Reasoning & Death! Interview with Jack Clock, Funeral Home Director

Jack Clock is a fifth-generation licensed funeral director and embalmer with a bachelor’s degree of Mortuary Science from Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. Jack has been practicing as a licensed funeral director and embalmer for four years but spent his adolescence and collegiate years assisting at his family’s funeral homes. Jack is also a Certified Crematory Operator.  He is currently employed as a funeral director and embalmer at Wm. Sullivan & Son Funeral Home is Utica, Michigan. Outside of work, Jack enjoys spending time with his family, fishing, walking his dog Wrigley, and tending to his alpacas.

NP: What is death? Physically? Philosophically?

Clock: Death is the cessation or extinction of life, or, the permanent ending of vital processes of, in this instance, the human body. Physically, that means the heart stops beating, brain activity ends, and the person is no longer breathing. Philosophically, that is a harder question to answer. It depends on a person’s beliefs and views. This could mean that the soul leaves the body and goes to Heaven or Hell, or maybe the soul goes to purgatory. This could also mean your soul is reincarnated into another life. Maybe someone does not believe in an afterlife of any kind, and they simply cease to exist any longer.    

NP: Funerary practices and embalming are ancient, how have they changed and what are the procedures and practices today?  What are some of the philosophical and theological perspectives encountered between traditional burial and cremation? Or is it just a matter of cost? 

Clock: When we think back to the beginnings of embalming, it started with the Ancient Egyptians. Their processes included embalming and mummification, which consisted of the removal of the organs, drying of the body, and covering of the body with a chemical called natron.  Today, the embalming process is aimed to slow the rate of decomposition of the body; generally speaking, this is so family and friends can come and pay their respects Even though embalming is not required for visitation, it does give the decedent’s family some flexibility in terms of scheduling services; if, for instance, part of the family is out of town and cannot make it to a service within 24-48 hours, embalming allows them the opportunity to schedule at a later date.

When the decedent comes into our care for arterial embalming, the remains are, first, bathed and disinfected, and the embalmer will set the decedent’s facial features to give them a sleep-like appearance. Next, the necessary blood vessels are located and raised; the specific arteries and veins used depend on the individual case and are determined by the embalmer.  The most commonly used vessels are the common carotid artery and jugular vein, the axillary artery and vein, and the iliac/femoral artery and vein. Then, the embalmer mixes the necessary embalming fluids which, again, are determined by the condition of the remains.  This fluid is entered through the arteries of the decedent.  As the embalming fluid circulates through the arteries and into the veins, a small incision in the vein allows blood to escape the body and embalming fluid to take its place.  After the remains have received a sufficient amount of fluid, the embalmer removes any excess fluids in the thoracic and abdominal cavities by using a trocar.  A trocar is a multipurpose instrument that can be used to aspirate or suction fluid out by (piercing and penetrating) the organs and can also be used to introduce fluid into the cavities.  Once the excess fluid is removed, the embalmer introduces a different liquid, called cavity fluid, to the abdominal and thoracic organs via the trocar. The cavity fluid is what dries and preserves the organs. Once this is complete, the embalmer sometimes needs to hypodermically, or surface embalm, any areas of the remains that did not receive sufficient embalming fluid. Finally, they will suture up any incisions that were made and wash and dry the remains. 

The reasons some families choose traditional burial vs. cremation are based on numerous factors. Sometimes, the decision is based simply on the decedent’s preferences. Other times, religious beliefs steer a family in one specific direction. Many Protestant religions leave the decision of final disposition up to the family. Other religions, such as Catholicism, have altered their original traditions and are now accepting of cremation.  Still other religions, such as Buddhism, actually recommend cremation as the final disposition.  Sometimes, it does simply come down to cost and what the family of the deceased can afford. 

NP: Plato wrote about death being the separation of the soul from the body. And the Talmud speaks of the flesh being like a garment that wears out.  The word soul is etymologically rooted in the proto – Germanic word “saiwalo” meaning from the sea – a place of birth and death. Among ancient cultures the “soul” was rooted in blood and water and the bodies were disposed according to culture and tribal rituals and traditions. The history of the idea of the soul became related to mist or energy. Today, depending on culture and family wishes the soul as defined as blood and water may be drained into the sewer system unless cremated or buried a short time after death. Rituals have changed over the centuries as have definitions and reference for the dead. When you work with death with so many varied beliefs and different ideas about the meaning of death, afterlife, whether in reincarnation or resurrection or nothingness all the while the number of deaths are increasing over the normal average during a pandemic, how does one philosophically, psychologically and reverently approach death and the families of the deceased? 

 Clock: The most important aspect of approaching death and serving a decedent’s family is exactly that; serving the family.  My job as a funeral director is to do everything in my power so the family can have the most meaningful services possible and honor the life of their loved one in the way they see fit.  It is imperative during the planning process to pick up on any details the decedent’s family mentions to truly customize their experience.  For instance, maybe the deceased was a golfer. I might suggest bringing in a golf cart during the visitation or choosing a piece of sod with a golf ball and tee instead of the traditional casket spray of flowers.  It may seem trivial to some, but small details make the services unique and especially memorable for the family.  Conversely, if a family wants simplicity in their services, we honor and assist with that, too. 

Many of the families we serve have never experienced a death and haven’t set up services before. Our responsibility is to guide them through this process. We listen and we ask questions. We inform them of their choices.  Additionally, our responsibilities do not end when services do; we offer and encourage follow-up resources to our families for grief support and guidance. 

I truly believe every human, regardless of what has happened in their life, deserves to be honored, and it is our job as funeral directors to ensure that happens.  

In Metro Detroit, we have been hit very hard by the pandemic. While the number of families we have served has greatly increased, our approach hasn’t changed. We serve each family with care and dignity. Due to the hospitals and nursing homes here not allowing families to come see their loved ones, we felt it especially important to allow the families of Covid-19 positive decedents to come to the funeral home to pay their respects with either a family identification or services.

  NP: What are the effects of a pandemic like Covid 19 on funerary practices and processes? Are ideas about funerary practices changing? What do you see as the relationship between funerary practices and technology in the future?  Are there any trends in how we will dispose of the human body in the future other than cremation especially after the effects of a pandemic? Is the nature of grieving counseling changing? 

Clock: Due to the pandemic, many people have been fearful of coming out into the public. In Michigan, we are currently limited to 10 people for funerals; hence, the size of funerals has been greatly reduced. Many funeral homes are fearful of embalming the remains of Covid-19 positive decedents, and as a result, families of those decedents are not allowed to see their loved ones. This is a disservice to our industry and to the families we serve.  As previously mentioned, we are allowing these families to come in and pay their respects, and we have received very positive responses because of this. Funeral service practices have changed a bit because of the limit of people allowed to gather; instead of large visitations and services, we have seen a shift to more immediate burials and cremations. Many of these families will choose to have a memorial service later on to honor their loved one when the gathering bans are lifted. 

In terms of embalming remains, our practices remain the same. We always take universal precautions, meaning, we change out of our suits and into scrubs or other clothing. We wear an impervious gown and apron. We wear a face mask, face shields or respirator, and gloves. All of these items protect the embalmer from endangering ourselves.  

Due to the restrictions tied to the pandemic, most funeral homes had to up their technological game essentially overnight.  Many firms had to set up webcasting/livestreaming services for those who could not attend in person.  Others had to set up the ability to arrange funerals completely remotely, by either conference call or email.  Due to the personal nature of the funeral business, this was something that was uncommon at the beginning of 2020. 

I am not sure if there will be a shift in the ideals of funeral service. I think many will still want the gatherings and the support of their friends and family, just like we have done for many years.  If anything, I believe the distancing restrictions and limitations during the pandemic have made people realize just how important it is to have the physical presence and support of loved ones in a time of loss not to mention to give the deceased the remembrance an entire life deserves. 

I think since we updated technology to assist families during the pandemic, those practices may be more common in the future. I think we will see a greater number of families request webcasting/livestreaming of services for their out of town loved ones.  I also believe more families will choose to make funeral arrangements remotely instead of coming into the funeral home. 

Many families will still choose the traditional burial or cremation services after the pandemic, but alternate options are becoming available all the time. For instance, green burials have become more popular over the last few years. As defined by the Green Burial Council, green burials are a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.  In terms of cremation, Alkaline Hydrolysis is a possible alternative, but it is not widely legalized yet. Explained by the Cremation Association of North America, Alkaline Hydrolysis uses water, alkaline chemicals, heat and sometimes pressure and agitation to accelerate natural decomposition, leaving bone fragments and effluent. 

The nature of grief counseling is always changing and evolving, especially considering all of the unknowns attached to the Covid-19 pandemic; things will have to change.

Most of us have never encountered a pandemic or its repercussions before, so this opens new avenues for grief. As we touched on earlier, some families have lost a loved one without having the opportunity to see them for weeks or months before their passing.  They may not have been able to obtain the necessary closure due to the virus or procedures at the funeral home. I think like the rest of us, grief counselors will have to adapt and integrate more technology and new strategies in order to amply assist these families.