Death. It’s still a taboo topic, despite the fact we’ll all experience it.
Regardless of when or how it happens, it’s a process worth getting acquainted with here in the living. Because while the fate of our consciousness is a matter of personal belief, what happens to our physical bodies is universal.
Lianna Champ, 59, the UK’s first female undertaker and embalmer, has made dead bodies her life ever since seeing her first one at the age of 15. We enlisted her to walk us through everything that happens, between the time of death and the funeral.
‘Once the heart stops beating the energy of the body stops,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘It’s our energy and blood flow that keeps us warm, so the body will start to cool and it’ll go through a period of processes and changes, which is what we know as decomposition.
‘Rigor mortis sets in a few hours after death. It’s a chemical reaction that is caused by a lack of oxygen and biochemical changes in the body after someone has died. This causes the muscles to stiffen and contract.’
Lianna says that people mistakenly believe that if you attempt to move limbs or fingers during rigor mortis you will break the bones, but this is not true.
She says: ‘If somebody’s hand went stiff and you were to gently bend their fingers you would be breaking down the rigor mortis because it doesn’t last, it breaks down itself naturally after about 48 hours.’
Our bodies begin to decompose because when we die, the good bacteria in our bodies die with us, meaning the bad bacteria ‘begin the natural process of breaking the body down’.
Lianna’s work as an embalmer is to slow the above processes down. In fact, she could embalm someone with her eyes closed now, having worked on seven to eight hundred bodies each year.
She says: ‘The reason we embalm is because it serves to slow down the decomposition process.
‘Families can then see and spend time with their loved ones looking more like they once were, without the risk of infection and without any unpleasantness. It’s a temporary preservation treatment we give.’
But while embalming may sound daunting to many of us, Lianna says: ‘People always think it’s more than it actually is, it’s not very invasive there’s just a couple of incisions, but it’s very effective.
‘Embalming involves formaldehyde gas and the fluid is known as formalin. We inject formaldehyde (formalin) into the blood-vascular system of the body and that simulates circulation.
‘We then drain the blood out through a vein so what you’re doing is replacing the content of the blood vascular system with formalin. This contains a dye called eosin pink, which gives a life-like appearance to the tissues because it’s our oxygenated blood which gives us that nice pink colour.
‘When we die blood gravitates to the lower parts, gravity takes that blood down which is why we see this palour.
‘If somebody had a heart attack you can get arterial blocking and get blood stuck in the head, so the embalming process takes all that away, it simulates circulation.’
Lianna says once the technical side of it is done, she can set the features, positioning the mouth and closing the eyes.
She adds: ‘It [embalming] actually hardens the tissues and holds it in place, so if you’ve got the expression, that will stay as is and it makes it pleasant for the family and the people working with the person as well. It keeps it hygienic.’
But embalming sadly isn’t always possible, Lianna claims, because sometimes if someone has been dead for a prolonged period of time, the body has started to liquefy and is too decomposed.
There are also issues with dead bodies which have suffered severe burns or extensive injuries as the result of an accident, but Lianna says she can never stop someone from viewing the deceased.
It’s not for everyone, but Lianna loves her job, because of the families she gets to support and connect with up until their loved one’s funeral. She says: ‘We can give families back that period of time, they want to see their loved one. We can do all this magic work.
‘The period in between death and the funeral is a hugely emotional period of transition so it can be absolutely huge.’
Lianna also helps the families plan their funerals, each of which is unique to the individual, meaning she sees plenty of different requests, which she tries to accommodate.
‘There is no norm. I always say I’ll do anything as long as it’s legal,’ she says. ‘There’s nothing that would make me turn a hair now.’
But Lianna has seen some sights. She’s had dogs travelling in the limousine as the main mourners. She’s had to pour whiskey on people’s coffins because they can’t take the bottle with them. She’s buried people in disco clothes.
It’s pretty remarkable, considering she was the only woman doing the role when she qualified aged 18. Ironically, her mother wasn’t a fan of her career choice, so drove her to a funeral parlor aged 15 in the hopes of putting her off. It had the opposite effect.
‘I found someone who took me on and I worked for a very tiny salary and did all my training because I was the first and only qualified female undertaker,’ she recalls. ‘When I did get my qualification the National Association of Funeral Directors rang to say I was the only female.’
You would think spending so much time around dead bodies would take its toll on Lianna emotionally, but she says she ‘still throws the duvet back on a Morning’.
She admits: ‘It does get upsetting, but then I have to remember it’s not about me.
I did the funeral of a lady who I had met. I had been to visit her several times during her terminal illness, I wrote her funeral service and we read it through together and she was just so, so lovely.
‘When I was doing her ceremony I did get emotional because I’d spent that time with her and she was such a beautiful soul and she’d had quite a hard life.
‘But I always say the day I don’t feel is the day I stop doing it. It’s not a job you can do if you don’t care about people.’
For those of you who struggle with grief, Lianna has also written the book How To Grieve Like a Champ.
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