Ask a Necromancer, by Amanda Downum

Live (or Undead) from Readercon

In July I made a pilgrimage to the lands of the living, this time emerging for Readercon in Boston. Many excellent living persons gathered to ask questions about death and the dead. Here are a few of those questions answered in greater detail.

What education is required to become a mortician?

Requirements vary by state, but an associate’s degree in Mortuary Science is the most common. Some community colleges offer Mortuary Science classes, and there are also many online programs. In Texas, to embalm you must complete the entire two-year degree, but a shorter certificate program is available for funeral directing only. The National Board Exam is broken into two parts: Arts and Sciences. Many states also require a state-specific law exam.

After passing all local and national exams and receiving their funeral director’s and/or embalmer’s license, licensees are then required to complete a number of continuing education hours every few years. I’m currently taking my CE courses to maintain my Texas license. Topics include scintillating subjects such as OSHA rights, vital statistics, and understanding social security. Some topics, such as ethics, are required for all licensees. Other options include alkaline hydrolysis (which I know many readers are interested in) and the impact of mass disasters.

How do you deal with an interrupted circulatory system? And a companion question: Does an autopsy make embalming easier?

The briefest summary of the embalming process is “fluid in, blood out.” Embalming fluid is injected into an artery and drained from a vein. Ideally, the artery is the right common carotid, and the vein is the right jugular. If the decedent’s circulatory system is intact, this should all proceed smoothly, with a little massaging to help things along. Many things, unfortunately, can interfere with circulation–trauma, arterial blockages, pressure from abdominal distension or internal fluid buildup, etc.

An ideal embalming is a “one-point,” or a single point of injection. Every additional artery raised and injected is another point. The most common interruptions in circulation, especially in the elderly, are the legs. For size and ease of access, femoral arteries are the second best, after the carotids. They are also frequently sclerotic. An artery should feel like a pliable, hollow noodle. Crunchy noodles are bad.

If the corpse suffered an aortic rupture or some other significant damage to the heart, they will likely be a six-point embalming. That means both carotids, both femoral arteries, and both axillary or brachial arteries raised. (I prefer brachials.) In the case of coronary damage plus sclerotic arteries, the count goes up. I believe my personal record is nine points, with an additional ulnar, radial, and tibial artery raised. Any corpse who requires nine-point embalming should be required to sit in the corner and think about what they’ve done.

Does an autopsy make it easier? Yes and no. Every autopsy is automatically a six-point embalming, because the internal organs have been removed and all the connecting veins and arteries severed. Those organs are then placed into a plastic bag, where they can be directly treated with cavity fluid. The embalmer can now (hopefully) easily access the arteries they need from inside the empty thoracic and abdominal cavities, without making any further incisions. One can often raise and inject an autopsy quickly, although distribution of fluid through the torso will never be as complete as one might wish. The trade-off comes in the time spent stitching everything back together.

Does your role involve communication with family and loved ones? What kind of questions or concerns come up?

While I’m dual-licensed in both funeral directing and embalming, I’m employed specifically as an embalmer, and don’t serve as a director in any capacity. However, because I started working in the field as a removal technician, and still assist on death calls from time to time, I have talked and still do talk to families. Sometimes I’m the first person the family speaks to.

In the beginning, my biggest fear was not knowing what to say. The secret is, no one knows what to say. There is no right thing; just be professional, honest, and kind. Families often don’t know what they should ask, in which case I try to give them small, immediate answers. I’m going to take their loved one to the funeral home and look after them. A funeral director will call them soon. They’ll have a chance to see their loved one again, if they want that. They don’t need to make any decisions right this moment. I listen, if they need to talk. Often, that’s enough, at least in the moment.

I hope to make more frequent appearances amongst the living, to spread the gospel of decay. Until then, please submit your questions through our portal.

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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