No matter where I go, and someone finds out what I do for a living, there is always this story shared with me:
Yeah, my uncle worked at a funeral home when he was in college, and it was his job to close up the funeral home at night and do the cleanup and vacuuming, etc. One night he was vacuuming the chapel, and the body from the viewing that had just ended was still laid out, and when he went to vacuum near the casket the body sat up, due to the gases that had built up.
Number one: People that are vacuuming and cleaning up funeral homes are typically apprentices, not people that “get a job cleaning a funeral home.” Apprenticeships in California are for a two-year period whereby one works under a licensed embalmer as the trade is learned. This apprenticeship can be served before, during or after mortuary-science schooling. Sounds good, huh? With an apprenticeship comes all the work that nobody else wants to do: cleaning, maintenance, picking up the deceased in middle of the night, embalming the cases that are decomposed, hauling flowers from the cemetery to the family home when it is 110 degrees while wearing a black suit feeling the sweat roll down your back and drip onto your right butt cheek all the while the 150 people at the house for the reception just watch you, and, of course, being picked to drive the limos for the fighting and problematic families.
Number two: There is no scientific reason a body would sit up. After the embalming process the formaldehyde that has been placed within the cardiovascular system fixes the tissue and muscular frame of the body. A secondary procedure of embalming is that of the respiratory and digestive systems, both being treated with a strong formaldehyde solution, which arrests all decomposition within the thoracic and abdominal cavities, so “gases” cannot build up.
I will promise this to you though. If the day comes, and my apprentice does not show up for work, and I am vacuuming the chapel, and the body in the chapel sits up… I’m telling you, I will be writing this same column, but its title may be “My life as a sandwich artist.”
Kenneth McKenzie is the owner of McKenzie Mortuary in Long Beach.