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Salisbury College of Funeral Sciences and Embalming
Sarah Jones
BBC Wiltshire

Salisbury College of Funeral Sciences
Sheila Hicks in the Chapel of Rest

It takes nearly two years and over 30 bodies to complete an embalming course at The College of Funeral Sciences.

But it's an industry that can't stop you putting a brass plate on your door and becoming an undertaker.

So for wannabe embalmers and funeral directors, wanting a professional qualification, Salisbury is one of the few places in the country to head to.

Sheila Hicks, the college's principal, is part of the team turning out over 50 qualified undertakers a year.

"The number of people who ring me and say: "Ooohh, I've always wanted to be an embalmer" and you ask them what they know about it and they say: "Well I think it's probably something to do with putting on make-up and making them look nice in a coffin" and I have to say: "Well, it's a little more than that."

"In fact there aren't many of us that concentrate on all areas of the profession but at the college I've got courses in health and safety for the funeral profession, embalming, funeral directing, funeral management and day courses on reconstruction and cosmetology.

Making-up a person who's died

"All embalmers need to be artistic. It really is quite important that all my students have an interest in some form of art.

"I've had several beauticians and they've done well but making-up a person who's died is not the same as making-up somebody who's still alive. You could so easily turn them into an American dolly bird. And we never use make-up on men unless we're forced to. But we avoid it like the plague.

Salisbury College of Funeral Sciences
Salisbury College of Funeral Sciences

"It isn't gory"

"The students work alongside us on real people. There's no way you could pretend and do it with dummies. It would be silly. And you do get the occasional student who comes in desperate to be an embalmer, has all the qualifications, and you do a demonstration for them and they suddenly turn a funny green colour and melt away.

"It isn't gory though. There's not blood all over the place or anything because it's all concealed but it's the thought. It's what goes on in your head not what you see with your eyes.

"In fact we use a little embalming pump which is rather like a heart/lung machine. We hitch it up with a very small tube placed in an artery in the body and we pump the fluid around the body and if we do it properly it will go into every cell of the body.

"It replaces the blood but of course it doesn't take a genius to work out that you can't get more then a pint into a pint pot. So, as a consequence, the blood has to go somewhere. So we also put a tube into the vein, next to the artery, to receive the blood as it comes out.

"Nobody looks well when they've died"

"The fluid is pink because it has been found that red is not a good colour to use. I don't know why. But the pink is perfect and people look well.

"Nobody looks well when they've died, I know that sounds facetious, but people do look dreadful. Not only do they look a bad colour but also the pressure in the tissues has gone so that the cheeks sink in and the fingers look like bird's talons and it all looks rather horrid.

"But with a little bit of fluid and a little bit of pressure and a lot of skill we can produce somebody who looks well. In fact it's quite common for people to come into the Chapel of Rest and say: "Good Lord, he looks better then he's looked in years."

bury College of Funeral Sciences

Over-embalming

"But it's about knowing how far to go. You can over-embalm someone so easily and make them look all wrong. You can put too much fluid in and they get too big which would distort all the features. It could happen quite easily but it doesn't because we're so careful. There's a lot of skill involved.

"It's hard for the students though. We can't practice embalming and if it goes wrong: "Well never mind, we'll try another one". Each person is somebody's lover, mother, father, child, husband. So you've got to get it right. It's got to be right and it's got to be right every time

"In fact it's the tiny little things, when you dress a body, that you've got to get right. If you part the hair on the wrong side that's really noticeable to the family. It's one of those odd things.

"A lady said to me once: "Well, it's not him at all" and of course it panicked me. I started looking at his wristband to make sure it really was him. She said: "It doesn't look like him a bit. His hair's all wrong. It's never parted on that side". So I got a brush and I just brushed it over and said: "How's that?" and she said: "Oh yes, that's more like it."

Buried with wellies and £1 million

"You'd also be surprised by the things that have gone into coffins before now. People put cheques for £1 million in the person's pocket and a packet of mints is very common and people have had some very odd slogans on their t-shirts to take with them to heaven.

"We had a gentleman who wanted to wear his gardening clothes with his welly boots and his spade and although clothing choices for burial are unlimited for cremation we have to remove certain items which may cause smoke. So he could be in his coffin like that but before we closed the coffin we needed to remove these items because if you start burning welly boots - well - we wouldn't be the most popular people in the city.

"It used to be quite common for people to be buried in their nighties but it's less and less common now and there are manufacturers who make gowns. The ones for the ladies aren't bad but the gentleman's ones, I have to say, I don't know a man who would be seen dead in one. So why should he?

"But we do go a bit dippy when somebody dies. Our common sense and our brains seem to leave us. You'd be surprised how anxious people get coming into the Chapel of Rest. For some reason, whilst their beloved husband was very close to them throughout their lives, they're a bit nervous of him now he's dead. It's odd isn't it."

For more information on the courses available, at the Salisbury College of Funeral Sciences, including dates and fees click on the link below




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