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Everything you ever wanted to know about embalming the dead

An intimate extract from New Zealand's biggest-selling book of non-fiction, 'The Casketeers', by funeral directors Francis and Kaiora Tipene.

For many people, the shell left after death is the person they loved. That’s all that remains of them, so they want to preserve it by embalming. It’s a way of holding on a little longer to what has been lost.

In ancient Egypt the internal organs were removed, and incense and other substances put in their place to dry and preserve the body. In modern embalming, combinations of chemicals including formaldehyde and methanol are injected into the blood system to get the same result.

I know how to do embalming but we don’t have a mortuary with all the necessary equipment for it in our homes, so we use the services of a wonderful freelancer called Rikki Solomon and his whānau. Even embalming can be a family business, just like funeral directing.

My job is mainly about helping the living. Rikki spends all day every day with the dead. This may explain morticians are generally very, very talkative in social situations. It must be nice being able to hold a conversation with someone who’ll talk back to you.

Make-up is not really a big deal with Māori and Pacific Island funerals because we touch and kiss so much. You can do a great make-up job on someone and then along comes Aunty and she takes hold of the face and covers it in kisses – and all the make-up comes off. We still use make-up on Māori and Pasifika people, especially if there’s been some sort of physical trauma, but we ask mourners to be extra careful. That’s one case where the fact that Pākehā are a bit more reserved when it comes to physical demonstrations of emotion works in our favour.

People want to see their relatives as they knew them. In the case of Pasifika people, if a person has been suffering a long time and that's radically changed their appearance, the family may not want to see them after death. They want to remember them as they were, so they'll query whether embalming is necessary. Not because of the expense – they hardly ever worry about cost – but possibly because they've had a bad experience with embalming in the past. A bad embalming job can be more upsetting than none at all.

A lot of time goes into making someone look as natural as we can. Don’t give them a frown. Don’t pull the mouth too far back. Don’t close the eyes or mouth too tight, so they look especially grim, or not enough so they look as though they're trying to talk. One of the hardest parts of embalming is getting the eyes and mouth right. We call it feature setting and it's so difficult because usually you are operating from a photograph. And nine times out of ten, the photo you get will be of the person with their eyes open and smiling. When you see someone resting in their casket, you don’t want them to have their eyes open and be smiling. You expect them to have their eyes and mouth shut, which usually only happens when we are asleep. When you think about it, we don’t get seen in our sleep by many people, so it is hard for the embalmer to know what a person should look like. Maybe as part of their funeral planning, people should get a nice photo taken with their mouth and eyes shut.

There are two types of modern embalming: post-mortem embalming and standard embalming. Post-mortem embalming is the kind where the organs are removed and put back again. It;s more work intensive, but a nice way to embalm, because once the body has been opened up you can see everything. You can inject your chemicals in exactly the right place because the arteries are open and visible. We wash and clean the inside, make sure all the organs are there, and introduce some chemicals to the viscera bag. Then we inject chemicals into the rest of the body to make a lifelike presentation.

Standard embalming is quite simple. Two incisions are made in the right and left carotid arteries below the neck and a chemical introduced to give a lifelike appearance, and to preserve and sanitise the body.

Compared to post-mortem embalming, however, it’s like trying to fix a vehicle without looking under the bonnet. You have to keep checking and testing as you go along.

These days, with many diseases and the many medicines that have been introduced into our bodies to make us live longer, it’s getting harder and harder for the embalming chemicals to do their job. They have to work against all these medicines in the body. Where people have been in hospital a long time and been on all sorts of medication, especially if they’ve been on life support, embalming is also much more difficult.

The death certificate can make our job easier because the more we know about the person’s medical history, the easier it is to work out what we may need to do to preserve them. For example, if a blood thinner has been used, it means we’ll have a good flow to get the blood draining.

A lot of people question the need to embalm and many decide not to. I love that too.

Life As A Casketeer: What the business of death can teach the living by Francis and Kaiora Tipene with Paul Little (HarperCollins, $39.99).

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