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Metal Ways to Die: Embalmer Pax Park Talks About Being a Metalhead in the Death Industry

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When I began writing my series on metal ways to die, I was amazed to discover how negative the backlash to it was. Here were people who loved music obsessed with death and dying spitting judgment down from high horses. It’s fine when it’s in a song, that’s just fantasy! Death is actually really sad! How dare you?

To me, that separation of church and state — an interest in morbidity in art but a revulsion and fear of it in real life — makes no sense. Yes, death is tragic and emotional, which is part of the reason it’s so metal. It made me wonder if perhaps people who worked in the death industry who liked metal felt the same way — if and Obituary fan who worked with the clinical equivalent of an Obituary album cover felt that the two were distinct. So I contacted The Order of the Good Death via Twitter, and they sent me to Pax Park.

Park is a New Jersey-based licensed funeral director/embalmer with a passion for Thanatology. She studied Human Biology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and has been in the funeral industry for eighteen years. You can follow her death metal and mortuary adventures on her Instagram.

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What drew you to the death industry?

A number of things, most notably, my father attempting to purchase a local funeral home when I was 12. He experienced a series of deaths at a very early age. His mother died giving birth to him, and he was raised by his grandmother until she died when he was 8. He then lived with his aunt and uncle, who also died. He would bring me with him to the cemetery frequently to visit their graves, to look at the photos on the other grave markers, and to admire the ornate monuments and mausoleums. He’d also read me the newspaper obituaries and we’d bond over horror movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and shows like Tales from the Crypt, starting around the age of seven, much to the chagrin of my mother.

Then, around the age of eleven, my father and I witnessed a woman drown after driving her car into the lake at the end of the street where I lived (bizarrely enough, named “Crystal Lake”). Shortly thereafter, my father attempted to purchase a local funeral home but was unable to do so because he wasn’t a licensed mortician. I told him not to be upset because I’d be a mortician when I grew up and we could buy a funeral home then. After that I never thought about another career, and I approached a local funeral home at the age of eighteen for an internship immediately after graduating high school. I learned to embalm as an apprentice and have been embalming eighteen years (exactly half of my natural life)!

Tell me about the process of becoming an embalmer—your education, any tests you might have to pass or certificates you had to get, et cetera.

Requirements differ depending on the state in which you reside. In NJ, we’re dual licensees, which means we’re licensed to direct funerals and embalm. In order to become licensed we must have at least two years of general college education that includes chemistry, pathology, microbiology, anatomy and physiology courses. In addition to that we must complete a year of mortuary classes which include embalming lab, restorative art, funeral service law and ethics, the psychology of death and dying, and grief counseling, to name a few. We must also serve a two-year internship under the guidance of a licensed funeral director/embalmer where we’re required to embalm at least 75 bodies, arrange at least 25 funerals, and direct at least 75 funerals.

Once we’ve completed these requirements we must then pass three exams: a state test, a federal test and a practicum, where a licensed funeral director/embalmer, appointed by the state, witnesses the apprentice embalm and determines his/her proficiency. Once all of the educational and trainee requirements are fulfilled and the exams have been passed you will receive a license to practice mortuary science, which must be renewed every two years and requires continuing education credits to maintain.

Can you take us through the process of embalming a body?

Shortly after the deceased has been taken into our care I begin the embalming process. I suit up in personal protective equipment (a gown, apron, shoe covers, gloves etc) and evaluate the decedent to decide how I will proceed. Every case is different and requires a special combination of fluids (which are mixed according to the height, weight and physical conditions of the deceased). I mix the fluids accordingly and begin to “set the features.” Setting the features involves closing the eyes and mouth and placing cotton in certain areas of the mouth in order to fill out the hollows of the cheeks and/or give the deceased a pleasant expression. Next, I gently flex the arms, legs and fingers to relieve the muscle tension or stiffness of rigor mortis. I position the hands one over the other, wash the body, cover the genitals (to preserve modesty) and prepare the instruments I will need to embalm.

Typically, we use a scalpel to make a small incision near the right collarbone. From there, we search for the common carotid artery and internal jugular vein. A small incision is made in each. Arterial tubes are placed in the artery (one is directed towards the heart, while the other is directed towards the head). A drain tube, or angled forceps, is also placed in the vein to facilitate drainage of blood. The hose that delivers the fluid from the embalming machine, is then connected to the arterial tube directed towards the heart. The embalming machine is then adjusted to regulate pressure (the force of the fluid) and rate of flow (speed of the fluid). These knobs are adjusted differently during embalming for each case to create the optimum rate of injection for the body. Next, the embalming machine is switched on and the fluid begins to flow through the hose, down the arterial tube and into the body. As the embalming fluid is pushed through the arterial system, the blood is forced out through the jugular vein. The body is vigorously massaged with a soapy sponge to help facilitate drainage and distribution of embalming fluid. The tissue will begin to firm and take on a rosy appearance, which is an excellent indication of adequate distribution and a successful embalming. The tubes are then removed, the vein and artery tied off and the incision is sutured.

Next, the cavity is treated. Fluid is suctioned from the hollow organs with an instrument called a trocar, then a high-index (very strong) fluid is placed into the cavity and the incision is closed with a small circular plastic button like device referred to as a trocar button. The deceased is again washed. Their hair is combed and cream is placed on their face to prevent skin dehydration. They are then covered, and will remain in the preparation room until it’s time to dress them, apply cosmetics and place them into a casket for viewing (for the record, the above is a description of a “typical” embalming. If a person dies tragically, such as in a murder, suicide, automobile accident, a post-mortem exam, or autopsy, is performed, and the embalming process is drastically different).

What are some misconceptions that your average Joe might have about death, dying, or the death industry?

Some of the myths I hear most are:

  1. The deceased sit up after death. I’ve spoken to many people who insist they know someone who saw a decedent “sit up.” It’s always something like, “My great uncle’s best friend’s brother was a mortician and he said the dead people sit up!” A variation of that is that they’ve heard we have to “cut the tendons in the back of the legs to stop them from sitting up at the funeral.
  2. The hair and fingernails of the deceased continue to grow after death. This is also false. The body doesn’t produce more hair and nail tissue. What actually happens is the skin loses moisture and pulls back, exposing more hair and making nails seem longer.
  3. Embalming is basically disgusting. There are also a variety of creative stories about what takes place during an embalming. A few people have related to me that they thought people were “hanged by their feet in order to drain the blood.”

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When did you start getting into metal?

Around the age of thirteen I met a boy in middle school that was wearing a GWAR T-shirt. Up until that point I was only familiar with Guns N’ Roses and hair metal like Ratt, Poison, and Motley Crüe. I remember going over his house and listening to Vulgar Display Of Power and being blown away.

Who are some of your favorite bands? You say you’re close to many New Jersey bands—can you name any of them?

Acid Bath, Type O Negative, and Candiria are my top three favorite bands. Carcass is also brilliant (particularly Necroticism and Heartwork), Soilent Green is incredible (Pussysoul is one of my favorites). Necrophagist is tops, as far as tech death metal goes, and Nasum has to be one of my absolute favorite grindcore bands. Somehow I’ve managed to collect friends from all over the US and abroad: I’m happy to call Septicflesh from Athens, Greece close friends. Amazingly talented artists, and genuinely authentic and humble guys, with zero artifice. I also speak regularly to my friend from Suicidal Tendencies (who has been known to torture me with Justin Bieber serenades, on occasion). However, most of my friends are east coast death metal and tech death metal musicians. Dysentery and Abnormality of Massachusetts are great people. Mallika Sundaramurthy (of Abnormality) is an incredibly talented vocalist with a commanding stage presence. I highly recommend seeing them live in November with Napalm death, The Black Dahlia Murder and Misery Index. The NYDM people from Suffocation, Malignancy, Dehumanized, Immortal Suffering, Internal bleeding and The Machinist are some of my closest friends. Amanda Gjelaj (of The Machinist from Queens, NY) delivers some of THE most brutal vocals. The east coast death metal scene is full of really incredible musicians and people.

Do you think your love of metal and your interest in the death industry are related? If so, how?

They absolutely are. I consume anything death-related; from old gothic fiction novels like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to modern day non-fiction like Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. I also love horror films and feel like these interests typically go hand-in-hand. Many death metal bands even sample horror movie audio and gain inspiration from horror fiction. A great example is “Left Hand Path” from Entombed which includes music from one of my favorite horror films, Phantasm (about a supernatural mortician that reanimates deceased townspeople, shrinks them down and turns them into minions he commands to do his evil bidding). Entombed also cite the work of Lovecraft as a major musical influence and bands like Macabre are inspired by real life death and atrocity, naming albums and a multitude of songs after serial killers.

Why do you think metalheads are so obsessed with death and the dead?

Western culture tends to be a bit thanatophobic and Necrophobic. We tend to “sanitize” the reality of death (via embalming, cosmetics etc.) while death metal music describes it, in graphic detail. It challenges “taboos” by exploring themes that most people don’t want to confront. However, some of us take comfort in exploring those “fears” and cultural taboos because, the more you learn about the things you fear, the less you tend to fear them. I think it’s rather healthy because we will all face death, so what’s the point in attempting to avoid it? I’ve found that immersing myself in it helps to remove the stigma of death and also provides me with a better appreciation for life. I’d imagine it does something similar for other metal music fans too.

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When I wrote my column about metal death, many readers were grossed out or pissed off by it. Do you ever find that, for all their love of darkness and morbidity, metalheads are creeped out by what you do?

Throughout history, people have traditionally looked at embalmers with a mixture of fascination and fear. In early Egypt, the touch of an embalmer was considered fatal. However there was also great admiration for the embalmers spiritual role as overseer of Egyptian necropolises, or cities of the dead. I’ve found that people are morbidly curious yet, some also don’t want a whole lot to do with me. Some will cut conversation short when they find out what I do and I’ve even had a few people refuse to shake my hand when I’ve been introduced as the “mortician friend.” In fact, there have been times where I’ve told people that I’m “a post-mortem necrosurgeon,” as a misdirect. I recently did this at a demolition hammer show and was told that it sounded like a great name for a grindcore band. Interestingly enough, the people that have been taken aback the most are the musicians writing some of the most violently graphic lyrics! I’ll refrain from naming anyone specific but two very recognizable names come to mind.

Have you ever discovered their cause of death on a body you’re working on and thought, ‘That’s so metal’? Or perhaps, ‘Cool tattoos’?

I can’t say I’ve ever thought “that’s so metal,” while embalming. I’m mostly thinking of how I’m going to restore the natural appearance of the decedent; particularly when the death has been traumatic and created a great deal of post-mortem injury or damage. I’ve definitely seen some pretty incredible tattoos though. One gentleman’s, in particular, comes to mind. He happened to have a tattoo of a Y-shaped autopsy incision (starting at the top of each shoulder, running down the front of his chest, meeting at the lower point of the sternum and extending all the way down to the public bone).

What would you say is a metal way to die?

I would have to say that black metal musicians appear to have cornered the most shocking ways to die market. Jon Nödtveidt of Dissection and Per “Dead” Ohlin of Mayhem come to mind. While the deaths themselves were quite gruesome, the series of events surrounding the deaths of both men were quite shocking.

What would you say is a metal funeral option for those not satisfied with a typical burial/funeral?

Sky Burial is my favorite method of disposition, although a bit of a misnomer, because sky burial isn’t a burial at all. It actually involves placing a human corpse (sometimes first dismembered) in an elevated location (typically a mountaintop) to decompose while exposed to the elements and to be eaten by scavenging animals, particularly carrion birds, such as vultures. It’s practiced in some areas of China and Mongolia but most commonly associated with Tibetan Buddhists; who call it “Bya gtor,” which literally translates to “alms for the birds.” The reason for this method of disposition is twofold. Partly religious, for Tibetan Buddhists, sky burial is a template of instructional teaching on the impermanence of life; and generosity and compassion for all beings are important Buddhist virtues. The offering of flesh is considered an act of generosity on the part of the deceased. The other reason is, in Tibet and certain regions of China, the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave; and because fuel and timber tend to be scarce, sky burials were typically more practical than cremation. However, if Devourment (yes I just referenced a TXDM band) by vultures wasn’t brutal enough for you, sometimes the skulls of the deceased would then be collected and decorated with carvings, jewels or silverwork known as Kapala (a Sanskirt term meaning skull, bowl, vessel or begging bowl). Which is, quite literally, a decorative human skull used by both Tibetan Buddhists and Hindu for ritual purposes. The kapala was used to hold wine or dough cakes shaped to resemble human eyes, ears and tongues. These were used to symbolize flesh and blood offerings to wrathful Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist deities. It was also believed that people who drank out of the skull caps would obtain the knowledge and personality from the person to whom the skull belonged. Other than Endocannibalism (the ancient ritual that involves eating the flesh of a family member or friend who’s passed away). I would say sky burial would have to be THE most “metal” funeral possible.

Is there a specific band or album you like to listen to at work?

The most amusing thing about death metal, in particular, is that several bands are named after things you actually find in a morgue (be they people ie. Embalmer, Mortician or medical conditions i.e. Fistula, Haemorrhage, etc.) So, naturally, most of what I listen to in the morgue is in keeping with the death theme. I often find myself playing Autopsy (Mental Funeral being my favorite album). What better way to facilitate an atmosphere conducive to embalming than to listen to “Bonesaw,” a song named after an actual embalming instrument. Sometimes I even make up my own lyrics and sing poorly, as a means to amuse myself, since it’s an instrumental track. Recently I’ve also been listening to Decapitated (Winds of Creation), Disgorge (Consume the Forsaken) and funeral doom like Evoken and Esoteric. Of corpse, you can’t go wrong with Death, Obituary or Cannibal Corpse either.

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