What It's Like to be an Embalmer
Photograph by Michael DeFilippo
She’s young, she’s hip, and she’s not your father’s embalmer. (Well, actually, she might be.) She’s Jennifer Benson, a 32-year-old licensed funeral director at John L. Ziegenhein & Sons, and she represents the new breed of embalmer: female, fearless, and full of sympathy and healthy humor alike. —B.K.
• I work for a small, family-owned funeral home, so we do about one embalming per day on average. When I first moved to St. Louis, I worked for a larger funeral home, and we did 600 a year, about two people a day on average.
• I decided at 12 years old that this was for me. My dad was a pastor in a small town, and he was friends with the funeral director, who gave me a tour. I took one look in the prep room and saw stainless steel everywhere, so clean and neat, and the surgical equipment looked scientific and interesting. It also had that personal element of helping someone.
• I see embalming as the last nice thing that I can do for somebody. If I can restore them to a state where their family is able to say their goodbyes, then I know I’ve done my job.
• Embalming is required for public visitation, for sanitary purposes. It’s very important to help people say goodbye to their loved one, too. We close the eyes, and the mouth, which is called ‘setting the features.’ Also, maybe they were in hospice care before they died and lost a lot of weight. Embalming makes them look like they did before their illness. We bathe them, wash their hair, shave the gentlemen. It helps to validate and celebrate that life. And the preservation slows down decomposition.
• Two years ago, I had a very special aunt that died of cancer at 59, and they let me do the embalming of her. It was tough, but I knew her face so well that I knew exactly what she was supposed to look like. It was therapeutic, too, because I got to say goodbye to her in a way that no one else could. I got the best compliment of my professional career from her brother, my uncle, who said thank you for making my sister look like my sister.
• The first house call I ever went to was in Iowa, for a gentleman who had been dead for a number of hours. I was 18 years old and working at a funeral home as a student. Rigor mortis had set in, the muscles had contracted and gotten hard. When we placed him on the gurney, I didn’t know anything about rigor mortis, and his arm moved back to the place where it had locked into, and he hit me on the side of my hip. It scared me. The embalmer chuckled and explained what happened.
• In college, the guys either thought it was really cool to date “funeral girl,” or they freaked out and wouldn’t want to talk to me.
• When I was in mortuary school, I went to a doctor’s office to pick up a death certificate, and the nurse looked at me like I was crazy. She said to me, “You’re not a man in a long trench coat.” At this point, there are probably more women in the field than men. We’re breaking out of that stereotype, finally.
• I’ve worked with other embalmers that are daredevils. They enjoy skydiving and riding motorcycles. We don’t all sit there somber all the time.
• There’s a company that will actually fire cremated remains into outer space—that’s what they did with Scotty from “Star Trek,” James Doohan. They also have jewelry made from cremated remains compacted into diamonds now. The industry is constantly changing.
• My daughter is 4 and a half, and she’s been at the funeral home a number of times with me. She can play there while I do work. She’s used to it now, and she actually gets a little bummed out if there isn’t a deceased person there. I take her in there, and tell her what the person’s name was, and if they were a grandma or a brother or somebody. I’m glad that she’s not afraid of death. We have fish at the funeral home, and she likes to feed them, too.
• A couple of times I’ve walked into a Hot Topic at the mall, and seen all these goth kids and wanted to tell them what I do for a living, just for the shock value.
• We have so many young people going into embalming school who have maybe not even been to a funeral before. I think it’s because of TV and movies, like CSI or Dr. G: Medical Examiner. It makes it all less scary.
• I watched Six Feet Under right when it started, but it drove me crazy because it was so not true. The one that stands out in my mind was the episode when Claire takes a foot to school to scare some kids or something. That was the last episode I watched because it would never in a million years happen, or if it did they would be shut down immediately. Then my free HBO ended, anyway.
• The cosmetics for a deceased person are very different than for a living person—usually they’re a lot thicker. Men don’t typically wear lipstick, but you do have to do something to restore color in the face. I learned a trick from another embalmer, a guy actually: You take dark lipstick, put a couple dots on the cheek, on the tip of the nose, between the eyebrows, on the temples, and on the chin—the points where a blush starts. You blend that in with a flesh-colored cosmetic, and it gives them a lifelike appearance. I use a stipple brush to help make the hair follicles look more natural.
• I write obits, I have rebuilt flower arrangements, counseled the grieving, embalmed, done make-up, waxed and detailed hearses, mowed the mortuary lawn, vacuumed... There are no prima donnas at my funeral home. That’s why I love my job. Every day is different.
• The mouth of the deceased has to stay closed. But I always thought if there was a way to make someone seem as if they were smiling from the casket, and still maintain the sanitation, I’d be a millionaire.
• When I worked in a funeral home in St. Charles, some ladies in the accounting office had a little goldfish at work and it died, and they joked around that they wanted us to embalm it. There was nothing going on that day, so we actually did. When it’s quiet at the funeral home, it’s really quiet, and people just get idle and stir-crazy.
• Anything a person can think of, we’ve probably put in a casket. A lot of times people will put a golf ball in, and then when we pick up the casket it rolls down to one end and we hear this noise that goes brrrrrrrrrrr. People put in cans of beer, packs of cards, the person’s casino membership card, drawings of the grandkids, photos of the grandkids, you name it.
• I had a funeral where there was a beautiful mass, and afterward, the hearse wouldn’t start—the battery was dead. We were waiting and waiting, figuring out what to do, holding up the line of cars, and just then this boy in this pickup truck gave us a jump. It turned out that inside the limo, the family of the deceased lady was laughing hysterically. They said their mom was never on time for anything. It was perfect.