John H. Relden
Senior Embalming Technician
J.W. Myles Caskets and Mortuary
Johnson County, KS
President, Myles Caskets and Mortuary
Subject: Invoice concerns of client #082587, Stephanie Hammond
I received the client, a nineteen-year-old Caucasian female, from Johnson County Morgue courier at 3:00 p.m. on Friday, November 28. Mr. Steven Dennehy, who had been assigned as the obsequies director, signed for the delivery. Mr. Dennehy explained to me, in general summary, the situation of this particular client, a Miss Stephanie Hammond. The body was found naked, in an otherwise empty apartment, near a large serrated knife. There was a significant amount of blood pooled around the body (subsequently cleaned by our affiliate company, but billed to the county). I do not read the newspaper anymore, but Mr. Dennehy mentioned (though I did not ask) that there had been some history of domestic abuse between the young woman and her boyfriend.
The coroner, who completed a noninvasive autopsy, determined that the body had been deceased for over twenty-four hours. This information alerted me to the probability of a long and possibly difficult embalming procedure. Special concerns included unsightly lacerations to the throat, massive loss of blood, significant facial disfiguration, slight abdominal distention, moderate lividity and moderate rigor mortis.
Because family had given little instruction, Mr. Dennehy instituted Policy 4.2, so that all nonessential decisions were made at the discretion of the funeral director (Mr. Dennehy). Mr. Dennehy and I discussed the particulars of the arrangement. We agreed that a "turtleneck outfitting" would not be enough to cover the damage. We discussed the probability that the family would not be able to pay for a complete reconstruction. Mr. Dennehy proposed a closed-casket ceremony, with minimal repair to the body. I agreed, and prepared to embalm the body for odor and longevity. This decision was made based on Mr. Dennehy's knowledge of the financial situation of the family.
Mr. Dennehy left me alone with the client, after I informed him that I expected the entire process to last approximately six hours. The procedures were performed in embalming room No. 3, in the basement of our main building on Nieman Drive.
When I opened the body carrier, I was surprised at the degree of disfiguration. Mr. Dennehy's description did not render the actual condition of this particular client. Nearly no blood remained in the body. The skin was starkly pale, at points translucent, the only thing separating internal organs from the air, which could cause them to burst before burial.
The lacerations, determined to be the cause of death, were more like gouges cut out of the flesh of the neck. It was not a simple jugular-vein incision. I could see, unencumbered, an entire portion of the throat—hanging lymph nodes, exposed muscles, and a small section of the brain stem.
The facial injuries were much worse than I had been led to believe, as well. There were about a dozen scratches and cuts, things that a thick coat of makeup would hide, if this were to be an open-casket ceremony. But there were more, abnormal damages. The left eye socket was empty. In its place was a tag from the coroner's office that read "EYE REMOVED DUE TO DAMAGE." The skin above the left temple was split, revealing a bare skull, slightly chipped. This could mean severe trauma to the skull, or possibly a minor trauma extenuated by the severe loss of blood. The right ear was mangled beyond recognition. The nose was black and cut open on one side, leaving flesh across the cheek.
The coroner's office had left, frankly, a mess. Still, I was under Mr. Dennehy's orders to only minimally embalm the body. I spent an hour and a half washing the remains with antiseptic soap. I then began to massage the extremities of the body to discourage rigor mortis.
When administering the embalming fluid, I used extraordinary care, as cases such as these tend to be extremely fragile. Any unnecessary fluid or intravenous gauge could cause a tearing of the skin. This would lead to a situation almost impossible to correct, in which I would only be able to recommend cremation. I placed a needle in each arm and leg, and a tube down the esophagus, through the open throat. I applied a 13% arterial concentrate and a humectant.
At 7:30 p.m., I estimated the completion of the procedure to be around 10:00 p.m. I informed Mr. Dennehy of my estimate, after which he left the office for the night. I continued to drain bodily fluids and replace them with the arterial concentrate, stopping every quarter-hour to massage the muscles. I replaced all thoracic cavity fluids with a hypodermic fluid mixed with ten percent powdered preservative. I covered the facial features with non-corrosive rubber cement, and placed a standard heavy veil over the head.
At approximately 9:30 p.m., the upstairs doorbell rang. I answered promptly, and found Mrs. Jane Hammond, the mother of the client, waiting outside. She appeared very cold and was shaking violently. I invited her into the office, introduced myself, and asked how I could help her. Mrs. Hammond, although distraught, made it very clear to me that she wished to hold an open casket ceremony. I attempted to reason with Mrs. Hammond in a compassionate manner, explaining that the most appropriate way to deal with such a situation would be to hold a respectful closed-casket ceremony. Mrs. Hammond firmly disagreed. She stated that it was her intention to "see her child one last time." I politely directed her to speak with Mr. Dennehy, or even Mr. Myles, if she had questions as to the arrangements. I explained that I was not responsible for funeral specifics, and that I only take direction from my superiors at the mortuary.
At this point Mrs. Hammond began to shudder uncontrollably. She began a long and largely unintelligible monologue about her daughter and the circumstances of her death. During the few moments I was allowed to speak, I continued to calmly explicate the situation, especially what I understood of the financial limitations in this case. Mrs. Hammond did not directly disagree with the facts this time, and seemed finally resigned to the situation.
Before she left, she handed me a small paper package. Inside I found a 5x7 framed photograph of a brightly smiling teenage girl with her arms around a horse's neck, holding up a white ribbon that read "3rd Place." She was wearing an equestrian-style flannel shirt like my own daughter would sometimes wear when she was the same age. It did appear to be a photograph of the deceased, perhaps from a few years past. (Before I left in the morning, I placed the photograph in Mr. Dennehy's office so that he could return Mrs. Hammond's property.)
I estimated that I was a half-hour from finishing the ordered embalming at this point.
I would like to state that it was my sole decision to make any further preparations. The details of this case, particularly the age of the girl, and the fact that I myself had a daughter, caused me to continue with the preparations.
I continued with the anti-rigor mortis massage, and finished the drain of any leftover fluid. Next, I began with the reconstruction of the client's face. I peeled off the hardened plastic and placed the hanging muscle and flesh back inside the throat and chin cavity, securing it with fast-drying glue. This procedure took about thirty minutes. I used a flesh-putty mix (I cannot recall which particular formula) to fill in the missing muscle in the client's neck. I molded for about two hours, until I was satisfied with the shape of the throat and surrounding flesh. I allowed the putty to dry, and in the meantime I cut pockets of synthetic flesh grafts from the company's supply. I acknowledge that this is expensive material and significantly increased the cost of the procedure.
I stretched these grafts over the putty, and sutured it together at the back of the client's neck. This was the single most time-consuming procedure. The synthetic skin material broke often, and I was forced to use a new piece until I got it to hold. I stretched any available skin at the top of the skull to close the open wound where the skull was chipped. I stapled the skin together to hold it, then slowly sewed the pieces of skin with fine-thread stitch. The result of this procedure was not to my satisfaction, but I moved on as time allowed. When I looked at the clock, it was 3:00 a.m.
The matter of the ear and nose remained. Weeks ago, while cleaning out old equipment, I had found a plastic ear, #37B if I remember correctly, in a drawer in the embalming room. I puttied this for the client's right ear, then sutured the torn nose without incident. I placed a standard plastic eye-cap over the one intact eyeball, and inserted a special tempered-steel sphere into the opposite, empty socket to prevent collapse of the eyelid. I secured each of the client's eyelids with several stitches of durable thread.
I spent the next hour shampooing the hair, combing out tangles, cutting and styling so that the needle-marks on the scalp were covered. I referred to the photograph for particulars of the hair, and although I wasn't completely satisfied with the final product, I believe I achieved a decent similarity. I used large amounts of high-quality concealing makeup to hide the blackness of the nose, and to give the skin grafts a warmer tone. I massaged penetrating lotion into the hands and feet, as well as the entire facial-neck area. I finally set the features, arranging the eyelashes and lips with a mandible septum suture to achieve a "serene" facial position. Each body area did not take much time, but the sum of it was probably three hours or so.
Mr. Dennehy had verbally authorized me to dress the remains in a standard black wool frock for the closed-casket ceremony. I did not do this. Instead I obtained a very slightly worn outfit, a green blouse and jeans, from my own daughter's wardrobe, which I still keep in its entirety. My wife delivered these to the office, as well as a container of fingernail polish, which she insisted on applying to the client's hands herself (as she has done certain times before). She also brought a white prize ribbon, which was once my daughter's as well. I placed this on the client's lapel.
I then finished the final coat of makeup, using the picture Mrs. Hammond had left, to manage the correct shades and colors.
Directly I informed Mr. Dennehy, who had just arrived in the upstairs office, that the client was ready for the casket. I also asked him to communicate to Mrs. Hammond that the remains were in an acceptable condition for an open casket funeral. He expressed his surprise, and asked me if I incurred any additional expenses over the course of the procedure. I replied that I did indeed use additional, unauthorized materials, amounting to perhaps $5000. Mr. Dennehy informed me that this incident may constitute grounds for wage garnishment or other negative consequences. He then relieved me from any further duties concerning this client.
I left a full accounting for materials and labor with Mr. Dennehy's secretary before I left the office. I did not include any labor costs besides the original six hours I had estimated for the minimal embalming procedure. I then went home to my family.
I received a letter from Mr. Dennehy the next day, November 30, placing me on administrative leave and requiring me to remit a full accounting of the events of November 28 and 29. Please consider this letter my full and candid testimony. Rather than subject the company to a drawn-out and ultimately impractical investigation, I wish to tender my resignation, effective immediately.
John H. Relden
Senior Embalming Technician
J.W. Myles Caskets and Mortuary
Title graphic: "But a Memory" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2014.