Podcast #88 The Art and Science of Reconstruction – Monica Torres – Funeral Director, Embalming and Reconstruction Specialist

This week’s BLBD conversation covers embalming and reconstruction with specialist Monica Torres.

  • What is it?
  • Who wants it?
  • Why is it important for families?
  • What makes it an art and a science?
  • With cremation on the rise, is embalming still a thing?
  • How does she approach this very personal work?

Monica says:“You have to leave fear at the door. When you go in that prep room. Fear – there’s no place for it there. You can’t have fear affecting your confidence.”

Find Monica at: ⁠https://www.nxtgenmortuarysupport.com/⁠


Monica Torres

Diane Hullet: Hi, I am Diane and welcome to the Best Life Best Death podcast as part of the third Thursday Body Disposition series. I’m excited today to talk to a specialist about the art and science of embalming. What is emb? Embalming is when we preserve a corpse from decaying, and in the ancient times that used to be done through spices and plant medicines.

Currently embalming means to inject materials into the arteries to slow down the decay of the body. If you’re interested in the history of this, I’ve got a really interesting conversation on podcast number 46 with Todd. He’s a funeral director who wrote a really interesting book called Last Writes The Evolution of the American Funeral.

So that conversation gives you some of the history of how embalming really got started more fully in American culture and including details about Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, which I found pretty fascinating. So today with Monica, we’re gonna talk about modern embalming. Why do people choose it? Why does it matter?

Why is it so important in some circumstances, some situations and for some families. So Monica’s wifi was a little bit sketchy when we talked and so I’m afraid the sound is not the absolute best it can be. So bear with us cuz it’s an interesting conversation and I think you’ll like what Monica has to.

So, hi Monica. Welcome. 

Monica Torres: Hi. Thanks for 

Diane Hullet: having me. I am really excited about this interview. I’ve been having conversations over the last year and a half with people about different things regarding body disposition, and I hadn’t really had a conversation with a reconstructive specialist or an embalmer. And so, you know, I came to your name because my mom sent me an article from Popular Science that came out recently and I, I just think this is important because I think there’s some misunderstandings about embalm.

Currently, and there’s, there’s kind of a, a tendency towards cremation right now. I, I was looking up some statistics and saw that in 2021, the US cremation rate was almost 60% and the Canadian rate was almost 75%. So there’s a big pull towards cremation. But there is still a big pull and a big need for your work.

So when I came across this article and read it, I immediately reached out to Monica and you are a really busy woman. So I’m really tickled that you took the time to talk to me today. Say, say something about, you know, what in your experiences, this important role that embalming can play for families. 

Monica Torres: Yeah, for sure.

Well, I first I’d love to thank you for having me. And also I’ll just introduce yourself. My name is Monica Torres. I’m a licensed funeral director. Licensed, licensed cremation reconstructive specialist. Andrologist. I know that’s a lot, but it I am, I have worked the whole AM in the funeral industry.

I’ve been a funeral manager. I’ve worked in the trenches of the prep room. I’ve been a tert, I’ve done exhumations. I have a lot of experience, but primarily focus is on the body itself, and so that’s what we’re talking about today, right? Yeah. What is embalming and why is this important for families?

Who’s wanting embalming? Why is it becoming a art and science of the past? Here in Arizona right now, cremation is up at 90. And so we are a state, much like Florida, where people come and retire, and then bodies are either repatriated back to their state of origin or staff are choosing a cremate because it’s more affordable than shipping a whole body back home.

So that, I think that’s a reason why it’s so high in Arizona. We do have this trend of people turning away from the traditional art and science of embalming, and there’s a lot of different opinions about why and how and you know, the value of it and that if it’s in affecting the environment. So I hope to cover all that on the podcast.

I think to answer your question though, like why is this important for families and just, it’s a really basic. Basic theory is that viewing the body is a essential part of moving along the grief healthy way 

Diane Hullet: simply. Yeah. So by seeing people, I think it registers that they’ve died. I definitely had four grandparents who all passed in peaceful ways and they were all embalmed.

And it was something that as a, as a child and a teen, I remember seeing and I remember thinking, well, that’s, that’s them, but it’s not them. And there was something like you said, yeah. Important about moving on based on that reality. 

Monica Torres: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it is, you know, if you’ve ever covered, maybe you’ve covered this in your podcasts before or maybe your future, the science behind Reef and acceptance is the first step.

So part acceptance is seeing the person seeing is believing. That’s what I teach my students seeing is believing. The families that I have. Come back to the funeral home. Over and over and over again. They’re seeking something. Years my loved one has passed. I’ve found that those typically cremation families who have chosen not to view, and it’s interesting to me that my families that choose to bomb and have a viewing, and they have that expression of grief, grief, openly, publicly accept support from their community and their loved.

Those people move on in a, in a much healthier way, and they’re, they’re the one, they might send me a car, you know, at Christmas or something, but they’re not returning to the funeral home, like the cremation families that I find are struggling with complicated grief. Not all of them. Not all of them.

There’s just, there’s a, there’s a small percentage. 

Diane Hullet: Interesting. I find it interesting too. You know, you talk about both the viewing and then also this sense of a service and public grieving. I always think it’s interesting when people say, oh, I, I don’t care. I don’t want a memorial. It doesn’t matter to me.

I’ll be dead. And I always say, well, it’s not about you. It’s about your loved ones acknowledging and moving through this ritual of the fact that you are no longer here. And so in the same way. So yeah, I think it’s a really interesting thing. I, I don’t know. When there’s a place for no ritual, how does, how does you know then how do people move on?

It just seems hard to. Well, we, we were talking about how you, you know, I think what you do is so interesting cuz it’s both a science and an art. So there’s, there’s this hard science behind it of what has to be done technically to stop a body from decomposing and kind of make it presentable. Especially if there’s been an injury of some kind of trauma.

And then there. Art of making the person look most like themselves. And I love how sometimes you use their own makeup, you know, or you’re really trying to return them to this beautiful placet. Say a little about the art and the science for you. Well, 

Monica Torres: they’re both very separate to me and a perfect blend To me, when an embalmer is really skilled in geology was basically ecology on the.

So being able to embalm a body technically and preserve the tissue is the most important part. And obviously for litigious re reasons as well. For funeral homes, it’s important that we get that right. But there is this gray area where I, I feel some embo. They don’t explore and they get kind of stuck in the old way, and that is ology and the part that families appreciate.

In my opinion, this is just my opinion, families don’t really understand embalming, they don’t know what it is. They kind of know, okay, like is the body is being, you know, preserved, but they don’t know really how long or what it means or how it’s. What families do know is that you got grandpa’s part on the wrong side, or that their dad’s beard is trimmed the wrong way, or her mom, her eyeshadow isn’t put on just the way she 

Diane Hullet: wore it.

Yes. I love, I I read somewhere about you that like sometimes you take the time to do a full manicure. Like you just, you don’t cut corners. You want them to be beautiful in their final viewing. Well, 

Monica Torres: beautiful. Yes. I mean, let’s be real though, is that death is not really always beautiful. It’s, it, it’s, it’s just not, I mean, that’s, that’s why allers have jobs.

But what I am trying to vent to the family is an acceptable. And a representation of who their loved one was. So giving that person a manicure. A manicure is an expression of we want others to see ourselves the way we wear our hair, the the colors of clothing that we wear, the way we wear our makeup, or if we don’t.

So I really try to recreate that really personal look that her had in life. That’s my. That is really, truly my goal is so that even when there’s trauma or long-term hospitalization or cancer, that someone is completely unrecognizable to family. That they can look down and say, that’s my mom. I know my mom’s hands.

She always wore red nail polish. 

Diane Hullet: Right. It’s gotta be a lot of communication between you and families. Do you, do you work mostly by talking to people or from pictures They. I always ask 

Monica Torres: picture, do you try to meet as aner? Many times the families get to meet the informer. In most funeral home settings, they meet with the funeral director that’s making the funeral arrangement.

And the embalmer in the back, in the press room is the one, her body. So it’s very it’s not uncommon that things don’t meet the embalmer. I always like to, if there’s a, a case that is a special case, if someone’s requiring like a really special hairdo or if they have special instructions about makeup or if I look at that picture and it’s like glamor shot from 1980.

Try to call to the family at least and get ’em on the phone and say, Hey, is this how? Is this really how you want your mom work? This is your favorite picture of her. Because what I play to families is that whatever picture you need, I’m going just like an artist. I am going to try and create exactly what that picture looks like.

So she looks like she’s 30. In that picture, I’m gonna be working on some serious filler and injections. Contouring and stuff like that. So I try to be real clear and have that communication with families so that I can offer them the best possible result and the most positive viewing 

Diane Hullet: experience. Yeah, that’s great.

That’s so neat. Let’s talk a little about how people feel about the environment and embalming. Like, I know embalming comes under some criticism for that. What’s your take? Yeah, it, 

Monica Torres: it really does, and it. It’s really sad to me. My embedded industry industry is very, very antiquated. It’s, it’s just things are done, really old school and haven’t realized that social media is super important.

It’s important to reach the public. It’s important about factual information or else other people put out their own opinion. And that unfortunately is what has happened is that there’s a lot of propaganda on the internet from people who had embalmers. They’re not chemists and they’re not embalmers, and they’re putting out this information that is not factual about the chemist health.

So you go, when I first began on my journey to care for the dead, I was super hungry. I attended re Ebling conference that I could, I took every class that I. And I remember sitting in on a, it was a Dodge seminar, which is a seminar primarily for embalmers. It’s put on by the Dodge Company, which is a chemical company that produced Ealing chemicals, supplies, and tools.

And there was this lovely woman that came up and spoke. She was an embalmer, and she talked about the impacts of formaldehyde in the environment. And she talked about the process that the, the chemical itself has in the. How, how it’s processed, the fact that it’s natural. A lot of people don’t know that.

She talked about amazing things and at the time, really hard for me to wrap my head around. I was starting to involve and I was thinking, this is Kuali, like what she’s saying. Like how can this chemical that I find so cost be like not harmful? And it took me a really long time to really absorb the facts and understand the way that aldehyde is processed in our body in the earth.

And now I get it, but it took a long time. So I’m patient with people when they’re saying, oh no, it’s horrible and this and that. Well, the fact is, is that. Formaldehyde, and I’m gonna get kind of nerdy on you, but formaldehyde, once it comes in contact with protein, it, it coagulates the protein and that’s why bodies become wind.

That’s what we want as embalmers. We want that. It’s like, it’s, it’s locking the cells in time. It’s stopping time just for, just for a little while. When that happens, formaldehyde is actually neutralized to return back to its natural. A lot of people, it’s leeching into the environment and it’s causing all these problems.

It’s simply not true. When formaldehyde comes in contact with soil, which has protein in it returns back to natural form. There is this thought that formaldehyde is leaching into the soil, and I think that comes from our past where our snic was used, which is a harmful chemical and it has problems in. So I think there’s a lot of leftover for people that talk about, oh my God, it’s, it’s going into the earth.

A lot of things have changed since the 18 hundreds. First of all, we really don’t put people that are embalmed like into the earth. Like we don’t really use the, and just put you know, caskets and just put ’em in the earth. We have vaults now. They’re created of cement. I mean, they’re super sealing, right?

Super sealing vaults that protect the casket and the body is inside the. It’s not realistic. I’ve done exhumations. It’s not realistic to say that these chemicals are leaching into the environment. I’ve done exhumations of bodies that have been pulled out of the earth 15 years, 30 years later, some have in the casket, like it’s literally stuck in the casket.

Most of those other people are like mummified. They’ve had a really good emb bomb. And the bodies are mummified, locked in that preserved state. So a lot of misconception going on. I think there needs to, this conversation needs to continue. And then the other thing too is that formaldehyde, it’s totally necessary for reconstruction and restoration.

I wish that I could offer these services to families who maybe say, you know what? We just don’t wanna use from aldehyde, but we want our mom to be ReSTOR. But it’s just, it’s not that way. They haven’t come up with a yet that allows us to be able to offer those type of procedures without the other thing.

Just some interesting tips and facts for malai is many different items. It’s found in shampoo. It’s found no polish. It’s found in your curtains. It’s found in your carpet. It’s found premium on any type of plaster wood product that you have in your. It’s, it’s found in some foods and it’s produced naturally.

So if you’re cooking cabbage and you’re a person that likes to eat cabbage stills, just St. Patrick’s Day, we all made cabbage and corn beef, right? From Aldehyde is produced when cabbage is being cooked on its own. And the one most, the most fascinating fact about from Aldehyde is that our own bodies produce it.

So anyone who’s listening, I know this is a lot to take in, but consider the facts. 

Diane Hullet: Right. I think it’s easy to jump to conclusions and it’s harder to get the facts. That’s really, really interesting. Well, you’ve, and you’ve always, you’ve been an innovator in this field, which I think is really neat. First of all, just as a young woman, and I think there’s a lot of young women coming into the funeral industry who are really shaking it up in just really good ways that I think are gonna change where this goes.

But I wanna read this quote from you cuz I. One of the things that stood out was this quote. Throughout her training, Torres noticed that other funeral directors were often too anxious to innovate. The stakes are high after all, and people tend to stick with what they know works, especially when time is limited.

But Torres was an eager experimenter. What do you think gave you kind of the courage and curiosity to to be an experi? 

Monica Torres: I’d have to say it was my mentors. I really sought out mentors that were offering services that I was interested in, and so I had two mentors that were really encouraging and would say, you know what?

You have a comfort zone if you wanna be able to provide these kind of services for families. You have to step out of that comfort zone and you have to be fearless. And so I’ve carried that throughout my career is that you have to leave fear after work. When you go in that prep room fear, there’s no place to wear it there.

You can’t have fear affecting your confidence no matter if you’re a beginning embalmer or if you’re an embalmer who’s for experience and has, you know, 30 years experience stumbling block. I think for a lot of people it really. It really trips them up. Also the other thing is I’ve been really fortunate in my career at work for funeral homes in my early informative years that had really progressive owners that were really interested in seeing what I do and encouraging me to shine in that area.

I feel like many embalmers who are starting out especially are they’re really being held. By owners who have, they’re kind of in that mindset, like, this is the way we’ve always done it. This is the way we do it here. And they really do put a barrier up for embalmers that are trying to do something different.

Or they’ve taken my class like, I wanna try this procedure. It’s just a, it’s fear. It’s fear. It’s fear of disappointing the family. It’s fear of litigation, it’s fear. You know, we’ve never done that before. What if it doesn’t work? There’s all these different types of fears involved. So I think for me it was finding the right mentors and leaving fear at the door.

Like I said, you just wrap it up in a little fall and it’ll be there for you when you get back. 

Diane Hullet: March in there and do your work. Well, you are now being a mentor to others. You’re, you’re now, I think a really important part of your job is teaching and say a little bit about where you teach and how you teach.

Monica Torres: So I teach online every other week. I host a class, some for the public, some for professional embalmers, and I opened up a new studio here in temp years. And we teach us as as need. Like whenever people have the time, you know, are very busy, when they get a moment, they call me, they say, Hey, I need to get in on this date.

We make it happen. Many fly in, have embalmers from other countries who have flown in, and we’re hosting our grand opening on April 20th. So, We do in person and online training, and I’m trying my best to be available and offer mentorship to as many ebombs, but I really do like working with our female population.

Diane Hullet: Yeah, I love that. And you, I think that, you know your comment earlier about how the kind of old school funeral directors, not that we wanna lump you in a, you know, a box, but some old school funeral directors aren’t seeing like where it’s headed. And I love that you’ve got your eye on the future and you see social media as this huge platform for education and information.

Not just for up and coming embalmers, but also for doulas and end of life educators and the public. So say a little about how you got into you know, Instagram and give us your Instagram name on 

Monica Torres: Instagram at cold hands hosts, H O s T F. And I basically, I got on social media when I opened my. Knowing very well that if you don’t have a social media, your business basically doesn’t exist to people.

So I knew that I had to do it. It was uncomfortable for me because at the time, funeral providers, staff care providers were not on social media. And still to this day, a lot of funeral homes discouraged their employees from on social media. But at that time I was like, you know what, I’m just gonna do this.

And I started. Providing the public with public education through my embalming tips on Twitter. That was my first account that I ever had, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I believe I started in like 2012, and every Sunday since 2012, I’ve been releasing an embalming tips. So those embalming tips have led to other things, and now there’s a, I have ebook, embalming tips, and people just really seem to love it.

I’ve always been an advocate for public education. Always I feel. The more you know, the more you know, especially when it comes funeral service where you can’t really find a lot of that online. It’s important when families are going through this process that they have the most resources in their toolkit.

It’s, it’s, everybody’s gonna die. It’s not like you get to choose. It’s like, well, some people get to choose whether they’re gonna buy a house or they’re not. You get to choose whether you’re gonna buy a car or you’re not, whether you’re gonna go to college or you’re not. All the major expenses that people have in.

It happens soon as well. So having those tools and the education for the public super important. I’m I highly, highly, highly. I encourage the professional that I teach doulas. Let people know your skills. Let people know where you shine so that they know to come when there is a depth they know. 

Diane Hullet: I love that Monica, and I think, you know, you don’t know what you don’t know.

And I think I always find it fascinating that this is the one place, like you said, that we really, we don’t think that much ahead. We’re just, we’re slammed with grief. Somebody we love died and then we’re scrambling to figure out which funeral home and what they wanted done and what does that even mean.

So we’re making these big decisions in the midst of this emotional state. So to me it’s always fascinating that people. They don’t wanna learn about this ahead of time. And I tell people, learn about this 30 years before you need it. Learn about this five years before you’re gonna have to go through this with your mom, but learn about it so that when the time comes, you’ve already got some vocabulary and some comfort level with it.

I, I think that’s just so huge. I love that. Aah. Arthur, were going with Grace just visited you and I think that just speaks to this network of a newer. Funeral industry, and some people call it a positive death movement or a, I think of it as just an educated citizenry, right? Like facing this human thing that we all face.

And as you said, we can face it educated or we can know what we know, we can learn ahead of time. 

Monica Torres: Yeah, and it’s, it’s really to see families go through that, because for me, unfortunately, it’s something see every day, and it’s hard to, I have all of this like spill it all in one sitting. It’s a lot to digest, especially when people are grieving.

I would say the one thing at least that I’ve noticed is when families are faced with that horrible time and the funeral director is asking them, is it okay for us to proceed with emb? And the family, typically they’re like, I guess like, I dunno, like it, funeral directors are trained to ask that on the phone with the first call of death.

So when we get a death call, we are trained. I mean, it is drilled into us in mortuary college and at the funeral home, that’s what you get. You get the personal information of the deceased, the next of kin, and you get authorization to embalm. Now it’s not that funeral directors are wanting to push that service.

It’s that we are highly scrutinized by the ftc, so there are laws that we have to follow as funeral directors in order to be able to do our job lawfully, and that one of them is to ask for embalming permission verbally, and we also have to get it in writing. So when families call and they say, and the funeral director says, do I have permission to embalm?

Many families have not thought that far ahead. Okay. They haven’t thought about it. They’re like, well we we’re still at the hospital. Our grandma just died. We don’t know. Well, here’s the thing, and these are for your listeners and for the doulas, that educating embalming is always most successful when it occurs closest to the time of.

That’s why historically embalmers and funeral homes offered, offered ambulance service. They would pick up the body and then they would take the body straight back to the funeral home and embalm immediately. And it’s because we get the best possible appearance of that loved one as close to the time of death as possible.

So families may feel rushed. They feel. It’s kind of one of those things where they’re like, why aren’t you asking me? It’s, it’s because we want the best for you. We want the best for the families. We want the best possible appearance. So that’s why we’re asking for embalming authorization. It’s important for families to consider upfront.

Is that something that you’re gonna want? Because if it is, then you need to say, yeah, go ahead. And if it’s something that you don’t want and you’re not interested in, then that is the time to say, you know, we’re gonna forego me. 

Diane Hullet: Right, which goes back to the pre-planning, the information, the, the, I always think of it as just have these conversations, you know, and I always tell people it isn’t.

Yeah. This isn’t really one conversation. This is multiple conversations over time, getting comfortable with this idea. And getting information like you’ve offered us today that kind of expands your perspective. You know, whether you come to this podcast thinking, oh, I definitely don’t want embalming, or, oh, I definitely do want embalming.

The point is to think about it, get educated and keep bringing up the topics so that your loved ones know and you’ve thought it through. And I think of it even as, as like seeing my blind spots. Like what do I not know that I might wanna know more about? So, well, I just, I’m thrilled that you’re on the scene and out there doing podcasts, doing your work, being a mentor.

I love that you teach online and so you really are taking this international and national people have access to you, which I think is just super cool. So I’ve been talking with Monica Torres and why don’t you give us your website and where to find. Yeah, so 

Monica Torres: I’m the most easily accessed to my Instagram, which is at Cold Hands hosts.

And in a link in Bio, you can find my website. You can find my scholarship for hopeful. Female funeral directors. You can find my book, everything that’s Monica Torres is in that Lincoln Bio and my Instagram. But all my platforms, you can find information and access to me through my website which is ww dot NextGen mortuary support.com.

I’m very w Media, so I wanna encourage your listeners to reach out to me on Instagram and say, Hey, I’ve heard you on Diane’s podcast. I’m here like, I’m your new follower, or I’ve been following you, I’ve. So that is probably the best way to get in contact with me. Know that my link and bio is updated regularly and our courses and events are always available there.

And just a secret, your listeners, if you follow Instagram story, I post discounts there all the time. It’s kind of a secret. My newsletter and my story, that’s where you get. Fancy discounts. If you wanna take classes and you’re a, you’re a super saver like me, there’s a, there’s an opportunity for you there.

You gotta, you gotta sign up for the newsletter. You gotta click the bell in the story on my Instagram, but you’ll find some really neat information there. 

Diane Hullet: Fabulous. I love the secret tips and I’m just gonna point out she has 28,000 followers on Instagram, so you know, you really will have to like wave your hand to get noticed.

So. Great. Well thanks Monica. I appreciate this so much. Thanks for joining me today. 

Monica Torres: Thanks, Diane. I’m really humble. I’m really thankful to be invited and I do have a lot of respect for the doula community, so this is just a beginning of a journey for me to help. Reach their goals, helping families, and it’s just another factor in my journey to care for the dead and comfort of grieving.

So thank you so much. 

Diane Hullet: Beautiful. Thanks so much. You’ve been listening to the Best Life Best Death podcast with Monica Torres and Diane. Thanks for listening. 

Picture of Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

End of Life Doula, Podcaster, and founder of Best Life Best Death.

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