Writer Wednesdays

Writer Wednesday: Clearing Up Some Things

We probably should have warned you that a retired undertaker is the editor for our Stories to Take To Your Grave: Mortuary Edition anthology. 

D.L. jokes that he’s “retired” or “reformed” because he gave up his licenses in 2019 after almost a decade in the business. But he’s been around funeral homes his entire life–he was the fifth generation of his family to work in the dismal trade.

So he knows a thing or two.

And he’s got some edits…

D.L. says:

These comments are offered in the spirit of enlightenment, to make your future stories more accurate and entertaining. If it looks like a joke is being made about something, it probably is a joke. I’ve also added some more, well, “interesting” facts from inside the prep room that may interest you.

To make things easier, I’ve formatted this as a “question and answer” session. In all cases, I’ll try to not only answer the question, but give some detail as to why we do it the way we do.

Let’s get down to it…

Do you sew their eyes and lips closed?
No. We use superglue to ensure the eyes and mouth stay closed.

Embalming dehydrates the body, and part of that is any opening (like for a needle to enter) becomes glaringly obvious. Plus, the level of detail needed for that kind of work, especially an eye, is difficult to achieve at best. Superglue is both easier and better looking.

Now, I have “sewn” mouths closed using something called a “mandibular suture.” To do that, I pass a piece of twine through the deceased’s septum, then down under the jaw and back up, leaving only a small hole under the chin easily covered with makeup. Once I’ve tied the jaw into the position where I want it, I stuff the ends of the twine up the deceased’s nostril. Unless you know to look for it, you’d never suspect it’s there.

I should also add that mandibular sutures are fairly uncommon–in modern practice, most morticians use metal brads attached to wire that they inject into the deceased’s gums. They twist the wires together to close the mouth.

The main reason I started using mandibular sutures was that I worked for a cheap funeral home manager who didn’t want to replace the tool we used to attach the brads to the gums. I was having so much trouble getting the brads inserted, and to stay once they were inserted, that I started suturing instead.

Do you take their organs out?
Organs are always buried inside the body they belong to. However, they are treated differently based on what has happened to the body between the time of death and embalming.

In a normal case with no autopsy, embalming is done through a small incision over an artery/vein pair. Most embalmers go for the right carotid/jugular, in the neck. My grandfather likes the left carotid/jugular. I was a fan of using the femorals (in the thigh). 

I think the reason people think we take the organs out is the prevalence of autopsies in crime shows and other television. In real life, when an autopsy is performed, the organs are returned in a plastic bag in the deceased’s chest. There are a couple different paths we can take from that point, but in both cases, the organs are returned to the chest and stomach cavity after treatment and sewn inside for burial.

Where does the blood go?
Down the drain!

It’s not as nasty as it sounds. By the time it enters the wastewater system, the roughly 1-2 gallons of blood and fluids in the deceased has been heavily diluted and is easily treated by the wastewater treatment system.

Do you have to confirm they’re dead?
No. By the time the mortician gets there, death has already been confirmed by medical staff, be it the pronouncing physician or the coroner. 

For what it’s worth, it’s fairly obvious when someone is dead. In my nine years, I never saw a case where I questioned whether or not the deceased was actually deceased–that idea is great for a horror story, but not exactly a reflection of the real world.

Is Rigor Mortis permanent?
Ooooh. A rigor question.

Rigor is weird because it’s unique to each body, and can be affected by things like temperature. I’ve seen it begin to set in on a body that’s been dead a couple of hours, and I’ve embalmed bodies that have been dead much longer without rigor setting in yet.

If a body is in rigor, sometimes you have to “break rigor” by bending the arms, legs, wrists, neck, fingers, etc. This lets the embalmer position the body the way they want for a more appealing presentation.

But, rigor is not permanent. After 2-3 days, the body will relax and the stiffness will go away.

You may be wondering, “Why are dead bodies so stiff then?” The answer is embalming.

How hot do cremation furnaces get?
Another case in which the answer depends on circumstances!
In most cases, 1600-2000 degrees is where crematory operators want the temperature. But, for bigger bodies with higher fat content (fat being flammable), temperatures can approach 2500 degrees. 

There is always a fine line between being a stickler for details and using a little misinformation to make a better story, and I think I’ve done a good job of walking that line in Mortuary Edition. But I hope these answers will help make your future stories better, and that you’ll submit them to our upcoming calls!

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