For the past 24 years I have been the student, an apprentice, a licensee, an instructor and an international lecturer. Of them all, I hope I never stop being “the student”. Always learning and always improving sometimes seems to be impossible when it comes to embalming. Let’s face it, we all get into a groove that seems to work for us. We find our happy place. That place where we go every time we find ourselves in the prep-room. We have developed a routine. We know exactly where all the instruments are and what fluids we will be selecting. We probably have even been guilty of mixing the fluids in the embalming tank long before the body arrives into our facility. Embalmers get this “I’ve got this” type of mentality. However, this comfortable ‘groove’ we’ve made for ourselves, if not monitored and maintained might quickly and unknowingly turn into a rut. We as embalmers can easily become blinded by our own work routine. I know! I’m guilty of it myself. Does “It’s how we’ve always done it!” and “That’s how dad did it and his dad before him did it,” sound familiar? I will take you through some tips and techniques that I’ve learned and developed over the years in regards to some ‘bad habits’ that many embalmers practice while operating. Specifically, bad habits in relation to instruments and equipment.
Many embalmers, especially newer embalmers can and many times unknowingly hold and use embalming tools improperly. I hope you caught that… “tools”! Have I captured your attention? We work in an environment that should demand the highest levels of protection, training and use of products and equipment. Albeit, many embalmers use instruments properly, still some will use the wrong instruments for the job at hand. For example, using a steak knife in place of a scalpel just doesn’t ‘cut it’. Let’s look at a few very important instruments that have the most impact when held improperly.
Forceps: When working delicately such as cleaning eyes, eyelashes, or shaping the mouth and lips, the embalmer should hold forceps similar to holding a pencil. The operators thumb on one side and either your index or index and middle finger on the other. The forceps should rest on the dorsum side of the hand or the ‘meaty part’ between the thumb and index finger. This position will allow the embalmer to have full control of the forceps maintaining a delicate touch. When working with a bit more force such as packing the nasal passage and pharynx or orifices south of the border, the operator should hold the forceps between the thumb and the side of her index finger. However when holding in this position the forceps should be supported with the palm side of hand. This position will allow the operator to use more strength and force. If the operator uses the incorrect hold while working with the body, it can become quite difficult and one could potentially destroy delicate tissue.
Trocar: The trocar is a very dangerous instrument that can do a great deal of damage to not only the decedent but also the operator. Holding the trocar correctly allows the embalmer the safest and best control while operating.
Correct: One should hold the trocar similar to how one would hold the handle of a vacuum or how a fencer holds a foil. I’ve seen embalmers nearly stab themselves by holding the trocar like Norman Bates. This is typically done when embalmers are aspirating downward from the point of entry towards the bladder. The trocar can easily slip out of the incision and when the embalmers plunges back downward the sharp trocar tip can miss the incision and cause the embalmer to slip and ultimately bring the trocar back towards himself.
Wrong: Holding the trocar like Norman Bates’ infamous ‘shadow shower scene’.
Aneurism Hook or Needle or Scalpel and Blade:
Correct: The aneurism hook should be an extension of the embalmers forefinger. The index finger should be extended straight and directly atop the hook’s neck or slightly bent and off slightly to the side of the aneurism hook’s neck. This hand position will allow digital pressure on the hook allowing for more accurate placement and stronger force when needed for the blunt dissection.
Wrong: Holding it like one holds an ice-cream cone or a flash light.
Airbrush Gun: The airbrush can be the embalmers worst nightmare or best friend. It really all depends on you and how you use it. There is a full training program on the airbrush but we will stay focused on how to hold the gun for now. I should note as well that there are a couple different style of guns on the market the Pen style and the Gun trigger style. Let it be known that the gun style is not what an artist wants to use while creating a masterpiece. That style gun should be the perfect tool for painting in the garage. The pen style gun, held properly allows for best control and hand movement. We are artists and we need to hold and use these instruments properly for best results.
Correct: Gun style airbrush should not be used so we will focus on the Pen Style airbrush. Holding it similar to a pen – hence the name Pen Style Airbrush Gun. It should be lightly held between the thumb and the middle finger. The index finger should be on top of the gun, resting on the trigger ready to pull back allowing cosmetics to flow. The index finger has the most control and is also the “fastest” reacting finger, contrary to the thumb which is the slowest digit of the group. If you ever watch a timed race such as in track or swimming the best timers holding stop watches are controlling the stop watch with their index finger. Those less experienced will mistakenly click the watch with their thumbs.
Wrong: Gripping it like a flashlight or a gun. Also, using the thumb on the trigger on a Pen Style airbrush gun should never be used.
In future installments, we will cover other bad habits in regards to personal protection, cleaning/disinfecting, dressing and casketing, cosmetic application and waxwork FBA
Matt Smith is an accomplished embalmer and restorative artist with nearly 25 years of experience and has embalmed well over 15,000 cases. Matt has traveled the world lecturing, embalming and restoring high profile cases. He is also the lead embalming consultant for Frigid Fluid Company and owns and operates the online mortuary supply company mor-bid.com. He is also the creator of the Facebook group ‘Embalmer’s Who Care’, a private group where over 7,200 embalmers from around the world share, learn and network. Matt is the owner and founder of Homeward Bound Shipping, a nation-wide mortuary shipping company.