WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES
This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Alexandre silently moves around the body. He lifts it up, turns it over and back again. When he handles the scalpel, his movements are precise and calculated. Far from being an assassin, he's an embalmer—which means that his job is to prepare the dead for their funerals. "I make dead people, people who I don't know, beautiful," he explains a little too poetically. With his neat haircut, his impeccably ironed shirt, and his boy-next-door face, you can more easily imagine Alexandre at a business school than in a mortuary.
"In France, modern embalming took off in the 1960s and 70s," he starts. Even though rituals for conserving the body have existed since antiquity, in France they were rare until a man called Jacques Marette, the director of a company of funeral homes, founded an embalming school and turned embalming into a discipline. "Before that, people's focus was on the funeral ceremony. The presentation of the body was an afterthought."
Generally, embalming means making sure that the body doesn't deteriorate—either by placing it on a refrigerated surface or by "invading" the vascular system with a cleaning agent—then dressing the body, applying makeup, and doing the hair.
Of course, the impression most people have of embalming isn't a particularly joyful one. Before arriving at Alexandre's lab, I sort of expected a smell of disinfectant and a cloud of flies hovering over a rotting corpse. Yet, the scene in front of me has turned out to quite tolerable. Even though this not my ideal way to spend a Friday afternoon, it's not a really depressing experience either.
"This one is an unusual case," says Alexandre, looking at the corpse. Part of the deceased's leg is rotten; apparently she died from cancer. After washing the body, Alexandre uses formalin solution, which stops the decomposition process. He doesn't fix anything—he only makes sure it doesn't get any worse by basically covering up the decay and the smells that come with it.
He puts a sort of rod in the abdomen and makes an incision at the throat, where he externalizes the artery and inserts a tube. Alexandre then hooks up a pump that injects some kind of conservation liquid and simultaneously withdraws the mix of blood, body fluids, and the formalin mix. This process takes about 20 to 30 minutes.
"The profession is getting tougher and tougher," he tells me as he works. He runs his own company and employs one embalmer, while he is hoping to be able to hire one more in the coming months. He works seven days a week, starting at 7 AM and finishing late on most nights, too. "It's the sort of work, where you bring your wife along on a Sunday so that you can spend some time with her," he jokes.
"The real problem is that you can never let yourself switch off," he continues. "If I take an afternoon off, I know that I could be called in at any moment for a treatment. I always keep my phone on me and my bags packed in the trunk of my car."
Alexandre isn't actually obliged to take the calls, but listening to him talk about his job, it feels like he is. "It's all I can do for the deceased and their families. Can you imagine waiting two days to see your father because the embalmer has gone on holiday?" It's true, I can't. "They often tell me that my 'patients' can wait. But generally, the families can't see their loved ones before I do my work."
As the pump continues to drain, Alexandre moves on to the next step, which is carefully cleaning the deceased's face. Using cotton wool, he blocks the various orifices to avoid any unexpected leaks. Then he sews up the mouth to make sure nothing moves out of place.
"I'm always scared of doing something wrong. There's no room for error in this job—you really only get one shot." This is not only an ethical necessity but also a financial one, since a mistake could cost him a client. Embalming is not obligatory in France, and it's the funeral directors that sell it to the families. However, "some funeral directors are lately including it in every package they offer, not giving you much choice." The biggest funeral homes hire embalmers full-time, but most of them outsource the service.
"Education is also important," he murmurs. "The schools in France work on a closed number basis, and they limit the number of diplomas they give out every year." Training lasts two years and is split into two parts: some months of theory and some months of practice. "It used to be that each student had to pay the embalmer who trained them," but since Alexandre didn't have to pay his mentor, he does not take money from his apprentices either.
By the time we finish talking, Alexandre has finished his work. The deceased is dressed and made up. He places the body in the coffin before giving the hair one final brush. He checks one last time that everything is perfect and then smiles, seemingly proud of his work. In just a few hours, the face of the patient has been transformed. She seems peaceful. Thanks to Alexandre, she will stay this way until her funeral, which will take place in a few days.