Staging Death: Behind the Scenes in a Funeral Home

  • A lot of work has gone into getting this body to rest in peace.

    There is a quiet, strangely clinical atmosphere in a funeral home; it feels antiseptic, not unlike a doctor’s office. In some ways, this isn’t surprising, because both doctors and morticians deal with the same thing: the human body. The funeral director takes care of the body when the doctor can do no more, accompanying it and facilitating its last journey from the morgue to its final resting place.

    “Over the course of the year I traveled to funeral homes in various states, gaining access to spaces that most people rarely see,” says photographer Sienna Perro. “Rather than focusing on the context in which most people encounter funeral homes — frequently during emotional and distressing periods of grief — I was fascinated with how surprisingly normal they appear when only the staff are present.”

  • An open casket: It may not be empty

    Most of us don’t know much about funeral homes, apart from what goes on in the chapel or auditorium. If the casket is open, we may see the body of a friend or loved one lying peacefully as if they were asleep. For many people, there is comfort in this last serene image of the person to whom they have come to say goodbye. But a lot goes on behind the scenes to get to this stage.

  • A mortician’s arsenal of tools

    Losing a family member is a difficult experience. It almost always comes with shock, tears, soul-searching, and more than a little paperwork. Like just about every other aspect of life these days, death is a business; but, if handled the right way, it is a good business, offering at least some small comfort and closure in the midst of personal tragedy.

  • A bit of levity in a sad place

    “The deceased is always treated with respect and I always do the best job I can,” embalmer Karen Koutandos told the Guardian newspaper. “I believe that you have to care about what you do. When you stop caring, then it is time to leave the profession.”

  • Various chemicals are required for readying the body.

    The first person to get involved in organizing a funeral is the funeral director. He or she will be responsible for the overall arrangement of the funeral and dealing with the bereaved family. Initially, the mortuary receives a call letting them know their services are required. This can be from the family itself, or from a hospital or a nursing home. The funeral director then arranges for the body to be collected from the morgue and brought back to the funeral parlor.

  • A print-out of a photograph of the departed

    A mortician has many jobs to do once he or she has taken on the task of arranging funeral proceedings. These range from administrative tasks like organizing insurance paperwork, booking a cemetery or crematorium, ordering a coffin, printing prayer cards for the service, and arranging for a minister if necessary, to more hands-on jobs like preparing the body and readying the auditorium or chapel for the funeral. It seems lot of multi-tasking is involved in running this business.

  • A microphone to be used in the service

    There are many points to discuss and arrangements to be made with the deceased’s family. After all, the funeral is as much about them as their departed loved one. The deceased’s beliefs, age and profession are all factors to be considered. For example, a veteran may be given a military funeral complete with flag, while people belonging to certain religions may require special rites. Every funeral is different.

  • The office where the details of death are worked out

    Then there are the practical considerations like expenses; how much does the family want to spend on the funeral? All this is talked over and agreed upon with the funeral director. On top of having good organizational abilities, undertakers need to have the sensitivity and skill to deal with people at their most grief-stricken.

  • The focus of attention

    Like a surgeon, a mortician is on call any time of the day or night. After all, death can happen even on holidays. When the body is brought in, it is placed on an embalming table. Clothing and glasses are removed, and jewelry inventoried.

  • Doing some research on the departed

    Next, the body is disinfected all over. And after that, it’s time for a bit of a stretch. The mortician kneads and flexes muscles that have become stiff from rigor mortis. If the body is not going to be directly cremated, at this point it requires some preservation in the form of embalming…

  • This room has no doubt seen a lot of tears.

    First, the embalmer injects the body with a solution of formaldehyde – yes, the same liquid used to pickle animal specimens in laboratories. Following this, all bodily fluids and blood are drained from the organs. The bowels and bladder are emptied next to prevent the release of upsetting smells later on.

    The face is then shaved, whether the deceased is male or female, an adult or a child. This is done to remove any unsightly ‘peach fuzz’. Even nose and ear hair is trimmed or removed. An exception is the beard or mustache a man may have worn in life and with which the family would want him buried.

  • Funeral home rooms stand ready.

    Semi-spherical plastic caps are placed under the eyelids to hold the shape. The mouth is sealed shut by suturing it from the inside – through the gums and nasal cavity – and then it’s onto a more conventional kind of grooming: washing and styling the hair and cleaning and trimming the fingernails. Interestingly, according to Karen Koutandos, “It’s a myth that your hair and nails keep growing after you are dead; what actually happens is that your skin retracts, so they appear longer.” When it comes to applying the make-up, the aim is to make the deceased look as natural and peaceful as possible.

  • Not your average storage room

    The body is dressed in the clothes provided by the family. Occasionally, it will be encased in a plastic bodysuit first to make sure no fluids or gasses seep out – which, as you can imagine, would be quite unpleasant for the grieving relatives. The body is then arranged in the casket and is ready to be viewed.

  • A coffin gets a personal touch.

    If the deceased’s relatives have chosen to hold the funeral ceremony at the funeral home, then this will be set up for them. The room where the service is to be held is decorated in accordance with the wishes of the family. If requested, items like flowers, candles and easels for pictures can be provided.

  • Funerary props

    When the time comes for the service itself, employees of the funeral home are there to greet friends and family as they arrive for the ceremony, and to ensure that all goes smoothly and to plan. After the service, the funeral home will generally transport the casket in their hearse to the burial ground or crematorium.

  • A religious statue greets visitors to these rooms.

    “For the most part death is dealt with in surprisingly general terms,” says Sienna Perro of her visit to various – empty – funeral homes. “But despite the absence of mourners, small moments of personalization hint towards individuals who pass through this place. These details are traces of the service provided and merchandise sold — created through a process in which the deceased are prepped, made-up, costumed, and staged for an audience of mourners.”

  • The portrait adds a personal touch.

    “The final product is personal and specific, with a façade of tailored individuality that masks the reality that death is commonplace,” Perro continues. “The sterile quality of these interiors is underscored by the images’ formal composition — portraying death as routine, unremarkable, and inevitable,” she says of her photographs.

  • Record-keeping is an important part of the funeral home’s business.

    We hope you’ve found this behind-the-scenes look at funeral homes as interesting as we have. We thank Sienna Perro for having made this possible by sharing her photographs with us. As for funerals, as fascinating as they may be, we sincerely hope it’s a very long time before you have to attend any.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History
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