Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Q is for...


Well, I enjoyed having a guest blogger so much, that I decided to invite him back and ask him a few questions about working with death.  If you didn't see yesterday's post on embalming, be sure and read it.  Here's a wee bit about Jim...
Jim Wright has had an on again, off again relationship with the funeral industry since 1970 when he was hired on as an apprentice embalmer. Since that time he worked in funeral homes and embalming services in Houston, TX, Denver, CO and Birmingham, AL. After a stint in the Navy he hired on with the largest Pathology laboratory in the South, where he worked for twenty years. Now retired, he and his Companion, Zeek live in Amman, Jordan with their cat Umm Khalil where he writes and travels. 

And guess what?  I'm gonna throw a CONTEST inspired by being the 1000th commenter on Steven Chapman's blog yesterday.  All you gotta do to enter is ask either Jim or me a question on this post.  Easy peasy lemon squeezy!  If you become a follower of my blog, I'll enter your name in the hat two times.  Then, I'll get my kid to draw a name out of the hat tomorrow.  What do you win?

Issue 33 of Creative Nonfiction.  
I know.  Try and control yourself.
I'm in there.
And I'll even sign it and send it to you with a really cool bookmark.

Okay, here are my questions for Jim, but since I'm related to myself, they don't count in the contest.  DARN!

1. Did you receive any formal training?
A: I didn't go to Mortuary College, but received on the job training from some of the best (and one of the worst) embalmers and restorative artists in the business.


2. Did your relationship to death change after working with the dead?
A: I had had what some referred to as a "morbid preoccupation" with death since the death of my sister in 1959. I never viewed it with fear or revulsion, so I think working in the funeral industry enhanced my attitude toward death.


3. Any freaky stories? Corpses jolting or exhaling?
A: Nah, heard 'em all. Haven't been able to find one single person who's actually experienced such things. It was always someone's best friend's barber's second cousin (twice removed)'s next door neighbor's brother who had someone sit up suddenly, gasp, or some such thing. The closest I can come to it is a story from my early days. My mentor was teaching me the fine art of raising a vein and artery. Now, let me say that I knew we had three bodies in the preparation room. I was completely unaware of the arrival of a new guest whilst I was out of the room. I positioned myself to better see the demonstration when I felt a rather coolish hand on my backside. I have to tell you that for a second or two I thought the body population in that preparation room was about to be increased to five!


4. Ever feel like you're being watched?
A: Erm... well, I always feel I'm center stage, but I don't think it has anything to do with the job. Ego, perhaps..?


5. Have you worked on friends or family members?
A: Yes. The first time I was quite young and a long-time close friend of the family died. I wasn't sure I could go through with it. A great friend told me "You get back in there and do this for him. It's the last thing you can do for him, and he'd be proud to know it was you who took care of him." That was the best advice I ever got, and since then I've been given the honor of embalming several friends over the years, especially during the height of the AIDS crisis. I'm still grateful for the privilege of caring for the remains of my friends at the end of their way.

6. What was the most interesting aspect of your job?
A: There are a great many interesting aspects of working in Funeral Service. However, I think the best, for me at least was the opportunity to observe the seemingly endless facets of the human personality. I've seen family members and friends react to death with rage, resignation, simple joy, and hopelessness and every emotion you can think of in between. I like to think I have given a good service to the families I've served over the years, but I have to say that they have given back to me far more than I could've ever given them. They taught me more about the human condition than any classroom or textbook ever could have.

7. Cremation or burial for you?
A: For many, many years I've expressed my desire to be cremated and scattered at sea in the Mediterranean. 

Now though, I live in a predominately Muslim society where cremation is not as readily accepted. Since my Companion and our family are Muslim, I reckon I'll be buried. I don't find this as unacceptable as I used to because of the vastly different attitudes toward death and burial here. The Islamic way is same-day burial (if possible), no embalming, no casket. After the burial there is a week-long visitation at which the life of the deceased is celebrated. I think this is far, far better than the Western customs, don't you?

Okay, peeps, now it's your turn...


26 comments:

  1. Jim, what's the strangest thing you've ever found on a person about to be embalmed? And have there ever been any times where you've just had to stop and leave the room because the case was too upsetting?

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    1. Steven, I can't remember ever finding anything unusual on a body other than some interesting tattoos from time to time. I imagine if I'd gone into forensics the answer might be quite different. Pretty much every body I embalmed came from a hospital, nursing home or the Medical Examiners office, so had anything unusual been with the body in situ, it would've been removed before I made the first call.

      Thanks for reading and posting a question!

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    2. Okay, but were there times you had to leave the room because it was upsetting?

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    3. Sorry for neglecting the second part of that question. Yes there were times I had to leave the room. Many of them. The first time, I've already told you about in question 5. In the early days of the AIDS crisis I had to embalm a great many close friends. On at least four or five occasions I had to leave for awhile and collect myself because the sense of loss was just becoming more and more overwhelming. What made it worse was the fact that so many of my peers refused to touch the bodies of AIDS patients and some funeral homes wouldn't even allow them to be brought in. Those were hard years for those of us trying to serve the poor devils who were dying in huge numbers day by day. But, my reaction was to just leave the room, grab a cigarette and take myself outside to a long talk with myself. Many times I just wanted to quit. I'm so glad I didn't.

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  2. I don't have a question for Jim myself, but I just wanted to say, thanks for sharing these questions. I found the answers very informative, and it's opened up my eyes to the life of an embalmer.

    I especially liked Jim's answer to question five.

    "You get back in there and do this for him. It's the last thing you can do for him, and he'd be proud to know it was you who took care of him." -- I think that's excellent advice, and I'm sure it's an honour to work on someone you were close to.

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    1. Clare, I so appreciate your dedication to my blog. You Rock!

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  3. "no embalming, no casket."

    There's so many aspects of the burial process I dislike. Having people plug my parts will always feel like an unwarrented intrusion.

    So my question is: Why is there no embalming and no use of caskets in Islam?

    /Wes

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    1. Embalming is seen as a kind of disrespect that is tantamount to desecration of the body because incisions are made and the blood is replaced by chemicals. The body came from the earth and is returned to the earth, so there should be no barriers to the natural process of decay. The injection of chemicals renders the body impure. Islamic law instructs that the body is to be washed (purified), perfumed, and wrapped in a white shroud for burial.

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    2. For me, that way of handling the dead seems a lot more respectful and a million time less intrusion.

      Almost beautiful...

      Thanks for the info man!

      /Wes

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  4. First of all, I'm always happy so meet someone who says, "easy peasy lemon squeezy." I say it frequently and it's good to that I'm not alone in my super-cool speech. ;O)

    Now for Jim: What's the strangest request you've ever gotten from family as to the preparation of their loved one? Odd things to be in the casket? Weird hair or make-up?

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    1. My son says it all the time, so he's really the cool one. I'm just copying him:)

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    2. My oh my, I was hoping someone would ask this question. To quote Sophie Tucker, "I'll never forget it, you know..." I once buried a rather elderly woman who had become rather plump in her advanced years. She had given very specific instructions about her burial. All her rings were to be on her fingers, a strand of pearls and her wristwatch. The wristwatch was to be allowed to run down and then set to the time of her death. A particular pair of earrings were to be put in and her glasses on her face. With me so far? There was a particular pink (think flamingos) satin party dress with matching shoes she wanted. Inside the casket with her was to be a group photo of her with her late husband and family, a crystal rosary, a phial of holy water and a rather ornate crucifix. It was quite a get-up, especially considering the fact that she hadn't worn that party dress or the satin shoes in at least 35 years and 50 pounds. 'Twasn't easy, but we managed to pull it off!

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  5. New follower over for AtoZ. Fascinating stuff here.

    Jim: If you hadn't gotten into embalming, what do you think you would've done instead?

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    1. Welcome! Hopefully Jim will pop on over sometime today to answer questions.

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    2. Ahlan wa sahlan (welcome, and welcome in the future), Emily! Thanks for stopping by!

      I studied at seminary for a year before settling into the funeral industry. So, I reckon I'd probably be an aging priest right now...

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  6. In Peru, grave robbing is like a custom or family camp out. Any big diamonds or really nice jewlery go down with the buried?

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    1. Over the years I've put some gorgeous jewels and other adornments on bodies for the viewing and funeral. However, in each case just before closing the casket for the last time everything was removed and presented to the family. I have buried some beautiful woods and metals though, and that was almost as painful as seeing jewelry going into the ground would've been.

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  7. And, here I am finally! It's just after midnight on this side of the pond, hopefully not too late for the readers to see my answers for the day. I'm so grateful to Pamela for inviting me over to post... twice! I'm also grateful to you, Gentle Readers, for the questions. Now, here goes...

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  8. Wow, so very interesting. Thanks for sharing the guest post and interview. And I would love to win the book!

    New follower here. I’m enjoying reading my fellow “A to Z”ers. I look forward to visiting again.

    Sylvia
    http://www.writinginwonderland.blogspot.com/

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    1. I'm going to do the drawing tomorrow after my kids get out of school. I'm even going to post pictures.
      Thanks for stopping by!

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  9. Awesome post from both of you - great questions & answers! Interesting for me to see you mention Islamic burial customs, Jim, after the post of Jewish ones (and how similar they are). I like that you feel you've been able to find a compromise between your original wishes for your body and the way that the customs of the culture in which you live manage. to honor many of the same intentions

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    1. Thank you so much for the comment, Jericha! One of the things I didn't mention about the Islamic way of burial is that it is family members who wash and wrap the body in preparation for burial. At the graveyard, it is family members who actually enter the grave and place the deceased inside. Somehow, having the people who care most about you taking complete care of you from the moment of death to re-entering the Earth is so touching. I reckon we Westerners have such a horror of death that we prefer to hand everything over to professionals rather than "taking care of our own", as it were. Funerals on this side of the world are amazing affairs!

      Thanks again for stopping by Pamela's place and sharing your thoughts!

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  10. That was so interesting. I work with people who are preparing for death. I am becoming much more comfortable with the idea and may be forming a fascination..

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Comments are welcome and appreciated!