Mum quit fashion degree to be an embalmer and worked on her grandad's body

Mum quit fashion degree to be an embalmer and worked on her grandad's body

Rachel Carline, 32, was drawn to embalming when, aged seven, she saw her paternal grandmother’s body in the coffin and worried that she ‘didn’t look good’.

But it wasn’t until years later that she decided to follow her calling.

At 20, she decided to quit her fashion degree and seek work as an embalmer, writing letters to funeral homes for work before landing an administrative role at a Co-op funeral home.

Rachel, who lives with her web designer husband Simon, 35, and their daughter, Iris, three, is now an expert in her field and feels privileged that she gets to prepare a body to be viewed by loved ones after death.

‘While it’s difficult and emotional, I also feel honoured to be in this position,’ said Rachel.

‘Me feeling this way drives me to make sure I do everything within my power to support families through a very difficult time.’

In 2017, Rachel embalmed some of the Manchester Arena terror victims. 

Embalming is the process of preserving a body and restoring the physical appearance of the deceased by delaying the natural effects of death. 

It involves the injection of chemical solutions into the arteries, tissues and sometimes organs and the draining of the deceased’s fluids to slow decomposition. This is usually done to make the deceased suitable for viewing as part of the funeral ceremony by giving them a peaceful appearance.

Rachel is aware that many people will consider her overwhelming desire to work in the funeral industry from such a young age peculiar, but she’s super proud of what she does.

‘Even as a kid, I was fascinated with things other people would consider morbid,’ said the mum.

‘In primary school, I was obsessed with ancient Egypt and mummification.

‘When I told my mum I thought working in the funeral industry would be a good job, she called it “ghoulish”.

‘My dad was just worried about the things I’d see.

‘But I feel [my job] is a real privilege.’

Looking back, Rachel is glad that her parents took her to view her grandmother’s body as it helped her to understand death.

This is something she has since done with her daughter Iris, who recently viewed her ‘big nana’ – great-grandmother – after she died.

While Rachel initially went to university to study fashion, she deferred her place after falling ill before her final year. Aged 20, she started approaching funeral homes for work with extra time on her hands.

She said: ‘There was a Co-op funeral home in Rochdale, and I wouldn’t leave them alone.

‘Eventually, a position opened up in admin. I didn’t care what it was so long as it was a foot in the door.

‘I liked going in early and watching them doing the embalming. They’d even let me help with little things within my remit.’

After studying for vocational qualifications, Rachel became a funeral arranger at the age of 21.

Still, she soon realised it was embalming that fascinated her, so in December 2021, she began studying to be an embalmer. 

And after qualifying in 2015, she landed a role with Co-op Funeralcare Lancashire. By 2018, she was the Chairperson for the North-West division at the British Institute of Embalmers.

Since then, she has embalmed thousands of people, including her grandfather and several friends.

She embalms up to three or four bodies a day, taking two hours on average to ensure the deceased looks their best. She also works to restore and reconstruct the faces of people who have been in accidents or those who have been dead for some time.

In order to do so, Rachel will ask the deceased’s family for photos of their loved one from various angles, so she can recreate the way they looked.

‘Sometimes I’ll get a photo that’s 30 years old,’ said Rachel. ‘I’m a good embalmer, but I can’t knock 30 years off!

‘Many people think embalming is just doing hair and makeup or preserving the body, but it’s so much more. It’s anatomy, maths and chemistry.

‘To work out the amounts of fluids you need, such as formaldehyde, water and dyes, you have to know how much the body weighs, how long it’s been since the person died, how long until the funeral, plus many other factors.

‘But we always see them as a whole person, not an equation.’

Rachel cared for her grandad Dave Phillips, 76, when he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in March 2015, before he passed away in September that year.

‘When grandad was ill, he deteriorated, lost a lot of weight and was very frail,’ she said. ‘I looked after him and spent a lot of time with him in his final weeks.

‘No matter who it is, I embalm everyone as though they are a close friend or relative, so the technical aspect of the embalming procedure didn’t feel that different.

‘I had been heavily involved in looking after him when he was ill at home, so it felt like the most natural thing to do was to continue caring for him after he died.

‘I was devastated when he died. But I also felt that I had extra time with him that nobody else would get.

‘It was such an honour to know I would do the last thing anyone would do for him.’

After getting all the paperwork and being in a legal position to complete the marbling process, Rachel came to work during a quiet weekend.

‘Whilst I was doing the procedure, I was fine,’ she remembered. ‘The technical, procedural part of embalming is what I do day in and day out.

‘But once he was embalmed and looked like my grandad again, that’s when I found it quite emotional.

‘When I washed his hair, I got some shampoo in his eye and apologised to him.

‘I shaved his face, trimmed his fingernails. Those last elements of care, although difficult, I think benefited me in my grief.’

Rachel is provided with mental health support by both the Co-op Funeralcare and the British Institute of Embalmers when needed, which helps her find the strength to work in difficult times – such as with the Manchester Arena terror victims.

‘I used to be really affected by embalming people who were a similar age to myself,’ said Rachel.

‘It made me face my mortality. Now I never leave a conversation on an argument. The job has changed me in that way.

‘Since having my little girl, I now find embalming babies and children more difficult, too, but it drives me to do the best I can for that family.’

Rachel hardly talks about her job at home, but she knows that people get very curious about her work.

‘My husband dreads going out with people we don’t know as there is always a lot of interest in my job, but I don’t mind answering their questions,’ she noted.

Rachel also shares her experiences and educates people on embalming by hosting a podcast, The Eternal Debate, with fellow embalmer Andrew Floyd.

She added: ‘Some people in the profession still have the attitude that having feelings stop you from doing your job properly.

‘It’s the opposite for me. The day it doesn’t affect me, or I don’t care who I’m embalming, is the day I stop.’

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