It comes as no surprise to John Galbraith when he arrives at work of a morning to find dead bodies awaiting his attention.
“We have removed death from the home, we employ an undertaker,” observes Galbraith. “We call them undertakers because we’re undertaking something that you don’t want to do.”
After encountering judgment and stigma throughout his career, Galbraith no longer discloses his profession to people he meets.
“I would say ‘I’m a thanatologist’ [student of death] or, in some cases, ‘I follow a medical profession.’ “
A nurse, Elizabeth Pearson, also recognises the stigma attached to the time-honoured practice of embalming and in fact anyone working in care for the dead. According to her, “stigma is based on people’s morals and principles of life”.
That moral foundation often stems from cultural and religious influences, Galbraith says. “If you look at the Old Testament, it views people who touch a dead body as ceremonially unclean.
“They can’t come and worship at the temple of God. They can’t even see the priest, they’re outcasts.”
Galbraith, 56, a funeral director who is also qualified as an embalmer, knows all too well how people would be liable to react on learning of his unusual skill set.
“It can be traumatic: I don’t think that the human body’s meant to deal with this sort of stuff regularly,” he says.
After the death of his grandmother, Galbraith – then 19 – received a job offer one week after applying for a position in Melbourne’s western suburbs.
“I was married at 19, I had a young family. There are a lot of sacrifices with this job. I missed out on so many things with the kids and [not] being home.
“It was hard work in the beginning, I struggled. It was hard to adapt. The first few weeks I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this.’
“In those days, we didn’t have extraction fans. The formalin in the air would make your eyes run and your nose would be blocked because you’re breathing in toxins.
“Initially, I did it because I needed a job. But people think we’re in it just for the money. There’s better jobs, better pays out there. If you don’t like helping people, you won’t last.”
In 1987 the US Environmental Protection Agency classified formaldehyde – traditionally the main preservative used in embalming – as a “probable human carcinogen” where there was lengthy exposure to it.
Since then, the risk has been sharply reduced by crossflow air-stream ventilation and the replacement of preserving agents containing formaldehyde with ethanol-based agents. As Galbraith says, “We don’t have time to breathe in toxins.
“Embalming is one aspect in preparing a body. It is a technique to preserve the body and is practised mostly for open-casket funerals.
The body is firstly sanitised, cleaned and prepared for burial or cremation. Depending on the service requested, then embalming would take place.”
The first step in embalming is to place the body in the refrigerated mortuary to halt the progress of decomposition.
“The concentration and colours of the embalming liquid are personalised, based on the condition of the body,” Galbraith says.
The amount of time that has passed since death, and the atmospheric conditions to which a body has been exposed affect the onset of rigor mortis and livor mortis, “stages of the body decomposing”.
Galbraith explains: “Rigor mortis is the Latin translation for ‘stiffness of death’, in which the muscles become hard to manipulate due to the chemical changes in the body.
“Livor mortis is the blood settling to the lowest part of the body due to gravity and the heart no longer beating.
“Blood leaks through the vessel wall into tissue due to the decomposition of the body. This creates the discolouration …
“The first step is to raise an artery, and to then inject the fluid in, and perhaps drain it out with another. Depending on the condition of the body, an aldehyde embalming liquid is used.
“I then manually massage the face, fingers and body, spreading the liquid throughout the body.”
The process may take longer if rigor mortis and livor mortis have set in.
Embalming is often followed by washing, powdering and surface-embalming, depending on the requested services.
The final stages involve the use of make-up and hair arrangement. “I have taken up make-up training,” Galbraith says.
His country funeral service adds a professional touch that many outsiders might find surprising – free professional help for staff on whom the daily work exacts a heavy emotional toll.
“If I recognise in one of my staff members that they’re not coping well, I ensure they stop and make sure they go and see a psychologist,” Galbraith says.
After 17 years working in Melbourne’s west, he returned to the rural town in which he had been born and raised.
“In the country we’re more hands on, we’re more available and helpful. I think we have more patience because we’ve got more time.
“I think we’re kinder to people because we’re not in a rush. … I love the human interaction, you meet and help a lot of wonderful people.”
Directing the funeral is only part of the funeral director’s task, as he sees it: supporting and helping families through their grief is the other major part of his role.
“I had a phone call from a young fella,” Galbraith recalls. “I’m doing his mother’s funeral this week. He was having a meltdown.
“I said, ‘You’re all right. Don’t worry, I’m here to help you. … You’re allowed to be upset, you’re allowed to cry. That’s all right, that’s normal. …”
If he recognises that newcomers to the profession often find themselves overwhelmed, that doesn’t mean long experience has made him insensitive. Galbraith volunteers at the local soup kitchen on Friday nights and reads up to five books a week to help him deal with the pressures of his career.
“I’ve seen psychologists and counsellors over the years. I often bury my friends and it takes its toll.
“I think anyone that says it doesn’t bother them, I think they have a screw loose or they’re kidding themselves. It does wear you down.” John said.
His biggest supporter is the woman to whom he’s been married for 37 years: “I have a long-suffering wife. It’s hard on her. I had a bad slump last year, where I had had enough. You just talk it out.”
Over nearly four decades, Galbraith has witnessed a significant shift in people’s attitude to burial – which was once nearly universal: “People opt for cremation now because it is a lot cheaper.”
According to the Australian Funeral Directors Association, the average price for basic cremation is $3500 in Melbourne.
Dennis Seymour, who manages a crematorium, says: “Some religions don’t have cremation and some religions specify cremation.
“Everything is done very respectfully. Just because someone is dead, we don’t treat them with any less respect. Everything is done ethically.”
For the past nine years, Seymour – previously a medical engineer – has been crematorium manager for a public cemetery trust and memorial park in country Victoria.
“I wanted to work with people, in a caring industry. You help people, your family and your friends in the process, so it’s quite remarkable.”
He blames movies and television for the process having been romanticised, misunderstood and stigmatised. “When a casket goes down in a catafalque, people think it goes straight into the cremator because of TV and Hollywood.
“We don’t open any coffins, we don’t touch anything. All the flowers and anything on or in the coffin will go in all together.
“After the arrival of the casket , it is wheeled in and moved on to the mortuary table and placed directly into the crematory.”
“ … bones don’t burn entirely or disappear, it stays chalky. It sounds pretty horrible, I know, but that is the reality. That’s what happens and the remains go into a little box and we go from there,” he said.
“We’re in the country, we quite often cremate or bury people we know. It can be very hard but it’s also a privilege. You help your family and friends in the process.
“I had a family the other day at a burial, it has been 50 years since they had lost their five-year-old daughter. They couldn’t come back to town for all that time.
“Now they’re in their late 80s and both came back and placed a teddy bear on that grave.”
For Seymour and his staff, the emotional challenges never fade away.
Like Galbraith and his team, they have not found that decades of experience make them immune: “You can go along one day saying, ‘I’m OK’ and then something will affect you.
“I’ve had funeral directors here bawling their eyes out. So we sit down and we talk, especially if you get young kids or suicides: they’re the really hard ones.
“We’re caring people. We’re humans too.”