Richard Wilson: In Britain there’s a growing trend to embalm the body before we see it. It’s apparently such an elaborate process it even requires a school. I’ve enrolled for the day under the watchful eye of Principal, Sheila Dicks.
Sheila Dicks: Yes.
Richard Wilson: I’m Richard, hi. Now if I was going to be a student, and you were going to show me some embalming, what would I have to do?
Sheila Dicks: Well, the first thing you’d need to do is to put some protective clothing on before you can come in the theatre, and then you’ll need …
Richard Wilson: Nice colour.
Sheila Dicks: Well, it suits you, doesn’t it?
Richard Wilson: Hello!
Sheila Dicks: Jason, this is Mr Wilson who’s joining us today.
Richard Wilson: Hi, I’m Richard, hi.
Sheila Dicks: This is Danielle.
Richard Wilson: Danielle, well you’re a student of embalming?
Danielle: Yeah, I am, yeah.
Richard Wilson: What’s the purpose of embalming?
Sheila Dicks: It preserves the body and that’s quite important so that it wouldn’t matter whether this lady waits six weeks, six days or six hours before her funeral, and when the family come they can see their mother, aunt, whatever, looking the way she’d like to look for them because none of us wants to look dreadful and people don’t look well when they’ve died.
Richard Wilson: What’s the first thing you have to do?
Jason: The first thing we have to do is check that the lady is actually dead?
Richard Wilson: Right, will you do that or will I do that?
Jason: You can do that, sir.
Richard Wilson: Can I?
Jason: So do you hear any heart sounds, any sounds from the lungs?
Richard Wilson: No, there’s no doubt about it, she looks dead.
Sheila Dicks: I’m afraid this lady has died.
Danielle: This is where we keep all our chemical fluids that we use.
Richard Wilson: And I see they’re all different colours.
Danielle: Yeah, depending on the natural colour of the person, because we don’t want to put something that’s going to turn out bright pink on somebody who --
Richard Wilson: I see.
Danielle: -- isn’t a bright pink person.
Richard Wilson: So it’s a bit like an inner makeup.
Richard Wilson: What do your friends think about you being an embalmer?
Danielle: Quite a few of them think it’s very weird. They think I fiddle with the dead and all that sort of stuff. My other friends, they find it really fascinating and respect what I do.
Jason: What I need to do is I need to access the arterial system to put down my fluid into the deceased. So what I’m going to do is make two very small incisions. Once the fluid goes in there will be an instant difference on the fact that the lady’s features will rehydrate. You won’t get the full effect for maybe twelve hours.
Richard Wilson: And what are you doing now Danielle?
Danielle: I am fitting the eye caps for the lady.
Richard Wilson: Eye caps?
Danielle: Yeah, it makes the eye look fuller and more natural.
Jason: We try to present the person at their best, hair replacement, um.
Richard Wilson: Hair replacement?
Jason: Whatever, if somebody’s been involved in a fire then they may well have, their hair is singed, you see.
Richard Wilson: You don’t make bald people hairful again?
Richard Wilson: Have you ever had someone come to you and say but that looks nothing like my beloved?
Jason: Not so much in that sense, more a case of he looks too well. But it’s because they’ve watched them deteriorate over a long period of time, and then they’ll turn around and say in actual fact you’ve given me my husband back --
Richard Wilson: Uh huh.
Jason: -- that’s the man I married.
Sheila Dicks: So will you be tempted, Richard?
Richard Wilson: Attempt it?
Sheila Dicks: Would you be tempted to have it done?
Richard Wilson: Um, pass.
Richard Wilson: Some people would say that embalming is denying death in a sense.
Sheila Dicks: No.
Richard Wilson: No?
Sheila Dicks: If somebody’s looking dreadful when you put them in their coffin, you’re really not going to encourage someone to come and see them. It’s actually helping people to recognise that the person has died. They want to come and say goodbye to the person they remember, and that’s really important, and looking as they did before they were ill.
Richard Wilson: I can understand it being helpful to some people, but I also think it is an intrusive process. I would think myself that it’s better to get an idea of the person who has died being dead. I mean a dead body is not necessarily all that frightening; it has a sort of stillness and beauty of its own I think.
Richard Wilson: But we haven’t always been frightened of dead bodies.
Richard Wilson: I notice immediately that they all look as though they’re asleep.
Sheila Dicks: Mmm.
Richard Wilson: Is that intentional?
Sheila Dicks: Different periods, I mean this one, for example, is a child in a coffin, and there’s no mistaking the fact that child is dead, whereas some of the others, as you say, yes.
Richard Wilson: There’s one here, a child with her dolls.
Sheila Dicks: Absolutely, and that one in particular you can see is meant to look as though she’s alive and just --
Richard Wilson: Yes.
Sheila Dicks: -- and just playing.
Richard Wilson: This is a photograph taken in Tonbridge, her hair’s been done. What would they do with this photograph?
Sheila Dicks: Um, they would …
Richard Wilson: It looks as though it’s meant to be passed out in some way.
Sheila Dicks: Oh it is, it is, it’s not meant to be kept in a box and locked away. Just as you might today display the family photographs, you know, the school photographs that are taken of children, you often see them in frames in the home and possibly even being on the walls or on the mantelpiece.
Richard Wilson: Must have come as a bit of a shock for some people when they go in and find a lot of dead …
Sheila Dicks: Well, I think it would today but in those days it wouldn’t have seemed so strange.
Richard Wilson: It wouldn’t.