A Lazy Interview - Todd the Celebrant

This is a new series for the blog that I think should be fairly interesting. I will be interviewing people I know who have interesting or off beat jobs, talents or hobbies.

To start off the series I have my father-in-law Todd, he has a pretty unique job, one not many people could handle doing, I know I couldn't. Read on to find out more about Todd the Celebrant

1) Who are you and what do you do? 

I am Todd Reinholt and I am a Funeral Celebrant and a licensed Funeral Director.

2) How and/or why did you get into Funeral Directing? 

We lost our stepson in a car accident in 2007. At that time I was working in Human Resources. We had an awful experience with the funeral home in our home town of Drumheller. They wouldn't tell us where his body was, what was going on, what we needed to do and in fact, put their phones on call forward to a call centre. The call centre tried paging the fellow who was transporting our son, but he shut his cell phone off. This was a Friday. Finally we found an angel at Foster's Garden Chapel in Calgary who told us what most likely was going on and was able to find out that our son had been dropped off at the Medical Examiner's office. Unfortunately, by this time it was after 4:30 and it was closed for the weekend. We couldn't see our son until Monday. My family and I did most of the planning ourselves for his service and it was that week I decided to leave my career and go back to school at Mount Royal University. I felt that the service we had experienced with Courtney Winters Funeral Home was so awful that I needed to do something so that no family ever had to go through something like that again.

3) How long have you been at it?

I graduated in 2009 from Mount Royal University and have been doing it ever since. In 2009, I had a heart attack and it was recommended that I not participate actively as a funeral director any longer because of the physical demands and the chemicals used in the preparation of bodies. I took training as a Celebrant and have been doing that ever since.

4) You're at a party, you want to impress people. What is your favorite story to tell?

I am always respectful of the families I serve. Probably my favourite story is of a time where a funeral for an elderly woman was about to begin. The plan was to have the congregation stand and as the family was walking into the chapel, to play Over The Rainbow from the Wizard of Oz as she loved that movie. The funeral director in charge of pressing 'play' got the song wrong and as the procession started, with grandma in her casket, followed by her family, the song 'Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead' blared through the chapel. Tense.

5) What has been the biggest hurdle or hardest thing for you to over come, during or leading up to Funeral Directing?

One of the biggest hurdles was going back to school at the age of 42. Wow! What a change that was after 20 years in corporate life. Another hurdle was overcoming the fear of dead bodies. I had no idea what to expect and this is something they do not teach in school. Bodies 101. It takes a long time to get 'somewhat comfortable' around them, but it will never be something I am completely comfortable with.

6) What is the most rewarding aspect of of your work? 

At the end of a funeral service, when the family and/or other mourners approach me as a Celebrant and say that was the 'best funeral' they've ever been to or that 'it was absolutely perfect' or 'how long did you know him?'. I have many families who I have remained in contact years after I've served them and many families who I've had the privilege of serving a second or third time.

7) What is the worst experience you've had on the job? 

The first time I had to attend a home to remove the bodies of a man and his son. It was a crime scene which is another thing that would be hard to have learned about in school other than the legalities surrounding it. The environment was horrific. The police and major crimes unit were present. I had to transport the two bodies to the Medical Examiner's office, escorted by a police officer. As it turned out, I knew the family. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but one I did with honour and considered it an act of love for my friend who had just lost her son and grandson in this devastating event.

8) Take us through a typical day for you, start to finish.

There is no such day as a typical day in the life of a funeral director; we're on call 24/7 especially in smaller centres where the body of a deceased person may have to be transferred to the funeral home in the middle of the night. Funeral homes are like any other business and the start of the day usually consists of sorting through mail, answering emails, returning any calls etc. The funeral director will typically have families he/she is working with and will continue working on those files prior to a funeral which may include contacting newspapers, flower shops, caterers, clergy, medical examiners office and suppliers as the funeral approaches and arrangements need finalizing. If there are bodies to be prepared for viewing and burial, that will be a part of the day as well. There might be cremations to process along with the paper work in conducting these.

Most smaller funeral homes do not have the resources to hire cleaning and maintenance staff therefore the funeral directors will also typically have a role in cleaning the funeral home, the vehicles and doing the yard and grounds maintenance. It's not uncommon to see a funeral director shovelling walks in the winter or cutting the lawn in the summer.

If there is a funeral service that will be scheduled into the day as well and this will typically take at least 4 hours out of a day especially if the funeral is at a church or location other than the funeral home. This would mean all the equipment and flowers are organized and transferred to the place of the service along with the casket and body of the deceased. If there is an interment occurring after a funeral, the funeral director must also check the gravesite prior to the funeral to ensure it is set up and all the equipment is in working order. Visitations often occur outside of normal business hours and the funeral director would then be responsible for ensuring he/she is at the funeral home during these hours and that the family and friends are attended to during their visitation.

Each function of the funeral director has many components to it. One of the most wondered about functions is that of preparing a body.

9) Preparing a body? What does that endtrail? I mean entail?

***The events and processes described in the following section are graphic in nature
 and may not be suitable for all readers. Reader discretion is advised***

When a body arrives at the funeral home, all available information regarding the deceased is recorded. Identification tags on the body are compared to the paperwork that accompanies the body (Medical Certificate of Death, Hospital release) and those tags (often referred to as 'toe tags') remain on the body up to and including cremation or burial. The body is typically in a body bag and is inspected for anything unusual or that might require immediate attention prior to preparing it. Usually, a moisturizing cream is applied to the face to prevent dehydration of the skin prior to preparation. The body is then placed in a refrigerated unit until it is time to prepare or cremate it. As for what happens to the body from this point forward will depend on the arrangements made with the family of the deceased.

If the body is going to be viewed followed by burial, it is strongly recommended that it be embalmed as a means of disinfecting it, preserving it and restoring it to a state that will be as comfortable as possible for those viewing it. If the family chooses cremation, embalming generally does not occur unless the family wants a formal visitation. If the family chooses to have their loved one embalmed, the body is transferred to an area of the funeral home called the 'Preparation Room' or 'Embalming Room'.

Inside this room, there is a large table called an embalming table and most often these are a flat, stainless steel table that is adjustable in height and angle. There are troughs and ridges on the sides of the table to prevent fluids from running off the table. The body is transferred onto the table and the head of the body elevated slightly using a device called a 'head rest'. This is helpful in keeping fluids from rising from the abdominal area of the body and draining through the mouth or nose.

There are a number of chemicals used in embalming a body. Some are preservatives such as formaldehyde based chemicals and others are used to treat the water used in the process, others are used to treat the arteries as the fluid moves through the body. These chemicals are mixed in a machine that pumps the fluid into the body.

The first thing usually to happen is to cleanse the mouth cavity and eyes. Certain disinfectants are used to achieve this as well as cotton swabs to clear any debris or mucus. It is important to ensure the eyes are closed and will remain closed and two little plastic devices called 'eye caps' are used. They are oval shaped, similar to an eyeball and are clear plastic. They have small plastic barbs on the edges of them that once they are placed over the eyeball, the eyelids are then drawn over them and the plastic barbs hook the skin. The Embalmer ensures the eyes are closed and that they look as natural as possible. Care must be taken to ensure the eyelashes are uniform and protected as they have a tendency to easily fall out if death has occurred a few days rather than hours before.

Next, the mouth must be closed. There are two methods of doing this. One is using a device that looks like a small staple tacker and this device is loaded with a small tack like instrument that has a two - three inch wire attached to it. It is injected into the upper or lower gum where it makes contact with the bone. Similarly it is done for the opposing upper or lower gum. When complete there will be two wires that need to be twisted together while holding the mouth closed. Once tightened, they will act as a secure closure for the mouth.
The other method is using a needle and sutures to ensure closure.

Once the eyes and mouth are closed and the funeral director is satisfied they look as natural as possible, other functions such as shaving males or unwanted hair removal occurs, it will be time to start injecting the body with the chemicals. The reason the eyes and mouth are done first, is that the tissue will tend to become firm during the embalming process and whatever those features look like will most likely remain and won't be able to be changed after embalming has occurred.

The injection of chemicals into the body is intended to distribute the preservative fluid throughout the arterial system. These chemicals ideally replace as much blood as possible. In order to achieve this, the chemicals will be injected into a major artery (usually the right carotid artery) and the blood will be drained from a major vein (usually the right jugular vein). These injection and drainage sites will depend on the condition of the body, the cause of death etc. and sometimes the embalmer may have to use up to 6 different sites to inject and drain fluids. E.g. an accident victim with dismembered extremities, an individual with coronary artery disease and major plaque build up etc.

A small incision is made on the lower right corner of the neck, near the (clavicle) collar bone. The jugular vein and carotid artery are typicall located beneath the surface. Each one is located individually and brought to the surface of the body using instruments. Once they are at the surface, small incisions are made in each. An injection tube is inserted into the carotid artery facing toward the lower part of the body. This tube is connected to a machine that will pump the embalming fluid into the body. A drain tube is inserted into the jugular vein and the drainage of blood and other fluids will occur through this and directly onto the embalming table.

The table is set at an angle so as to ensure all fluids drain to the foot of the table and into a drain system. A small hose is fastened to the table that will have water slowing running on the table that will keep blood and other fluids moving toward the drain during the process.

The embalmer then adjusts the machine to ensure an optimal pressure and rate of flow is used and turns the machine on. Typically, 3 gallons of fluids are injected into the body. This is a solution of chemicals diluted with water. As the fluids start to move through the arterial system, they force blood and other fluids from the drainage area. The skin will start to gain a more natural colour as the fluids make their way through the body. The embalmer remains with the body during this process often moving different body parts to gain better distribution of the fluids. Once the body is injected with fluids, the injection tube is removed and reinserted into the carotid artery facing toward the head this time and a smaller amount of fluid is then injected into the head area.

Once the entire injection process is complete, all tubing is removed, the carotid artery and jugular veins sutured closed and the embalmer then sutures the original incision closed after putting some preservative powder in the opening. Often a bandaid is placed over this incision to help prevent leakage of fluids.

The next step is a graphic one and it is called aspirating the body cavity. This process happens with an instrument called a Trocar and it is a long stainless steel hollow tube that is connected to rubber tubing that is connected to a water system that creates a 'vacuum-like' effect in the stainless steel Trocar. The trocar is approximately two feet long and has a sharp pointed end on it with many holes in it that allow fluids to be drawn into it and out of the body cavity through the rubber tubing.

Most bacteria that will cause rapid decomposition of a body will be located in the abdominal and intestinal areas of the body, therefore this process is used to reduce that probability. A small incision is made to the right of the naval (belly button) and once the Trocar is connected and becomes a vacuum, it is inserted into this opening and the embalmer usually works in a counter clockwise fashion aspirating the heart and lungs area, stomach and other organs and especially the intestinal area. Once the embalmer is satisfied he/she has aspirated as much fluids as they can, the rubber tubing is removed from the water system and hooked up to a bottle of embalming fluid which is then directly dispersed through the Trocar and into the body cavity.

The Trocar is removed and the incision sutured closed. The body is now treated with sufficient chemical. The next step will be to bathe the body and shampoo the hair and this all occurs on that same embalming table. The body is then dried and transferred onto a dressing table. The embalming table is then cleaned and disinfected and any instruments used in the preparation of the body.

The body is now dressed. The hair is done at this time. The funeral director/embalmer dresses the body and then a device called a body lift is used to place it into the casket. It is a device that has approximately six straps that hook under different areas of the body and back to the device and then using hydraulics, the body is lifted off the dressing table and lowered into the casket.

Some embalmers prefer to apply cosmetics to the body, once it is in the casket and others prefer to do this while the body is still on the dressing table. It is personal preference. Once the body is in the casket, it will be adjusted to ensure a comfortable viewing experience for the family.

10) Any last words or anything you want to plug? Advice for those interested in the funeral industry. Websites you want to promote?

Funeral service is not for everyone. It takes a special person to be in funeral service; one who is committed to helping others in need, 24/7. It's not a job that you will make a lot of money at and it's not a 9 - 5, Monday to Friday job. It's a life. A fulfilling life. The biggest reward in funeral service is knowing you've made a difference for a family during a difficult journey.

For more information check out these sites. Todd's personal site is linked at the start of this interview.

Bonus: You are stuck on an island, you find a magic lamp and get 3 wishes. What are they?

I feel as though I was already stranded on that island 20 some years ago and rubbed that lamp and my three wishes came true..in the form of three beautiful girls. 

However, should I find another lamp, my three wishes would be: To see a cure for diabetes so my daughter Lori never has to take another needle, that I win the lottery and able to buy my children and sons in laws awesome homes wherever they wanted and the last wish would be that no child is ever bullied again; that the bullies would disappear.


I'd like to thank Todd for his openess and willingness to participate in this. I hope you all enjoyed this as much as I have, and keep an eye out for more like this. If you feel that you have an interesting or off beat job, hobby or talent let me know and we can do one up for you.

Next week I talk to my buddy, Andy, who competes in mixed martial arts competitions.