Pat Elder was in her early fifties when she decided to start a new career.
“I worked for a utility company in Michigan and when I turned 50, 25 years in, and in my mind I guess I always thought I would make a good funeral director,” said Elder.
One of Elder’s coworkers knew about her desire to work in a mortuary and connected her with a woman who worked at a local funeral home.
“I called her and she was very discouraging,” Elder said.“She told me ‘don’t do it. You work hard, you don’t make any money.’ When I hung up I thought,‘well this wasn’t good.’” Elder said.
Despite the negative feedback, Elder went back to school and obtained her degree in Mortuary Science from Wayne State University. She worked as a mortician for seven years before moving across the country four years ago to work at the School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“I may be the only anatomical embalmer for a university in the state. For a while, we were even supplying for [the] Las Vegas area,” said Elder.
Anatomical Embalming Explained
Elder had been trained in the embalming process for funeral homes, which is different than anatomical embalming. In the first years of her new job, she spent a lot of time visiting other institutions to learn the trade.
“With a funeral home, the idea is, you just want to make the body presentable for family and friends, so it doesn’t require a lot of fluid or a lot on the physical side making the body look good,” said Elder. “In anatomical embalming, you want to be able to preserve that body almost on a cellular level so the process is much longer.”
The anatomical embalming process requires up to 12 gallons of fluid to permeate the body to preserve muscles and keep the bodies limp. This process is why the bodies are called cadavers. And unlike other embalming procedures, Elder doesn’t use formaldehyde.
“We don’t do that here, because isn’t very safe for the students. We use this recipe that we got from the University of Maryland and it uses phenol. The smell is very different, it’s not toxic to the students, and it leaves the body a lot more pliable,” said Elder.
The Cadaver Donation Process
Unlike an organ donation program, the anatomical donation program at UNR uses the entire body for student training.
“Those [donors] who do apply indicate they do want to give something back. We’ll have retired doctors or people who are highly educated that think there is still something to give back to the world upon their death,” said Elder.
The average age of the cadavers is 70.
“I’ve had them over 100 years old, and I think the youngest I’ve had is 50.”
Brains and uteruses are harder to come by and considered commodities in this practice.
“Part of the embalming technique [for brains] is you have to really push that fluid and it has to go down to a very deep level. The first year I was here I hardly had any good brains. By the time we were done, they didn’t embalm well. The second year I got much better,” said Elder.
Inside the Anatomy Lab
First year medical students dissect the cadavers in teams of four.
“I think that when the medical students come in, they have one goal and that’s to heal. It’s hard for them to focus on the death side because it almost looks like a failure,” Elder said. “They may be out here dissecting, learning anatomy and thinking about the future of their patients, and I may be in the back doing an embalming.”
At the end of the year, students host a memorial service for families of the deceased. Students prepare poems, play music and share what they learned with loved ones present at the service.
The bodies are cremated and the remains are spread in the foothills of the Sierra.
“We’re just erecting a memorial here on campus so that if families need an area of remembrance, that could be a focal point they could visit,” said Elder.
Elder found that working in the mortuary science industry has been a way for her to cope with the loss she’s experienced throughout her life.
“The last ten years has really been a whirlwind. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m doing for the first in my career, life – I’m doing exactly what I feel I’m called to do,” said Elder.
This story comes to us from the NPR Next Generation Radio Boot Camp held in Reno this summer. You can view the full project and other stories here.