An important and necessary job that many people never think about is that of an embalmer, also known as mortician and undertaker. The name may bring up visions of a dank and creepy morgue filled with stereotypical dark characters. The vision is highly inaccurate, however. Those who work in this industry are skilled, dedicated and caring individuals who see their profession as a way to treat the deceased and their families with dignity and respect. In recent years several reality shows have given television viewers an honest look at what it is like to run a funeral home. They are often a family-run business, carried on for many generations. Embalming is considered an art and a science, and it is a highly respected profession.
Although the practice of embalming goes back to ancient Egypt, it became more popular in America after the Civil War. Not only did people want to have a last look at their loved ones before burial, modern notions of health and sanitation viewed embalming as important to community health. During the past 30 years embalming has become common in most countries. The funeral industry itself has grown and is now a necessary and lucrative part of modern society around the world. Embalming practices differ according to culture, although regulations in many countries involve specific requirements that must be followed regardless of culture.
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When a person dies, the embalmer prepares the body for burial. This is not done with long-term preservation as a goal, but simply to prevent deterioration during the period before the funeral and to improve the condition of the body, should family members wish a viewing. The work can be very creative and artistic, finding ways to restore bodies to a natural appearance. It involves working with precision tools and instruments, following rules in a highly organized process. Tasks include:
cosmetic or restorative work to improve appearance
post-trauma facial reconstruction
embalming and preserving the body, removing body fluids and injecting preservative chemicals, disinfecting and sanitizing
dressing the deceased and placing the body in the casket
keeping records and assisting in funeral home maintenance
Sometimes the embalmer also serves as funeral director, caring for all aspects of funeral preparation and helping families complete necessary paperwork.
Many countries do not have specific educational requirements to become an embalmer, although there are certain school subjects that are very helpful, such as cosmetology studies, anatomy, science, biology, chemistry, and language arts. Although many embalmers learn as part of a family business, licensing regulations in countries such as the U.S. or Canada involve specific educational requirements. Certification in the U.S. requires at least a bachelor or associate degree in mortuary science. These programs include courses in embalming and restorative techniques, as well as ethics, grief counseling, business law, and funeral services. An apprenticeship under the supervision of a licensed funeral director is also necessary, lasting from one to three years. National and State board examinations must be taken.
In Canada minimum education is one-year of postsecondary training, but most employers in the profession prefer a two-year Embalmer Licensure program or the equivalent. Several online/distance programs are available. These require a high school diploma and minimum marks in Biology and Chemistry for acceptance, and students need to be sponsored by a funeral home where they can complete the work experience component. There are also seminars and workshops to help workers stay current and learn new aspects of their craft. In the U.K. no formal qualifications are required, but training is available through two-year courses that lead to licensing and accreditation.
Licensing and regulation varies from country to country, but most embalmers need some type of certification, particularly if they are also acting as funeral directors. Many countries also require continuing education credits to maintain certification.
Some of the personal characteristics that are important for an individual considering this career include:
physical strength and stamina
emotional stability and good mental health
an interest in science, art, and clinical or medical topics
good manual dexterity
interpersonal skills and a compassionate and caring attitude
good time-management ability
understanding and respect for different cultures and religious beliefs
The embalmer usually works in a funeral home, morgue or crematory. Work is done under surgical conditions in a preparation area or casket. Specific health and safety regulations must be followed. Some heavy lifting is involved. The profession tends to be more common in larger urban centers, as small towns often do not have the necessary facilities or the tradition of embalming.
In large funeral homes the work tends to follow normal office hours, although some evening work may be involved. In small or family-run establishments, work hours can be variable. If the embalmer is also the funeral director, he or she may be on-call and work extended hours, evenings, and weekends. Most of the time embalming and preparation for funeral needs to be completed quickly, within 24 to 72 hours after death, and bodies may need to be retrieved and prepared at all hours of the day or night.
Although the mood of the workplace is generally quiet and somber, the work can be very stressful and emotionally taxing.
Actual salary depends on location. In Canada the average wage for embalmers is approximately $25 an hour. In the U.S. the median annual wage in 2010 was $54,000, but can go as high as $98,000. In the U.K. wages range in the vicinity of £18,000 a year. Although there are greater numbers of baby boomers aging and dying, many choose cremation over embalming services, so work opportunities remain relatively static. Embalmers who work as funeral directors will likely see increased job prospects.