John Marlow has witnessed a dead body move. Only once. And it didn't happen like you see in the movies, where corpses sit up abruptly in their caskets. Still, Marlow admits that seeing a dead elderly man's finger twitch, even briefly, was "kind of creepy."
"A lot of people will be like, 'Are you sure they were gone?' Yeah, I'm sure," he recounts.
An embalmer for nearly 14 years, Marlow knows some people think his profession is morbid, even creepy. Spending days around dead bodies, preparing them for burial or cremation -- it's not the stuff high school career days are made of. But Marlow sees a skill, artistry even, in making people presentable for loved ones to view one final time.
He wasn't always sure he wanted to be an embalmer. In high school, Marlow was an average student who didn't have much direction, and his mom suggested he think about working at a funeral home. "You like all those horror movies," she said to him.
The job appealed to him immediately. He watched the way funeral directors could comfort families. The way quiet words from somber, suit-clad men could ease pain, diffuse nerves. "I was really intrigued and fascinated by what I saw," Marlow recalls. "There was a lot going on behind the scenes that I didn't know anything about. They were genuine in their care and what they said to families."
After schooling and apprenticeships, Marlow became a full-time embalmer. These days, his schedule varies depending on demand. After 9am bed check -- the shift changes at nursing homes and hospitals can lead to the discovery of recently deceased people -- Marlow gets an idea of how his day will go. Some mornings, he sits around reading the paper and sipping coffee, listening to John Boy and Billy on the radio. Other days, he lacks time to even scan headlines.
"You've got four to five bodies downstairs. Three need to be embalmed, and two must be ready for cremation identification for the family. You've got a family coming in at 11, maybe two families coming in at 2," he says. "You don't get a chance to sit down."
His process differs for each body. First, he opens the body bag. Then, he analyzes what needs to be done. Are there any problem areas that need special attention -- like bed sores or broken bones? If not, he gets to doing what's called "setting the features": closing the eyes, shutting the mouth, tilting the head. He bathes the body three times during the process. Using an embalming machine that functions much like a heart muscle, he pumps out the dead person's blood and pumps in an embalming fluid made of several chemicals. The chemical mixture can vary -- certain chemicals eliminate moisture, others can thin the blood.
He tries not to use too much makeup. "The less cosmetics you use the better," he says. "You should do most of your cosmetic work in the embalming.
"There's a lot of little tricks to the trade," he adds. For instance, placing cotton strategically behind the ears, before the embalming fluid is injected, can prop up earlobes to hold earrings. Massage cream applied to the face keeps the skin from drying out. Massaging the cheeks brings out color. Adding red dye to the embalming fluid also gives the dead person a little needed color.
Each embalmer uses distinct methods. "They're kind of like artists. You can take a body and let 10 or 12 embalmers come in and embalm the same body, and the body would look different from the others," Marlow says. "One might have a little bit more of a smile. Body positions. There's so many factors to it, so you just have to see what works for you."
After he's dressed the body, Marlow moves it into the casket. By now the corpse is stiff, meaning -- apologies for the bad pun -- the body isn't dead weight.
"The satisfaction that I get out of my job is when someone comes up to me and says, 'You know, I didn't know that he was going to be able to be viewed. I just want to shake your hand and tell you how much I appreciate it,'" Marlow says.
He's learned not to take the job home. "That's something that comes with time. Certain cases you run into kind of dwell on you -- obviously accidents, children. Those things, they'll tug at you, but you've got to get to a point where you say to yourself, I'm not the one to do the grieving. I need to perform my job," he says.
"If you talk with people that work in funeral homes, if they start taking their job home, they start getting kind of creepy," he adds.
Marlow imitates the dour face of a "creepy" funeral home worker.