Many might consider embalming an odd job at the very least. But for local funeral directors Bob Neff and Stan Mather, it's a noble profession that gives grieving families a little more time with their loved one.
"For some people, it brings them closure after the death," says Neff, 61, owner of Conger-Morris Funeral Directors.
Job description: Both are licensed funeral directors and embalmers. As embalmers, they prepare a body for viewing by injecting fluids and applying cosmetics to make it appear more lifelike.
Education: Neff obtained his license in one year at Mount Hood Community College before taking his state board exam. Mather earned an associate’s degree, then held an apprenticeship for two years at McMinnville.
How long on the job: Neff, 38 years; Mather, 36.
If you could have your dream job today, what would it be: “This would be it,” says Neff. “I’m happy doing this,” says Mather.
"If I can help somebody ease their grief and get through the grieving process, that's what I'm here for. When a family writes a thank-you letter that they appreciate your efforts and it helped them get through a tough time, that's what I like to see."
"The embalming process itself is not required by law," says Mather, 55, funeral director at Hillcrest Memorial Park and Mortuary. "The number one reason for it is to protect the public health."
The process typically begins by stitching the eyes and mouth closed and cleaning the body. The body is then injected with embalming fluid — to create a lifelike appearance and for preservation — and dressed before the final step, which is the cosmetic portion of the process.
Cosmetic methods differ and some bodies, such as those involved in auto accidents or other traumatic events, require more extensive work.
Neff says he uses the same cosmetic supplies that the individual used while alive. He asks families to bring in a picture for specific details, such as hairstyles.
"We look at them each as individuals brought into our care," Neff says. "We see them as somebody's lost loved one."
Mather uses a small air pump that blows the cosmetic product on the face. Neff and Mather both use hairstylists who come in before the body is placed in the casket.
In cases when cuts, punctures or abrasions are evident on the body, embalmers use waxes and stitches to make the body presentable for viewing. Embalmers sometimes recommend that families not have an open casket, but ultimately the decision rests with the family.
The entire process generally takes about one to two hours and costs in the range of $350.
"The therapeutic part is being able to have a time to say goodbye," Mather says. "People in a lot of cases will leave memorabilia or notes or letters. That's something that can be healing for some families."
Mather got his start in the business in 1972 and has worked in the Rogue Valley at Hillcrest since 1991. Though he says he is happy in his career, there are always cases that stick with him, usually those involving tragic deaths of infants and children.
"If you ever get to the point in your career where you get desensitized, it's time to get out," Mather says. "As long as you can step away from it and have time with your family and pursue hobbies, it is something that is manageable. But over the years, there is a cumulative effect with what you see."
Neff took a summer job at a funeral home while growing up in Bandon.
"I tried it, liked it, and have done it ever since," Neff says.
Neff was drafted for the Vietnam War, shortly after the Tet Offensive, in 1966. His job during the war was graves registration — the units that do the retrieval and embalming of bodies when soldiers are killed.
"It was quite an eye-opener," Neff says. "But that was my job. I asked for that. When I went over there, I was a licensed funeral director. I knew this was my calling. I didn't want somebody doing it that didn't want to do it. At least I was prepared for it."
Neff served two years and began at Conger-Morris in April of 1969. He bought the business a year and a half ago.
It currently takes four years to become a licensed embalmer in Oregon. Candidates must earn an associate degree and serve an apprenticeship for two years before taking the state board exam.
Mather says the business of continually dealing with death has affected some of his employees. He had two administrative assistants quit within two weeks of being hired.
"When it comes to dealing with death and dying, there's no in between," Mather says. "Either you have the ability to handle it or you don't. If you are in between, you'll end up going another direction eventually."