17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Funeral Directors

iStock
iStock

Despite the fact that almost everyone will need the services of the "dismal trade" at some point in their lives, the specific job duties of funeral directors often remain shrouded in mystery. Mental Floss talked to several to learn some little-known facts about the profession, from what happens behind the doors of the embalming room to the real reason you might want to think twice about that “protective” casket.

1. THEY DRIVE MINIVANS.

“The reason you don't see the dead being picked up in your daily life is because we're stealth like that,” Jeff Jorgenson of Elemental Cremation & Burial in Seattle tells Mental Floss. “We are soccer moms and we are legion! Actually, we just use soccer-mom vehicles: Minivans are the transportation of the dead. We rarely drive hearses—those are ceremonial vehicles only.”

2. THAT SWEET LOOK ON THE DECEASED’S FACE TOOK SOME WORK.

Funeral directors say that the most important part of preparing a body for a viewing is the “setting of the features”—creating a peaceful facial expression with a pleasant smile. But while it might look nice at the end, the work creating that appearance can be grisly. Morticians stuff the throat and nose with cotton and then suture the mouth shut, either using a curved needle and thread to stitch between the jawbone and nasal cavity or using a needle injector machine to accomplish a similar job more quickly. Small spiked cups are also inserted under the eyelids to keep the lids closed and the eyes from caving in.

Of course, some bodies take more restoration than others. One mortician says that to prepare a decapitated corpse for an open-casket viewing, he uses a wooden dowel to rejoin the head and body, then sutures the neck back together.

3. THEY MIGHT MAKE A TRIP TO THE DRUGSTORE. 

In her best-selling book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, mortician Caitlin Doughty says: “If the usual methods of setting the features aren’t sufficient to keep the eyes closed or the mouth shut, superglue is a secret weapon.” In Grave Matters, author Mark Harris points out that superglue can also be used to close up any puncture marks from needles on a corpse. Brooklyn funeral director Amy Cunningham of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services tells Mental Floss: “If you need to keep a deceased person’s hands folded neatly at their abdomen, but their arms keep falling down into the sides of the casket, you can gently bind their thumbs with a ponytail tie.”

4. COMPARISON SHOPPING IS KEY.

Sixth-generation funeral director Caleb Wilde, known for his popular blog Confessions of a Funeral Director, shares this story with us: “About a year ago, a husband and wife died about four months apart. The wife knew us, so we buried her, and the husband knew the funeral home in a neighboring town, so they buried him. They both had the same funeral, same casket, vault, etc. The family called us to let us know that the other funeral home charged $3000 more. Same value, different cost. Call around to different funeral homes. Shop. Ask for the GPL [General Price List]. Remember, cost doesn’t always equal value.”

5. YOU MIGHT WANT TO THINK TWICE ABOUT “PROTECTIVE” CASKETS.

Some caskets that have vacuum-seal rubber gaskets are marketed as “protective” or resistant to the “entry of outside elements.” As Harris details in Grave Matters, this creates conditions that encourage the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which break the body down by putrefying it, “turning soft body parts to mush and bloating the corpse with foul-smelling gas … Inside the sealed casket, the result is a funereal version of the decay that’s found in swamp bottoms and the bowels of unturned compost piles.”

6. SOMETIMES CASKETS EXPLODE.

In fact, the aforementioned buildup of methane gas can cause what people in the industry call “exploding casket syndrome,” where the gas will literally blow the lids off of caskets and doors off of crypts. Some casket makers have added Tupperware™-style “burping” features to their sealer models to release the accumulated gases. Harris spoke with a former cemetery owner who told him that those “protective” sealer caskets are “routinely unsealed after the family leaves … to relieve the inevitable buildup of gases within the casket.” Staff may also just leave the caskets unlocked, not engaging the seal to begin with, in an attempt to avoid those “fetid conditions inside the casket.”

7. SOMETIMES PACEMAKERS EXPLODE, TOO.

If a pacemaker is left in a body when cremated, “it can explode and can cause upward of $10,000 of damage to the retort [cremation machine],” Wilde says. “So, pacemakers need to be removed before cremation. And don’t worry, the funeral directors/cremationists will do the removal for you.”

8. SOME FUNERAL DIRECTORS RARELY SEE THE DEAD.

Jorgenson says, “The bulk of what funeral directors do is paper-pushing—filing death certificates, getting permits, editing obituaries, and sending them to the paper. [Some] will only see a dead person when they are delivered for a service. In the case of some funeral homes, a [corporate] funeral director could literally go years without seeing a dead person.”

9. THEY SEE THINGS THROUGH ROSE-COLORED LIGHT BULBS.

While the formaldehyde embalmers use does contain a rosy dye to restore color to graying, lifeless flesh, it’s not always sufficient. According to Cunningham, “mortuary schools teach color theory and stage lighting—how to use colored gels over the ceiling lights.” Doughty also mentions that bodies are often set out for visitation displayed under rose-colored light bulbs.

10. IT ALL GOES RIGHT DOWN THE DRAIN.

You’d think all the chemicals and body fluids involved in embalming would be disposed of like biohazard, but it’s industry practice to just wash it all off the table, right into the drain. Harris points out that just one embalming can generate 120 gallons of “funeral waste”—blood, fecal matter, and the former contents of internal organs, in addition to any chemicals in the preservation fluid itself—and it all ends up in the public sewer system, to be eventually released into waterways. Although, as Wilde points out, “Blood isn’t any worse than the other things that go down the loo.”

11. FORMALDEHYDE MIGHT BE DYING A SLOW DEATH.

In addition to causing relatively minor problems, such as sinus issues and rashes (including one called “embalmer’s eczema”), formaldehyde is a carcinogen. The U.S. National Toxicology Program, among other groups, has said that people with high levels of exposure—such as embalmers—are at a higher risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, myeloid leukemia, and other forms of cancer.

Usually, criticism comes from outside the death-care industry, but that’s starting to change. In the May 2016 issue of The Director, the official publication of the National Funeral Directors Association, Carol Lynn Green, the NFDA’s environmental-compliance counsel, writes, “there is no dispute that formaldehyde poses a health risk.” She says that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is gearing up to make their workplace regulations stricter, and recommends that funeral homes start to transition to preservation products that don’t use the dangerous gas.

12. YOU CAN’T REALLY BE BURIED UNDER A TREE.

Some consumers who dislike the idea of embalming, or have environmental concerns, choose a “green” burial. Alongside that often comes a romantic idea about being buried beneath a favorite tree—perhaps a stately oak, for example. Sarah Wambold, an Austin funeral director and green burial expert, tells Mental Floss: “A body must be buried at least four feet from a tree to protect its root system. It’s a bit of an adjustment for people who are committed to the image of being buried under a tree, but that’s not always the most green option for the tree. Wouldn't they rather allow the tree to continue to live?” You can, however, plant new trees or shrubs atop a grave after a burial, and the roots will grow down over the body.

13. AT LEAST ONE FUNERAL DIRECTOR WANTS TO TEACH YOU TO PREPARE DEAD BODIES YOURSELF.

Caitlin Doughty

Doughty, who runs a funeral home called Undertaking LA, told WIRED“I’m a licensed mortician, but I want to teach people that they don’t need me.” She advocates people learning to take care of their own dead at home, and says she wants the public to become comfortable with the way death looks naturally: “A chemically preserved body looks like a wax replica of a person. Bodies are supposed to be drooping and turning very pale and sinking in while decomposing. Within a day or so after they’ve died, you should be able to see that this person has very much left the building. That’s the point. I think dead bodies should look dead. It helps with the grieving process.”

Doughty encourages the idea of home funerals, which are legal in all 50 states (although 10 states require the involvement of a funeral director). For more information, check out the Home Funeral Alliance.

14. IT’S HARD TO BE THEIR FRIEND.

Any friend might disappoint you once in a while, but funeral directors will probably do it more often, according to Wilde. “We might miss your birthday party; we might have to leave in the middle of dinner. Death has this way of keeping an untimely schedule, and as death’s minions, we’re tied to that schedule. Whether it be in the middle of the night, or in the middle of your wedding, when death calls, we have to respond.”

15. NO ONE WANTS TO PROFIT FROM THE DEATHS OF CHILDREN.

“It is a tradition in the funeral industry to provide funerals to the families of stillborn babies and very young infants at cost,” Cunningham says. “Funeral directors do not care to make a profit on the deaths of children, and in fact, the death of a young child saddens the whole firm more than almost anything else.”

The funeral industry also includes a number of charitable projects devoted to helping parents after a child’s death. A volunteer group called Little Angel Gowns makes burial garments for babies out of donated wedding dresses, and provides them at no cost to hospitals and funeral homes. The Tears Foundation assists grieving parents in paying for burial or cremation expenses after losing a baby. Eloise Woods, a natural burial ground in Texas, will bury infants at no charge.

16. YOUR GRANDFATHER’S HIP JOINT MIGHT BECOME A NEW ROAD SIGN.

According to Doughty, families can ask for replacement medical parts back after a cremation, but most do not. Hip and knee implants are often melted down and recycled for road signs and car parts, among other things. Unfortunately, she says, breast implants usually melt all over the cremation machine.

17. SOME FUNERAL HOMES EMPLOY THERAPY DOGS.

A large part of a funeral director’s job is comforting the bereaved. Some use grief-therapy dogs to give the families a furry shoulder to cry on. For one example, check out Lulu the golden doodle.

All photos courtesy iStock unless otherwise noted.

This story originally ran in 2016.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

- Dash Deluxe Air Fryer $80 (save $20)

- Dash Rapid 6-Egg Cooker $17 (save $3)

- Keurig K-Café Single Coffee Maker $169 (save $30)

- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

- HP Neverstop Laser Printer $250 (save $30)

- HP ScanJet Pro 2500 f1 Flatbed OCR Scanner $274 (save $25)

- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

- Mead Composition Books Pack of 5 Ruled Notebooks $11 (save $2)

- Swingline Desktop Hole Punch $7 (save $17)

- Officemate OIC Achieva Side Load Letter Tray $15 (save $7)

- PILOT G2 Premium Rolling Ball Gel Pens 12-Pack $10 (save $3)

Toys and games

Selieve/Amazon

- Selieve Toys Old Children's Walkie Talkies $17 (save $7)

- Yard Games Giant Tumbling Timbers $59 (save $21)

- Duckura Jump Rocket Launchers $11 (save $17)

- EXERCISE N PLAY Automatic Launcher Baseball Bat $14 (save $29)

- Holy Stone HS165 GPS Drones with 2K HD Camera $95 (save $40)

Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

- DEWALT 20V MAX LED Hand Held Work Light $54 (save $65)

- Duck EZ Packing Tape with Dispenser, 6 Rolls $11 (save $6)

- Bissell MultiClean Wet/Dry Garage Auto Vacuum $111 (save $39)

- Full Circle Sinksational Sink Strainer with Stopper $5 (save $2)

Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

- A Christmas Story 20-Inch Leg Lamp Prop Replica by NECA $41 save $5

- SYLVANIA 100 LED Warm White Mini Lights $8 (save 2)

- Yankee Candle Large Jar Candle Vanilla Cupcake $17 (save $12)

- Malden 8-Opening Matted Collage Picture Frame $20 (save $8)

- Lush Decor Blue and Gray Flower Curtains Pair $57 (save $55)

- LEVOIT Essential Oil Diffuser $25 (save $5)

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11 Secrets of Astronauts

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

In the 60 or so years that the job has existed, astronauts have captured the public's imagination. And while many people might think they have some idea of what being an astronaut is like, thanks to the glut of portrayals in movies, real astronauts will tell you that working for NASA is much different from what you see on the screen. In between exciting tasks like spacewalks, they have to worry about less glamorous aspects of the job—like finding lost items that floated away and using the toilet in microgravity.

Mental Floss spoke with two former NASA astronauts about the realities of preparing for and experiencing life in space. Read on to learn about the most annoying parts of the job, the ways they have fun, and their honest opinions about astronaut food.

1. Astronauts come from a range of different fields.

There’s no one direct path to becoming an astronaut. If someone knows they want to be an astronaut from a young age, they need to build credentials in a specific field before they can get the attention of NASA. "They're looking for people who are qualified, meaning that they're high-achieving military people or people from civilian life, generally with an advanced degree," Mike Massimino, a former NASA astronaut and professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, tells Mental Floss.

To be considered for NASA’s astronaut program, candidates must have U.S. citizenship, hold a master's degree in a STEM field, and have at least two years of related post-grad professional experience or at least 1000 hours of pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft. Two years toward a doctoral program in STEM, a completed doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine degree, or completion of a nationally recognized test pilot school program are also accepted in place of a master's degree. Because space flight crews require diverse skill sets, the criteria doesn’t get more specific than that.

"I was a Ph.D. research engineer professor when I was picked," Massimino says. "I've flown in space with engineers, with test pilots, helicopter pilots for the military. I've also flown in space with a geologist, I've flown in space with an oceanographer, and I've flown in space with a veterinarian. So it's really varied. There's not just one route."

2. Astronaut training involves everything from class work to military survival exercises.

NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman on a spacewalk in May 2010.NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Candidates accepted into the astronaut program must complete years of training before they're ready for spaceflight. A lot of that training takes place in the classroom and involves learning about different space vehicles and systems. Astronauts also undergo physical training in the real world. According to Garrett Reisman, former NASA astronaut and the director of space operations at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, one of the most intense courses has nothing to do with preparing for life in space.

"We do the same SERE [survive, evade, resist, escape] training that military aviators go through," he tells Mental Floss. "The idea is that if you fell out of an aircraft over enemy terrain, you got to know how to survive without help. You have to learn to live off the land, what plants you can eat, how to make a shelter and all those things."

The T-38 jets astronauts fly as part of their training have ejectable seats, so landing somewhere unfamiliar is a possibility. But astronauts only fly over the continental U.S., so they likely won't ever need to use the full extent of their SERE training. "What are the odds that you parachute down and there’s not a Starbucks right there?" Reisman jokes. "All you need to do is give me a Starbucks gift card and I’ll be fine."

3. Exercise is a vital part of the job.

Exercising is more than a way to pass time in space: It’s essential to an astronaut’s health. The human body isn’t used to moving around without the force of gravity, and for this reason, all astronauts must make resistance exercises part of their daily routine.

"You do have to spend two hours every day exercising," Reisman says. "If you're up there for a long period of time, you can lose a lot of your bone and your muscle mass if you do nothing, so the way we get around that is by doing intense resistance exercise."

Astronauts can lose up to 20 percent of their muscle mass on an 11-day space flight due to the lack of gravity [PDF]. But zero gravity also makes free weights useless, so instead, astronauts maintain their strength by using a device outfitted with two small canisters that create a vacuum they can pull against with a long bar. A bike and treadmill (with a harness) are also available on the International Space Station. Strength is required to perform certain emergency procedures when the ship re-enters Earth's gravitational field, so staying fit in space is vital.

4. Astronauts do most of their work on Earth.

Astronaut Mike Massimino practices repairing a portion of the Hubble Space Telescope while training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In order to become one of the few people to travel to space, astronauts must be willing to do a lot of work at home. "A NASA astronaut’s job is mainly spending your time on Earth," Massimino says. "You're going to spend the vast majority of your time on the ground, either training or working on technical issues or helping other people fly." Throughout his nearly two decades with NASA, Massimino spent less than a month total in space. Reisman was with NASA for 12 years and spent a cumulative 107 days of his career in space.

5. Astronauts don't make as much money as you think.

One of the biggest misconceptions astronauts hear about their work relates to their salary. While they are paid decently, astronauts don’t collect the massive paychecks some people might assume comes with such a high-profile job. "We don't make a heck of a lot of money," Massimino says. "We make a standard government salary."

Astronauts are paid according to the federal government's General Schedule pay scale. Most federal jobs are assigned a General Schedule (GS) grade that determines their starting salary, and the pay increases as they gain experience. Astronauts either qualify for grades GS 13 or 14 (the highest grade is GS 15) and make between $104,898 and $161,141 per year. For comparison, Fish and Wildlife administrators are paid similarly at the right experience level.

6. Astronauts lose things (but not for long).

Even in a place as tight as a space station, astronauts still manage to misplace their belongings. Thanks to the lack of gravity, anything they let go of immediately drifts away, which can cause problems when they’re not paying attention. Massimino recalls one incident that happened to his crewmate Mike Good: "He had his grandfather’s watch with him, and he comes up to me and goes, 'Mass, I can’t find the watch.' We’re looking all over the place and I stop after a minute and go, 'Mike, it’s inside here somewhere.'"

They eventually found it trapped inside the airlock. The air filter is another common place where lost items end up: Without gravity interfering, the air flow will carry any floating objects there. "One thing we would say is, 'If you can’t find something, just wait,'" Massimino says. "You'd wake up in the morning and look at the filter and see like aspirin and a piece of Velcro or something, because everything eventually would get there."

7. Astronaut opinions on the food in space are mixed.

Despite its reputation, space food has some fans in the astronaut community. "Astronaut food is great," Massimino says. "We had ravioli, lasagna, shrimp cocktail, fajitas. It was fantastic."

Reisman holds a much different opinion of the meals he ate in space. "It’s terrible. You don’t go to the space station for the food," he says. While he didn’t love the American and Russian provisions that made up most of his diet in space, he did have nice things to say about food from other agencies. "The Japanese and the Europeans, when their astronauts would fly, they had special food that was provided by their space agencies. The Japanese sent up yakitori and miso soup and that was delicious. And the Europeans had pâté. That was much better."

8. Astronauts find time to have fun.

NASA astronaut Mike Massimino smiles during some extravehicular activity (EVA).NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Between work, meals, and exercise, astronauts don’t have a ton of free time in space. Duties like maintenance, installing equipment, and conducting experiments take up the majority of their day. Sneaking in recreation usually means staying up past their scheduled bedtime, which Reisman confirms most astronauts do. One of his favorite activities to do aboard the International Space Station was taking pictures of Earth. "You could take photographs of places on Earth that are special to you. I got a picture of my hometown, which is pretty cool. As far as I know, no human ever photographed that particular town from space before."

9. Astronauts think movies set unrealistic standards.

The science isn’t the only thing that’s unrealistic about Hollywood’s portrayal of space travel. "I think the biggest misconception is that we're all tall and good-looking," Reisman says. When working as a technical advisor for 2019's Ad Astra, he jokingly brought up this gripe with the movie’s star Brad Pitt. "I said, 'I’m kind of pissed off at you. Think about who they cast to be astronauts in all these movies and TV shows. Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey, George Clooney, Brad Pitt. People meet me and they’re disappointed.'"

Reisman doesn't hold this against the actors, however. Pitt reminded him that the stars portraying astronauts on screen have plenty to be envious of themselves. "Brad said: 'Well, Garrett, I can't actually fly a spaceship. The only talent I have is being able to stand in a certain spot and read something that someone else wrote. I got nothing else.'"

10. Going to the bathroom in space is an ordeal.

If you’ve ever wondered how astronauts poop in space, the answer is: with great difficulty. "Taking a dump was not easy," Reisman confirms. Without the help of gravity, using a toilet in space becomes a complicated operation. Astronauts must strap their feet down to keep from floating away and create a perfect seal between the toilet seat and their butt cheeks. The toilet itself uses a vacuum hose to suction up the waste. The process is so complex that using a space toilet is part of an astronaut’s training. It's not unusual for a bathroom break that normally takes a few minutes on Earth to last half an hour in space.

11. In such a competitive field, astronauts need to be persistent.

NASA's astronaut training program is extremely competitive. The agency selected just 12 people out of a pool of 18,353 candidates in 2017, which comes out to an acceptance rate of 0.065 percent. Massimino had to apply four times before he made it into the program.

"I was rejected outright twice while I was in grad school. The third time I got an interview and failed the eye exam, so was medically disqualified." NASA considers candidates with less than 20/20 vision today as long as it's correctable, but that wasn't the case when Massimino was applying. "I went through some vision training with an optometrist, and I was able to teach my eyes to see a little better. I was able to apply a fourth time, and I was picked on my fourth try."

According to Massimino, that level of commitment to his goal ended up being relevant to the job itself. "The job is a lot of late-night simulations, you have to pass exams, you have to work with your teammates. And unless you have a real interest in it, it's going to be tough."