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Mortuary Science Not for the Faint of Heart

How do you prevent maggots from infesting a corpse? What happens if gangrene begins to set in? What’s wrong with only preserving the visible parts of a corpse – the hands and face – instead of the entire body?*

As the students in Embalming 101 heard answers to these important questions from Cypress College Mortuary Science Department instructor Glenn Bower, I felt slightly queasy. We’d come to the school straight after landing in Orange County in the early morning. Fortunately I was on an empty stomach.  I put my queasiness aside and took copious notes.

We only had two hours, but in the end, I was so fascinated that I wished I could have stayed all day at the unique mortuary science program (See October’s California Educator).

The lobby of the school was modeled after an actual funeral parlor. The students didn’t look like other college students, most of them dressed in the colorless business attire that goes with the industry. They even spoke in hushed, reassuring tones. One of the female students had such elaborate makeup on her pale face she almost looked like a freshly made up corpse herself. The mouse pads at the computers had skeletons on them.

And then there were the death masks. Students make ceramic masks to learn facial reconstruction techniques for clients who are, ummm, disfigured.  I will say that visiting this unique program gave me a new respect for morticians. People I interviewed said they entered the profession to help others, at the risk of committing social suicide and rejection from friends and family, which happens often.  But despite being treated like outcasts, they were friendly and welcoming. So the next time I meet a mortician at a cocktail party, I will not walk away. They are really nice folks and you never know when you might need one.

*You don’t really want to know.

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