Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about what happens to your body after you die, and how it’s done.
When someone dies, there's a lot to be done, both logistically and emotionally.
For example, there's paperwork for the death certificate, coordinating burial or cremation, planning a service, comforting a family and walking them through each step, and more. Most of this stuff is either handled directly or coordinated by funeral directors.
To learn more about what happens to us after we die, BuzzFeed Health reached out to the people who physically and/or logistically handle our bodies. We talked to funeral directors Amy Cunningham of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services in Brooklyn, New York, and Amber Carvaly of Undertaking LA, in Los Angeles, California.
Here's what they told us:
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Becoming a funeral director requires education, training, and state certification.
Aspiring funeral directors must complete a funeral service or mortuary science program approved by the American Board of Funeral Service Education and intern with a licensed funeral director for 1-3 years. They also must pass a state licensing exam.
Funeral service students take courses in technical skills (cosmetics and coloring, restorative arts, principles of embalming, and chemistry, pathology, and microbiology for embalmers), funeral service history and psychology, death counseling, business management, and state law and ethical considerations. Funeral directors who also want to embalm must separately get an embalming license.
And if you're wondering how undertakers and morticians fit into all this, Carvaly explains that "mortician" and "undertaker" are catch-all terms for the person who directs funerals and embalms the bodies. The term "undertaker" is dated and not really used anymore, and while people do refer to themselves as morticians, it's not considered a formal job title within the profession.
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No, they don't all do embalming.
Embalming is the act of replacing bodily fluids to temporarily delay decomposition. Carvaly explains that the embalmer uses the body's arterial system to pump a formaldehyde solution through the veins and allow it to circulate. As it pumps, blood drains out and is replaced with the solution and then everything is released and drained.
Although many people assume that funeral director is synonymous with embalmer, not every funeral director works directly with people's bodies. Some funeral directors might be involved with transferring someone's body after they die and/or washing and preparing it for burial or cremation. But others might have a more administrative role, coordinating the transfer of the body, processing necessary paperwork, and helping families and loved ones plan their next steps.
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And btw, embalming is about replacing bodily fluids and removing decomposing tissue, not taking out all of your insides.
If you're picturing someone in scrubs lifting viscera out of a corpse and laying it into a scale, you're thinking of a pathologist performing an autopsy, not an embalming. That said, embalmers do use the instrument pictured above — a trocar — to "suck the soft internal tissue of the abdomen and heart area," Cunningham says, in order to clear out decomposing tissue.
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