A guest post by Kimerly McGill, Funeral Assistant with Gibson of Tayport

Having published a blog by an embalmer…. we’re now balancing things up with Kimberly McGill’s account of why embalming really isn’t necessary as a matter of course. Not only is Kimberly a Funeral Assistant with Gibson of Tayside, but she’s also one of the founders of Coffin Club Dundee! Over to Kimbo:

When I was younger, I always wanted to train to be an embalmer.  As a self-confessed geek, I find it a fascinating process, scientifically, anatomically and emotionally. It takes precision and I’ve always respected this art.

My dad died suddenly in Cyprus. I went to see him before he was buried there (they kindly offered us a ‘British’ style service instead of their usual 24/48 hour turnaround). I was taken through to the hospital mortuary where he was brought out in an ill-fitting coffin. I was in shock – it was the first dead person I had seen in real life. He was wrapped in a shroud. I reached out and touched his lifeless skin. It didn’t feel like him.

He was dead, and he was cold.

After couple of dizzying minutes, I took massive comfort in the fact I was there and got to see him, to reach out to him, in his purest form before he was buried.

When I entered the funeral industry four years ago I was excited about the prospect of being trained up in this skill. After a few months of collecting and dressing the deceased, I noticed that no embalming had taken place.  I stood and recollected my thoughts and wondered how it was possible? I thought everyone was embalmed? I enjoy the process of washing the deceased down, getting them dressed (and I tell you, even though I was working in a refrigerated room I often came out of there sweating due to the physically hard work it takes to get a lifeless body dressed!). If there were any sunken eyes, I gently placed some cotton under their eyelids which gave the eyes a softer shape and, more importantly, kept the eyelids closed. I would give the gentlemen a shave, if requested, and shaped their hair to match a recent photo. Once the person who had died was laid out in their coffin, ready for their nearest and dearest to come and spend time with them, they looked great! Sure, they didn’t all look like they were just having a wee lie down but, after all, they were all dead, and it would be concerning if they looked likely to just sit right up!  Anyway, I took comfort with how everyone looked after I spent some time with them, and it’s still my favourite part of my vocation.

When we have someone in to spend time with their loved one, we will always explain a few things. We don’t suture jaws closed, we use a plastic chin rest that is non-invasive, and is removed before cremation or burial. If the person who has died has a low-cut top and doesn’t have a neckerchief or anything that would usually cover the chin rest, we explain what they should expect to see and why it’s there. If there is any discolouration, which can happen if there’s a delay before you are able to see your dead, we will explain this. Most visitors don’t notice the changes that we do however. If there are any other things to notice, we will note these also.

I think spending time with your dead is a very important part of the grieving process, and in my experience, it makes the day of the service a little easier as the friends/relatives have already seen their loved one before being confronted with the harsh reality of them now in a coffin.

The majority of times, people are nervous before viewing, but we give them a safe space to spend as much time as they need. They come out saying the person looks at peace, or that they look better than they did in hospital because their face is relaxed and not pained. Some even think they have spotted a little grin!

Of course, some people come out upset. It’s a very final thing seeing your person lifeless. And if they hadn’t seen the person who has died in a long time, they often have deteriorated a lot in life – they may look skeletal in the face, or have a different skin texture – all of which occurred before they died,.

We also allow people to bring in items, which they can place in the casket themselves (rules allowing). They are welcome to change the position of the hands and arms, to place items in with the person, or even just to hold hands.

I forgot all about embalming until a year and a half later when I was speaking with a friend who is also in the industry.  We were talking about the work we had on that week, I mentioned a family visiting their person the day before the funeral service. I was then asked if it was me who did the embalming in the funeral home.  I said it has never been needed, or requested and in turn, we both looked at each other with the same horror – he was horrified that we allow viewing without embalming, and I was horrified that they do!  The deceased can stay, or return home, without being embalmed, as long as the room they are resting in doesn’t have the heating on full blast! We will go in to check on them and re-shave if needed, or carry out any other care required.

In the 4 years I have worked with Gibson of Tayport Funeral Home, I have never seen an embalmed body, we have never had the request to have someone embalmed.  Now the thought of it makes me feel uncomfortable.  I saw it all as a science before, but now the science that I’m into includes the natural changes that happen in the body after death. The thought of taking these people, and putting them though the process that embalming involves, unnecessarily, fills me with dread.

This isn’t even touching on the environmental issues – if you want buried in a natural burial ground – you must be in a natural state and not embalmed. This is due to the chemicals polluting the ground

It now occurs to me, that our refrigerated rooms provide adequate protection to slow the effects of decomposition.  We’ve been lucky that, in our area, there are rarely accidents that tear people apart, where the trauma would leave the deceased unrecognisable which is often the common argument for embalming.

As soon as you are conceived, your body goes through changes, every second of every day, we grow to our optimum health and then we decline. And then we die, and our body keeps changing.  Why would we decide to preserve a body once it has died?  Understanding and accepting the process of death is important to allow us to grieve.  Why should the deceased have to lie in an unnatural state, for then decomposition to happen at a later date?  I take comfort in my thoughts that once I have laid out the people in my care, that they are finally allowed to lie and travel to wherever they may go after that.