The surest way to determine if you really want to be a funeral director is to work in the prep room. Things are very, very … real, we’ll say … in there. Real in ways very few people want to hear about. “I managed to get the correct tension on the mouth sutures today” is simply not welcome dinner conversation.
So, every day I suited up in gown, apron, shoe covers, gloves and goggles to reverse the ravages of death and decay — work so intimate it seemed wrong to discuss the details. Every night I went home and pretended I hadn’t done anything profound that day. It was a strange, bifurcated existence.
One day I saw a thick white binder on a shelf in the funeral director office. It was the complete and current-year California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau Laws and Regulations printed directly from the website. I flipped through the pages voraciously for an hour before Toby asked what I was looking for. Honestly, I shared that I wanted to learn the material for the licensing exam. I felt it was the right time to get licensed as a funeral director because of the current staff situation. He reminded me that I was being groomed to work in the back of the building, not the front.
“How do you do this every day?” I asked Toby. Trade embalmers work for several funeral homes and all they do is embalm. They don’t get involved with the families; they don’t even transport the bodies. Their entire job is embalming.
“It’s funny,” Toby said. “Nobody ever asks the coffin maker that, even though we’re both artisans in our own right.”
“Yeah, but the coffin maker isn’t draining the blood out of dead bodies and pumping them full of preservatives.”
“You’ll learn. Many people think embalming is a topical application of oils to the skin and some sort of disinfectant that’s rubbed on. They don’t realize how invasive a procedure it is.”
He quickly makes an exit as I begin to answer. Do I want to spend my days wearing a mask as I work with cancer-causing solutions? Is this all there is for me to aspire to? Restoration — the art of making the deceased look as if they are merely sleeping — is achieved through a variety of wires, prosthetic devices, fillers and cosmetics. Even though we do everything possible to be respectful and gentle with the bodies we serve, the process then left me uneasy and sometimes queasy. The fumes from the embalming fluid permeate your clothes and hair. Many days I left for home feeling heavy and sort of grim.
“You smell weird,” Andy said the first time he met me at the door after a day in the prep room.
“It’s embalming fluid; I’m headed straight up for a shower,” I said.
“Is it neat working in the embalming room?”
“Um. Neat? No.”
“It seems like it would be really cool.”
“You know how you said you thought McDonalds seemed like magic before your cousin went to work in one and told you about what happens in the kitchen?”