dictates the level of work that needs to be done. The more work that needs to be done the more time it takes to complete the work. Typically an embalming can be done in 1.5 hours. There are times when the process can take several hours. For example taking someone with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head and reconstructing the wound area because the family is adamant about seeing them is just one of a million scenarios she may be faced with.
I remember the first time I saw an embalming. Hollywood and the subject of death in general have not done the process any favors that’s for sure. Before my introduction in funeral service, I always thought that folks were strung up by their bootstraps and slit from ear to ear like you would see in a meat packing plant. NOT!!!!!! I was pleasantly surprised to see that the procedure was very respectful, clean and dignified. A process I now refer to as “post life surgery”. As she worked (in this case) with this elderly gentleman, I wondered as I watched her work, about what she has seen…the magnitude of what the body looked like after a catastrophic event versus someone who slipped away in their sleep. How would she be affected if a baby came into her prep room or a small child? Could she embalm one of her own family members? Does anyone really realize what goes on behind the scenes when they go into a funeral parlor and the body is nicely dressed adorned in flowers and lying peacefully in the casket? I really don’t think people understand or think about it.
I can’t believe how many people die with their eyes and mouth open. I, like you, have heard horror stories about what happens to you when you die. It really isn’t like that at all. But it is important to remember that in order for the family to see their loved one…they cannot be presented in any other way than with the eyes closed and mouth shut. Makeup is applied to compliment the restoration process as well.
She is repulsed by reports in the media or has heard stories about people who are not respectful and had treated the dead body in a fashion that is not acceptable. This by the way is WRONG on every level. Disrespecting the body after life totally pisses her off. She has zero tolerance for such behavior, rightfully so…ticks me off too. There are bad apples in every bunch. But I want to tell you that good upstanding professionals in this line of work do in fact exist. You can take comfort in that.
I tell you this because there are people in our profession that get little credit. Embalmers are truly gifted individuals. They do this in the name of public service. I am thankful that she is one of many who are just like her. By the way…her name is Priscilla Miller and I think she is the bomb.