Friday, March 3, 2017

Your Favorite Mortician at the Movies!!!!! The EMBALMER!

This is the last article I did for Cultured Vultures. They are a great website but my articles weren't really finding an audience so every now and then i'll be posting new articles of 'Your Favorite Mortician at the Movies' on this site. 

A dark cloud falls over Venice as one girl after another disappears off the streets. Police are convinced they are only missing, not abducted, but the local suave reporter feels there are more diabolical forces at play. Could it all be just a coincidence or could it be..........the guy in scuba gear?!?!!

The Embalmer is a 1965 Italian horror film about a shrouded lunatic who lives in the tunnels under Venice, Italy. He is kept company by a harem of standing, embalmed women who he has kidnapped, killed and EMBALMED!!!! When he feels the need to add to his collection of dead darlings he takes to the streets in a very conspicuous, not very scary, scuba diving outfit and drags his helpless victims into the Grand Canal back to his secret lair. 

I enjoyed The Embalmer as a straight forward horror movie; the villain looked spooky and had a classic villain vernacular; the underground tunnels he lurked in looked great and I loved the secret chamber containing the skeletons from a secret society of other embalmers, but there was lack of mortuary chachkies for me to nerd out on. 

One of two things I can discuss regarding the legitimate mortuary aspects in The Embalmer is The villain used a gravity feed embalming setup in his underground lair to embalm his victims. This is a glass tank (usually made to hold a gallon as opposed to the standard three gallons of an electric embalming machine) suspended above the deceased to slowly embalm at a very low pressure controlled only by the height of the tank. This system isn’t used too often anymore in American funeral homes, but it is still used in medical universities to embalm cadavers for long term preservation. The thought process is if your flow is slow the embalming solution has time to penetrate tissue better and not circulate out and down the drain into your and my water system. Also, at a lower pressure there is a lower risk in damaging the vascular system by creating a blow out in an artery leaving some portion of the body unpreserved.  

From my desensitized point of view I figure if you’re looking at a line of tables with folks needing to be ‘juiced’ and you don’t want to spend the night on the fart couch in the mortuary’s lobby - the terms ‘slow flow’ and ‘low pressure’ aren’t even crossing your mind. 

The second interesting thing Your Favorite Mortician noticed in The Embalmer is the display of beautiful, young, but dead Italian women in the villain’s lair. No that didn’t catch my attention because of the obvious Freudian slip, but because they were all embalmed to stand up. Although The Embalmer was shot in 1965, the idea of positional embalming has been brought to my attention only in the last few years when pictures of posed embalmed corpses from the Marin Funeral Home in Puerto Rico started to circulate the internet. 

Now I know nothing about how embalming people into standing or posed positions is achieved but whats a little blind speculation gonna hurt? Looking at these embalmed bodies I’m noticing none of their clothing appears to be cut so I’m wondering if these bodies are in some way pieced together with a mannequin body or body parts. Embalm the hell out of the head and hands, chemically dry then wrap the stumps and skewer them onto a mannequin body with a plastic dowel. This would be to only worry about a couple things potentially going wrong instead of a whole body to potentially ruin a funeral. 

If these people are intact they would have been completely exanguinated of any blood and probably eviscerated to avoid anything from leaking out. Sure you could pack their asses like they were taking a trip to mars, but viscera, shit, and piss are tenacious and if there is a way to leak, your body is gonna leak. I would also be chemically cauterizing the hell out of anything and everything on that body; any injection site, any abrasion, any pimple that might weep, ANYTHING!  

Now I’ve had some crazy requests working in the funeral biz: cutting out someone’s heart and slicing it into quarters to cremate separately, doing a shot of tequila with a family with their dead relative’s cremated remains in it, and being instructed to pull thong straps out of a young women’s jeans for the public viewing to name a few. But I’ve never been asked to embalm someone into a position other than lying flat-but hey if anyone out there has the money and wants me to give it the ol’ college try drop me a line!

Friday, February 24, 2017

New Article for 'Your Favorite Mortician at the Movies' featuring My Girl!


In my pursuit to track down movies for the moribund I have rattled graves, knocked on crypts, and roused the dust off of the old cinematic undertakers. But even this mortician, Your Favorite Mortician, needs a break from the grim and obscene. I looked back to when I was young and impressionable and remembered watching the 1991 movie My Girl and how it centered around Vada Sultenfuss living in her family’s funeral home. That fits the M.O. for Your Favorite Mortician at the Movies so I gave it another watch after twenty five years. As I watched My Girl I felt like I had opened a pandora’s box to my youth, I was 9 when it came out, and I immediately started remembering all of the cool funeral related scenes and it made me feel excited again; an odd feeling for this mortician since my heart has grown cold cocooned in a calloused membrane of coal after a decade of dealing with the garrulous demands of the bereaved. After watching it, I realized My Girl was as poignant in creating my interest in the death industry as Return of the Living Dead and the Tales From the Crypt episode Undertaking Palor. 

My Girl is a story about Vada Sultenfuss; an 11-year-old girl going into her adolescents living in a funeral home with her single Dad, her Uncle, and her Grandmother who suffers from dementia. When Vada isn’t being inundated with child sized caskets and neat hearses pulling in and out of their driveway she, and her best friend Thomas J, spend their summer riding their bikes, climbing trees, and starting to experience the harsh reality of life post childhood-yes everything dies, including you, including me. 

Vada starts psychosomatically showing physical symptoms from her fears of death and continually visits the doctor for everything from cancer, to Jaundice, to an enlarged left breast and a permanently stuck chicken bone. Thomas J brilliantly explains this to the nurse in the doctor’s office while he waits for Vada by stating, ‘it’s because of all the dead people. If you can’t beat them join them y’know.’ 

One thing I have noticed during my tenure in the death biz is people’s hesitation to explain things to children and coddle them instead of talking to them like a person. I’m no child psychologist, thank God, but in my opinion that will warp a kid’s minds even more in the long run. Adults still to this day think if a person is bounced under a train or dies in a fire they will look totally fine and require no preparation to be viewed because you know, like on CSI. 

Through the movie you suspect the Grandmother who suffers from dementia is the red herring expected to at some point die but it’s Thomas J who ends up dying after he gets attacked by a swarm of bees. I have to give the writer credit for absolutely destroying my mind when I watched this but it opened up a dialog about death in my mind and in the ensuing next few years I had numerous people in my life die both tragically and naturally and I really credit My Girl to my perseverance through those years because I had already began to process what death really is. Death has become such a taboo thing to talk about that almost every aspect of our culture does it’s best to sanitize the reality of death and sweep it away out of sight and I couldn’t even imagine how ridiculous people’s reactions would be if a movie similar to My Girl came out today. One could deduct that  this hysteria of removing the reality of death from our culture reflects that most of us, even the staunchly religious, are afraid to die. 

My Girl a great movie on a cerebral level that tackles the psychology of death and how people come to terms with it as they age-hell I learned more from this movie than any goddamn Kubler-Ross book I had to read in Mortuary School-but My Girl is also rife with legitimate funeral sundries and authentic ‘Mortician-isms.’

The Sultenfuss preproom is in the basement of the house, and if you’ve ever been to an older funeral home in a big old house they usually are equipped with the preproom and staging areas below the house and have either elevators or a pulley system to get the dead up and down floors. Working on the left coast we don’t have a lot of those but they are everywhere on the East Coast.

All of the bottles of embalming chemicals in the preproom look authentic and I recognized the embalming machine as a Duotronic, one of the best and durable embalming machines ever made in this mortician’s opinion! They last forever, have a big enough tank to dunk a baby in to topically embalm(seriously) and the pump can handle harsher chemicals like PermaCav and Phenol when embalming cadavers for longterm anatomical study. Music is constantly played in the preproom when Vada’s Dad Harry and his brother Phil are in there embalming which is one of the best perks of working in a preproom all day and if another mortician ever tells you your taste in music isn’t respectful to the dead you can tell them Freddy Funbuns says to go get fucked. Harry and Phil Sultenfuss dress the part of frumpy undertakers to a T; uncomfortable pants that accentuate horrible aspects of your ass and dress shirts,vests, and blazers that just don’t seem to fit around that paunch you get being surrounded by the dismal mortuary environment.  

When Harry hires Shelly, the hippy makeup artist, he has a hilarious conversation with her about the overuse of makeup on corpses. Shelly tries to plead her case saying this is the last time she could look her best but Harry shuts her down and says make her look like the picture he gave her. At least Shelly had the good fortune of getting a picture at all, and a recent picture at that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been handed a photo of someone from 1986 and asked, ‘make her look like this.’ I have always gone by the age old adage, less is more, and have quit on the spot during a very brief stint working at a corporate funeral home over an argument I got into with my manager over makeup. I left the preproom with Miss September of 1941 looking very prim and respectable only to return to my manager caking on makeup as if she was going to do a photoshoot for a window display at Sephora. But that manager had an issue with her own overzealous use of makeup and it’s very difficult to argue with someone who looks like the contemporary version of Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. 

The only scene in My Girl I called sceptic on is when we see Thomas J in his open casket after being killed by anaphylactic shock from hundreds of bee stings. He looked like he just had a few bumps on his face lying peacefully dressed in his white suit. If this  scenario was accurate you are going to be looking at excessive swelling all over his face to the point of being completely unrecognizable; depending on if emergency personnel tried any resuscitation on Thomas J he could have a trachea tube through his throat; and a lot of discoloration and tissue damage from the litany of bee stings. Now you could break out the electric spatula and hypertonic solution to try and draw out some of the swelling but when you’re injecting a person’s head directly you run the risk of causing even more swelling. This mortician would opt for either a closed casket or a private viewing with a completely draped body except for a hand exposed for the parents to hold and say goodbye. I hate to break it to you but all of those scenarios suck  and usually lead to this mortician spending the night with a bottle of Rumplemintz and Return of the Living Dead. 

I would recommend My Girl to anyone interested in movies about the funeral industry. It’s a rare occurrence, as you’ll see from these articles, to find movies about the funeral industry without murdering undertakers, zombies, necrophilia, or worse......heartfelt unrealistic bullshit. If given a thoughtful discussion on the subject of the stages of grief and coming to terms with the reality of death, My Girl would be a great movie to be shown in Funeral Psychology classes. That class was usually boring and reserved for my 1:00pm buzz after getting drunk during lunch. My Girl was a catalyst in my interest in the funeral industry at 9 years old and I’ve had a lot of women my age call the funeral homes I’ve worked at asking “do you guys makeup artists for corpses?” I usually respond, “you mean like in My Girl? No we don’t but if you want to send over your resume I’ll keep it on file.” There was usually a bet followed by that conversation if their resume will list a strip club as their current employer, about 80% of the time it did.