What Happens In A Mortuary?

S. Rick Crump
Funeral director at Woolsey Mortuary

Where did you receive your schooling and training?

I received a degree in mortuary science from Cypress College in California in 1978. I also served apprenticeships in Utah, California and Hawaii. Some of the courses we study in mortuary college are anatomy, bacteriology, biology, chemistry, pathology, death psychology, embalming and restorative art, among other courses.


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The staff at Woolsey Mortuary (from left): Hailama Kahele, Vai Fetuiai, Bernice Ledford, Jordan Ledford-Castro, Richard Ledford, Lei Laimana and S. Rick Crump | Photos from S. Rick Crump

Besides being a funeral director, I am also a licensed embalmer, having passed the Hawaii State Embalmers Examination in 1979. We sometimes are called morticians. I passed the National Mortuary Board Examination at the completion of mortuary college.

How long have you been working in the field of funeral services?

I started in 1976, so 38 years.

Why did you choose this field?

Like many in this profession, I got into it by accident. You don’t find too many kids saying, “I want to be a funeral director when I grow up.” I was going to college in Utah and needed a part-time job. A mortuary nearby needed someone to answer phones and help. I got the position, and a year later decided to attend mortuary college.

What are your duties as director?

Although I am a licensed embalmer, it’s been a while since I have actually done any embalming, but I keep my license current. I mainly help the families who need us. After a death occurs the following usually takes place:

I meet with the family and obtain the information needed for the death certificate, like full legal name of the deceased, date and place of birth, Social Security number, occupation and parents’ names. I also have them sign the necessary authorizations for embalming and/or cremation.

I listen to what they would like to have done, whether it be a funeral and burial, cremation or shipping the body off-island. I sometimes suggest things that may be done they may not have considered – if the deceased is a veteran or spouse of a veteran, burial at a veterans’ cemetery, or suggesting that younger family members place photos or other items in the casket so they are included and can participate.

I show the family the different caskets available and explain something about them – metal and wood, outer and inner color, etc. – or the urns, if cremation is to be done. Some families have already looked at Discount Caskets and know what they want, others need a little helping hand in choosing.

I coordinate with the doctor and Department of Health in filing the death certificate and obtain the required permits. I also coordinate with the newspaper for the funeral notice or obituary, if the family desires to have one printed.

If there is to be a funeral and burial, I coordinate with the minister and church, and the cemetery. If the person is a military veteran, I request a flag and an honor detail for the committal service at the cemetery. For cremation, I coordinate with the crematory on the date and time of the cremation, and when the ashes (or cremains) will be available.

I attend the funeral and supervise, in conjunction with church personnel, the placement of the casket, placement and recording of flowers that may arrive, the register book table (we provide the book, pens and donation envelopes), and I am available if the family needs anything. I try to observe and anticipate things they might need. Probably the most important thing I do at the funeral is to make sure everything happens on time: family visitation, public visitation, funeral service, leaving the church and arriving at the cemetery.

Can you talk a bit about what happens behind-the-scenes in the mortuary?

A typical mortuary consists of offices to meet the family, the embalming room, a casket display room and a chapel. When a death occurs and the family contacts us, we dispatch our removal personnel to bring the body into the mortuary. If there is to be a cremation, the body will be placed in a refrigeration unit until the cremation permit is obtained. If there will be an open-casket funeral or a viewing before cremation, the body will be embalmed.

What preparations are done to prepare a body for an open-casket funeral?

We are not covering the psychology of death here, but it does relate to the grief process, how people react to the death of a loved one, how children react to death, and particularly relevant here is that having a viewing may be helpful in going through the grief process.

For an open-casket funeral, the body would be embalmed. There are three main reasons embalming is done:

1) Sanitation: Even though the person has died, there may be pathogens (germs) in the body that remain active for a time, some of which may be contagious. We want to make sure those are destroyed or neutralized.

2) Preservation: Soon after a person dies, the body begins to decompose, and with Hawaii’s temperature and humidity, that can advance rapidly. Embalming will delay the decomposition process for a period of time.

3) Restoration: If a person, for instance, died in an automobile accident and is disfigured, we often can restore the person to the way they looked prior to death – or nearly so, depending on the amount of damage done.

In the embalming process, we first sanitize the outer body surface with a disinfecting spray. We pose the facial features so they look natural. Obtaining a photo

Paying up to $25.00/gram for 14K for your diamonds and gold from the family sometime helps in the final preparation, especially for a woman, so we can see how she wore her hair and makeup.

In the actual embalming, the circulatory system of the body is used. This consists of the heart, the arteries and the veins. Just as the blood is able to reach all parts of a body to deliver the oxygen and nutrients to keep you alive, using this same system will allow the embalming fluid to reach all parts of the body. An average embalming takes between one and two hours, depending on the condition of the body (autopsy, accident, trauma).

Usually, the day before the funeral, the body will be dressed in the clothing provided by the family. I recommend they bring in what the person usually wore in life. Some men never wore a suit in their life, and might not look normal in one. After dressing, we place them in the casket and apply any final cosmetics that might be needed.

Anything else that you would like to add?

The best suggestion I can make is for people to plan ahead. No one gets out of this life alive. At some point we all will be faced with the death of someone we care about, or our own. At the least, one should have some instructions written down to guide the family: the location of military documents, the location of insurance papers, what you would like to have done at the time of your death. Having some guidance for those left behind will be valuable, especially when you no longer can answer any questions.