Peter Abraham works full time in the funeral industry as an undertaker for a small family funeral director in Bristol. He runs the blog and Youtube channel Confessions of an Undertaker.
Hamish MacPherson: Can you talk me through how you care for someone has died?
Peter Abraham: To care for someone who has died isn’t always as easy as they make it in the films. Depending on what they have died from depends on what level of care you give them. But for arguments sake let’s take a typical text book situation. A person has died of old age peacefully in their sleep. It is my job to take them from their place of death to the funeral home. Depending if the family want to view or not will depend on what action I take next. If they do and I have permission to do so then I will dress that person in either a shroud or their own clothes. Sometimes embalming is required so that procedure has to be carried out also. Embalming in layman's terms is a bit like a blood transfusion where the blood and bodily fluids will be replaced by preservative chemicals. Usually formaldehyde based. That person is then put into a coffin or casket and put into the chapel of rest. We do have refrigeration at the funeral home and that plays a big part in our care for the deceased. If the family do not want to view and I do not have permission to prepare their body in anyway then they will be left as they are.
What are some of the changes that occur to our bodies after we die?
There are many changes that happen. The first is rigor-mortis which starts to happen roughly in the first two hours after death. This is the stiffening of the limbs. Rigor-mortis is a chemical reaction that happens within the muscles of the body and can be extremely difficult to get rid of.
It starts usually in the neck and works it’s way down. Another change that happens is decomposition. This starts in the gut where live bacteria start eating whatever they can to stay alive. This spreads throughout the body causing offensive smells and leakages. The abdomen will start to go green this is how you know decomposition has started. Another change is hypostasis. This is where the blood falls to the lowest part of the body. This is visible by red blotchy marks on the body. It almost looks like a sort of rash.
Do you remember how you learnt practically to take care of dead people? How to handle, carry, move, wash, groom, undress, dress as well as things that are particular to undertaking.
The first time I learnt how to care for a dead body was in a funeral home in a town not too far from where I was living at the time. It was where I first learnt what goes on during an embalming. I remember as if it was yesterday. I was just about to enrol in mortuary school and I was in the same years as this particular funeral homes embalmer. My career in the funeral industry started off as an embalmer so I quickly got used to dressing and undressing bodies as well as applying cosmetics. I learnt mainly at college the theoretical side of things anyway. The practical side was learnt in a series of voluntary work experiences in different funeral homes.
Do you remember if there was anything that surprised you about this when you were first starting?
The smells really, that and the coldness of the bodies. Even today I still wretch at some smells and can be taken aback by how cold some bodies are. With regards to embalming, the drainage of the visceral and abdominal cavities, we use what is called a trocar, which is a long pointed needle that is used to puncture the organs and remove bodily fluids. This is quite an invasive and vicious part of the operation. That I was surprised about.
In one of your blog posts you write about ‘bending out’ rigor-mortis. What does that involve?
Bending out rigor-mortis is the gentle manipulation of the limbs. Where an arm is stiff the mortician will flex the fingers, wrist, elbow and shoulder until the arm or other limb becomes flaccid and loose. Again by turning the head from side to side this loosens the stiffness in the neck. We DO NOT under any circumstances break bones. Sometimes you may hear this practice being referred to as ‘breaking down’ rigour-mortis but I can assure you no breakages happen!
I was really interested to read your use of the term death-care which is something I'd not heard of before. It's quite different to funeralcare, funeral industry or, the euphemistic, undertaking and puts the emphasis on caring for the dead person. Do you feel your work is caring for the dead as much as the living?
A large part of what we do as funeral directors is looking out for the best interests of our living clients. The term ‘death care’ covers a whole spectrum of care within the funeral industry not just that of the dead. Embalmers and morticians tend to care for the dead in the raw sense of the word. Funeral directors take care of the families of the dead. Funeralcare is the name the Co-op have given to their funeral homes. Why they have done this I do not know.
It seems like care of the both the living and the dead is something that we have increasingly passed over to professionals. Do you think that's true? What are your thoughts on this?
Death for most people is still a very taboo subject and one that people do not want to confront unless they have to. Years ago we used to care for the dead in our own homes but as time has gone on that care has been passed onto professional undertakers such as myself. However home funerals are becoming more popular and with funeral options ever expanding people are starting to take control back over their dead. I think that if a family want to arrange and carry out a funeral by themselves including looking after the deceased then who am I to stop them? In fact I would go as far to say I would encourage it and would help and support a family the best way I could through this process.
Are families and friends ever (more) involved in the preparation and care of the dead?
Short answer not really no! However families are keen to put the finishing touches to their deceased after we have done all of the not so pleasant work. I have had family members want to dress their loved ones before and also apply make up and do hair and nails in the case of ladies. In the Islamic, Hindu and Jewish faiths they do take charge of their dead by washing and dressing their deceased. This doesn't seem to happen so much in the Christian or other Western faith traditions.
Do you direct Islamic, Hindu or Jewish funerals yourself?
I myself don’t but the company I work for handles their needs. Most of the time they will take care of all of the arrangements. We are mainly there as a middleman to provide mortuary facilities and the use of our hearse of needed.
Do you think about how you would like to be cared for after you die?
Yes I have done. Working in the industry that I do my own mortality is never far from my mind. I do think it is best to be prepared and have plans put in place. For me at the moment anyway I’d like to be cremated and my ashes kept at home in an urn. I don’t want to be scattered or buried.
Just at home above the fire will do me fine. As for what I want to happen to me before cremation? Well I suppose I’d like to be embalmed and if family or friends wanted to see me then they could. I’d want to be dressed in my best suit and led in a decent coffin. Possibly an American casket.
Undertaking has traditionally been a male profession. Why is that? And how is that changing?
It is funny because the first undertakers where women! Mainly midwives or village medicine women. They would bring you into the world and see you out again. But as time went on men began to dominate the profession. Why this is exactly I am unsure? I can only assume that as people got bigger and coffins started to get heavier, then the industry needed physical strength and that is where men came in. The industry is changing and female funeral directors are rising through the ranks and making fantastic careers for themselves. But there are still the traditionalists who like things as they always have been and will keep them that way for as long as they can.
Has there been or is there a class dimension to death care?
The one thing about death is it is a great leveller. It does not matter how rich or poor you are you are going to die and your body will decompose and rot away just the same as anyone else.
We are all subject to the same laws and practices when we die no matter who you are. The only thing that separates us really is the size of funeral service you have. If you are very wealthy then you can have the horse drawn hearse, the gold plated casket, the fancy floral tributes and the huge church service. If you are not that wealthy then you may have to settle for a simple hearse, one flower tribute and a plain oak coffin with a service at the crematorium. But if you are referring to the actual care of the physical body then we all get treated the same. I have prepared wealthy aristocrats, lonely spinsters, pillars of the community and notorious criminals. All I have treated exactly the same. I gave as much dignity and respect to the criminal as I did to the Lord of the manor!