Good intentions aren’t enough when faced with a dead body

Todd Van Beck's picture

The writers of this manual, "Undertaken With Love: A Home Funeral Guide for Congregations and Communities,” have convictions, to be sure; they appear to have all the answers for the do-it-yourself funeral people—I mean ALL the answers—but we need to seriously and soberly examine the suggestions and convictions that these writers make which are in truth unfair, dangerous, and yes, even stupid. This is found in the chapter “With Our Own Hands,” the chapter which gets into the nitty gritty of actually caring for and treating a corpse.

This is not intended to be an article on embalming theory, but even people in our profession who are not embalmers will quickly see the truly unfortunate fallacy of just the following points these authors offer as wise and careful ways to care for a dead human body. There are many more, but I have selected the following quotes:

·         Page 21: “Unlike a living person the dead do not cough, spit, breathe or sweat.”

·         Page 21: “In the case of transmittable disease simply take the same precautions that were used in life such as the use of medical gloves.”

·         Page 21: “It is usually easier to care for the body soon after death before rigor mortis has set in.”

·         Page 21: “Remove medical items, supplies and as much clutter as you can to make the space feel serene.”

·         Page 21: “Transporting the body of an adult usually requires six people.”

·         Page 22: “Go through a trial run with the empty coffin.”

·         Page 22: “Before bathing, place a folded towel or disposable plastic pad under the hips and bottom, and slowly apply firm pressure just above the pubic bone to remove any urine from the bladder or bowel content.”

·         Page 23: “Mouthwash can been used as an antiseptic rinse to reduce odor.”

·         Page 23: “….you can wash the genital area.  If you are not comfortable doing this, an alternative method is to draw a washrag or towel back and forth between the legs a few times.”

·         Page 23: “If there are open or unsightly sores or wounds cover them with gauze pads and seal in place with waterproof medical tape.”

·         Page 23: “…….Although bodily discharge is not usually a problem … If you are seriously concerned you may place cotton in the rectum to make sure any leakage is contained.”

·         Page 24: “Apply makeup and nail polish if desired.”

OK I can see 99 percent of the funeral profession reading this with stunned and horrified looks on their faces, but this is what the writers seriously are suggesting—they are serious. Let’s explore their naiveté a little further, because I have left the best for last.

What is wrong here? Simply stated, the writers seem to actually have no knowledge about the mode of death, or in other words how people die. They have successfully created the illusion that most everybody dies at home, in a clean bed, no fecal material, no odors, no mess, no blood, no nothing except all kinds of family and friends around, who are members of a do-it-yourself funeral committee and on top of all that who are willing and able, competent and knowledgeable to do the following:

1. Remember to wear a mask when and if the corpse exhales on them upon movement. Corpses do exhale and inhale.

2. Have quick access to Personal Protective Envelope uniform.

3. Have a working knowledge of the chemistry of rigor mortis knowing full well you cannot assign time limits to the condition, and also know the impact of livor mortis and algor mortis, which the writers never mention once.

4. Know how to handle and dispose of medical wastes, blood-borne pathogens and hazardous waste products—in accordance with federal law, do-in-yourself corpse care or not.

5. Locate six people to move the remains at a variety of times and places in the middle of the work week.

6. Deal with urine and fecal material—and a lot of it at times.

7. Understand that mouthwash is not a post mortem disinfectant—gargling when you are alive is much different that disinfecting when you are dead.

8. That it is high risk method and possibly just nasty to run a towel under the genitals as the method of cleaning this high risk area.

9. Understand that a roll of gauze from CVS will not do anything to correct the odor and cause and sight of most bed scores. It will take much more that a roll of gauze and a jar of Vapor Rub.

10. Understand and fully appreciate that the term “discharge” is a candy-coated term which really means purge, which is most often … well, do-it-yourself corpse care writers, you just wait and see.

11. Ladies' cosmetics rarely are useful in the instances of post mortem stain, which is a real possibility without arterial embalming.

Now for the kicker. After all this information, after all “do this” and “do that,” after one suggestion after another as to how absolutely easy and carefree taking care of and treating a corpse is, finally at the end of this “With Our Own Hands” chapter the writers enter into the world of corpse-care hardball.

They cover the following subjects in only four paragraph: massive trauma or burns, autopsied bodies, sever obesity, infections (they focus in on septicemia and ignore AIDS, active tuberculosis and hepatitis), and tissue gas. It is with tissue gas they finally give up the ghost. The writers say: “Once started (tissue gas) there is no way to prevent the spread of the bacteria other than the use of embalming chemicals. If it is important for the family to continue with their home funeral plans, then a funeral director should be called upon immediately to embalm.” Finally concerning the removal of pace-makers so the do-it-yourselfers won’t accidentally out of ignorance blow up the crematory the funeral reform writers end with this: “Consult a licensed funeral director.”

These good folks, the do-it-yourself funeral people, have the right to do what they want, call who they want, and have any kind of meaningful experience that they want. I believe that with every fiber in my being. I believe that home funerals are good, valuable and we ought to seriously explore returning to those activities (see my post of 12/16/09).

Unfortunately the information these writers present concerning the actual care and treatment of an unembalmed dead body is just foolish. Frankly an unembalmed body is in reality a ticking time bomb, and when body fluids start escaping from the body in front of friends and family I doubt very much whether all the poetry readings, song singing and modern art will do much to lessen the absolute horror that lay people encounter this. It freaks them out when such distasteful things happen to a corpse, and happen they do.

So the writers go through one procedure after another to teach people to take care of a dead human body and in so doing how to avoid us, the funeral directors, and then in the end when there is big trouble, big issues, big problems—which most corpses can create in a second of time, their suggestion is to call the funeral director immediately. Personally, this seems unfair, condescending and insulting.

Let’s turn the tables for a minute. I was at a do-it-yourself funeral seminar once many years ago, and the usual witch hunt on the undertakers took off in full swing. The group naively went through the same old stuff about how easy it is to take care of a corpse. No problem. Purge? What’s purge? They went through once again all the mistaken funeral history, they went through Jessica Mitford line by line, and in the end the group was contented that they knew everything about what to do when somebody died. However even in this seminar, the old pesky issues of obesity, tissue case, murder, suicide, children deaths, accidents, war casualties, all the truth concerning caring for the dead came up and their universal conclusion was that, “Yes, I guess we have to admit (with a long lamentable condescending sigh) that in these rare instances we will just have to suck it up and call the undertaker—but be careful of them.”

As I sat and heard this, it hurt my soul to its depths, and for once my feelings were so damaged that I did not say one word and privately I thought of the utter cruelty and insensitivity of such a remark, and the group seem totally oblivious that they had damaged my feelings. I have the capacity and God given calling to be an experienced and trained caregiver to the dead, which for them made me look extremely odd and weird. For once I shut up. I hate being muzzled, but I just gave up and I walked out of the meeting room.

However later that very evening I did have one wicked fantasy. I thought about one particular person at this seminar who so smugly brushed me off, who treated me like a beggar, and who told me straight out her opinion of undertakers. Of course looking back, it was easy for her to do because nobody was dead, let alone dead of some cause and manner of death other than dying peacefully in bed. I imagined in my mind the funeral home phone ringing and this one snooty woman saying to me, “Todd our son just shot himself in our basement, come quick.” For a fleeting second in my pain and hurt I imagined I would respond with this angry, hurtful comment: “You want to do-it-yourself—that’s what you said this afternoon when you made me feel like a leper. Tell you what, snooty lady, just open up the basement windows to get some air then shut the basement door, and you know what, you keep your damned cadaver.” It is truly what I thought. It that not horrible? But I was so upset that is what I fantasized.

However it was only a fantasy, only my hurt and pain speaking, for out of my love for funeral service and desire to be helpful to others, if anybody called, even the self proclaimed anti-funeral people, and said, “Todd, our son just shot himself in our basement, come quick!” My instance response, like every other funeral director in the world, would be, “I am on my way.” That is the strength of funeral service.

I believe so much in home funerals, but a layperson taking care of a corpse after death … well, that stretches my understanding to its limits, because a 40-page manual (that is how long the manual is from cover to cover) that devotes only 4 pages to the careful care of the actual dead body, misses the target by such a distance that such well intended efforts by the funeral reformists end up being ridiculous. They haven’t a clue what they are talking about.

Heavens to Betsy, Robert Mayer’s “Textbook on Embalming” which really and truly in great depth and expertise covers the care of the dead, is 683 pages long! And even that monumental academic and professional effort cannot cover and does not address all the myriad possibilities that can happen concerning a dead human body. If somebody who has read the 683 page textbook and actually understands the information can explain the information and has passed numerous examinations on the subject and prepared hundreds of dead human being gets stumped at times with certain cases, what possible sense does it make to turn any of this important work over to self-proclaimed “layers-out of the dead,” do-it-yourselfers who write a measly 6 pages and specifically only four paragraphs  concerning the safe and insightful and care of a dead human body?

Giving a layperson, a do-it-youselfer, a piece of gauze and some waterproof tape to take care of a bed sore makes as much sense as giving 5 year old child cooking utensils and telling them to make a five course meal. The meal is probably is not going to work out, even in light of good efforts and intentions.

It is the risk taken in turning important activities over to neophytes.


Ah, it's nice to see I'm not the only one posting comments.

The folks I speak to in the anti funeral groups have no idea what the "raw data of death" is about...they think people die like grandma perfect, clean, white sheets and a loving family to hold her and as she glides off into the bossom of our Lord. As my teenage daughters wold say "Not!". Todd, as usual, you hit the nail straight and hard. As you talked about conversions last post, I think that any "do it yourself" fancier would have an instantaneous conversion upon packing an orifice...don't you agree?

The Simple, Village Undertaker from AIken, SC.

I am looking for information to teach me how to care for a person who has died in their sleep and was found that way. I need to know if there are things I could do for this person before making a phone call. In the case of a close relative dying and I spent the night with them, is there anything I can do, such as wash the body, redress it and then call? asap pls.

This is not a new concept. For the most part, with a few notable ancient examples, post mortem care has been carried out by the family and friends of the deceased since long before recorded history. Having just lost a loved one at home 2 days ago, I can tell you that preparing a body for viewing is not for everyone, especially those with severe sensitivity to odors or body fluids. However, personally providing your loved one's final care can be emotionally healing as well as cost effective. And funeral costs are no small matter. You can save thousands of dollars doing this yourself but you must be or become educated about local laws and know how to minimize the risk of disease transmission.

I am a RN so I have a working understanding of infectious diseases. This and the management and disposal of body fluids are essential to know but the basics are not really very difficult for most reasonably intelligent and motivated people to learn quickly. Wearing gloves and other PPE (personal protective equipment) such as a disposable waterproof jumpsuit, facemask and goggles are a good idea. If the deceased was discovered more than 24 hours after death, died from severe trauma or an unknown infectious agent, or other unknown cause, you may need clearance from the police to rule out foulplay and the medical examiner may need to intercede. Before deciding on home post mortem care, try to determine if any member of the household may be emotionally unable to cope with this decision. If this issue creates undue stress, I recommend calling the professionals.

Having said that, the funderal industry, while serving the public and providing comfort to millions of people in the US each year, is a muti-billion dollar per year industry. Many are now owned by large corporations but retain the original local family name. While many funeral directors are caring and ethical professionals who take pride in the high quality services they provide, they are also business people looking at their bottom line. People in emotional distress who have just lost a loved one are vulnerable to skilled salespeople and often sign contracts for services that extend far beyond what they can reasonably afford. Make no mistake that this is a lucrative business and there are many alternatives that the "salesperson" representing the funeral home is not likely to share with you. For example, in most states embalming is not required and neither is casketing. In most cases, caskets are preferred, but you are not required to purchase from the funeral home. Caskets can be oredered on line from Costco Walmart and others and delivered to the funeral home of your choice or to your home in 1-2 business days. Please research your local laws and options. Many variations exist in local laws. For example, in SC, if embalming of the deceased is not desired, the immediate family may still view the remains but the viewing may not be open to the public.

Most Americans find it distasteful to discuss death. Even our family, with many in medical and military professions who have dealt with death professionally, was not as prepared as we thought we were. Research and preplanning are key to carrying out the wishes of the deceased and saving thousands.

What an awesome funeral home that helped me to took care of my mother’s corpse, and gave her a befitting burial. I was so busy with office work that i didn’t have time to plan the burial ceremony but i saw testimonies about and i contacted them and they also helped me. They took my mother from the funeral home i placed her and took it to their FUNERAL HOME, they planned everything and all i did was to provide money and attend the burial ceremony and i must confess it was colourful and nice. If you are out there facing any problem similar to my then problem, hurry up and contact them on and see their capability.

You stated....Make no mistake that this is a lucrative business and there are many alternatives that the "salesperson" representing the funeral home is not likely to share with you. For example, in most states embalming is not required and neither is casketing.
In the Funeral Rule it states....
This disclosure tells consumers that the law usually does not require embalming.

The statement should read as follows:
[Except in certain special cases,] [E]mbalming is not required by law. Embalming may
be necessary, however, if you select certain funeral arrangements, such as a funeral
with viewing. If you do not want embalming, you usually have the right to choose an
arrangement, such as direct cremation or immediate burial, that does not require you to
pay for it.

Delete the phrase, “Except in certain special cases,” from the embalming disclosure if state or local law in
the area where you do business does not require embalming for a viewing or funeral. If you want to add
information about state law requirements, you can do so after the FTC disclosure. You should place this
disclosure in immediate conjunction with the price for embalming.
“In immediate conjunction” means that the embalming disclosure must appear directly next to
the price for embalming. You should not put the disclosure on a separate page or anywhere else on
the GPL apart from the embalming price. (See the Sample GPL at the end of this publication.)

This information is on the General Price List for the customer