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Vol. 3, No. 4, 2004

     
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interview
CONFESSIONS OF AN EMBALMER

_________________________________________________

Sebastien Dufault works as an embalmer for a funeral home in Montreal’s South Shore. He talked about his life’s passion with Arts & Opinion.

 

ARTS & OPINION: So you like to work with the dead?

SEBASTIEN: I like my work, which involves working with the deceased.

A & O: But you chose a profession whose essential materials are the dead?

SEBASTIEN: To the best of my knowledge, my colleagues are quite alive as are the families and friends of the deceased with whom I’m in daily contact.

A & O: Why didn’t you choose a normal profession, like social work or teaching?

SEBASTIEN: Embalming is perhaps an unusual choice, it’s not an abnormal one. By the age of 9, I already knew I wanted to be an embalmer.

A & O: That must have pleased your parents?

SEBASTIEN: At the beginning, they weren’t at all that pleased, but as I got older and they realized that’s what I wanted to do in life, they accepted it and have been very supportive.

A & O: How did your classmates react to your inclination?

SEBASTIEN: Knowing how cruel kids can sometimes be, I guess I had the presence of mind to keep my fascination with embalming a secret until I was well into my teens. When I finally came out -- in a manner of speaking -- most of my classmates respected my choice.

A & O: Do you know or understand why, at such an early age, you wanted to become an embalmer?

SEBASTIEN: Yes. I had to attend a funeral when I was young, and I was amazed by the transformation on the deceased’s face, having just seen and remembered that face ravaged by death. It was almost as if the embalmer had brought the deceased back to life, so convincing was his work.

A & O: Analogous to a resurrection?

SEBASTIEN: You could say that. The experience turned out to be a transforming moment of my life, and I remember during those years that wanting to become an embalmer was an obsession.

A & O: Most of us on the outside regard you on the inside as a bit weird. We imagine you with all sorts of hang-ups and social phobias, that embalming is the refuge of the socially challenged. Your comments?

SEBASTIEN: I can’t speak for everyone in the profession, but without exception, all of my fellow embalmers are normal and socially well adapted. Like in all professions, I suppose there are bad eggs, those who choose embalming for the wrong reasons, but they are certified professionals subject to a professional code of ethics.

A & O: If a garbage collector’s kick comes when he finds something valuable or newsworthy in the garbage, and a doctor’s kick comes when he saves a patient’s life (depriving you of work, of course), how do you get your professional kicks?

SEBASTIEN: In our line of work, most of the bodies we receive are in very terrible condition; bodies that have been in terrible accidents, burn victims, bodies ravaged by cancer. Our challenge is to restore dignity to the deceased, to rid their faces of suffering and anguish, to transform their ugliness into something more beautiful than when they were alive. The satisfaction comes when the families view the embalmer’s work for the first time: the amazement in their eyes, the pleasure at what they are observing. This is my kick. Gone is the pain and suffering of the deceased’s final days; he or she has found his peace and it shows in their faces. In our special way, we are artists, bringing beauty into the world, a beauty that will survive in the memory of the survivors. The satisfaction of our work is in no small way an aesthetic one.

A & O: It must be frustrating that most people think you are weird?

SEBASTIEN: I’m comfortable doing what I’m doing. I cannot allow my work which I find meaningful to be held hostage by public opinion. If people like you think people like me are weird, that’s your problem.

A & O: Aren’t we as a society avoiding the unpleasant facts of death by covering up or editing out the death of the deceased, dressing him/her up for big show?

SEBASTIEN: The family members and friends who have spent time with and cared for the dying cannot be accused of avoiding the unpleasant facts of death.

A & O: Do you develop relationships with the dead? Do their faces reveal something of their lives, if they were happy or not, if they were good or bad people?

SEBASTIEN: As mentioned earlier, most of the deceased have suffered considerably in the last days of their lives, have been administered strong drugs, and this is what you see in their faces. It is during my contact with family members that I try to learn of the deceased’s life, his history, to arrive at a better likeness of the person as he was in life. So yes, like their survivors, I think about them, wonder about them, especially if I have access to photographs that span their entire lives.

A & O: From time to time, I’m sure, a perfectly healthy, perhaps beautiful young body arrives. How does this affect you?

SEBASTIEN: These are the most difficult cases, when someone young is brought in, who hasn’t lived, whose life has been cut short. These cases leave me with a feeling of terrible sadness.

A & O: If I may be indiscreet, on those thankfully rare occasions when young bodies arrive, the opportunities and temptation to experiment with necrophilia might be considered an occupational hazard. Would you care to respond?

SEBASTIEN: Mr. Lewis. I am not sexually attracted to the dead.

A & O: Do you ever hear of such behaviour within the profession?

SEBASTIEN: We are certified professionals, not perverts.

from Kissed: Molly Parker - topA & O: In the brilliant Canadian film entitled Kissed, the female protagonist, played by Molly Parker, makes love to the dead because she is fascinated by the mystery of death and believes she can get closer to it, by what she refers to as “crossing over,” in order to contact the deceased’s soul. As a viewer, I found her motivation totally convincing, and her love making with the dead almost sacred, easily more dignified that ours with the living. Your response?

SEBASTIEN: I have seen the film and wasn’t particularly impressed. People who indulge in necrophilia are perverted and they need professional help. Secondly, the premise of the film is flawed. Dead bodies don’t arrive at our doorstep with erections. I’ve embalmed over 1,500 bodies in my career and only one or two have arrived in this state, and only after severe abdominal bleeding has leaked blood into the penis. The movie Kissed has propagated a negative stereotype about the profession of embalming which is very unfortunate. And while there may be a very small percentage of disturbed people among embalmers they are the exceptions. There are periods during the year when I’m on the job 70 hours per week. We have a job to do and not enough time to do it. If you are looking to categorize the gist of our work, our profession is similar to that of restoration, where we try to bring something back to its original state.

A & O: Does working with the dead sharpen your appreciation of life?

SEBASTIEN: Absolutely.

A & O: Do you believe in God?

SEBASTIEN: Yes.

A & O: Do you ever question what kind of God it is that brings you up close to bodies and faces that have suffered so terribly in their last days?

SEBASTIEN: First of all I don't question God's ways, nor do I regard him as an executioner. Perhaps he doesn't permit suffering but rather tolerates it.

A & O: Thank you, Sebastian, for your time and frankness. I have learned much today.

SEBASTIEN: It’s been a pleasure discussing my life’s passion with you. If I should be fortunate enough to outlive you, it will be both a pleasure and privilege to embalm you.

A & O: I’ll pass on that, hopefully for the long term.

 

YOUR COMMENTS
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COMMENTS

Huang_wu2@yahoo.com
That was enlightening, thank you for sharing.

cindyvaldez@hotmail.com
I am so very impress in how Sebastien kept his profile: very professional. I would fancy to meet him as I am persuing the career of an Embalmer. I find this profession like any other, very interesting. For those people who think that persons like Sebastien are weird, I would say that these people simply aren't educated enough to accept that the art of embalming is respectful career like any other. I would feel honour and fortunate to put myself in Sebastien's hand when my times comes. Thank you for such a educational interview.

tami.princesas@gmail.com
I am 18 years old, I am a senior of Clarke Central high school; I want be a embalmer but I don't know if I am strong enough. Can you give me a answer? Anything is good for my heart.

user-submission@feedback.com
I used to think that funerals were just a money making scam. Then I watched an episode of Frontline which documented the duties of a funeral director. These guys earn their money, not just with the aftercare but especially when they get a first call in the middle of the night and have to take a deceased infant from its mother's arms.

hr4wop@gmail.com
I happen not to believe in embalming, wakes or funerals but in no way am I here to disrespect anyone. I don't believe in one making money off of the deceased although I know that it isn't the deceased that walks into the funeral home. I think the caskets are way overpriced ( like furniture ). I feel the body has been through enough so why do what is done to it. Just make it rest. I also wouldn't want someone who is not a loved one being the last to take care of the body. I also think the sooner the body is gone the faster the loved ones can grieve. Why put them through a 2/3 day torture. Is it healthy for you to observe your loved one deceased? To me it's everyone going with the flow or ritual, not their true beliefs. People are afraid to go against the grain. And just a side note. I don't care who you are. If an embalmer has a great loss of their own (own child), that to me I can see ending a career.

user-submission@feedback.com
For many people, embalming and reviewal are a more psychological than aesthetic experience. A lot of people can gain closure from seeing their loved one looking peaceful, especially if the person was ill and in pain. I am a mortuary science student at the University of Minnesota, and I have a live-in job at a funeral home. Surprisingly, a couple of the funeral directors I work with have actually participated in embalming loved ones of theirs who have died. I'm still a student, thus I cannot yet fathom being able to withstand that emotionally. Maybe it brings some type of closure knowing that their loved ones will be treated with utmost care and respect.

Furthermore, I don't consider our profession "making money off of the deceased." We do a public service for people, whether or not there is embalming. What would happen to dead people if there were no funeral homes? The families would be responsible for cleaning and disposing of the bodies. Most people do not have the time, energy, or stomach for that when the time comes. The same argument could be made about doctors. That they are "making money off of sick people." We are in this profession because we have deep compassion and empathy for people during their time of need.

@tami.princess:
You should look around your area for night attendant positions at funeral homes. Or even just talking to a funeral director can help. If you find a website for a funeral home and send them an email, I'm sure the director would be more than happy to meet with you and answer any questions you had. I applied to the program of mortuary science at the U of M and was thrilled about my acceptance, but was also unsure of what I was getting myself into. So I emailed and met with a funeral director. She answered many of my questions and eased a lot of my worries and I wound up being offered a live in job. It's a great educational experience and I feel very lucky to have this job. If you hate it, you can always quit and then you know if you're up for the job before you dive head first into classes in college.

 

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