An essential component of our role as funeral directors is to maintain the sanctity of our work and protect the privacy of those in our care. Something that continues to trouble me is the prurient interest some have in the most private part of funeral service. “I want to watch? Can I?” It is an embalming they want to watch. In mortuary school we were told that the only non–official who could legally watch was the next of kin. “But why would they want to?” asked out instructor.
Some years back, I was interviewed by a young freelancer for a piece about Green-Wood Cemetery (my book about the cemetery had recently been published). At the conclusion of our interview she asked if she could come to the funeral home to watch an embalming. It was not the first time I had been asked, and, as always, I was taken aback by the question. After telling her that she could not, she spitefully cut me out of her article. Not very professional!
At one time or another many funeral directors have been asked that question by the morbidly curious. Some feign an interest in funeral service as a way to gain entrée. At other times a funeral director is careless in his/her thinking and allows a person into the embalming room. That is always a mistake.
A colleague shared the story of a funeral home owner who allowed a friend to keep him company in the prep room. When the friend’s mother died, he went elsewhere for her funeral. When his funeral director friend asked why, he responded by saying, “I feared you would let someone else in to keep you company, and I didn’t want anyone to watch my mother being embalmed.” The funeral director’s indiscretion cost him a funeral –and the trust of a friend.
Recently, I overheard a “videographer” working on a potential documentary ask a funeral director if he could watch an embalming. I hope the funeral director will have the good sense to turn him down
It is both morally reprehensible, and illegal, to watch an embalming without being qualified to do so. Please don’t ask us to break the law. And if those factors don’t deter you, ask yourself this question: Would it be okay for strangers to watch the embalming procedure of someone you love?
I was pleased to share my view of funeral service with Life. Death. Whatever., gleaned from the work I’ve done, the experiences of my colleagues, and the perspective of the thousands of families I’ve served over the years. Despite what you may read in slanted press articles (with the fringe and/or inexperienced being used as sources to further a false narrative), funerals are as important as they ever were.
It was my great pleasure to work on the National Geographic program Italy’s Mystery Mummies. I had the opportunity to work two distinguished anthropologist, one of whom was a living legend at the time. Dario Piombino-Mascali known for his work with the Sicilian mummies made it possible for me to complete my fathers research interest in Rosalia Lombardo. Dr. Arthur Aufderheide was the best bonus one could ask for. His nickname, the “mummy doctor” says it all.
My father for years before his death had an intense interest in Rosalia. He corresponded with the monastery about her numerous times and they put him in contact with a living relative of Dr. Alfredo Salafia who embalmed her. Through Dario I was able to put the pieces together that he had been looking for. Below is a blog post by our dear late friend, Christine Quigley discussing the program. Enjoy, Melissa Johnson Williams.
Embalmers and anthropologists
Three of my friends were on TV last night, and the program was fascinating! “Italy’s Mystery Mummies” aired on the National Geographic Channel at 10 P.M. last night (it will air again on Saturday at 7 P.M.). The team included physical anthropologists Dario Piombino-Mascali and Art Aufderheide, and Melissa Johnson Williams, practicing embalmer and executive director of the American Society of Embalmers. They had unprecedented access to the mummies in the churches and crypts of Italy, including that of little Rosalia Lombardo(1918-1920), one of the most perfectly preserved mummies in the world (and Dario’s favorite!). She was embalmed by Dr. Alfredo Salafia (1869-1933), but the ingredients of his formula have been a mystery–until Dario tracked down the niece of Dr. Salafia’s 2nd wife, who still had the embalmer’s papers, including a handwritten memoir in which he recorded the chemical components. They do not include the supposed arsenic, but instead formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin. Dr. Salafia was one of the first embalmers to use formalin (a formaldehyde mixture), but also secured Rosalia’s preservation by lining the specially-designed casket with lead and sealing it with wax, making it airtight. The team confirmed with x-rays that her body is intact, but did not break the seal, so she continues to lie in state at the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Sicily. Wow!
Melissa Johnson Williams and Alexandra Kathryn Mosca are two well-known and respected names in funeral service.
In this recent article I wrote for Next Avenue, three seasoned, and respected, NYC funeral directors shared their thoughts and experiences with me. They were hard to hear, and even harder to write about, but such is the reality in these dark days. Funeral directors are doing all they can, against overwhelming circumstances, to lay the dead to rest with dignity and respect.