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Restoring dignity to the deceased

Jo Piper’s job is as unpredictable as death itself.

As an embalmer, Ms Piper admits the job “is not everyone’s cup of tea”, but to prepare and present a person before their final journey is a privilege. Reporter Beckie Wilson visited Ms Piper to talk all things embalming.

Plenty of people have asked Jo Piper what it is like seeing dead people day to day.

But as an embalmer, Ms Piper’s aim is to create a pleasant, lasting memory of a deceased loved one for those grieving, rather than dwelling on death itself.

“When embalming anyone, whether I know them or not, I find myself in a state of professional disassociation,” Ms Piper said.

“It’s a real privilege to be able to look after and care for someone for the very last time in their life.”

Ms Piper has embalmed car crash victims, those who have lost their battle to cancer, and even young children and babies.

But she admits the hardest part of her job was dealing with the grieving families.

While it is not compulsory to be embalmed in New Zealand, most bodies are preserved before the funeral.

The process involves draining most of the body’s blood, and replacing it with embalming fluid. Organs remain in the body.

After 30 years in the business, Ms Piper has perfected the skill of embalming, which has three primary purposes being sanitation, preservation and presentation.

While modern day embalming was designed to preserve bodies for only a short time — unlike, for instance, Egyptian mummification — each element of the process was important, she said.

The process varies depending on the cause of death, time between death and burial or cremation, and atmospheric conditions.

If somebody has undergone intensive chemotherapy before death, these chemicals may be need to be flushed out before embalming.

Ms Piper is as a registered and qualified embalmer and funeral director at Masterton’s Wairarapa Funeral Services, owned by Robert Milne.

Of the two roles, her passion lies with embalming, she said.

“Death is very undignified,” Ms Piper said.

As such, embalming restores the dignity of the deceased, she says, and allows time for families to grieve before burial or cremation.

She has had a fascination with the unknown, and death, since she was 16 years old.

She used to walk through a funeral home in Lower Hutt on her way to high school.

“I was always a little bit fearful of death, and me being a fairly spontaneous kind of person and always wanting to find the answers to the unknown, I decided one day to go visit this funeral home.”

During her school holidays she volunteered at the funeral home, learning as much as she could.

“I spent a lot of time in the mortuary because I was fascinated, and of course that is where my passion lies.”

Ms Piper studied embalming and received her qualification from Central Institute of Technology in 1986, and her funeral directing diploma from Wellington’s Weltec in 2015.

Embalming a body takes an average of three hours, and is both scientific and artistic, Ms Piper said.

Her artistic ability comes into play when an ear or part of a nose was needed to be recreated.

“It can be exhausting and incredibly demanding but it’s a way of giving back to the people,” she said.

Despite working with grieving families every day, Ms Piper is a bubbly woman who has a strong passion for the job.

More often than not, Ms Piper will embalm someone she has never met but that’s not always the case.

“I’ve been in Wairarapa for nearly four years, and I have embalmed more people I know than in my entire life.”

She did not want to reveal specific details of her job as she regarded it as something “quite sacred”.

But there was a misconception around the purpose and benefits of being embalmed, she said.

Some claim a buried embalmed body was not environmentally-friendly due to the leaching of the injected chemicals into the soils, Ms Piper said.

But this was untrue, she said.

“The unembalmed body buried will rot and decompose, but the embalmed body buried will break down through the natural process of oxidation and dissolution and return to the earth,” she said.

Sanitation kills the microbes and pathogens in the body.

“The chemicals themselves go through an exchange once inside the body, and neutralise once they hit water, and we are made up of about 90 per cent water,” she said.

The process of embalming someone who has had an autopsy was quite different to embalming what was called a “standard case”.

Ms Piper said the lack of government regulation and registration meant there were many unqualified embalmers working in the industry.

Ms Piper and Mr Milne are registered with the New Zealand Embalmers Association which has more than 200 qualified members voluntarily signed up.

“There are good and bad embalmers, just like anything really. You get good mechanics, hairdressers, doctors and you get no so good ones. My ultimate aim is to create a pleasant memory picture for those that are grieving,” Ms Piper said.

Jo Piper has always had a fascination embalming. PHOTOS/JADE CVETKOV












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