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Embalming 101, With A Polish Master

Adam Ragiel at work
Adam Ragiel at work
Robert Robaszewski

WARSAW – Plasdopake is produced in Whitchurch, Hampshire, a small town 90 kilometers west of London.

Plasdopake is a chemical solution that contains 18% formaldehyde. It is perfect for embalming the bodies of people who have died young – it gives them a fresh and natural look, making them look alive in their coffin. Obviously, this embalming solution won’t be of much use for people who have been burnt in a fire or are bloated due to drowning.

Adam Ragiel, one of the most famous Polish embalmers and medical examiners gives embalming classes at funeral homes in Olsztyn, northeastern Poland. He is a tall, self-confident and articulate man, always on his mobile phone. He wanted to be a doctor but didn’t make the cut. His brother-in-law worked in stone work and helped him to get a job at the cemetery – carrying coffins at funerals.

The company he worked for also drove out to accident scenes, transporting the bodies back to the medical examiner’s office. On day, he had the opportunity to watch a post-mortem exam, and immediately, he knew that this was his calling. After studying to be an autopsy technician in Poland, he went abroad to train in embalming, post-mortem cosmetology and body reconstruction. Today, he is still working, but mostly he runs his own training institute, organizing courses in five Polish cities. His lifetime ambition is to open the first Polish Embalming Institute. There is also one in France.

Embalming 101

Bodies are embalmed to disinfect them so the family of deceased can say goodbye safely. Embalmed bodies have less bacteria than living bodies, so mourners should not think twice about touching their loved ones, or even kissing them.

Bodies are also embalmed to prevent putrefaction. Thus prepared, a body does not rot, it simply dries up. Also, embalming protects the body from insects and vermins.

And finally, bodies are embalmed so that they can look nice during viewing.

Embalming in Poland isn’t really popular. In Olsztyn, only 5% out of 1,437 decedents were embalmed last year – even though the price of this procedure is not that high: about 90 euros.

There are about 40 embalming professionals in Poland. Ragiel says a course in post-mortem cosmetology (make-up) costs about 250 euros, while a full embalming course costs 2,500 euros.

If you are going to take the course, says Ragiel, he recommends that you go there on an empty stomach – just in case.

Today the course takes place at a funeral home near the Olsztyn City Hospital. There’s nothing to indicate we are in a funeral home and not someone’s house. There is a couch, a TV, a few chairs and a table. Some of the trainees are finishing their breakfast, others are taking a break before the next 10 hours of classes.

There are Polish people, but also a lot of foreigners. The course lasts for four months: 32 hours of theory and 200 hours of practice, with a final exam at the end. Families of the deceased who give permission for trainees to work on them, do not have to pay for embalming.

Twenty-eight refrigerators

When class begins, the first thing trainees do is to examine the body. Then, keeping in mind the instructions given by the family, trainees can begin to wash the body, cut the nails, dry the hair, shave men, etc. Then, the embalming fluid is injected through arteries so it is being distributed to the whole body.

When it’s done, the skin is no longer a bluish green. Embalming lasts for about one and a half hours. After that, if the family has brought clothes, you can dress the body and apply make-up. If not, the body goes into one of the 28 refrigerators of the funeral home.

There are a lot of additional options offered by embalmers, depending on what the families request. For example, a deceased can be made to cry. A special fluid is injected under the eyelid, which after some time, starts to seep. You can also opt for the deceased to smell like wild strawberries or to smile.

People want to see their dead relatives as they were when they were alive. At funerals, they often look into the open casket to see if the person has changed after death. Even after serious accidents, reconstructions have incredible results. Silicon can restore the natural outline of the face, and to restore limbs, embalmers use prosthesis out of foam.

In the past, only heroes and leaders of communist countries were embalmed. They couldn’t just pass away – they had to stay there, to remind their citizens to continue to uphold their ideals. Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-sung and Joseph Stalin were all embalmed after death and installed in mausoleums for all to view.

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