Fingers will twitch . . .

In 44 years of training morticians, Hugh McMonigle has seen twitching fingers, rebuilt heads and has been properly freaked out at least once.


Jenn Shreve
May 23, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Sitting in the dark, musty foyer of the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science you'd never know that just upstairs are bustling classrooms, the constant ringing of phones and instructors rushing to teach their next class. It's an odd contradiction, but one that only seems to amuse Hugh McMonigle, who has taught communicable disease, embalming and microbiology at the college for 44 years. McMonigle flashes a mischievous smile as he explains that a sound-muffling layer between the two floors preserves the quiet atmosphere below. In addition to a full teaching schedule, McMonigle works nights and weekends as the deputy curator at the University of California at San Francisco, picking up bodies that are donated to science. On a sunny Tuesday morning, I spoke with McMonigle about why people become morticians, what the job entails and what he's learned about coping with death.

How did you decide to become a mortician?

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When I was in college, my best friend's uncle owned a mortuary. Sometimes he needed somebody to drive a vehicle, so I used to drive for him. Then I got an offer to work in cancer research that happened to be backed by the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. So I decided to come to mortuary school while I was working in cancer research. The cancer research place lost its funding, so I just moved in as a teacher.

How do you go about preparing a body for burial?

The first step is to wash and clean the body thoroughly with soap and water. In the process of doing that, you are examining the body to see if there are any factors that may complicate the embalming.

The next step is to pose the features -- that means close the mouth, close the eyes. If the eyes are not closed, then they gape open, and it's like those pictures in which the subject is staring directly at the camera. Put one of those pictures on the wall and no matter where you're standing the picture looks like it's looking at you. Also, eyes have a lot of water in them, and they tend to dehydrate and sink. This detracts from the appearance, so we close the eyes and pull the eyelids down, and this keeps the eyes from dehydrating as much. And we close the mouth so that the person looks normal, natural. If a person doesn't know what they're doing, they can make the deceased look very bizarre. If they put the corners of the mouth up, they look like the Joker in "Batman." Put the corners down, they look like Fu Man Chu in the old Chinese films.

Then you proceed with the embalming. You use the artery to introduce the embalming fluid and this creates a pressure in the vascular system. Now the total amount of blood would probably fill a little more than one third of the total volume of the blood vascular system. So you can add embalming fluid without bloating and distending the tissues. But you also open the vein in case some of this material, in particular blood which may have bacteria in it, will be flushed out.

How long before a body starts to decompose, without embalming?

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Well, it depends on the circumstances just before death. If a person is very, very thin or malnourished, decomposition will usually be slower in onset. If a person had, say, diabetes and his blood is loaded with glucose, which is characteristic of diabetes, the remains will start to decompose almost as soon as death occurs.

Once, when I worked for the San Francisco Coroner's office, we had a man who had left work at 3:30. He was feeling poorly and he caught a bus or caught a cab and went home. One of his co-workers dropped by his apartment to see how he was doing, and discovered that his friend had opened the door and collapsed dead. We arrived at about 7 o'clock and he was already starting to show evidence of decomposition.

That's why the coroner or the medical examiner can't state that a person died at a particular time based on the onset of decomposition. They can determine what season a person died. Entomologists, who study insects, can look at the pupa of the larva and identify the kind of larva or flies that are present, what season they were abundant, and can then determine that this person died in spring, this person died in fall. But determining the exact hour is fairly difficult.

Are you ever freaked out by dead bodies?

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I have had instances, one in particular comes to mind, when I reacted quite spontaneously. I went to this convalescent hospital and the program was, when I signed papers, they gave me the key. I would go out, take my removal cart equipment, unlock a gate, go around to the side of the building, unlock a door, go into the building, ride the elevator up to the room, lower the cart, go down the elevator, out the door, shutting it, put the remains in the vehicle.

On one visit, it was dark. I took the key back inside, and I guess I talked a little while. I came out and hopped in the vehicle and this voice says," I hope you don't mind." Phew! I was out that door. It turns out this old character had been out visiting a friend at the convalescent hospital and he saw me doing my thing and decided to ask if he could have a ride downtown. Now my common sense would say, this person's dead; they're not talking to me, but in that case there was no other explanation as to where that voice came from.

But after working with bodies for awhile it becomes natural. You very quickly get used to this person being dead. They just lie there. They're quiet. They're not going to be bothering anybody. And if you do believe there is a spirit watching you, well, you're not supposed to be abusing the body anyway. Because if you were handling the remains roughly, somebody's going to see you, and that may be the family. You have to have respect for the body because it means something to somebody.

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Have you ever had a corpse's fingers twitch or had a body sit up while you were working on it?

In death, you have what is called systemic death. The heart stops. Or the brain stops functioning. Or a person stops breathing. All of these are death. Of course today they have CPR and sometimes they bring these people back from being dead. But if that fails and a person is pronounced dead, then embalming is started before the individual cells die, which means the cells run out of food and oxygen. They literally starve. If those cells still have nutrients and oxygen and suddenly they are hit with the embalming fluid, those cells will do their thing and the muscle cells will jerk. But you're not going to have somebody sitting up, particularly not in a casket.

Who decides whether it will be an open- or closed-casket service?

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The next of kin make that call. We try to encourage them to make it a consensus, because there will be some who want to see this person. Some who may not have seen the person for two or three months, maybe even years. Sometimes families will be adamant and say no viewing. If they say no viewing, then nobody can view.

Last week, we had a man who'd been in a car accident. He was ejected from the car. His head hit a tree or a pole, and it just caved it in, the whole skull. The coroner that advised the family said there's nothing that can be done. They contacted us. We said, give us a chance. Let us see what we can do, and then you can look at it. Our restorative art teacher came down and while I was running the students through the embalming, she was rebuilding the head with cotton and plaster and Styrofoam, rebuilding the structure on the inside until his head fit his body. We had to do cosmetics and cover up the scratches and scrapes. We did the embalming on Tuesday, and on Friday the family came in. We said to them, take a look and decide what you want. So they took a look at him and then they pulled out a picture of him. We didn't even have a picture to look at when we were working. But he looked enough like his picture that they were very happy with what we'd done.

In your experience, is it preferable to view the body?

For the past 44 years I have been associated with the University of California Willed Body Program. I've been the night, weekend and holiday curator since 1969. If a person wills their body to science somewhere from Fresno to the Oregon border, I'm the one who gets called. If the person who has willed their body dies at home, somebody arrives, picks up the body and that's it. Then the family can have a memorial service, but for many of these people, it's out of sight out of mind. As soon as death is over, zoom. Then they start thinking. They start dreaming. They don't finalize it. They don't say goodbye. They don't have a ceremony. And they have problems for years.

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I had this one woman, she called up six months after her husband died. I want you to look in his brown suit. I dreamt he wrote a poem. I checked the records, and I said, "Well the records show that he was removed in his pajamas and you did not want the pajamas back, so they were destroyed or passed on to somebody else. So his brown suit wasn't here, but she was grasping at all these straws.

Your life doesn't go on if there's a major part of your life gone. It's always going to be a part of your life even if you try to deny it. So this is why I feel that there should be some kind of ceremony, even if it's just a ceremony in a church.

In addition to learning embalming, do your students study psychology or counseling?

A mortician must be able to adequately deal with three factors: the embalming, the business and the families, because they all grieve differently. You have to deal with everything ranging from belligerence, to where they are blaming the mortician for the situation, to the people you have to lead through the process step-by-step. Some families will come in and there's just no emotion. Other families really can't get anything done because every time there's a mention of the death they break down.

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Before, morticians just did this by intuition. Now, students study the psychology of grief. Mortuary schools were the first to teach psychology of grief. It was later picked up by the other schools who were saying, hey, grief is one of the contributing factors to people's mental attitude and mental balance and how they deal with things.

What are some common misconceptions about your profession?

One of the biggest is that it is expensive. If you compare the cost of a funeral to any other service where you're compensating people for time, it's really quite inexpensive. Some people buy a nice casket because that is the lifestyle they have. Some people buy a less expensive casket; they choose wood over metal.

Another misconception is that people think that if you have cremation, you can't have a funeral service. Cremation is just a disposition of the body. You can have all the services you want before you have cremation.

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Also, I've had people who won't shake hands with a mortician because a mortician has touched dead bodies. Now, they may have come from countries where the people who handle dead bodies are ostracized. But we consider ourselves in the United States a little more enlightened.


Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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