Tuesday, September 7, 2010
**10 days until you hear from me face to camera on my birthday, Friday the 17th**
I love finding bloggers who just click with me and my blog. Tara from The Digital Looking Glass is a complete and total fit! I just love her blog and mostly I love this woman behind it. She is big-hearted, funny, curious, intelligent and gets into as much mischief as I do as she hunts down haunted graveyards with her camera! As I’ve gotten to know her, I found out she is studying mortuary science. Wow! Loves ghosts-photographs graveyards-future mortician and gorgeous! Yeah, I’m thinking this gal is “all that!”
Here’s my interview with my new gal pal:
AUTUMN: Why did you decide to study mortuary science?
TARA: Well, strange story; I had applied and obtained a job with the SC Law Enforcement Division, or as we call it SLED, for a position in Evidence Control. However, after they ran my credit, they withdrew the offer! Apparently you have to have perfect credit in order to work for law enforcement here in SC. So after being highly disappointed, I decided that I needed to go back to school. I started looking at the various universities and colleges here in SC for a degree in forensics or criminal justice with heavy focus on crime scene investigation. Needless to say, there was only one Forensic program at Newberry College. Now this would have been fine except for the fact that they do not cater to adult students, and I had to work! So I started looking at the technical colleges around the state to see what was available. Living in Columbia, most things are no more than 2 1/2 hours away so I wasn't opposed to driving. I happened upon Piedmont Technical College and found that they had a program for an Associate in Business - Funeral Services. (which has now more appropriately been renamed Associate in Applied Science - Funeral Services) I thought, Hmmmmm, can I do this? So, I started doing some research. This wasn't easy, as anything to do with embalming is apparently taboo and hush, hush and you really can't find a lot of information on it. However, I found enough as well as met with my advisor and though "hey, I think I CAN do this!" So, there ya go! It was even more attractive because he told me that you can do so much with this degree in addition to working for a funeral home. After all, people in law enforcement and pathology departments need people who are not afraid to be around the dead. This was a further incentive to go for it!
AUTUMN: What was the hardest thing about this line of study for you; the squeamish factor or the emotional aspects?
TARA: The hardest thing was the initial exposure to the deceased person who had NOT been funeralized. Most people never see what a body looks like before the visitation. Once I got over that, which was pretty quick, I was fine. For school graduation requirements, we had to have a preceptor who showed us the basics of embalming. We had to assist with 10 of these. My first two were in the same day. An elderly gentleman who had passed of natural causes at his home was the first. The second body was a whole different story! It was a middle-aged obese woman who was found dead in her home. She had been dead at least 2-3 days so she had been autopsied! Talk about being thrown into fire! That was a scary experience at first; but after some deep breaths, I was fine. Of course I had to step away and breathe a few times due to the odor, but that's just part of decomposition; I had to be exposed to it anyway....so sooner the better!
NOW as far as squemish? LMAO!!! EVERY embalmer usually has at least ONE issue that they have a hard time dealing with. This is where the "fun" begins and you get ragged on incessantly especially if you are an apprentice! For instance; my preceptor - he had a horrible problem with feces! He couldn't stand it. He'd rather die himself than have to clean up a body who had feces on them or still evacuating from the body. (yes, that happens). ME? Yeah, it's not pleasant, I mean face it "crap" smells! But I could tolerate that. What I have the biggest problem with is mucous! UGH! There is so much cleaning and sanitizing that is involved with embalming and the nose and sinuses are no exception. My first preceptor taught me his way, which I HATED, but then my second preceptor showed me his way....it was so much easier and more tolerable. Lets just say a hose with water is involved to flush the nose/sinuses. It's still nasty and I would still gag a lot, but the hose and water made things much easier and actually, as far as I'm concerned, cleaned out the area much better!
I can deal with crap, urine, blood, decomp, etc. but me and mucus....oh hell naw! LOL
Emotionally? That's a hard question. It varies to be honest. When you have an elderly person who has lived a long life and they die, that's not so hard. Yes, it's sad, but it's expected for a lack of a better word. I've embalmed the elderly, the middle aged who have lived a life of poor diet and had health reasons that took them early, the ones of varying ages who have committed suicide or have been murdered, the young children and teenagers who were either terminally ill or died in fires or other accidents, and then the infants. The younger the person, the harder it is I think.
Fortunately I only had to experience a couple of infants - assisted in an embalming of one. It's very surreal. She had been autopsied, but fortunately it wasn't a full post; meaning only her torso and not her head (an autopsy is always done to rule out foul play or other health issues unknown - I hate they have to do it to the babies, but it's to protect the parents or others who may have been with the child upon death). She was on the table and she literally looked like a little doll. My first preceptor did the embalming and I assisted. These little ones are very hard to embalm as their arteries are so very, very small. He had no kids of his own, but hated embalming babies - everyone hates embalming babies and children. It's a very sad thing to experience. Anyway, he didn't want to dress and cosemetize her so I volunteered. That's when it hit me. I'm dressing this little baby all of less than two years old and that's when the tears started to fall. But, I did it. I took my time and made sure she was just right! Her little dress had a bow and I had to make sure it was perfect. Everything about it had to be just right. I was told the family was pleased.
AUTUMN: Are some cases to just to hard to put together for a family viewing?
TARA: There are instances where a decedent cannot be viewed; or rather, should not. These usually include those who have been in fires and burned beyond recognition; we can't do anything for these people unfortunately. There are some who have been in severe accidents like automobile accidents and gunshot to the head, but a good embalmer can usually overcome that if they are dedicated and have pride in their work and their goal is to make the family happy. That is what was important to me. I once worked 16 hours on a young 30 year old woman who's new boyfriend of only three months shot her in the head and killed her while her two kids were in the home. I worked with her from the time she came into the funeral home in the body bag from the autopsy until I put her in the casket. It was my first major restoration. The back of her skull was blown into 8 pieces. It was like putting a puzzle together. However, I was determined that her Daddy was going to get to see his "little girl" one last time, as he was sure it wouldn't happen. Although I didn't get to meet the family, I was told by the Funeral Director they were incredibly happy and surprised how beautiful and peaceful she looked. I couldn't have asked for a better complement.
Unfortunately, you do have embalmers who are lazy and don't want to take the time to restore someone so they just tell the family that their loved one is not viewable. This is sad as the family has no real closure. However, there are some families who will insist to see their loved one. If it is something that is beyond restoration, we will discourage it, but sometimes, it doesn't matter to the family. One option is to at least allow them to see and touch a part of their loved ones body that is not damaged; a hand, foot, whatever. Or, in the case of a burn victim, if they can at least see the body bag and touch it and feel the person inside, a lot of times that helps give them closure.
AUTUMN: What are some of the weirdest things you've had to do to prepare a body?
TARA: People don't seem to realize that embalming is done for sanitation and the TEMPORARY preservation of a body. It involves many cleaning and sanitizing steps as well as chemical replacement of body fluids with embalming chemicals that serve to disinfect, sanitize and temporarily preserve the body for PUBLIC viewing. Embalming will NOT preserve a body indefinately as some think. What is weird is that the rate of decomp and break down can vary dramatically based on the individual; how they died, what medications they were taking, have a lot to do with the preservation and the "slowing down" of decomp until visitation and burial. The chemicals in their body and the chemicals we use interact with each other so there is no way to tell when a body is going to start to break down. Our job is to do what we can to get them through the viewing and get them buried or cremated. Interestingly, you could bury two people who are of the same age, weight, and died of the same causes, but bury them in two different places, dig them up a few years later, and one may still look like they did the day you prepared them! The other may be nothing left but some skin and bones! Climate and other conditions will effect the rate of decomposition.
As far as weirdness, I wouldn't necessary call it weird, just a fact of the lengths we sometimes have to go. For instance, you may have a visitation without an open casket due to excessive decomposition; what we have to do is put cat litter and charcoal in the casket with them in order to keep the odor from leaking out during visitation. Even with a sealed casket with gaskets, etc., there is always a chance of odor leakage. You do what you need to so that the family doesn't have to smell it. Not to mention, it manages to travel throughout the funeral home quickly and that is also not good if you have more than one service going on at the same time. But, even with all those measures in addition to disinfectant and deodorant sprays, there can still be issues, but a good embalmer does everything possible to keep it to a minimum. But a body is going to do what a body is going to do! This is why flowers were initially introduced during a funeral viewing...it was a way to keep the odor from being so strong and noticable to the family.
AUTUMN: Do you ever talk to them?
TARA: Funny you ask....yes, I do. Sometimes out loud, sometimes in my mind depending if I am alone in the preparation room or not. I usually introduce myself, tell them not to worry that I will be taking good care of them, and also that I would greatly appreciate their cooperation! The dead can sometimes be difficult!
AUTUMN: Why do you photograph cemeteries?
TARA: I have always loved the beauty of cemeteries, even long before I even thought about being a Mortician. It's a place of peace that is loaded with history. The carvings on the headstones can be so beautiful and they also hold many meanings based on what is on the markers.
The funniest one I've seen, and kinda sad too, was at Elmwood Cemetery here in Columbia, SC several years ago when me and my husband were out and about looking around. It wasn't a terribly old marker, date of death was around the 40's I think, and it was boring as far as looks go, it was flat. The kind that are more common today especially in perpetual care cemeteries. (This change to the flat markers make it easier for the caretakers of the grounds to mow the grass as they can go right over the graves). I can't remember the name of the gentleman who was buried there, but I remember what the epitaph said: "Here lies a bundle of mistakes" Can you imagine!?!? Makes you wonder if it was done by him as a joke or by family members being cruel! Unfortunately, I havne't been able to locate it again to photograph it. I imagine the cemetery had it changed or some one stole it. I haven't had a chance to call and find out yet what happened to it!
AUTUMN: Do you believe in ghosts?
TARA: LOL Does a bear shit in the woods? I'm sorry, I have to be a smart-ass every now and then! I absolutely believe in ghosts, spirits, poltergeists, etc. I have seen a shadow-type person and many shadow animals in an old home me and my ex owned many years ago. Both my ex and I have also heard many things in this house and stuff would disappear or show up somewhere in the house, noises, footsteps, etc.
I have also seen a shadow animal (probably a cat) at my friends house, and just recently in my Nanny's house where I currently live. I'm pretty sure it was my first kitty, Jupiter.
After my Paw Paw passed away, I was staying over at my Nanny's and heard him walking down the hallway. I heard his footsteps. I have always felt like it was him checking on my Nan and me. Once he realized we were ok, he moved on. I only heard it once or twice. I was 13 years old.
I want to thank Tara for this great interview. She is such a warm hostess on her blog that visiting her is like visiting my sister. Enjoy her blog and go on some crazy treks with her as she pokes around the woods and cemeteries in search of the afterlife.
at 2:00 AM