"Dear Tim Totten, how do you dress a corpse?" --JS
Every funeral professional uses different techniques when dressing a body. Some choose to cut the clothes in a continuous line up the back and place them on the body much like a kindergarten teacher would dress a child in a smock for painting.
Others refuse to cut the clothes, prefering to go the more difficult route of dressing the body with the clothing intact.
Either way, there are a few tricks that seem to make the job easier.
The biggest concern is that the person cannot move and is, quite often, too heavy to be lifted for any length of time, meaning that you'll only get a few seconds to pull up skirts & pants or to pull down dresses and shirts.
Since I don't have any photographs of this process (and frankly, who wants to betray a client's trust by taking THOSE pictures?) I'll describe the most difficult process - dressing a man in a full suit and tie.
First, it should be noted that most funeral professionals will use undergarments, even when none are provided. Often, this expense is not factored into the charges paid by a family. Still, most professionals see it as a matter of honor that their clients are fully dressed, even if their families do not provide the appropriate garments.
(Of course, there are always times when a family requests that undergarments NOT be used. A woman once gave me clothes for her husband but had neglected to give me underwear. She said he never wore them. But she stressed that we had to use the heavy wool socks she'd included because "he ALWAYS wore socks!")
Similarly, shoes are left to a family's wishes.
Since dressing is always done before you style the hair or add cosmetics, we'll start with a clean body. Undergarments are first, meaning underwear, socks and undershirt, if provided. Place the feet and through the underwear and move the garment up the legs. Lifting the thigh will help position the underwear over the buttocks. Socks are best scrunched up like you'd do to put them on a child.
Undershirts can be harder to place, especially if you don't want to cut the clothes. Embalmed arms are often stiff and will not bend at the elbow joint. However, the shoulder joint is usually more flexible. Place the scrunched-up shirt on the stomach, guide both arms through the bottom of the shirt and out the arm holes. Pull the shirt up the arms, keeping it gathered. Grasping the back "scrunched" section and lifting the arms into a "touchdown" position, pull the shirt over the head. Now you can place a hand between the shoulders and lift up to facilitate pulling the shirt down over the back.
Pants go on just like underwear, provided that you have placed the belt into the loops BEFORE you pull up the pants.
Long-sleeved dress shirts and suit coats are the hardest to place. (You can always cut them, but that's to easy for some people and ruins the garment, which can cause problems if the family asks you to return a garment after the viewing)
To dress a corpse in a coat or long-sleeved shirt, open the coat or shirt and place it on the person's midsection, with the neck facing their feet and the inside of the garment against the body. While pulling the tail of the garment toward the head, feed the arms into the sleeves. Pull the garment up to the armpits.
With a hand on the neck of the garment, pull the material over the head. It helps to have an assistant raise the arms ("touchdown" again) while you complete this procedure. Once the garment is over the head, lift the shoulders to pull the garment down the back.
Unfortunately, there are times when the garments are too small or the body is too stiff to allow this procedure. In those cases, it is necessary to position the garment under the buttocks and pull up along the back.
Most professionals use this option as a last resort, because it usually requires extra lifting help, depending upon the size of the person being dressed.
To accomplish this, lift the legs and place the garment under the buttocks with the neck facing toward the head and the inside of the garment touching the body. Make sure you gather up the remaining fabric before you lower the legs. Push the hands down on either side and feed through the sleeves. Lifting at the shoulders, pull the garment up to the shoulders.
It's interesting to note that many professionals find affixing a tie to be the hardest part. While most male and some female funeral professionals wear ties everyday, they're not practiced tying it on someone else. This is why some will fix the client's tie around their neck and slip it back off to put it on the body.
Dressing a woman is usually easier, with the exception of bras and pantyhose. And before someone else asks - YES, bras are necessary. They help to position breasts, giving the corpse a more natural look. While many will claim that breasts are supposed to take a naturally "sagging" position when a person is prostrate, the mental picture being offered by an embalmed body should more closely match the way a person looked at their best. And most women I know will say that looking your best means wearing a bra.
On a personal note, my grandmother stopped wearing a bra after her husband died. She just didn't care any more. In fact, she only owned two when she died; each was attached to a hanger with her "Sunday Best" clothes that she wore to special functions.
As previously stated, you could always cut the clothes up the back, making the effective dressing time about five minutes, but it can cause certain issues, like the time my friend ripped a coat and was out $200.
What happened? His new employee was having trouble getting a coat on a body. He hung the coat back up and went to get the boss. His boss (my friend) took the coat of the hanger, told him to watch how it's done, grasped the two back halfs of the coat at that little split vent in the rear and proceeded to rip the coat all the way to the back collar.
After they'd easily dressed the deceased and placed him in the casket, they decided to wheel him into the chapel. Now, my friend stands on occasion, and he never, ever moves into the main parts of his funeral home without being fully dressed.
Can you guess what happened when he took his coat off the rack and tried to put it on?
Of course, it was too small, because he'd torn his own coat and placed it on the deceased!
My friend reports that he no longer cuts, tears rips or even removes a button from clothes now.
A veteran of the funeral industry, Timothy Totten owns Final Embrace, a funeral industry consulting firm and product manufacturer, and will answer your funeral related question right here on In Repose Blog. Please send all questions to Admin@InRepose.com.