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Science is revolutionizing the art of embalming

By He Qi in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2018-01-08 08:57
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Xu Jun prepares for an embalming operation at the Baoxing Funeral Parlor in Shanghai. Provided To China Daily

Technological advancements are changing the way practitioners use their traditional skills

Xu Jun, an embalmer for 21 years at the Baoxing Funeral Parlor in Shanghai, has been recognized as one of the 94 Shanghai Craftsmen for 2017 for his superior skills in a profession he sees as "noble" and "rewarding".

"This job involves not only being a guardian of dignity for the departed, but also providing comfort for their family members by making the deceased look peaceful at the funeral," the 46-year-old embalmer said.

For the past two decades, Xu has prepared countless bodies for funeral services - replacing blood with embalming fluid, performing complex reconstruction to disguise damage, and applying makeup to create a peaceful appearance.

On average, Xu deals with 20 to 30 bodies a day. Nevertheless, he is meticulous, regardless of how difficult and pressing it is - such as cases when the deceased are victims of fires, car accidents or have fallen from high buildings.

Cai Qi, one of Xu's colleagues, recalled how Xu once spent hours restoring the body of a person involved in a car accident. Cai said in order to reconstruct an eyebrow, Xu enlarged a photo of the deceased on his computer and counted the number of hairs required.

"I remember that he said more than 260 (hairs) were needed," Cai said. "He is a detail-oriented person."

In 2015, the sinking of the Eastern Star in the Yangtze River shocked the nation. Xu and his team were assigned the task of preparing the bodies of the 96 dead. Xu worked for 11 days and nights consecutively and finished the job to a high standard.

"During the Eastern Star assignment, Xu was required to prepare five bodies that were badly decayed. He worked for more than five hours without rest and finished the task at 4 am," said Liu Feng, an apprentice of Xu.

Liu said the bodies of the deceased from the accident had deteriorated. Initially, they had to clean silt from the bodies, before reshaping, embalming and applying makeup.

"No matter how difficult the task is, Xu can always finish it to a high standard," Liu said.

The sinking of the Eastern Star is not the only large-scale accident he has helped with. Xu was also involved in preparing bodies from the Bund stampede in 2014 and the Tianjin Port explosion in 2015.

"This is my job. I just try my best to do it well," Xu said.

One of the major difficulties embalmers face is that they need to restore the appearance of people they have never met. The only way they can do it is to refer to photos and talk to the family of the deceased.

Xu said a good embalmer has to be a good communicator.

"You must be extremely sensitive to the feelings of others and be able to feel empathy for the grief and stress they are experiencing," Xu said. "It takes time and experience."

When Xu started his career at the Baoxing Funeral Parlor in 1996, he was offered a choice of position. He chose the hardest job that few were interested in - to get in touch with the dead every day, which, Xu said, he felt comfortable with from the start.

He has taken to embalming because it is the most demanding job in a funeral home and he enjoys challenges.

Xu worked hard and learned quickly. By 2001, he had won several competitions for applying makeup and embalming in Shanghai.

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