Hayley Owen Blog

Hayley Owen Blog

My Life With Death - Embalming isn't just for dead communist leaders!

EmbalmingPosted by Hayley Owen Mon, September 18, 2017 11:25:39


If you’ve been to Moscow you may have visited Lenin’s tomb and seen the body of the famous Russian revolutionary (above), who died in 1924. Similarly, Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh (who died in 1969) and China’s Chairman Mao (1976) are also embalmed and on display, in Hanoi and Beijing respectively. But embalming is not just a procedure used to preserve famous revolutionaries and prevent their bodies from decomposing. It’s an everyday practice, used on people from all walks of life.

I regularly do embalming and sometimes think about little Rosalia Lombardo (below) while I’m working. She was a two-year-old Italian girl who died of pneumonia in 1920, poor little thing. Now she is one of the most visited embalmed bodies in the Capuchin Catacombs in Sicily, and one of the last to be admitted there.

Embalming has a long history (just think Egyptian mummies). It’s mainly done to keep bodies suitable for public display at a funeral (or, if you’re a dead leader, for devotees or tourists to visit), for religious reasons, or for medical/scientific purposes.

Rosalia’s tiny form is one of the best preserved in the Italian catacombs which, amazingly, hold thousands of bodies. They’re preserved in various ways, including embalming. Many of these people were rich in life, as the costs involved back in the day in preservation followed by regular contributions could not have been afforded by many.

In many ways, human nature doesn’t change much, does it? Centuries ago, soldiers were often preserved in their uniforms, and other people were laid out in the fashions of the time. Nowadays I get special requests all the time for a person to wear a particular outfit in death and have their makeup done a certain way.

Embalming is not for the fainthearted. I studied it for four years and it was tough. I had to learn an awful lot about the body, about the ears, the eyes, the brain and all the other organs and how everything works, separately and together. And there can be problems that crop up during embalming because each body is so different. For example, some people’s skin is very thin and can break easily. There can also be difficulties getting fluid into a person’s legs; embalmers must learn techniques to deal with that.

When I first got involved in embalming, around ten years ago, I was apprehensive and I worried about making mistakes. You need to have different amounts of embalming fluid for each person and not use too much or too little. You need to be very careful and methodical. I worked hard and learned a lot and now I am not only a qualified funeral director but a qualified embalmer too. And, I am currently the chairwoman of the Yorkshire division of the British Institute of Embalmers (BIE)! Drum roll please!

There aren’t that many 29-year-old women in the funeral sector. Which means there can’t be many young women in the BIE. So I’m extremely proud to be chairwoman, especially in God’s Own Country, where I’m from. (I don’t like to brag, but sometimes it’s OK to blow your own trumpet! I’ve got chains - here they are, below - and everything for this role!).

I’m really enjoying the responsibility in such a reputable organisation. It was founded in 1927 by a group of funeral directors who saw the need for an organisation for professional embalmers. Its aims include encouraging the study and practice of improved methods.

For example, there are some embalming products now that are free from the carcinogen chemical formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is often used during the embalming process as it preserves the body well. However, it is considered a health risk to funeral directors; one study not so long ago revealed there’s a higher incidence of myeloid leukemia in my line of work. There are formaldehyde-free fluids, but they don’t tend to preserve for as long.

I do worry a bit about possible threats to my health but I often use embalming fluids containing no formaldehyde. What really concerns me is that embalming is not regulated. Anyone can go and buy formaldehyde and embalm and look after dead bodies. You don't have to be a qualified embalmer or funeral director….unbelievable! But true.

In my case, I’m qualified, in both fields. I'm very glad I studied and got all my certificates: I know the risks and I know what to do if there is a spillage or accident. An unqualified person would very likely not have a clue. Also, a proper embalmer knows about other risks like hepatitis.

I actually think there will be less embalming as time goes on, in large part due to the growth in green burials, which don't include the practice. But until green funerals really catch on and become the norm, I will continue to offer my services as an embalmer.

However, personally, I don’t think I’ll ever be joining embalmed revolutionaries like Lenin and Mao (here's Mao, above, when he was alive!)….....after all, who’d want to queue up to look at Hayley Owen when she’s passed away?! When I’m gone, I’m gone! Not to mention the fact that I'm not a communist leader! Lol!

Until next time


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