The State of Embalming: Why long-term licensees might be a bigger issue than new practitioners

Recently, while embalming the remains of a woman who had died in hospice, the funeral director came into the preparation room and said that the casket was to be closed. In our discussion about that, the director told me that the deceased had requested her casket be closed. Why? Because at the recent funeral for her sister, the woman had been horrified at the appearance of the remains. In fact, she felt that since her sister's remains looked so bad, the casket should have been closed.

I have had this experience with a number of families when making arrangements – and I have been successful in getting them to leave the casket open. I ask them to wait to make the open vs. closed decision until they come in to see the embalmed remains. I ask them to give me an opportunity to do my work.

But I often wonder how many times families end up selecting services like direct cremation or immediate burial because of a previous, bad-viewing experience. It is difficult to overcome the problems created by another embalmer in this situation. Unfortunately, I have witnessed some of these horror scenes for myself. I don't understand how anyone in funeral service can think that it is OK to have a remains presented for viewing while it is purging, actively decomposing and smelling, or in an inappropriate-size casket. I can only assume that nobody at the funeral home cares enough to figure out what went wrong in the prep room and fix it.

A lot of folks in funeral service think they learned everything they needed to know in mortuary school. This is simply not true. Although the basic embalming process has not changed, the conditions that contribute to death have – significantly. And those changes have profound implications for the preparation of remains. When I went to school, we did not have MRSA, AIDS, and CJD – not to mention the sophisticated surgical and medical procedures & practices that benefit all of us as a society, but often make embalming a more complicated procedure. It is our individual responsibility to make sure we learn as much as possible and keep ourselves current not only on the funeral-directing side of the profession, but also on the embalming side. There are many, many opportunities to learn more about embalming, but it is up to the individual to seek those opportunities out.

When FuneralWire Executive Editor Doug Hernan asked me to write a feature, we talked for some time about the current state of embalming. Among the topics that we touched on: lawsuits that allege poor embalming. Doug was under the impression that many of these cases were the result of a brand new practitioner who lacked the adequate skills to prepare what might be a "difficult case."

But in my personal experience with lawsuits involving poor embalming, none of the cases have involved an embalmer with less than 10 years of experience and licensure. The experience of other expert witnesses like Dan Rohling and Vernie Fountain might be different. It is sad for me to admit that it is those longer-term embalmers who are responsible for some bad practices. They should know better. If it were up to me, they would lose their license for putting families through the mental and emotional anguish that I personally observed in these situations.

You could forgive a new practitioner for lack of experience; however, I would hold his or her employer responsible. There is a learning curve in embalming just as there is in any professional endeavor. The mortuary schools provide the basic skills and theory, but the apprentice or intern needs to learn from embalmers who are good practitioners and enthusiastic about the practice of embalming.

What we do will impact the family that we are serving for sometime to come – in some cases, unfortunately, maybe forever ... and in a negative way. We should treat every remains entrusted into our care as if it were a member of our own family. If we do this, we will make sure that every deceased person – and their families – are treated with respect and dignity.

Melissa Johnson Williams, CFSP, is a renowned embalmer, restorative artist and funeral director with more than 30 years of experience. She is a founder and current Executive Director of the American Society of Embalmers, Forest Park, Ill. You can reach Melissa at 800-303-1017 or The society's web site is