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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fat & the Mortuary Arts

First, a caveat. I am not a mortician yet... I am studying to become one. Mortuary science students are trained to treat decedents with all dignity and respect. We understand that these are people's loved ones. My father, when he passed, was too large for his casket, which is why that last paragraph is in there. During his viewing, I could not help but notice that the morticians who attended him had been forced to do something to his shoulders to get him to fit (they probably had to break the collarbone), which made me feel sorry we hadn't measured the casket beforehand.
I've volunteered in mortuaries and behind the scenes at funerals, and of course there are dissections and lectures, but most of my knowledge is, at the moment, academic, not first-hand. With that said, here's some weird facts:

A few things I noticed during dissection: very fat people who died from congestive heart failure often have bony vessels encasing their hearts. This is because the fat which clogs the arteries attracts calcium from the blood stream, and the arteries eventually become bony tubes with only a hairs' width of passage for the blood. You can tap your scalpel on these, and it makes a ticking noise. Of course it's depressing to see so many middle-aged folks with bony hearts and aprons of fat hanging off their stomachs. When you open these fellows up, you see the organs have all been pushed into the upper part of the abdominal cavity by the massive omentum (internal fat, "tummy fat,") hanging off their stomach walls. No wonder they couldn't breathe!

Cremation of fat decedents sometimes melts the fat, which will leak from the bottom of the oven (called a "retort"). We're told to put down kitty litter or dessicant crystals to deal with this problem. This makes me think of George Forman grills.

It's recommended that morticians have strong backs (which is why I train my upper body very hard) in order to lift obese decedents to the stretcher, get the stretcher in the hearse, get the stretcher out of the hearse and into the bay, etc. etc. There are hoists to help with this, but it's good to be prepared in case the hoist is on the fritz or if you are operating somewhere that, for whatever reason, does not have a hoist. (Or if the decedent is upstairs. Welcome to your couch-removal party. It'd be nice if folks would decide to give up their ghosts in the foyer, but alas).

Fatty tissue is tough to embalm, both because it requires more fluid and in a different mix, and because the arteries which we use to introduce the embalming fluid may or may not be occluded. Necrotic or gangrenous tissues with compromised vessels have to be embalmed differently-- if we push the embalming fluid in with a needle, it won't embalm a diabetic's blackened feet. (There's a handy topical agent for that). The other problem is decedents with very large, pendulous breasts. These must be either put up on blocks so we can distribute the embalming fluid as best we can, or they must be duct-taped out of the way. I feel bad about this-- it's not very dignified for the decedent.

Of course cleaning a very fat decedent is not a pleasant task. In my personal experience, very large decedents have a greater chance of doing something... interesting post-mortem, such as leaking brown fluid from the mouth (or even vomiting from the pressure of abdominal gases), voiding bowels and bladder, etc. This can be very scary if you aren't expecting it!

The other problem is that caskets have not "upsized" to deal with the larger population (there are "extra large" or "roomy" caskets, but they cost more, and delicacy prevents most morticians from selling them as such). There isn't much to be done about this-- you just have to get him/her in there somehow. There's a lot of physical activity in mortuary arts, and sometimes, when you're wrestling a decedent into his or her final home, it can seem sort of funny. Thus "morticians' humor."

I hope this did not offend, and if it does, I will remove it.

The Buddhist Mortician wrote this for the My Fat Spouse Forum


  1. Ive been in the funeral business for 10 years and have been a director for 6 of them, have embalmed over 3500 bodies since than, and not one time have I had to break a bone to fit people into caskets. Obese people at times are put into smaller caskets, but they are squeeezed in to not broken than squeeze into. If someone has intentionally broken a bone to fit a deceased in anything should have there licensed taken away and far removed from someones loved one. Ive had just as many problems with very thin people doing the same expulsions as obese people. To be honest, larger people seem to embalm quickly and easier in my estimation, they seem to die from being heavy and the load placed on their heart more than clogged arteries. My advice to you young student, find a reputable funeral home that honors the deceased, instead of the ones out there that seem less concerned with a deceased person. James Wolverton, LFD tampa, florida

  2. well said James. And to think you were able to post all of this without ever going into your email. Bravo!!


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