Embalmer of the Year


Andy Holder

Andy is an outstandingly accomplished embalmer whose knowledge and professional skills are matched by his humanity and respect for people who have died.

Overwhelming endorsements from many of the funeral directors that he works with were the reason why Andy has been picked as the Embalmer of the Year. Unfailingly he was described as ‘a credit to his profession’, compassionate, dignified and dedicated, someone for whom nothing was too much trouble.

One lengthy handwritten account told how Andy was willing to go above and beyond the call of duty, responding to a desperate text at 3.00am from a funeral director who urgently needed help to restore the appearance of a lady he had just collected before her daughter arrived to see her. Another account told how he made an 80 mile detour while on holiday with his son to assist with an urgent repatriation case.

The only thanks Andy ever receives are from funeral directors, as families rarely if ever ask about who has tended to their loved one, but it is clear that the he is highly regarded by the funeral profession, and indeed really well liked for his deep respect for the deceased and his happy, helpful and positive nature.

Andy’s phone message humorously informs callers that he is “embalmer to the rich and famous” and indeed he has embalmed some big names – eg George Martin. But the vast bulk of Andy’s work has been for ordinary people who will forever carry a beautiful memory picture of their loved one as a result of Andy’s handiwork. Great embalming is part science, part skill and part art. Andy is an outstandingly accomplished and artistic practitioner. He always does his best, carefully and compassionately, whatever the circumstances or the time of night. He’s a great embalmer and a really lovely guy.

Andy is, in industry jargon, a ‘trade’ embalmer, i.e., a freelancer who works for several funeral directors.

Runner up in this category – Angie McLachlan

Repairing the dead

SIn Shanghai a funeral home has started using 3D printing technology to replicate parts of the face of a dead person whose head has been badly smashed and disfigured.

Chinese people reckon it to be of paramount importance to present a dead person at their funeral looking good.

The 3D printing process is reckoned to achieve at least 95 per cent resemblance. It is achieved by scanning a photo of the dead person and taking a 3D scan of their head. The new part is then printed and slotted in. The printer can reproduce hair and even a moustache.

It takes hours to do this. Conventional reconstruction using wax and clay can take days.

The value of embalming is hotly debated, the value of reconstruction not so. The value of being able to present to parents the reconstructed features of a child who has died violently is inestimable. The skills of the best embalmer-reconstructers are marvellous, their dedication amazing.

They could soon find themselves being superceded by a soulless machine.

A greener way to embalm?

Guest post by Hatty Stafford Charles of Naturensbalm

Embalming is used in a number of circumstances and for a variety of reasons.  If the body is to be viewed before or during the funeral, embalming will sometimes be necessary.  If the person has died after an accident or debilitating illness, the embalmer can do much to restore the appearance friends and family are used to.  It is also a requirement when moving the body across international borders and across state lines in some countries.

When a person dies, decomposition starts at once, although the speed of this process will depend very much on the environment with factors such as temperature having a significant effect.  Without  bloodflow and muscle use, skin will sink and dry out and the body will gradually start to lose definition.  Embalming has also been promoted as a way to combat the health implications of bacteria and viruses present in and on the body, although it is now generally accepted that this is almost never a problem.

The process of embalming removes all fluid from the body and replaces it with a chemical alternative.  This process plumps, firms and fixes the flesh, giving a more ‘life like’ appearance which friends and family often find more comforting.  Embalming also sanitises the body which may be necessary in some situations.

Traditionally formaldehyde has been the standard chemical used for embalming.  Formaldehyde is a highly toxic preservative which is used in all kinds of every-day products both directly and in derivative form.  Anyone using formaldehyde needs to wear protective clothing and its smell is an irritant causing headaches, throat irritation and loss of sense of smell, so efficient air extraction is also required.  In the United States it is classed as a carcinogen and, everywhere in the world, formaldehyde is regarded as damaging to the environment.   However, the sterilising effects of formaldehyde are well documented and its ability to preserve tissue is second-to-none.  For long term preservation, formaldehyde is the best compound available.

For the purposes of burial, however, this long-term fixing effect is not generally required as most bodies will be buried within ten days of embalming.  Even formaldehyde cannot preserve tissue indefinitely and, over time, formaldehyde will eventually leech out into the grave, so the act of preserving a body becomes, long term, an environmental problem.  Alternatives such as Naturensbalm are available which allow embalming to take place (including for the purposes of international transport).  Naturensbalm is a more natural PVP Iodine product which sanitises and fixes the tissue for a week  to ten days before harmlessly dispersing and allowing the natural process of decomposition to take place.  It is safer for embalmers to use and creates a natural effect which loved ones find pleasing.  Some green burial sites will allow natural embalming fluids to be used – though not all – and they are far preferable in cremation as they do not make toxic fumes.


Nice work

We’re all of us connoisseurs of fine embalming here at the GFG-Batesville Shard. In the last two days we have talked about little except these two above.

First, you see Bill Standley, buried on his motoring bicycle. The second miracle of the restorative arts is Christopher Rivera, shot to death but, at his wake, still standing.

We hope this may serve to inspire our native embalmers.

How do you pose a corpse in this way? We haven’t a clue. Do you?

Hat-tip IQ and Jed

Any takers for the real face of death?

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about embalming — a short piece, just three quotes, no comment. 

One of the quotes acclaimed the art of the embalmer who, by and through his professional attainments in causing a corpse, by artificial means, to be made tolerably presentable to the living, glorifies ‘the divinity in man‘.

A second quote congratulated embalmers on ‘protecting the physical and emotional health of the people of the United States‘. 

The third quote was taken from the Daily Mirror: ‘Nelson Mandela’s eyes were closed and he had one of his favourite colourful shirts on. He looked completely at peace and had what seemed like a small, contented smile. He lay in state in a glass-topped coffin – his face looking slightly bloated.’ 

I imagined the pro-embalmers reading the blog with self-congratulatory approval — then pondering the technical reason for Mandela’s bloated face. Embalmer error? 

I imagined the non-embalmers – the refrigerators – harrumphing at what I supposed they would regard as the absurd self-regard of embalmers. If you want to read some hot anti-embalming views, just have a look at the latest edition of More To Death published by the Natural Death Centre

I wasn’t surprised that the blog was greeted with silence — only one person commented — but I was very surprised to see a huge spike in the number of people actually reading the post. Heaven only knows who they were or what they thought. I wonder, I wonder. 

The main reason for making a corpse presentable  is to enable bereaved people to spend time with their dead person, getting their heads around the fact of their death. This is a belief shared by radicals and reactionaries alike — though not by Jews, who think it bad manners because the dead person can’t return the gaze. Here’s the great American home funeralist Beth Knox on the subject: 

Our dead are offering us a great teaching, and a great healing. They teach of the cyclical, ephemeral nature of life. They teach as we sit vigil, as we witness their departure. They teach an appreciation of life and offer an experience of the deepest love as we experience their loss. 

The convention is to present dead people, whether embalmed or not,  looking at peace — perfectly content to be dead. Whatever the degree of cosmetic intervention involved, from trocar to hairbrush, the process in all cases involves setting the features and closing the mouth.

However well-intentioned, no matter how gently achieved, the outcome is confected and artificial. You cannot ascribe feelings to a no-longer sentient being. Mandela was not smiling, he had a smile assigned to him. 

Is it right to manipulate the faces of dead people in order to achieve this illusion of chilled-out tranquility? The real face of death, after all, is more often open-jawed, exhausted, aghast. 

Well, we’ve been arranging the features of our dead since time began. We do it because we can. Any call for the authentic presentation of the dead can only fall on deaf ears and you’ll not hear it here first. 

But as between the embalmers and the refrigerators, the difference is only one of the means by which they achieve the illusory expression of stillness and serenity. They are brothers and sisters under the skin because their achievement in each case is the same: a white lie. 

There was a fashion in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries for presenting the dead in all their starkness as effigies on their tombs.

The sacred role of the embalmer

“In an age when the materialistic threatens to undo the mystical, there is place for him who in that hour of deepest sorrow is able, by his art, his compassion, his wisdom and knowledge, indeed, by his very presence, to minister alike to the body bereft of soul and to those loved ones who need both worldly and spiritual consolation and guidance. There is no greater art. The embalmer of tomorrow may transcend the priestly function, and by and through his professional attainments glorify the divinity in man.” Letter in Embalmers’ Monthly, 1936

“Embalming has played a major role in shaping our contemporary civilization and culture, in protecting the physical and emotional health of the people of the United States, and in making possible funeral customs and practices which provide maximum beauty, dignity and consolation.” Clarence G Strub, article in Funeral Service 1970

‘Nelson Mandela’s eyes were closed and he had one of his favourite colourful shirts on. He looked completely at peace and had what seemed like a small, contented smile. He lay in state in a glass-topped coffin – his face looking slightly bloated.’ Daily Mirror 2013

Location, location, location

Guest post by author and journalist Ann Treneman

Over the past four years, I have spent almost all my spare time in cemeteries for my new book ‘Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die‘. One of the key things that I have discovered is that having the right funeral is all about planning. There’s no point in dying and just hoping for the best. You’ve got to treat your funeral as if it were a major event in your life (which, of course, it is, except for the tiny detail that you are dead).

So, here, then, are three cautionary tales: three brilliant men who got their deaths quite wrong.

The first is Charles John Huffam Dickens, as his full name was. The man who wrote so much about cemeteries (not to mention grave-robbing) and funerals did his best to micromanage his own: “I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious and strictly private manner; that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial; that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed; and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band or other such revolting absurdity.” So what was the only thing he forgot to stipulate? Yes, that’s right: location.

Dickens died in 1870 at his home Gad’s Hill, near Rochester, Kent. Apparently that is where he wanted to buried but The Times newspaper had other ideas (just a tiny unostentatious plot in Westminster Abbey) and as this was the one detail that the hyperactive novelist had failed to mention, The Times prevailed. Thus, in the middle of the night, a grave in Poet’s Corner was dug. The body arrived at 9.30am by anonymous hearse. Only 12 people attended although history does not record if any dared to wear an “absurd” hat-band. But, even as the quiet event finished, journalists were banging at the abbey doors. In the end, the grave was left open for two days as thousands came to pay their respects, throwing in flowers. So not quite the strictly private event that Dickens decreed. In fact, not at all.

If only Thomas Hardy had studied his Dickens a bit better he might have been more explicit about what was to become of him. The great novelist had told his literary executor that he would like to be buried at St Michael’s Church in Stinsford in Dorset (the mythical Mellstock of his writings). “I do not, in truth, feel much interest in popular opinion of me,” he said, “and shall sleep quite calmly in Stinsford, whatever happens.”

But when Hardy died in 1928, at the age of 87, he was overruled and he was no longer there to argue otherwise. His executor Sydney Cockerell and J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame decided that he must, instead, be buried in Westminster Abbey, as close to Dickens as possible. (How ironic is that?) His family were outraged. Finally, the vicar at Stinsford came up with a classic English fudge: his heart would be buried in Stinsford, the rest of him, after cremation, would go to the Abbey.

Thus, on 16 January 1928, there were two funerals. The great and the good gathered in the Abbey while, at Stinsford, there was a much simpler service, after which the small heart-sized box was buried in his first wife’s grave (left). Of course, in the pubs, this was the spark for many a joke, including those about resurrection (where was the rest of him?) and speculation that, actually, a cat had eaten his heart while on the slab. But, I have to say, having visited both the Abbey and Stinsford, that I have no doubt where he belongs – and it’s not London.

Finally, then, we come to Byron whose will had stipulated that he was to be buried with his beloved Newfoundland dog Boatswain in his glorious plot that still lies in the ruins of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. But Boatswain died in 1808 and his master lasted (just) until 1824. Byron, of course, was the king of scandal, with rumours and accusations of infidelity, sodomy, violence and incest all playing a part.

No one was surprised when he fled to Greece, where he died while fighting for independence. His body lay in state in Athens for three days before returning to England by boat. But back home, it turned out Westminster Abbey did not want him. And the new owners of Newstead Abbey (he had sold it to pay some debts) weren’t going to have him interred with Boatswain either. So it was nearby Hucknall for him. 

The funeral cortege that left London was really most peculiar. The first hearse contained a coffin, the next vases with his internal organs. Many of the other coaches were empty, their owners having hit on the marvellous wheeze of “ghost” appearances as a way of paying tribute to the poet without, actually, being seen to condone his behaviour. In Hucknall, though, people queued for four days to see the coffin. Creepily, in 1938, the coffin was re-opened with the vicar reporting that Byron was, indeed, there, including descriptions of his deformed foot and his genitals. Truly, for Byron, there was no peace in death, though we should not be surprised.  

Ann Treneman’s book, Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die, is published by the Robson Press at £12.99. You can purchase it online through Amazon or the publisher (https://www.therobsonpress.com/books/finding-the-plot-hardback) or in all good bookshops. It is also available on Kindle.

ED’S NOTE: We read a review of Ann’s book and asked her to write for us. We are very grateful to her for agreeing to do so. 

Suit ya?

There are six Rosedale funeral homes. Headquartered in Diss, they straddle the Norfolk-Suffolk border. This is a gentle, conservative part of the world. If you’ve not been for thirty years or so, you’ll find it exactly as it was.

Rosedale is headed up by Anne-Beckett-Allen. She was brought up in the business and spent some years working for a group. Her husband, Simon, is a funeral outsider with a genius for creating beautiful spaces. He has converted and furnished all the funeral homes in a style you might term contemporary antique. They exude understated class.

We were delighted to be invited to accredit the funeral homes, and spent two very enjoyable days doing so. They all pass with flying colours; we recommend them without reservation. If John Lewis did funerals, they’d probably do them like this. You get the same level of service from incredibly nice, natural, bright people who love what they do. There’s none of the heavy-handed customer-service role-play you get in so many other British businesses.

So, all in all, a class act all round. Brilliant. We like and admire them hugely.

What do they do that’s different? That’s a question that misses the point. The way to phrase it is: What do they do particularly well?

One thing they do particularly well is look after people who have died with great care and tenderness. And this has led them to doing away with the mouth suture. Instead, they support the jaw in a gentler way using the device above and left. Clients are entirely happy about it and, as you can see in the photo below, when it’s time to fit mine it’ll hardly show at all.

Rosedale’s staff say it achieves a very natural expression. That’s got to be a good thing, because the suture is difficult to get right, often producing a parrot mouth (you should have seen my Mum).

The dead don’t mind the suture, of course. But, as Tom Lynch says, the dead do matter — and so do their families. It is difficult to defend any mortuary practice which might appal the living. The mouth suture takes some explaining and, as a funeral outsider myself, I still find it shocking.  

If you don’t know what the mouth suture involves, but would like to find out, think twice if you are squeamish. There’s a verbal description here and a series of videos here.

Remains to be seen

So, a bad week, then, for dead heads of state. Hugo Chavez can’t after all be embalmed ‘like Lenin’. By the time the experts got there it was too late for the disembowelling and the deep marinade which would have made him, in death, the centre of a cult and an object of pilgrimage – as writer Edward Lucas has it:

‘at the centrepiece of a phoney religion where dead dictators brood over their subjects even in death. So long as they are unburied, their ideas still live.’

Meanwhile, here in the UK, the tug-of-war over the bones of Richard III has been lent intensity by the declared intention of the top chaps at Leicester to rebury him under a simple slab at the east end of the cathedral. Not good enough for a king, complain critics. “A king should not be buried under the floor,” said John Ashdown-Hill, leader of genealogical research for the Richard III Society. “He should have a tomb rather than being put back under the ground where he’s just been dug up.”

All of which focuses the mind on the significance we attach to dead bodies, the things we do to them and the reasons why we do them.

Different societies, different faiths do things differently. Some hurry their dead underground, the sooner that they might wake up in Paradise. Others, for a variety of reasons, proceed more slowly. Thanks to bureaucratic obstacles it can take up to three weeks to arrange a cremation in this country which, for the corpse, means a lot of time spent in fridges and cold rooms growing waxier and waxier.

Many undertakers reckon this to be no bad thing. ‘It’s okay, take your time,’ they say to bereaved people. So they can get their heads around it, they mean, and plan the sort of sendoff they need. And there’s a lot to be said for this. Most people don’t start thinking about this stuff til they absolutely have to.

Spending time with the dead body is reckoned also to be therapeutic. And this is why some undertakers are fans of embalming. It produces an emotionally valuable memory picture – a dead person at ease with their fate. It is the technological, artificial Good Death.

For reasons ranging from its invasiveness to the way it is reckoned to distance bereaved people from reality, embalming has its enemies among ‘ordinary’ people and also among the inhabitants of Funeralworld itself. The absolute sincerity of those at both poles of the argument is undoubtable.

Here is undertaker Caitlin Doughty:

“An embalmed body, … it is not an actual dead body in a way. It’s a strange wax effigy that the dead body has become. You’re not really seeing a dead person—you’re seeing an idea of a dead person, a metaphor for a dead person.”

But Doughty is no fan of direct cremation, either, which she sees as the legacy of the (very English) derision heaped by Jessica Mitford on the Great American Funeral:

“My main problem [with Jessica Mitford] is that she really brought on the direct cremation revolution. It is a valuable service. It is a less expensive service. It’s another way of saying, ‘Take the body away. … Don’t let it rot at all. Turn it to ash. … I don’t want to think about any of the processes that the body would actually go through in a natural way.'”

Doughty believes that the contemplation of an unembalmed dead body is important:

“The ecstasy of decay is … kind of like the idea of the sublime, in the sense that if you are really engaging with your mortality … it opens you up to a broader emotional spectrum than you normally have.”

We find these sentiments echoed by many thinking undertakers in this country. To observe the changes that take place in a dead person over a period of days enables the bereaved to comprehend what has happened and accept that it’s time, in the end, to let the dead person go.

The contemplation of the corpse also, to use the words of Jonathan Taylor, enables bereaved people to reconcile themselves to the new reality: that he or she is now an it; that whatever spirit or life force the corpse once embodied has gone. Elvis has left the building.

But even the let’s-get-real school of undertaking baulks at presenting the corpse as it really, actually is: gape-jawed, staring-eyed, aghast. These undertakers are prettifiers, too. Television mirrors this denial of reality. On a death porn programme like Silent Witness we are invited to gloat over hideous injuries… but all those mutilated corpses have perfectly closed mouths and eyes. Real, gape-jawed death is, it seems, an unbearable reality, a squirm too far.

How most living people feel dead people should be cared for, or not, and to what purpose, is mostly subjective, based in local cultural and/or faith norms. They tend not to ask why; they just go with what they feel to be, or are told is, right. And that may be perfectly okay. There’s no rational route through this.

What people understand about death is unlikely to stand still as they experience the deaths of friends and become aware of their own one-way journey as evidenced by irrevocable signs of ageing – except in the case of extreme deniers.

And for all of us it just got more complicated.

In the US, Sam Parnia, who has worked with Peter Fenwick to research continuing consciousness, or life after death, has been pioneering a technique for reviving the dead by cooling them in order to reverse the cellular processes that take place after death.

In this way, he was able to revive a woman who had been technically dead for up to 16 hours.

Parnia says:

In view of the rapidly evolving progress in the field of resuscitation science and the ever-expanding gray-zone period after death, I believe it is important to include what we would refer to as human consciousness, psyche or soul in future definitions and considerations regarding death. It would also perhaps be wise to concentrate some of our future research efforts on understanding the state of human consciousness after death has started, since the evidence currently suggests that it is not lost immediately after death but continues to exist for at least some time afterward.

In other words, if our mind continues to exist after death, how long does it exist for? And why?

This may give our contemplation of the dead a whole new lease of life.

The f-word

Some people in Funeralworld get in a pickle about formaldehyde. It’s an f-word. Natural buriers won’t have it. Embalmers get cancer from it. MDF coffins are damnably full of it. It’s bad. 

How bad? 

The World Health Organisation published its own findings as long ago as 1991. I’m grateful to the Funeral Consumers Alliance for putting us on to it. The findings are illuminating. Here are some extracts: 

Under atmospheric conditions, formaldehyde is readily photooxidized by sunlight to carbon dioxide. 

Formaldehyde kills viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, and has found wide use as a fumigant. It is a disinfectant with a broad efficiency

There is some natural formaldehyde in raw food 

Formaldehyde is readily absorbed via the respiratory and gastrointestinal routes. Dermal absorption of formaldehyde appears to be very slight. Increases in blood concentrations of formaldehyde were not detected in rats or human beings exposed to formaldehyde through inhalation, because of rapid metabolism.

Formaldehyde is carcinogenic in rats and mice. It produced nasal squamous cell carcinomas in rats exposed to high concentrations (17.2 mg/m3) … [Among humans] the causal role of formaldehyde is considered likely only for nasal and nasopharyngeal cancer. 

Areas in which formaldehyde is handled must be well ventilated. Normally, mechanical ventilation is necessary. 

Formaldehyde is widely present in the environment, as a result of natural processes and from man-made sources. 

Formaldehyde in soil and water is … biodegraded in a relatively short time. 

Formaldehyde is toxic for several aquatic organisms, but its ready biodegradability, low bioaccumulation, and the ability of organisms to metabolize it indicate that the impact of formaldehyde on the aquatic environment is limited, except in the case of major pollution. Similar considerations apply to the atmosphere and the terrestrial environment where hazards will only occur when massive discharges or releases lead to major local pollution. The non-persistence of formaldehyde means that effects will not be permanent.

Full WHO report here