Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My first encounter - Embalming

I have always wonder what goes on behind closed door in the backyard of a funeral parlor. Did anyone of you ever wonder? Since kiddo, I am both inquisitive and yet scare to know. I heard rumors that the undertakers will take off the whole organs of the dead persons. Imagine a person holding up the whole bloody looking lungs, heart, intestines....etc.

I know this topic is both gross and morbid. However my curiosity was answered. I witnessed a total embalming procedure. This is due to one of my patient passing away.

When I got his file, I read through his history and as usual did my house visit. Ah Tan lived with his wife and three children in a four-room HDB in the West. He was a lorry driver. His wife was a homemaker. One elder boy just got into secondary one, second girl in Primary 5 and one boy in Primary one. The company that Mr Tan worked with has been giving them money since he was sick. They had insurance and the wife family also supported them financially.

When we arrived, a young lady opened the door.

Steve: Hello, I am Steve and this is Lian. We are from Hospice. Can we see Mr Tan.
Lady: Please come in. He is in the room.
We moved into the master bedroom. As usual I scanned the family environment. It was neat. This means that they are handling well.
Lian : Are you Mrs Tan?
Lady: No, I am Mrs Tan's sister. I am Mandy. My sister went to the temple with my mother to pray for my brother in law.
Lian: Oh I see.
Mandy: They will be back soon.
I saw a big eye girl with jet black hair. She is dressed in school white top and blue short. She probably just got back from school after school physical exercise class. I also saw a little boy in white uniform too. He must be the youngest boy. I smiled at them.
Lian: Hi, I am Lian, What is your name?
Little girl: My name is Ling Ling and my brother is Jason.
Lian: Good to know you. I am Lian and this is Uncle Steve (I shake their hands).
Mandy showed us to the room. Mr Tan was lying in bed. He was wheezing when he breathed.
Lian : Hello Mr Tan, we are from Hospice. How are you feeling today?
Mr Tan : (He shakes his head breathlessly). No good and I have pain (in Hokkien).
Steve looked at his medicine and he had a morphine syringe embedded into his arm.
Steve : With this (pointing at the morphine) you still feel painful?
Mr Tan : Yes, I cannot talk too much. (We heard him wheezing when he spoke).

Mrs Tan came back with the mother in law. She acknowledged us. She went to talk to her husband and gave him a charm that they got from the temple. We were ushered to the living room and Mrs Tan joined us.

During our conversation, Mrs Tan cried. The little girl was leaning against her mother and the little boy was hanging onto his mother’s arm. They both looked puzzled and at the same time needed to cling onto Mum for protection. Mrs Tan told us that she worried that the children education will be affected. We told her not to worry and we will request for social worker to call on her. The social workers will be able to assist to arrange with school for bursary etc.

Mrs Tan spoke about her husband illness, about support from the families and friends. She acknowledged the support of the husband's company and his colleagues. This is a fortunate family. They have all the support from people who love and care about them. We reassured her that she can call us anytime she needs us. With that we took our leave. On a Wednesday at about 3pm I had a call.

Mrs Tan : Lian, please come fast. I think my husband is dying. (She cried loudly on the phone).
Lian : Mrs Tan calm down. Let me call the doctor for you. (I heard the children crying in the background).
Lian : Is no one there with you?
Mrs Tan : I have no one here with me except the children. I called our family and they are rushing down. Lian, please come fast, please (she cried loudly).
Lian : Mrs Tan, I will take leave from the company and will come down as soon as I hand over some works. You stay calm for the sake of the children. (She stopped crying loudly. I heard the children calling 'Papa, Papa, Papa'. I felt so sad and I cried for them. At such a tender age and they are losing their father).

I asked for a few hours leave and rushed to the house with Steve. I know Mrs Tan must be sad, helpless, frightened and lost. I wish I had wings and I can fly there.

As we entered the house, we saw Mr Tan's body in the living hall. The three children were sitting around the body. I saw a gentleman with pails, plastic bags, hose, needle, scissors, knife and the place have a terrible medicinal smell around. It got into my nose and stayed there.

Steve sat with the children while I went into the children's bedroom. When Mrs Tan saw me, she rushed over, hugged me and cried. When the children heard her crying, they were crying in the living room too. I let Mrs Tan cried. I did not stop her. Her body was convulsing and jerking from the extreme sadness of losing her beloved husband. Mrs Tan's family started to arrive. They all went into the room and sat with her. I left for the living room.

When I sat down, I saw the man inserting a knife into the abdomen and held a plastic bag. He kept pressing the stomach of the dead man. I saw liquid, feces and blood draining out. He poured them into a pail next to him and continued to press. Oh My God, I was thinking how he could do this in front of the children. I was shocked and dumb folded. Imagined what will go into the children's mind seeing their Dad handled like this?

I realized that this is the process of embalming. They need to get as much as these 'rubbish' out of the body. He kept pressing the stomach, I huged the little girl. I do not want to sound alarmed so that I do not frighten the children. Steve looked at me and in his eyes I know he was asking am I OK. I nodded my head and he nodded his head. How many pails...? The man sewed up the hole he made and proceeded to cut a hole below the neck. He did the same thing.

I looked at him and he had a blanked face. I wondered whether he had feeling or it is a matter of a work? He continued to press and more water and blood came out. I lost count how many times he pressed the body. I saw bags and bags of water and blood. I realized that we have more water than blood in the body. He closed up the hole. He sewed it neatly. He poured all the items in the pails into the toilet bowl and flushed them away. GOSH! Imagine sitting on that toilet bowl? This time he took out a bottle of liquid. It was so pungent...this must be the liquid use for embalming - formaldehyde. The purpose of doing this is to delay the dead body from decomposition and to promote hygiene and suppressed bad smell.

Later he went to ask Mrs Tan for the apparels for the dead man. He proceeds to clean, dress up and make up the face of the dead man.

Can you imagine I sat through the whole process?

In my volunteering journey in Hospice, I have seen things that I never imagine I have the guts to do so. If I have to do so purposely, I will not do it. Most of the time I chance upon it...and therefore have no time to FEAR about it.

I can see that the Undertaker respected and treated the body carefully. However I still cannot agree that he did the embalming openly and in front of children


  1. I've watched countless movie flicks that shows dead man being cut up, eaten alive, and so on, but nothing really beat sitting through the whole thing LIVE, coz it's not the same, movies are for entertainment and not real life.... gosh, I think I'll never have the guts for that. And I absolutely agree that it shouldn't be done in front of the kids.

    Anyway, you're a volunteer from Hospice? Nice to hear that. My dad has been doing numerous charity treasure hunts (automobile ones), one of them also Hospice Charity Hunt to raise more funds. I always have respect for these people because they do have a big heart. Of course, I also hope to follow my dad's footsteps and help those in need.

  2. Hi Cindy

    Yes,I did it for six years. You can never imagine the lessons, courage, memories and realizations these patient friends gave me. Hospice is not for the faint hearted because you really don't know what you will encounter. I have encounter lots and some 'unexplained incidents'.

    Always remember "time and tide wait for no man. Do not put off if you want to and can do it. I cannot go back to do Hospice now because I left it and worked overseas for a long period. The feelings and the environment and the conducive conditions are not there. However I have the six years that feel my heart with compassion and love for the sufferings which will last me a lifetime and beyond.


  3. Wow six years aint a short period of time. Six years... just how long I've been here in Japan... My parents usually don't allow me to attend funerals since I was a kid, therefore I've only been to ONE in my life, that is my friend's. And that was also straight from school (I was having classes when the principal allowed one batch of students to go) without any consent from my parents (I don't think they know)... So never actually encounter these sort of things. I believe I am not a person of faint hearted, just that I never experienced it before... I'll do my part whenever I can ^_^

    p/s: by the way, your chatbox is taking a relatively long time to load... just wanna drop a msg and thank you for the awesome breakfast delivery! That was GOOD! ^3^

  4. what in the hell kind of embalming was this guy doing? for one nothing you mentioned usually takes place in embalming,for two they never do it front of familys you know this shit is just so stupid educate yourself before you write about something your are not even close to accurate

  5. This is what I saw with my own eyes. There are also others with me. You need not get so worked up even if you are in this trade. There are many people who do various things and nothing is impossible. Have a good day!