One of the challenges I’m facing with this second book about the funeral home is being detailed without being OVERLY detailed. In this scene, Jennifer is learning how to do an embalming, under the watchful eye of Gerald, the embalmer. What do you think? Good balance of details without too much gore?

(BTW, this isn’t the worst part of an embalming. I don’t think I’m going there, at least not in this book.)

After going to my Tuesday morning class, picking up Bugs, and receiving Skeeter’s good health report from the vet, I walk down to the prep room and pull on latex gloves, a rubber apron, and a mask. When he sees that I’m ready, Gerald wheels Waldine Loveman out of the cooler and I help him transfer the body bag to our preparation table.

After Gerald unzips the bag, I see that Waldine is still wearing her housecoat and nightgown. Gerald stands back as I cut the garments away and set them aside. I can’t help but notice that Waldine’s nightgown has been washed so many times the thin cotton is nearly transparent in places. Her housecoat, a simple number with snaps up the front, is whispery soft. No wonder she liked to wear it around the house.

As I survey our latest client, I feel myself mentally shift gears. It’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t involved in the field, but once the clothing is gone, the body on the table becomes simply that—a body. This sort of detachment is probably what allows morticians to perform their work without suffering from emotional overload, but I know one thing for sure–the embalmer’s job is to halt decomposition to the point that the family will be able to hold a viewing and a funeral without being repulsed by the sights, smells, and sounds of a decaying corpse.

Six months ago, I would have shrunk from the sight of a dead client; now I study the body with clinical interest. My pulse quickens, and from out of nowhere I remember that I used to enjoy dissection days in high school biology. Frogs, worms, rabbits—all of them fascinated me.

With a detached eye, I glance at the clipboard that traveled with Waldine, then I check the body. Waldine Loveman is a well-nourished Caucasian female who apparently died of natural causes at age eighty-six. Her skin is remarkably free of scars—I’ve seen everything from appendectomy to Caesarian scars on our last few clients.

“Go ahead.” Gerald nods and ties on his mask. “You know what to do.”

I do, but only from watching Gerald, so my fingers tremble as I pick up a sharp pair of scissors and place the point of a blade at a spot in the hollow of the neck. I press downward until the blade cuts the skin, then I make a small incision and slowly slice my way through the adipose layer beneath the epidermis. I set the scissors aside as Gerald offers an arterial hook.

“Good job,” he says. “Now reach in and catch the jugular.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to do this?”

“We learn best by doing, missy. I’m here—and I won’t let you make a mistake.”

I draw a deep breath and thank the Lord that I’m not practicing on a living patient. I shouldn’t be nervous; at this point, it’s almost impossible for me to make a blunder Gerald couldn’t rectify. Still, I don’t want to mess up. Though I didn’t know her, I want to treat Waldine Loveman with respect.

With gloved fingers I slip the hooked end of the arterial hook into the incision. As I probe the area, I superimpose an image from my anatomy book onto the body’s pale flesh. The internal jugular vein and the common carotid run alongside each other, parallel to the trachea. The jugular lies closest to the skin, right . . . there.

I lift the bluish vein out of the incision, startled, as always, by its surprising size.

“Excellent.” Smiling his approval, Gerald presses on the skin, then threads two pieces of string under the vein and ties them in a loose knot. “Now, go for the carotid.”

Again, I take the arterial hook and go fishing. The hard object to the right is undoubtedly the trachea, so the carotid artery lies just to the left—

My hook retrieves a smooth, pale tube.

“That’s right.” Gerald threads another pair of strings under this artery, ties them, and hands me the scissors. “Now make the T-incision.”

I gulp and bend over the body. I wince as I slice a T into the artery and the vein, then I step back so Gerald can take a look. My left hand is open and extended, and I’m startled when he snaps a piece of chrome tubing into my gloved hand.

Like I’m some kind of surgeon?

“Always wanted to do that,” he says, the corners of his eyes crinkling above his mask. “Fit it into the artery opening, please. Remember—point the head toward the heart.”

I try to squeeze the head of the metal tube into the first T incision, but I must have made the cuts too small. I hesitate, wondering if I should make the opening bigger, but Gerald clears his throat.

I lift my hands and step to the side, then watch in wonder as he seats the tube with the smallest twist of his hand. “Takes practice,” he says, handing me the other tube. “You do the drain tube.”

“We drain through the veins.”

“You’ve got it.”

The drain tube is easier, or maybe this time I’m more relaxed. When both devices are in place, I tie the loose strings around the metal tubes to prevent them from slipping during the pumping process.

“You’re becoming a pro,” Gerald says, smiling. “How are your nerves?”

I feel as jittery as ever, but my kneecaps no longer engage in instantaneous jiggling the moment I approach the prep table. I must be getting used to this.

I reach for a bottle of arterial fluid. “I think I’m okay.”

As Gerald fills the tank of our embalming machine at the sink, I uncap four bottles of formalin, a mixture of formaldehyde, lanolin, tint, and deodorant. Once the Portiboy tank has filled to the correct level with water, I add the arterial fluid and wait for the liquids to mix. When the solution is a uniform pale pink, I connect the end of the Portiboy’s hose to the metal tube we’ve inserted into our client’s carotid artery.

Gerald checks the pressure dial and flips the power switch. With a series of steady clicks, the pump injects arterial fluid into the carotid. Within a matter of minutes the incoming liquid pushes black blood through the tube connected to the jugular. The liquid flows out of the body and onto the table, then it travels along the table gutter, into the sink, and down the drain.

I lean against the counter and watch, amazed again at the efficiency of the human body. I’ve learned that the human circulatory system is a long circular highway with hundreds of smaller side streets. Unless blocked or broken, all the avenues lead back to the heart.

The embalmer creates a detour, forcing a preservative into the body’s highway system even as he pushes dead blood into the public sewers.

I pick up a spray attachment near the sink, ready to break up any clots that might clog the drain, but my attention is diverted by a knock on the prep room door. “Mom?”

I stiffen. My children have gotten used to the idea of living in a funeral home, but they’ve never witnessed an embalming. I don’t think I want them to.

~~Angie, back to work


  1. Kay

    I like it because I like this kind of info. I’ve worked with corpses myself, though, so I am probably not a good judge.
    I think I would like to see the first time Gerald shows her how it’s done.
    But this is good. Seems like a good balance to me.

  2. Carrie K.

    It’s not too gross – I actually found it fascinating.

  3. Accidental Poet

    Fascinating. Apparently a body is much harder to drain if there’s been an autopsy, because the highway is interrupted in several spots.

    I didn’t find it offputting, but I’m curious like that 🙂

  4. Christina Berry

    Same with me. It felt like fun learning, like a treasure trove of information I can spout off at the next dinner party. Reaching for an appetizer, I say, “Would you like to hear how blood is drained during embalming?”


    Off topic question: I notice you don’t capitalize “missy” when he refers to her as that. Our critique group has been having this discussion. (I think the term for it is called an appellative.)My understanding is they work like “mom.” Ex. “I’m going with my mom,” vs. “I’m going with Mom.” Since “missy” is what he’s calling her, should it be capitalized? Thanks for your expertise!

  5. Ruth

    I didn’t think it was too much at all Angie — I thought it was interesting & very informative!

  6. Pam Meyers

    Fascinating and not at gross in my opinion. I’ve always been curious about the embalming process and how it’s done, but have never found any reference detailing it. I’d even like to know what you didn’t tell.

  7. Anonymous

    I didn’t think it was too much at all. My dad was a funeral home director when I was growing up and my mom would sometimes come in and fix their hair before a viewing (she’s a hairdresser), so scenes that like are somewhat kinda sorta normal for me.
    I also like learning about things … keeps my brain moving about.


  8. Dana

    Um. Yikes. I couldn’t get through it. 🙁 Veins totally gross me out. Totally. Grab the jugular? AAAHHHHH!!! Okay, so I’ll just skip over those parts when I get the books. 🙂 Sorry. I tried. Really. And you have to get a broad glimpse of what people think. I’m apparently in the minority here but veins just happens to be a bad subject for me…

  9. Linda G

    I had trouble reading this, but I have also buried two close relatives
    in the past six months. In my mind I
    kept seeing my mom on the table while reading it. By the time the book comes out I hope I’ll be able to read it.

  10. Anonymous

    Just wandered into your site. Nice to see literature as a work in progress.
    I like fiction to be informative and yours certainly fills the bill. You very skillfully bring the reader right into the experience-well done! I think your successful description repelled some readers because it was so realistic, a good sign of effective writing. Keep it up and good luck!


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