Embalming is something I’ve been interested in since I was about 10. I wondered what happened when people passed away and I also wondered why they looked so dead. One time, I went to a wake with my parents. The remains were embalmed and looked so life-like, as if the deceased was just asleep. It made the family’s mourning that bit easier. I was intrigued by this and interested in what takes place in mortuaries and funeral homes from a death care point of view.
Embalming delays the natural process of organic decomposition. It gives people a final opportunity to view a loved one and say goodbye. It helps confront the reality that death has occurred. It is the “seeing is believing”, which is so important.
When I was young, I was in the US and went to some funeral homes but they wouldn’t entertain me. I wanted to observe but I wasn’t allowed. I got the same response in the UK. I found it a very closed and a hard area to get into. I made inquiries at the Belfast College of Embalming and Funeral Directors when I was 19. I worked in various jobs and enrolled in the college when I was 24. I did all my training there.
People were intrigued by what I was studying. But it’s just something I chose in the way someone chooses to work in a bank or to be an accountant. The training was very hard. There were five modules with each one being taught for three to four months.
When I qualified, the avenue was open to me to do other courses within this area, such as facial reconstruction. It’s generally called reconstructive restoration and is challenging. The deceased could have drowned and the body might not be found for weeks. We’re trying to fit in with the time scale that has been given to us by the family and the funeral directors. We can be under pressure.
I’m a specialist in reconstructive restoration. It involves speaking to the family very closely and getting guidance from them. They give me photographs to help me restore their loved one’s face if they’ve been involved in a crash. There are a lot of aids we use, from waxes and silicones to very fine blends of make-up.
Some reconstructive cases could take up to 24 hours. It's very intricate work. I've worked with Dean Jones, he's a special effects make-up artist in Hollywood. Most of the cosmetics we use come from the US. We blend them to get a unique effect.
Our premises in Navan is fully dedicated to death care. It contains an office, an embalming theatre and teaching rooms. We receive the deceased from funeral directors. I also travel to funeral homes and mortuaries. I have four employees who are all embalmers. We’re on 24/7 call. That might involve just taking phone calls at night. Some days, I don’t work. Other days it can be 16 hours or more. When it comes to restorative work, it’s down to myself and my brother, Fionan.
Work changes every day. We believe hygiene is paramount in our mortuary so we would routinely clean the deceased in the same way as it’s done in hospital.
We have to keep our stocks replenished which include cosmetics and embalming fluids. The fine blend of cosmetics we use are oil-based and water-based. We apply them so finely that it doesn’t look as if the deceased has any make-up on.
Giving the deceased a life-like appearance makes it easier for the family of the dead person. Some people know the inevitable is going to happen and pick what garments they want to wear when they’re laid out, usually something that was a favourite of theirs.
Every death is sacred. My own belief is that there is a God above looking down on us. I believe there is a heaven to go to. What I like most about my job is helping people to mourn their loved ones. The part of the job I like least is witnessing the sadness people go through when they lose a loved one in tragic circumstances. When an infant dies, it’s extremely sad. We’re there to do the best we can for families. That’s our ethos.
I’m a firm believer in the need to say goodbye to our loved ones, helped by the visual. There’s nothing in the world that can replace that. I think the way we mourn our loved ones in this country is exceptional, with family members staying with the deceased for up to 48 hours. Nothing comes close to that. The Irish wake will never die. Some parts of the country are very strong on wakes while other people use funeral homes.
I’m also qualified as a senior pathology technician and I sometimes work with pathologists on postmortems with the Health Service Executive employing me.
I set up Tallon Mortuary Specialists School of Embalming in 2009. Since then, 50 students have qualified from the school. I saw a demand for the education we can offer. We’re registered trainers with the British Institute of Embalmers. Some of our students come from funeral director backgrounds and they want to get into the hygiene process.
Unfortunately, embalming is not regulated in Ireland. I think there’s a lack of knowledge on the part of the regulatory bodies as to the seriousness of what we do. If you go to your doctor, you trust that he is qualified. It’s no different when people pass away and are put in your care. I believe regulation is going to come in here. It would put the industry on an even keel.
We register every year with the British Institute of Embalmers. There’s governance over what we do. I could get a job in Australia with my qualification. Education is paramount in this industry. We update our skills all the time and we’re trying to get regulation here.
Anybody wanting to get into this line of work should make sure they have a qualification with which they can travel. Some courses in this country last for just two to three days, offering certificates. But you can’t travel with those.
I work abroad for two months of the year as a guest teacher in reconstructive restoration.
One of the places I go to is the Fountain National Academy for Professional Embalmers in Springfield, Missouri, in the US. I also teach in Keele University in England and I often teach at the University of Namur in Belgium, as well as the Ray Last Laboratory in the University of Adelaide, Australia.
I’m very proud of what I do and am extremely proud to be an embalmer. But in social circles I have to be very mindful because there’s always someone there who has lost a loved one or is expecting to lose a loved one.
People say to me that it must be very hard for me to go to work. But I don’t go to work; I go to my passion.
Out of hours
I go to the gym first thing in the morning, usually about 6am. I enjoy my home life immensely with my wife and son. We go walking and mountain hiking. My hobby is motocross. I have a bike, an average one, for rough terrain. Sometimes, we go out for a meal but really, I love to go home in the evening to my family.