And So Begins My New Life

Join me as I embark on a new life and new career in Funeral Services.

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Location: Southeast, United States

I'm a Funeral Services graduate embarking on a new career. I graduated high school in 1981, served honorably in the United States Navy from 1982-1986, been married since 1986, and have one son. I've relocated to a new state and have begun working in my chosen profession of Funeral Services, and I've never been happier.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Living Out Your Favorite Book

As far back as I can remember, I've loved "War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells. I've seen the 1950's movie repeatedly, I've got a CD and vinyl version of the Orson Welles (no relation) radio play from Halloween, 1938, I've read the book dozens of times in my life, I own Jeff Wayne's musical version, (vinyl, CD and cassette) and I've seen Steven Spielberg's movie based on the book.

Recently, I had a dream where I was actually living through the events of this book, and the Martians and their machines were as depicted in the album art for the Jeff Wayne project. I have had this dream several times in my life, but this most recent one was the first time I had incorporated different editions of the same story.

This dream got me to thinking; if you could live out your life as a character (major or minor) in your favorite book, or just live your life in the setting, universe, realm, whatever you would like to call it, of your favorite book, what would you choose?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

One Year On The Job

Today is the one-year anniversary of my new job. I detailed that first day in this post. Looking back I can see how far I've come. I also understand I have further to go. I still have to serve out my one year internship, which, due to paperwork, having to get fingerprinted and undergo a background check, did not officially begin until September of 2006.
In the meantime, let me talk about how I've changed between then and now:
Then: Was nervous and apprehensive about driving the limo.
Now: No big deal.
Then: Had never driven a hearse before. Ever.
Now: I think nothing of it.
Then: Was terrified at the prospect of leading a procession to the cemetery.
Now: I've done it a few time; I still am a little apprehensive, but no longer terrified.
Then: Had never made a removal of any kind.
Now: Have made more than I can remember.
Then: I was nervous about making removals in people's homes, due to the family being present.
Now: I still prefer institutional removals (hospitals, nursing homes, etc.) but can do home removals just as readily.
Then: Had never made funeral arrangements with a family.
Now: I've done a few; it's not too bad. It's something I can do.

At some point around the beginning of fall, I will have to take my start board exam in order to get my Funeral Director and Embalmer's License. I have already ordered my study guide; it should be arriving any time now.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Be Careful What You Wish For

In a previous post, I talked about how I had to drive all night to make a removal. I was thinking about that drive the other day and how I wouldn't mind making another one like it. Last night I was tired, because of how busy we had been the past few days. I went to bed and fell asleep almost instantly. About 45 minutes later, the phone rings. It turns out I got my wish; I had to drive 80 miles south to make a removal. I was gone about 4 hours in total, climbing into bed about 5:30 this morning. When I got the call, my boss told me not to worry about coming into work today, because he knew I would be out all night. However, early this morning we got yet another call, so my boss called me about 9:45 and asked if I could come in and take care of a couple of things and give them a hand with this new call. So I went in and put in a couple of hours. Still, I had a good drive and I enjoyed my time on the road, except I couldn't find any late night preaching on the radio.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

How Things Are Going

The owner went on a trip about a week or so ago; since he's been gone we've had at least one call each and every day. Most of these are direct cremations, which means no services at all, some have been full-service cremation, which means embalming, viewing and visitation, followed by a funeral service, either in our chapel or at a church. Today was no exception. We got a call late last night from a local hospital. This morning we took the body to the crematory. When we got back, we were getting ready to go to church for a full service cremation funeral. We get another call, so one of us went to pick up the body. When he got back we performed the embalming and departed for church. When we returned from church, we get a call from a family who is expecting a death any day now. They want full service cremation, but they want the funeral about 90 minutes south of where we are. My boss tells me I may be in charge of this one, meaning myself and another guy will take care of the funeral while the boss stays behind. I don't mind this assignment, and I'm not intimidated by it the way I would have been a few months ago. I feel confident and capable, and it's a good feeling.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Words Of Advice

April 26 will mark my one year anniversary in my new profession. Looking back over the past year I can see how far I've come, and how far I've yet to go.
With this in mind, I'm posting a few words of advice for Funeral Service Students and Teachers.

For Students:
Please don't think that graduating school means you automatically know everything required to immediately jump in and do all the work of a funeral director and embalmer. I thought I was the best prepared of anybody, but once I actually got in the prep room I realized just how much more I needed to work and learn. This job is like learning to bowl from reading a book: you can get the terminology down, you can understand what you have to do, what your desired results are, but until you actually pick up a ball and roll your first frame, it's quite different than what you might expect.

When you do start working in a funeral home, everyone there can help you and teach you. Not only have I learned a lot from the owner and my boss, but also our courier. He's the one who taught me how to make removals. Even our secretary has taught me a lot of things, especially about all of the paperwork involved: Death certificates, Burial and Transit Permits, Cremation Authorizations, writing obituaries, etc. She has told me that in the past she has dealt with interns and graduates who looked down on her because she was a mere secretary, not a real funeral director, therefore she had nothing of value she could teach them. She then pointed out to me that all of those people no longer worked at our funeral home. No surprise, there. Listen and learn from anybody who is willing to help. They've been there longer than you, and they know how things work.

For Teachers:
Give your students as much hands-on as possible. Put them in situations where they actually have to perform, instead of recite facts from the textbook. Not that there's anything wrong with being well-prepared, as the National Board can be quite a challenge, but nothing beats "learning by doing." One thing I wish we had done at school was to sit down and role-play at making arrangements, complete with price lists, coordinating with churches, clergy, and cemeteries, even how to approach the subject of payment. And don't just make it a smooth, easy arrangement. Introduce schedule conflicts, such as two families wanting to use your chapel the same day and same time, or other such issues. One example from this Easter; the Catholic churches in our town were not allowing Mass the Thursday and Friday prior to Easter Sunday. These are very real things your students will have to deal with one day. I know every funeral home does things differently, but anything you can have them do will be to their benefit.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Not Much To Report

There hasn't been a lot going at work lately, although we have been steady. I presided over another funeral at the National Cemetery today; that went well enough. The owner is out of town for the next week or so. Our secretary leaves for her vacation later this week, so for a few days we will be down two people. However, I think we'll be all right as long as we don't get super-busy.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Preparing The Autopsied Body

In a very early post, I gave a thorough description of how to embalm a body. This post will describe how to embalm a body that has been autopsied, or "posted" (from "post-mortem"), as we refer to it in the industry. As you may know from watching the various forensic shows, both fictional and true-life, the body is opened by making an incision from each shoulder down to the center of the chest, then from the center of the chest to the groin. This is called the "Y" incision, because it looks exactly like the letter Y.

In a full autopsy, all of the internal organs, as well as the brain, will be removed and examined. When the autopsy is completed, and the organs have been examined, they are placed in a plastic bag, which is placed in the body cavity. The calvarium (top part of the skull) is placed back in position, and the scalp pulled back down into place to hold the calvarium in place. The body is then sutured closed with a few very large (about 8" to 12" long) sutures. When the funeral home receives the body, one of the first things to be done is to clean the top of the skull. The way we do it is to wash it thoroughly, dry it off then treat it with a drying powder, which absorbs any residual blood and/or moisture from the bony material. Then we remove the viscera bag, open it up and pour a bottle of cavity fluid in. We then take the trocar, a sharp, hollow tube, and puncture the organs to permit the cavity fluid to work on the insides of the organs. We then close the bag and set it aside for the time being. We take the chest plate (that part of the ribcage and sternum the pathologist cut away to gain access to the chest cavity) and cover it with a powdered formaldehyde, called para-formaldehyde, and set that aside.

We then locate all the major vessels and inject each limb with the embalming solution. We inject the left and right legs through the femoral arteries, the left and right arms through the sub-clavian arteries, and we inject the head through the left and right carotid arteries. Once we have injected the limbs, we then treat the torso. Remember that the torso has been laid wide open due to the "Y" incision. The flaps of skin that fold back to expose the body cavity are about an inch or so thick, full of fatty tissue. The embalmer uses a special trocar to deliver fluids to as much of these flaps as possible. The trocar is inserted into this tissue to various lengths while embalming fluid flows through the trocar and into the tissues. The embalmer works the entire torso in this manner, delivering fluid to as much of the tissue as possible. He also injects any soft tissues on the inside of the body cavity, again, trying to reach as many areas of the torsal tissue as possible.

While one person is treating the torso, we usually have a second person working on the head. The skull cavity is cleaned and dried, sprinkled with paraformaldehyde or other moisture-absorbing materials, then packed with cotton. Then the calvarium is put back into position and secured to the skull with devices known as calvarium clamps. These are metal clamps which hold the calvarium firmly in place. The scalp is pulled back down over the top of the skull and sutured closed. Sometimes we use a fine black thread, or if the person has a very thick head of hair, we will just use regular wax string.

Once the body has been hypodermically injected, we vaccuum out as much excess fluid as possible from the cavity. The cavity itself is then treated with a solution to dry up excess moisture and sear the tissues. We use a product called Dryene. We then sprinkle some para-formaldehyde into the body cavity, then place the viscera (internal organs) back into the cavity. As I mentioned in yet another post, some embalmers simply place the bag in the cavity and suture the body shut. However, my bosses prefer to actually remove the viscera from the bag and place them back in the body. The reason for this is we will put a few organs in, sprinkle the para-formaldehyde, put more organs in, sprinkle more para-formaldehyde, etc. until all the viscera have been placed in the body. This way we can be sure all the organs have been effectively treated. Somebody asked me once if we had to put the organs back in their proper place. No, we just want everything back in the body, we don't care what goes where. We then suture the body closed, which is very time consuming due to the large number of stitches required. We then bathe the body, then lay down a layer of glue on top of the sutures, then cover the sutures with a layer of cotton strips. Most, if not all, funeral homes will charge an extra fee for preparing a body that has been autopsied; now you know why. This process can take two embalmers working together anywhere from two to four hours to complete, depending on the condition of the body and other factors.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Is There More To It Than Iced Tea?

What is it about Long Island, New York that makes it so special? Seriously, every family we get that is from Long Island or has family on Long Island has to make certain they let us know about it.
"And does Mrs. Smith have any brothers or sisters?"
"Yes, one sister, Mary Jane Schmoe, Bethpage, Long Island, New York."
"And where did Mrs. Smith move here from?"
"Mineola, Long Island, New York."
Could someone who is familiar with Long Island please tell me what makes it so special that people have to make sure you know that's where they are from? Is it like being from Beverly Hills or Palm Springs or West Palm Beach? Is it a super-secret club for people who are better than the average joe, or think they're better than the average joe? Or does it lessen the stigma of being from New York? Other than a really tasty alcoholic beverage, which, by the way, tastes awful when it's poorly made, and most people do make them poorly, what is the deal with Long Island?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

One Year Anniversary

I just noticed that this blog is one year old. I started it on March 20, 2006, with this post.
What a year it's been. I can't believe how much things have changed for me. I'm no longer working a job that I despise, I'm happier than I've ever been, I'm in a rewarding and challenging field where I have duties and responsibilities that are more important than just about anything I've ever done, short of my time in the Navy.
I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn, but it's been a pleasant journey so far.