What did you get sprayed with tonight?
My partner has taken to asking me this after a particularly eventful work week. I’ve mentioned aspiration before—when we suck out fluids and gas out of the visceral organs. We use hydro-aspirators at my embalming center, which have the benefit of not making us scrub drains at the end of every shift. The downside of these particular aspirators is, like many types of plumbing, they can clog and back up. In this case, they usually clog with fat, blood clots, or solid waste.
The first and most dramatic clog happened while I was aspirating a gallbladder, and left me splattered from shoulders to knees in bile and other fluids. I staggered glassy-eyed to the door of the prep room to ask my co-worker if she could see any in my hair. Blessedly, the answer was no. I’ve also been sprayed with blood (the best of all my options) and poop (the worst).
Tonight I didn’t use the aspirator, and so was spared those liquids, but I have been liberally splattered with embalming fluid while dealing with an autopsy.
Speaking of things with which I am frequently doused, a writer friend recently asked me about the various types of embalming fluids and their purpose.
I often use formaldehyde as a shorthand for embalming fluid, because this was the term I was most familiar with before becoming a mortician. Technically—and as my long-suffering copy editor points out—this is incorrect. Formaldehyde is a gas. Formalin is formaldehyde mixed with water, which is the basis for embalming fluids.
The most important of these is arterial fluid. This is what goes into the tank and is injected into the lucky decedent. Arterial fluids are classified by strength of the solution—or index—as well as whatever additional properties they possess. Oil-based fluids, for example, limit the amount of dehydration in the tissue. My personal favorite, Triton 28, is an oil-based fluid designed to combat tissue gas. In cases with excessive edema, however, dehydration is a plus.
Supplemental fluids not containing formalin are added to the tank to treat various conditions. Humectants, anticoagulants, edema reducers, and firming agents are the ones I use most frequently. Sporicides, mold inhibitors, and deodorizers can also be used against decomposition. (There’s only so much they can do: decay always wins.) Some of these supplements make a noticeable difference when used. I can’t honestly tell whether or not the anticoagulants help with drainage and distribution as they claim, but I feel better having them on hand just in case.
Cavity fluids are injected into the visceral organs after the arterial injection and subsequent aspiration. Some of them are scented “to make the working area more pleasant,” according to the manufacturer. “Pleasant” may not be the right word, but I am fond of the cinnamon-scented variety. The cucumber-melon scent is vile. Cavity fluid is especially pungent—it’s very important to suture all your incisions before cavity treatment. Many baby embalmers have forgotten this order of operations to their immediate, sinus-searing chagrin.
A supplement that doesn’t get enough love, in my experience, is dye. Many arterial fluids contain active dyes (to color tissue, as opposed to inactive dyes that just make them pretty in the bottle), but their coloring action isn’t particularly strong. Formaldehyde causes a marked greying of the tissues as it fixes them. A splash of dye in the tank can make a striking difference to the finished corpse. I want to be pale and tragic in my casket, but not grey.
In addition to the aesthetic value, I find dye extremely helpful in marking the distribution of fluid through the circulatory system. Factors such as time between death and treatment and the temperature at which the body was stored affect how tissues firm during embalming. Without an obvious change in texture, the change in color lets you know if fluid has reached the extremities.
Gee, Amanda, why did you challenge your county’s medical examiner to a fist fight in the parking lot?
Okay, nobody’s asked me that yet, but someone will after it happens. And the answer is, because they keep hacking up perfectly good arteries! I need those, dammit! And lately someone keeps sawing through people’s ears while making the cranial incisions. Whiskey tango foxtrot, my friend? I had to sew a woman’s ear together with dental floss this week. On the viewing side! Autopsies take long enough to deal with under optimal conditions; I don’t need extra practice with my needlework, thanks.
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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.