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An Introduction to the American Society of Embalmers

by R

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Disclaimer & Policies

obert G. Mayer, CFSP, President

Todd Van Beck has referred to embalming as the DNA of funeral service – one wonders in 2004. Gary Laderman in his book Rest in Peace (Oxford University Press, 2003) states that the 20th century was the century of embalming.  Like many facets of our culture we have seen major changes in American funeral service during the last 44 years. We have seen a diminishing role in the presence of embalming, once a stable of the American funeral. The past 44 years has seen changes in the bodies we prepare, regulatory compliance, and education of the embalmer. The public sees the well prepared bodies of "Six Feet Under" and they expect the same results from their local funeral firm. Yet, we know those bodies are also breathing! You need to hear Melissa Johnson Williams tell the story of the family who said the deceased looked better before rather than after the preparation - because an embalmer "rushed" the preparation for shipping. Each embalmment is unique – you really cannot go back and do it over a different way – it has to be done well the first time.

Licensing of the embalmer is a responsibility of the states. We have single and dual licenses. Hence, we have many variables in licensing of the practitioner, internship, and continuing education. Uniformity has gradually entered the school curriculum but individual teachers of embalming and restorative art vary on techniques and protocols.

Some schools are not able to provide on campus supervised practical embalming experience or body dissection. It appears more responsibility for the "hands on" learning experience is dependent on the internship or apprenticeship. The list of mortuary schools has grown to almost 60.

Formal classroom time in the art and science of embalming and restorative art is really quite short. Post-graduate learning is limited to seminars – if and when they are available. Publications for the embalmer are very scarce. We know of five embalming associations in the United States, only three of which serve an entire state.

We have a common interest and that is why the American Society of Embalmers has been founded. We are in our infancy – so we will be taking baby steps to start. We will need the help of interested and dedicated practitioners. Melissa Johnson Williams is the Executive Director. Indefatigable is my one word to describe Melissa. Both her Mother and Father were not only embalmers but mortuary writers and educators – so this is an environment and profession she knows well! Melissa is a first-rate embalmer - but - more important for all of us, she is willing to share her experiences, expertise and energy with her colleagues.

I can not even tell you, at this writing, how many licensed embalmers are practicing in the United States. In the United States it is the individual state which regulates licensing of the embalmer; continuing education required by the embalmer, requirements of the preparation room, etc. Hence we have such a variety of requirements – associate to bachelor pre-educational requirements; length of internship; time of internship (pre or post schooling; required examinations cost of licensing and license renewal; amount of continuing education; specific requirements as to the preparation room, etc.

Through such larger independent agencies such as the American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) and the International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards we have some uniformity through out the United States; examples would be the 12 month formal school requirement; minimum level of an associate's degree; basic uniform teaching curriculum in the mortuary schools. The Conference has put in place a uniform examination shared by most states as a licensing requirement.

Uniformity is also achieved through federal programs such as the ADA, OSHA and Wage and Hour requirements.

The American Society of Embalmers has been formed to fill what many in the funeral profession feel to be a void. There was a time in America when the licensed funeral service professional was expected to be both funeral director and embalmer. The one person does all concept – and in many funeral home operations this method of operation continues to some degree.

During the past 40 years there has become a polarization between the duties of funeral director and embalmer. The funeral director has found time constraints due to regulatory agencies such as OSHA and FTC, pre-need demands, post-need demands, at need funeral personalization. The day to day operation of the funeral home from the initial death call and removal to the burial or cremation of the body makes great time demands on the funeral director.

Likewise the embalmer has seen changes in the past 40 years which have demanded more of his or her time for preparation of the body. To cite a few – the use of multiple drug regimens have produced sides effects such as jaundice, edema, emaciation, intravascular clotting and discolorations. In the 1970's organ and tissue procurement began and has now expanded where even the federal government requires that all deaths and imminent deaths be reported to the local organ procurement organization.

Our legal system has brought about the need for more bodies to be processed through coroner and medical examiners offices most of these bodies undergoing full autopsies. Time delays while permission to embalm is obtained or paperwork is cleared with hospitals or organ procurement agencies try to secure a donor have delayed the preparation of the remains. Where once a warm body was prepared before the onset of rigor mortis today most bodies have undergone refrigeration.

Our society is more mobile – families scattered – hence we have seen an increase in delay between preparation and the date of disposition; more bodies are being shipped both nationally and internationally. I am amazed at the number of unionalls I place on bodies during the course of a year when once this was a rarity. Mild solution of arterial fluid was almost a rule for every situation forty years ago, today we employ higher and higher index fluids, concentrated and waterless solution. It is easy to see that the preparation of the body has also placed time constraints on the embalmer.

As the problems of the embalmer have increased there has also been a need for continuing education of the embalmer. Only one journal is now in regular print for embalmers – and a portion of that journal is devoted to topics for the funeral director – since this journal is a fluid manufacturer's "house organ" a majority of the articles discusses only their products. Seminars are infrequent and not always convenient for the embalmer to attend due to the work schedule. To this writer's knowledge there are only four embalmers trade associations in the United States (and two are within the same state) which have been in existence for over 10 years. Smaller groups possibly exist within local communities. There is an international association of embalmers with a North American division – it has made a concerted effort to provide educational opportunities for the embalmer.

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