Late Night Drop Off

Working for a large funeral corporation could mean, one funeral home picks up a body, drops the body off at another funeral home, the body gets embalmed there, then taken to the correct funeral home for the makeup and visitation. You know, who ever is closest and available. That’s how it works.

So, being in the prep department, the only department with the  3-midnight shifts, and I am currently on the 3-midnight shift, I am hurrying to finish embalming someone to get them to the correct funeral home before my shift is up. When the 8-5 shift left they said,”Just a few to embalm, but this one needs to be brought to XYZ funeral home before midnight.” Sure! No problem! Especially when there are 3 people on the same shift. One dead person each, clean up well, extended dinner = great evening at work. No, we kept getting calls for removals, so the guys I worked with kept going on the calls while I embalmed, one being a very difficult case, but that’s not what this is about! The fact is, time disappeared and so did the guys…again! Well, they had to. Originally, they were going to take the dead guy that needed to go to another funeral home for me, but they had another call to go on far away in the opposite direction. This meant, me and only me would take this dead guy to the funeral home he needed to be at. I left at a quarter to midnight. It took everything I had, being so tired, to get him strapped on to the gurney and into the van. Did I mention this guy was just shy of 400 pounds?!

I get to the funeral home he needs to be at right at midnight. I back up to the garage and go to the side door, use my huge ring of keys(keys to all the funeral homes we service) to get in and try to remember the right code. Thank goodness it worked because I forgot my notebook with all the codes, cheats, etc. in it. I hit the garage door button, get back in the van and back it in. I can’t back in all the way since I still need room to pull the guy out, but with the back doors of the van wide open, the visual is pretty shielded. There are no available tables open to put him on(they have 2 and they are occupied) and no available gurney either. So, I’ll just have to pull him out and leave him on our gurney and just make sure someone will pick it up tomorrow.

Now, almost 400 lbs. Not a good idea for me to be doing this. Deep breath.

Let me explain how the gurney works first. The kind I am currently using has two handles under the main bar you hold on to. One on the right and one on the left. As you pull them, they will disengage the legs of the gurney. The right handle allows you to collapse the two legs furthest from you and the left handle, the ones closest to you. At least I had the right gurney (for big people), but it was old. Most of our cots/gurneys have only one handle that collapses both sets of legs at the same time while you are putting someone in. That would be awful with a heavy person! I won’t go into the functionality of these things and bore you, but there are more to them that help in accommodating various circumstances.

Alright, taking the deep breath. First legs down(most difficult)…second legs down! Yes! Just have to role him up a simple ramp into the embalming room. I turn the cot toward the ramp and BOOM! The end closest to me hits the floor hard! At first I thought the mechanism that locks the wheels out failed and even if I could lift that end back up, it could just do it again. All of the sudden, my hand was covered in blood. I grabbed some paper towels and went back to look. Part of the cot broke where it was originally soldered and must have hit the handle. I saw a little piece of my skin between the part that became unsoldered and the bar. Good God! Damn this rickety piece of crap!!

Here I am in a garage of a funeral home, after midnight now, with a dead guy on a horrible angle on this broken ass cot with my hand bleeding. I call the guys to see where they are. They’re still far away with their own problems, but tell me one of the funeral directors lives above the garage and to wake her up for help. She doesn’t do any physical things at work, just funeral arrangements. This could be a problem.

I call her because she can’t hear the bottom door to the apartment. She was awake but she was 2 sheets to the wind. Great. She made it down in her bath robe with toddy in hand – Awesome cuz I surely didn’t need two dead people on the floor. She saw my hand and said, “Jeez girl. Wish I had something for that.” I said, “You do! Have some more alcohol?” She’s like, “You’re still working.” I told her I didn’t want to consume it, I wanted it poured over my hand. She thought I was crazy. I said to her,  “You’re the one drinking on the job now and I want to kill some microbes…and I’m crazy? Please put that drink down and lets see if we can lift this end up and roll him into the prep room.”

Believe it or not, we managed. Drunk woman and wounded woman got it done. We lowered the other end when in the prep room so the blood wouldn’t rush to his head and permanently discolor it and so nothing else would fall out of his head then left him for the funeral directors the next day to deal with…and a nice warning note. Don’t feel bad for them. They have a mechanical lift to use once they have an available table to put him on.

I’m heading back for first aid, to clock out and get my own damn toddy!





A lady came in and asked about donation today. Many people do, but she was specifically disappointed after what happened to her husband post mortem.

While this seemed more morbid than death needed to be for her, it sounded completely normal to me. I always feel bad learning that a particular process catches someone off guard. It only makes the loss worse.I sometimes take for granted what I know about all this stuff.

She said, the undertakers took her husband and charged her over a thousand dollars to take care of donation for her, then her husband disappeared for over 6 months and the ashes of her husband unexpectedly arrived in the mail one day. Okay, sounds bad…but completely normal. This scenario is a particular kind of donation. There are other kinds and YES, you can opt for what you want, but some you have to actually qualify.

To clarify things, when it says you are an organ donor on your driver’s license, it doesn’t mean it will automatically happen. Organ donation on your license implies that after all life saving efforts have failed and you pass away, the countdown begins to procure the life saving organ someone may need nearby. You’re body and/or its parts are not automatically donated (some people do think this happens so I must state the obvious). Full body and/or parts donation needs to be requested or permission given by you or your Next of Kin. Your NOK should base it off your wishes but if unknown, do what they think is best.

Different donation types:

Immediate surgical for organs (heart, liver, kidney, etc. transplant)

What your consenting to on your driver’s license

Tissue or bone procurement (skin, bones, corneas)

Not as immediate as above, but can still be viable if done (at hospital or other facility and sometimes a funeral home – its often an organization, separate from hospital but may work within one) within hours of death to save a life or more! At the very least, these donations can increase the quality of life for someone and the time they have left. They could actually raise their kid(s) and finish opening that animal sanctuary!

Full body donation to science (long-term, short-term)

Long-term (what lady above experienced) is when the decedent is embalmed and various parts of the body are removed for well needed examination/study, surgical practice, and research. When all body parts have been used to their full potential(can take up to two years) and all parts have been returned to the donation facility (can be a University or State based facility for example), the remains will be cremated and returned to the family.

Short-term donation is similar to the above, but these donation facilities specialize in fresh meat. No embalming here. This is also very important. For even more practical experience, a doctor may put in a request to practice a challenging hip surgery on a recently deceased while another doctor wants that same person’s heart to examine either the affects of diabetes for an upcoming heart surgery or practice putting in a new life saving mechanism for instance. Some of these short-term donation facilities will happily give you a list of what was used if requested.

If you’re like the lady above, you’re probably surprised about that price tag on donation. You’re donating! It should be free right?? Not for non-profit organizations which are usually long-term (i.e., those I mentioned run by Universities or the State). What she payed for: removal of the decedent, storage and refrigeration until paperwork completed, paperwork – filling out death certificate, obtaining Dr’s signature on death certificate, obtaining cremation permit from county ($), registering the death certificate, picking them up and transport to the donation facility.

Not everyone qualifies for all the donation options, but some ARE free! The ones that are free are a bit more particular in what they are looking for in a donation and are usually the short-term facilities as well. For example, they may only be looking for dead people under a certain age, no diabetes nor infection. If a decedent medically qualifies, you sign the paperwork and get the ashes back in a few weeks. Some places even provide the urn rather than use a cheap temporary box. They may still require the services of a funeral home, but will reimburse them a flat amount. Splendid! I imagine there may exist in some states these short-term donation facilities who have funeral directors on staff. It would be more cost effective and time efficient…I’d imagine.

If you tell, your family, “Just donate me to science.” Now you know, its not just as simple as that and can cost money if you don’t qualify. Do some research in your area and be more explicit about your wishes if that is something you really want to do. If you don’t have exact options named for body donation, you could die, time will pass and you’ll miss the boat. You could’ve went to some good use man!!!

Oh wait! You could donate yourself to become a plastinate too! Put your name in the registry. When you pass, someone just needs to call Dr. Gunther Von Hagens. He might just want ya!

When Death Happens

The Reaper has visited, so now what do you do?

Assuming its not you, you need to call someone. Generally, if you have found someone unexpectedly dead, you should leave them where they are. Of course, if it doesn’t look or smell (if it ever happens to you, YOU WILL KNOW what I mean) like its too late to try resuscitation, do that immediately. If you are not alone, yell for someone to call 911. If you are alone, try to work in dialing 911 during your attempt to resuscitate and they can help advise while sending assistance to your location. Definitely call them ASAP rather than staring and OMGing it if you don’t even know where to begin with resuscitation. Plus, you’ll need to call them anyway.

Here’s what will happen. If it is one of your relatives who died unexpectedly at home (very common unfortunately), and you’ve gone through the above, don’t be surprised if police, ambulance and even the fire department show up. Different cities, towns, etc. have their ordinances for securing premises. Don’t be alarmed. Its hard not too, but try. They have to do what they have to do until they know the circumstances for sure. Once the first responders show up, they will determine what happens next and will of course have questions for you. If your loved one was under a doctor’s care, they will want that information to relay to the Medical Examiner or Coroner. In smaller towns, the Coroner may even come personally. Typically, if the decedent was under direct doctor’s care for something and is an older person, the Medical Examiner or Coroner may tell the police officer on site that the decedent is “released” meaning you can go ahead and call your local undertaker or have the officer on site call for you. Then the undertaker comes to bring your loved one into their care.

However, if your relative shows any signs that they have fallen or were injured in any way OR if they are what we call a decomp case (yes, obvious decomposition), it doesn’t matter how many doctors they had, it will become the Medical Examiner or Coroner’s case and they will determine cause of death. There are so many factors and differences that can come into play, depending on how the city or town runs things. For instance, if a small town doesn’t have a town morgue, they may be transferred to a funeral home that helps out the police by either holding the body til a relative is found or decides on the funeral they want to use and that funeral home may also provide the space for the Coroner to do their examination if required. Often, suburbs of a city will have their own police department but are a part of a large county in which the morgue is located in the major city. If the M.E. or coroner released the decedent but either no family is around to decide what to do or just can’t decide right away, then the police department will call their funeral home they work with or funeral home “on police call” if more than one funeral home helps out. You WANT this to happen. Don’t feel obligated to that funeral home if you don’t like them, but it will be so much better than to send your loved one to a huge, over crowded city morgue for holding that smells and where they are just another number. If they do have to go to this huge morgue for examination though, there is nothing you can do about it and you just have to endure it until the funeral home you have chosen can pick them up or until you have decided on which funeral home you’d like to take care of them.

If someone is on home hospice care and the nurse is not present during the time of death, you need to call the Hospice and let them know. There is no need to call 911. The hospice nurse will show up to officially pronounce time of death and assist in calling the funeral home chosen so they can come pick up the decedent.

Now, in regards to hospice care, I have run into one thing over and over and over and over and over again! The nurse is called, but quite often its policy for the nurse to stay until the funeral director(s) arrive. However, family from different areas want to drive in first and spend time with their loved one before the Undertaker (BTW, we undertakers never use that word but I like it. I like mortician too but we just don’t use them…sad) arrives. Okay, so they’re on home hospice. This means we all know this person WILL pass. What is the game plan? You should know this. Its actually okay to wait a few hours before calling Hospice if you know you are going to have family come in to say their goodbyes, as long as you don’t mind the delayed time of death reflected on the death certificate. This is mostly done when direct cremation will take place and this will be the last time ever family can see their loved one. Keep in mind, the nurse “on call” will need their time to get there as well as the funeral director too. It may take up to two hours on each one depending on time of day and location. Just turn off any heating pads, the heated bed and lower temperature in their room and they will be okay for those several hours needed. I’ve had families wait over 8 hours before they wanted their loved one to be picked up. That was fine, but they called the Hospice right away so they sent out a nurse and in this case the nurse had to wait there the whole time. Some hospices may ask you to call them out immediately even though you know you want to wait a while before the Undertaker comes. That’s great, but many busy hospice nurses don’t have that kind of time. Just make sure you have a clear understanding of what you want and what the Hospice wants at the time of death.  Also, when you decide the funeral director should come. Be sure! If you need more time and they are already on the road, you could be charged for a second removal. In a small town, they may be forgiving, but think about it. If its in the middle of the night, they have to get up, clean themselves up, get dressed, make sure they’re awake and get the removal vehicle ready…then they’re told to wait. Ug! They may have an early funeral to direct in the morning too! This same scenario has happened to me several times. We undertakers want to give you all the compassion you need during your time of need, but please, if you’re mind allows, have some compassion for the other bereaved family…and us? You’re awesome! Thank you so much!

Can’t go over every scenerio, but now we’re at a hospital. If the decedent was an inpatient, there should be a doctor to sign the death certificate, especially if illness related. If injury related, depends on injury and when the person passed away. If the decedent was in the hospital a while after being a clutz and falling down some stairs and they were conscience during their stay to attest to that, there should be no need for the Medical Examiner to get involved. If this is how the person got to the hospital and couldn’t ever talk about it, they will probably be examined by the M.E. All E.R. deaths also have to be be passed by the M.E. as well.

Die in public or car accident? An ambulance,police paddy wagon, or the undertaker’s van or hearse comes… depending again on city or town ordinance and what’s available AND where the decedent needs to go. Hospital? – ambulance. M.E.’s office? – paddy wagon or undertaker. Yes, even though someone might be dead on scene, there may be a circumstance where they need to be a DOD at the hospital and held in the hospital morgue. I’ll be writing forever if I explain everything.

Hey! What if its a gang bang shoot up??? Hopefully they all got each other so no one else gets hurt, then the paddy wagon comes in. I know in my big city, the police may make an arrest related or non-related to the shoot up and make them sit in the back of the paddy wagon with the dead in body bags on the floor by their feet. If you ask me, this is great for law offenders…wake up call!!!

The Cremation Process

The cremation process, from the moment someone dies until the ashes are given to the family:

I’ll keep it as simple as possible. When someone passes away, the funeral home or cremation business preferred is called. Please note though, if someone passes away in their home and they are NOT on home hospice care, 911 must be called first. Proper pronouncement of the decedent must be made and cleared with the county Medical Examiner or Coroner. Also, if someone passes away in a hospital, you general have a couple days (maybe more but I wouldn’t push it) to decide what funeral home or cremation business you’d like to use if you have not decided. I will go over the different removal scenarios next time.

Anyway, so you’ve called your preferred place for cremation. Again, to keep it simple, lets say you called the local funeral home and cremation is ALL you want for your loved one…no viewing, visitation nor service (maybe a memorial service down the road), just cremation. So, then the Next of Kin (NOK) or Power of Attorney (POA must stipulate you have right over decedent’s disposition) goes into the funeral home (when they are open) and signs the paperwork. In most counties and most states, you will at least be required to sign an Authorization for Cremation and a Certification of Next of Kin (may be worded differently) if you do not have POA. Also, if there is no spouse to sign the documents, the children are next in line to sign. So, even if there are eleven kids from 3 different marriages of the decedent, they ALL must sign. Its a good idea for someone to have proper POA in these cases. I’ve seen individuals have to opt for a more expensive burial because they found it too difficult to get the cremation paperwork signed properly.

After the proper paperwork has been signed by the correct individual(s), the funeral director fills out the death certificate with the information YOU gave to them and brings or digitally sends it (more and more states are on a digital system now. I’ll explain that more later too) to the doctor who will sign IF the decedent was under the care of a doctor who has seen the decedent enough and is able to determine the cause of death. Otherwise, the local Coroner or Medical Examiner will sign the death certificate and may even have to do an examination. This does not always mean an autopsy by the way. The funeral director will also submit the paperwork you signed for the cremation permit which is the first thing the crematory has to see before considering cremating remains. This paperwork is submitted to the County Medical Examiner or Coroner on every cremation case even if the primary care physician signed the death certificate. They will issue the cremation permit if they see a legitimate cause for death by the physician, can verify the physician AND if the proper paperwork is signed by NOK or POA. Cremation permits are absolutely necessary since this is an irreversible process and there is no chance for further examination of the decedent. The permits themselves can cost (from what I’ve seen) anywhere from $50 up to almost $300 dollars. Yep! The counties won’t do it for free!

Now we have the permit. We give this and any other paperwork demanded to the crematory. They may demand everything submitted to the M.E. or Coroner for the permit, an identification viewing or form filled out describing visual markings, etc. unique to that individual and may even need to see a copy of the death certificate. Again, all this varies from state to state and county to county. The funeral home and/or crematory should and may also require metal bands or discs (commonly placed around the ankle) with a number on it that correlates to the decedent’s paperwork and identification process and tags (placed on at time of removal, at hospital, etc) that survives cremation and is then cross referenced after cremation with the paperwork for identification and kept in the ashes (usually only taken out if it is known that the ashes are to be scattered).

Okay, the crematory has the decedent with all the necessary paperwork and they are wearing the proper numbered band or disc that correlates with their paperwork. The decedent must be at least in the proper, minimal container…basically a cardboard box. The paperwork usually includes if the decedent has a pacemaker or other battery operated device that the funeral director must remove before cremation. The crematory’s paperwork may also require silicon implants of any kind be removed as well. “Why?” you ask? Well, battery operated devices explode and silicon sticks to the base of the retort…not good. Both can cause severe damage to the retort. Even one tiny nick in the wall of a retort from a pacemaker exploding can lead to big damage. With every cremation that tiny nick can grow exponentially. Silicon just can’t be removed easily without damage leading to the same problem the nick started. Retorts are kinda expensive and generally not considered disposable.

There are different burners in a retort. The operator may decide based on how hot the retort already is, the weight of the person, what container they are in, etc. on which burners need to be started first. I suppose it depends on the kind of retort it is on how many burners there are, but for example, maybe the operator sees fit to start the back burners first. If so, they may ask that the numbered bands or discs always be placed on the ankle to ensure they are as readable as possible (away from the longest running burner).

The actual cremation in the retort may be around a few hours but can be triple that depending on the above factors regarding the burners and how old the retort is. Once the cremation is done, the cremated remains are left to cool for a bit then they are raked, brushed and/or sometimes vacuumed (all tools made for this purpose and this purpose only) out to be placed in a processor. The processor pulverizes the remaining bone into what we know as ashes. So again, as I said in my previous post, a very small amount of what we call “ashes” is actually ashes.

These ashes, minus any hip replacements and other surgical metals, are placed into a plastic bag with the metal band or disc I spoke of. The metal surgical pieces are all placed in a container in which the disposal is regulated locally and can not be returned to family.

The plastic bag of ashes is then placed in a temporary, plastic urn and/or cardboard box (often the plastic urn fits in the cardboard box and a crematory may elect to use both). The crematory places their identification sticker on the temporary urn and/or box and prints a cremation certificate. The funeral director either picks up or receives the ashes and certificate from the crematory and either returns them to the family as is or will transfer them into the selected urn or vessel. Then, the funeral director calls you and you come pick the ashes up.

There you have it. Without going into too much detail but enough for you to understand, that is the cremation process.

Ashes to Ashes

In regards to cremation, you can almost do anything you wish with your loved one’s ashes. However, I must hesitantly, first add there are public ordinances to obey. For example, cemeteries do not allow you to simply scatter on your own, but they may have a scattering garden you can pay for. The same with burying ashes on top of someone’s grave – Don’t go act like you’re having a picnic while digging a hole to bury your mother’s ashes on top of one of her parent’s graves just to avoid costs. If you are lucky, all cemeteries will do as ramification is remove them (if you even got that far) and ask you to bring them the permit and charge you the opening(digging) and closing costs for the burial of the ashes… and then they will do it the “right way”…or just ask you to come pick up the ashes. Some cemeteries require you to purchase a niche in a columbarium, a smaller grave in a cremated remains section of the cemetery or a full burial plot if you want to be next to someone else who is a full casket burial. I should also mention some cemeteries may not allow ashes to be buried on top of a full burial, but they may allow two sets of ashes to be buried in a full burial plot. Important if you want to be in the family plot. Most cemeteries are allowing the burial of ashes on another grave though, but be prepared! There are those opening and closing costs I mentioned, they may want you to purchase their urn/vault or vault(for urns) for the ashes and you may even have to pay for the “second right” of interment as well as processing and/or the perpetual care fee. Jeez! Also, ordinances in public areas outside of cemeteries are of concern i.e., off busier coastal areas, ballparks, regular parks, golf courses, etc. The common catchphrase for any unofficial, public area scattering ironically is, “Just don’t get caught.” I will say in my experience, more trouble has come from improperly using cemetery premises than other public areas.

Cemeteries encounter this often and are more experienced in catching people and recognizing the evidence if after the fact. Older cemeteries may not pay nearly as much attention so more people get away with it in those cemeteries of course. I didn’t know this funeral director personally, but rumors travel fast within the industry. Apparently, this funeral director’s conscience was so bothersome that the funeral director decided to do what I mentioned earlier -set up a picnic to switch out the ashes that didn’t belong there and put in the right ones rather than own up to it. I guess owning up and paying for it was too much to deal with. Obviously, since I am writing about it, that funeral director is dealing with even more having got caught… AND had to pay for desecration of the grave, then disinterment of the wrong ashes and interment of the correct ashes. Not to mention loss of licensure. OOPS!

People tend to not get caught in other public areas as often, I believe, because the public eye is not conditioned to look for it and its easy to scatter a little here…a little there…a little back over here…some under there.

Okay, so back to all the things you can do: Again, all the things above …just do it the official way or don’t get caught, Scatter at sea (official ways to do this too if you prefer), scatter or bury in your back yard or garden, divide the ashes and scatter everywhere the person loved to travel (again, don’t get caught), have made into jewelry beads and make some jewelry, a very miniscule amount can be made into a man made diamond(very expensive), mix into pottery you make (very good grout) or garden stepping stones or a sitting bench or tiles, can even mix into paints for your meaningful artwork, mix into your favorite succulent plant’s potting soil, go traditional and keep the ashes on your mantle to keep you company. If they do keep you company, the vessel chosen doesn’t have to be an actual urn. It can be a cookie jar, favorite beer or wine bottle selection (you will need more than one – an actual selection), cigar box, bird house, tea pot, or the time honored coffee can. That was actually brought to me before to transfer ashes in to. I am sure more people use coffee cans on their own than they care to share, especially for scattering purposes, but there is no shame in it. In regards to the coffee can brought to me, this was the decedent’s favorite coffee and was prominently displayed at the memorial service. Things like the cigar box, bird house and tea pot can all be retrofitted to function as an urn, even a permanently closed urn if desired. There are no limits to the imagination, so no limits to what you can do. I imagine in the future, one could opt to have their ashes rocket blasted…or brought into space. I am sure there would be significant ordinances on that blasted part or if you want them placed on the moon. Dang, guess there will always be THOSE limits.

A couple more things I should mention regarding ashes. In the funeral industry, we refer to them as cremated remains. When speaking with families, I refer to them as ashes. People are used to that and it doesn’t sound as harsh. However, in a funeral director’s mind, the term cremated remains is more appropriate because only a very small amount of a cremated person is technically ashes. Almost the entire amount of “ashes” is actually pulverized bone (what is left after the appropriate time in the retort). When a retort is opened after the appropriate cremation time, quite often you can see the broken up skeletal structure how they were laying. Those bones are scraped out and placed in a pulverizer. The end product are the “ashes.” The second thing I want to mention, now that you know what ashes are, is they can be dangerous. Yep! Dangerous. They are not a biohazard by any means. They are actually very sanitary, so there is really no need to limit scattering in that sense. I guess its just more of a stigma to the public knowing dead people can be scattered everywhere so its limited. Anyway, its breathing them in! Don’t do that! The small tiny shards of the bones have the potential to damage lungs immensely – I can go more into that in next posting. So, be careful transferring ashes and scattering them. Those in the industry who handle the ashes more readily have to be super careful, because constant exposure due to carelessness can even lead to lung cancer.

I could go on and on with things related to cremation, but what I just wrote about seems to come up in conversation most often. In my next post, it will be shorter, but I’ll talk about the process of cremation itself from A to Z since I do get asked that often as well.


Okay, this one predates my apprenticeship which I will go to these times when reminded of them somehow. I was still in mortuary school but serving my internship at a large funeral home. The program director of the mortuary school works with many funeral homes in setting up internships for students in which the funeral home provides room and board and very practical experience. This internship counted as a certain amount of credits toward my degree.I forget how many.

Anyway, I was assigned a pager and a very decent 70’s tastic apartment which was the second level of a house (first level was for lunch and occasional guests) the funeral home owned in the opposite corner of their very large parking lot. Already thinking of other stories from these times, like the gipsies, but sticking to this one…the floater.

I’ve learned to go to bed practically ready, prepared to leave at the drop of a hat(or person) when “on call.” The funeral home expected a response time of no more than 10 minutes if you lived on the premises and no more than 15 minutes if you lived across the street. Whoever responded first made sure the van was ready and even pulled it out of the garage for the other person to jump in. Three people were on call and expected to respond. They rotate for each death call on who does what. Last time I got the prep room set up and ready for the embalming, which they always do as soon as they bring the decedent back. No one stays in a cooler unless absolutely necessary or if they are to be cremated and do not require embalming(no visitation).

EVERYONE who worked there lived across the street or just down the block. The funeral home bought an apartment building and a few homes for their funeral directors to rent or buy (under a special agreement). In order to work there, you had to live within a block. They might have tolerated two blocks if you found something on your own to buy, just keep in mind that 15 minutes!

I was the first to respond but only by 30 seconds and I wasn’t supposed to drive anyway. We were responding to a police call. This funeral home assisted the police in transporting decedents to the Medical Examiner’s office for investigation if the circumstances required extensive PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) which means above and beyond gloves. The funeral director I was with handed me an all white, hooded, zip-up suit. These were made by Tyvek (big stickers on the chest). Now when I see the Tyvek insulation on houses/buildings in progress, I can never not think about these oompa loompa suits. That’s always what I felt like wearing them. This was my first time on the job wearing them, but got used to them in school.

We had pulled in behind a squad car (behind two others) on the side of the road near a bridge and alongside a river… in the middle of the night. After the funeral director had a few words with a police officer, he came back and said, “You will have to go ahead and put that on. Might as well jump right in! haha!” He was implying the job and the water for those not awake, like I wasn’t.

We walked down to the river’s edge and even without a flashlight, I could see what I’d be fishing for. The gentleman who had died was caught on branch of a tree that had fallen in the river and found by a night fisherman.

So, here I go, wading into the water to try and carefully unhook the poor guy. He had been there a few days they estimated. He was very bloated, pale, fragile and you could see every superficial vessel in his body. The smell…uh, yeah. Really bad. I tried my best to release him from the branch without anything…falling apart. I did a good job with that for the most part. Considering just how fragile he was, I did a damn good job actually. I asked for the disaster pouch (very thick, black body bag with large canvas handles). They told me to bring him to the edge. I said it would be better to place the bag around him, then pull him to shore, then just drain the bag. That was the only way I could imagine retrieving him in one piece. They listened and it worked.

Later, we did actually get the call from the family that they wanted to use our funeral home. A viewing was impossible and they said his wishes were to be cremated, they just wouldn’t get the visitation they normally would have had. Unfortunately, this happens and when a family that mentally requires visual closure can’t get it, its disheartening. I did already realize at this time that I wanted to be a great restorative artist for this very reason.

Restorative Art – this for sure needs its very own explanation…soon.

Switching Places

Eventually, sometime, somewhere something like this happens. Its human flaw. We wish it wouldn’t and never did, but once it happens, all we can do is everything in our power to make it better. The trauma it caused may be able to be softened, but never erased.

I received a call at what we call our dispatch center (where I am primarily stationed and where all the embalming and layouts take place) saying,”We have the wrong person!” EVERY TIME up until now, when we have heard that, we just made up the decedent  to look a bit different or better than the family expected, but it was always the right person. Here’s what we do here: We go out on removals, do the embalmings, take care of the “layouts” (last embalming touches, dressing, cosmetics, casketing) and even bring the casketed remains back to the funeral home in which they are to actually layout for their visitation. We do this for 26+ area funeral homes.

This time, it was most certainly the wrong person. You know how you can have a brain freeze? I think I felt my first heart freeze. Here’s how it happened: There were two gentleman with VERY similar last names and both had the first name of James. This blame was originally placed on me, being the apprentice and all. I was asked to fill out ankle bracelets, equivalent to toe tags, for decedents we were scheduled to go pickup and attach them to the paper work or “first call info” of the decedent. The funeral director(s) who actually go out on the call still have to initial the tags before placing them on the decedent. Needless to say, the funeral director(s) placed the wrong tags on the wrong gentlemen. Luckily, it wasn’t a double embarrassment since the second decedent’s layout was a few days later and not the same day.

The James that was in the wrong funeral home at the wrong time was even close to the age of who should have been lying in state, but no cigar. Surprisingly, the way I heard it happen, the son of the decedent came out of the chapel after viewing his father and said, “That is not my father.” The funeral director who was there that day, never met the family before and told them how different people can look after they pass away. The son said, “I assure you 100%, that IS NOT my father” and took out a picture. The funeral director agreed and that is when I received the call. Jeez…oh jeez!

We immediately scrambled to get the James ready that needed to be there that night and the company I worked for at that time gave them an extra visitation night and free funeral. Um yeah, just so you know, I used to work for a large conglomerate that owned funeral homes and cemeteries all over. This company comes back later, but still some stories with this company before I leave them, spend several years at an independent funeral home, then unknowingly come back. Yes, unknowingly. You’ll just have to stick with me to find out.

Anyway, the funeral director actually responsible for the mix up was simply moved to another position (promoted) within the company due to a racial slur made earlier in the year against him by a manager and the company didn’t want it thrown back in their face by reprimanding him for the current incident. So, they kept him happy and also from being able to repeat the mistake.

I know, I know. Not reassuring to know this kind of thing happens, especially if you are having your loved one cremated, but rest assured, these days there are many more “eyes,” forms, etc. that help assure the family, funeral directors and crematory operators this won’t happen. I am always happy to give the best scenarios for one’s funeral needs. Just ask. Happy to help.