Embalmers – and what exactly do they do?

Embalmers – and what exactly do they do?

Embalming – a word that either incites curiosity or makes one’s insides squirm. This seemingly macabre word refers to the practice of preserving the human body to forestall decomposition. This practice dates back to ancient Egypt where bodies were mummified after death with the belief that the physical bodies are part of the soul and that the soul will be lost in its afterlife journey, should the body be destroyed.

Centuries later, embalming has become widely adopted in many cultures. In present times, it is done to better present the body for viewing purposes, a process which helps the family cope with grief.

At Direct Funeral Services, we have a team of four certified embalmers between the ages of 26 to 36 years who are from the Philippines and Malaysia. Between them, they share 27 years of embalming experience. Today, we sat down with our lead embalmer, Ron and embalmer, Laizel, to learn more about embalming and to hear their experiences, and challenges faced in this line of work.

Tell us, why did you decide to join this trade?
RN: Since young, this business has always been very popular in the Philippines, hence I was naturally exposed to it and slowly grew an interest in it.

LZ: I was inspired by my own family members who are in the funeral industry. They shared their knowledge and experiences with me while growing up and it was their passion and dedication that gave me the drive to continue sharing the knowledge, help others and fulfil the family legacy we have.

What kind of training or certifications do you need to be an embalmer in Singapore?
LZ: You need to at least complete the embalming course and get your embalming license in order to be a certified embalmer in Singapore.

The embalming course is a 3 to 6 months certification and it certifies that you have attended the course. Passing both theoretical and practical exams will grant you your embalming license. This license will have to be renewed every 3 years, by taking on the required minimum amount of educational training hours.

RN: We also attended a Basic Infection Control Course at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) that our Company sent us to. This is a required certification by NEA.

Can you walk us through the whole embalming process?
RN & LZ: Before starting on the embalming process itself, we will first disinfect the body before and after removing the body bag. We will check for any valuables or battery operated items on the deceased (e.g. pacemakers). These items will be removed and returned to the family.

With rigor mortis in effect, we begin the embalming process by massaging the body to relax the muscles. While massaging, we will start to set the facial features by closing the eyes or sewing the jaw together if necessary.

We then make various incisions at specific arteries to inject preservatives to preserve the body. While doing so, we will continue massaging the body to help with the flow of formalin and begin bathing the body and washing the hair. We will then use a suction machine to remove any body fluids from the stomach, lungs etc.

Next we will wash out all the residue from the body, clean the body and table before closing the incisions made. If the body has lesions, injection sites or slipped skin then we will cover them up with dressings.

Finally, we will dress the deceased, and groom them as per the family’s requests.

For bodies with special conditions like burnt bodies, how would you embalm the body to make it more presentable?
LZ: For first degree and second degree burns, the embalming procedure can proceed if we can find the arteries and veins. But in cases where the body is badly burnt and we can’t find any arteries or veins, the only way is to suit it up and wear some clothes. We also have to add more deodoriser to reduce the smell.

RN: But usually in these cases we will recommend the family to close the casket immediately, due to the strong smell as well.

LZ: In some other countries like China, they have 3D printing that’s especially useful for such cases. They print the actual face of the deceased (in silicon) but this is not practiced in Singapore.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in this job?
RN: In my 11 years of embalming experience, one of the biggest challenges was a case where I worked with a deceased who weighed around 200 kg. The incisions that we made needed to be very deep, as the first layer after the skin is fats and the muscles and arteries are below. I worked on this case alongside another embalmer as it’s very difficult for one person to do it, especially when it comes to the dressing.

LZ: The heaviest I’ve worked with was 150 kg. As a female, it is tougher as it requires a large amount of physical strength. However, finding innovative ways to solve the challenges we face is also fulfilling at the end of the day.

What are some of the job hazards that you face as an embalmer?
RN: Definitely the chemicals, and body fluids.

LZ: Chemicals, shampoo, conditioner and cleaning materials may cause skin irritation and explosions if the chemicals are not placed in proper storage. For body fluids there might be bacteria, viruses and diseases that may impact our health as well.

Baby cases do affect me emotionally, especially when I hear about the backstory of their death, it really drains my energy.

How do you manage these job hazards?
RN: That’s why it’s important to put on the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent such hazards as much as we can. We also have a specific storage area just for our chemicals and embalming products.

LZ: Yes, wear the proper PPE because that’s what keeps us alive *laughs* and we pray! I also like to head out to loosen my emotions and clear my mind. I like to go to Orchard road to shop and I also call my parents to share my thoughts with them.

RN: For me, I place my focus on achieving my personal goals and on my family, who are in Singapore with me. They keep me going.

This article is the first of a series of interviews with our colleagues in the various departments of our company. Keep a lookout for our next interview with the Logistics Department that will be released on 31 May 2021. Meanwhile, check out our Funeral Insider page to get an insider’s view on what life is like in the death industry!