Ask a Necromancer, by Amanda Downum

The Indignities of Death

We begin life confronted with all manner of indignities and inconveniences: diapers, pants, shoes, etc. The list just gets longer and longer as we age. I hate to break it to you, dear reader, but death does not free us from these aggravations.

One of the very first questions anyone ever asked me when I announced I was going to mortuary school was “Do you plug [decedents’] butts so they don’t leak?”

To quote my favorite professor’s answer for just about any question: It depends.

Leakage, or purge, from any orifice is a very real concern. As the classic children’s book teaches us, everyone poops. Depending on the contents of a person’s bowels and bladder when they die, and the manner of death, muscular action may lead to…voiding. This is very common, though not a certainty. Evacuation also takes place later, either as the fading of rigor mortis causes muscles to slacken, or because bacterial growth creates gas, which causes internal pressure to build.

Part of the embalming process is aspiration–that is, removing as much gas, fluid, and semisolid waste as possible from the body cavities and internal organs. This is done via suction and a trocar. (Everyone gets sprayed by a clogged aspirator hose at least once. PPE is your friend.) Other practices to prevent leaks vary by embalmer. One of my instructors firmly believes that every corpse needs an enema. While I respect their logic, I cannot bring myself to embrace it. In most cases, a bath and a diaper will suffice.

Some people, however, need more. Some people are, to quote a coworker, “a portal to the poop dimension.” These are the times where stronger measures need to be taken, such as enemas and plugs. As distasteful as that may sound, I promise you it’s preferable to dealing with a situation where the deceased has purged after being dressed and placed in their casket.

Speaking of being dressed, another outraged question I’ve seen floating around social media goes something like, “What do you mean I have to wear a bra when I’m dead?”

Whether or not your corpse will wear foundation garments entirely depends on what clothing your family provides to the funeral director. If your family brings us a bra, we’re going to attempt to put that bra on you. A variety of factors may contribute to our failure or success, but we will do our best. The same goes for underwear, pants, shoes, etc.

The tricky part of embalming the well-endowed is that formaldehyde firms tissue–the higher the index (the percentage of formaldehyde in the fluid), the firmer the flesh. We take care to make sure facial features and hands are positioned properly, because after the fluid works its sinister magic, that’s the way they’ll stay. This means that if no measures are taken to counteract gravity during embalming, breast tissue may not be malleable enough to put into a bra afterwards. What doesn’t fit easily into a bra may also not neatly fit into other clothing. Most living people don’t dress themselves lying down. Dressing the dead is a lot like trying to wrestle clothes onto a giant toddler who’s just discovered passive resistance.

The trick that I’ve learned to use on breasts during the embalming process is duct tape. It’s imperfect, but helpful. And if that unsettles you, let me assure you that it’s better than the older industry trick I’ve been told of, which is tying the nipples together with suture. If anything would get my corpse to sit up on a table and slap the hell out of someone, it would be that.

Clothing for the deceased tends to fall into the categories of Sunday best, comfortable favorites, or sentimental significance–wedding gowns, army uniforms, etc. A question that we hear a lot from families is “Do I need to bring shoes?” There is absolutely no right or wrong answer. Personally, I have nightmares about needing to go somewhere and not having shoes on, but I’m sure we all know someone who would never wear shoes anywhere if they could get away with it. The same goes for pants. Although I’m frequently surprised by the number of families who don’t bring us pants. I’m not sure if they assume that no one will see the deceased from the waist down, or if Grandpa hated pants in life and refused to suffer their tyranny in the afterlife.

James asks, “If I were mistaken for dead and taken to the morgue what would be the proper way to announce myself when I wake up?”

James, these circumstances would not warrant a polite throat-clearing. I know many of us hate to make a fuss, and might find ourselves embarrassed by such a predicament. Please put aside such concerns, however, and shout at the top of your lungs. Hospital morgues are frequently removed from busier parts of the building, and coolers are fairly soundproof. Scream therapy in the funeral home’s cooler is reserved for employees and not customers, however.

If you have questions for the necromancer, send them via messenger bat, or submit them through our form at, or ask @stillsostrange on Twitter. No topic is too trivial or too profound to explore, be it depictions of death in fiction or grisly intersections of death and capitalism in the real world.

I’m also tremendously excited to announce that I’ll be manifesting as a guest on the Worldbuilding for Masochists podcast very soon. The episode may already be available by the time you read this.

Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.

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