The art of embalming

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Lewis Noel closes a cosmetic case in the preparation room at Walton's Chapel of the Valley.

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Lewis Noel closes a cosmetic case in the preparation room at Walton's Chapel of the Valley.

Lotion, combs and hairspray sit on the counter. Trimmers and scissors dry near the sink.

Lewis Noel, an embalmer at Walton's Chapel of the Valley in Carson City, opens a case of makeup in the funeral home's preparation room. He points to the red, brown, pink and tan pigments.

"That's why it's called the art of embalming," said his son, Rick Noel, also an embalmer at the funeral home.

Blending the colors of makeup is needed to give faces a natural look, Lewis said, and this kind of detail and care of a body are more important to people than ever.

It's different than when he started 50 years ago in Washington state, he said. The priority of embalmers then was to preserve the body and embalmers took less time on appearance.

Baby boomers who have had a bad experience at a funeral where, for instance, a body looks unnatural, often want to be cremated so the people they love don't have to go through the same experience, Rick said.

Funeral services, including the preparation of the body, are different now, though, he said, and a lot of people need a ceremony to deal with death.

"I still say seeing that person and having that goodbye is important," he said.

But Rick, 43, didn't always want to be an embalmer. Even though he was born in his father's funeral home in Sumner, Wash., and saw his first embalming when he was about 6, he thought he wanted to be an accountant or a youth pastor.

His father had discouraged him from the business, too, because of the long and irregular hours.

But Rick dropped out of school where he was studying to become a youth pastor to follow his father. They moved to Carson City together seven years ago to take jobs at the funeral home, which they also manage.

Both Rick and Lewis, 69, smile when they talk about their jobs and the training it takes - from knowledge of cosmetology to anatomy.

Lewis said he once went through a state licensing test where he was asked what happens when a drop of blood flows from a person's head to their foot.

"You have to tell them every artery it goes through," he said.

Arvin Starrett, a representative with the National Funeral Directors Association, said the practice of embalming is much more advanced now than when modern techniques started during the Civil War to preserve dead soldiers so they could be returned home.

There are better schools and advanced machines now. Preserving chemicals like mercury are no longer used, which sometimes hurt or even killed people who prepared bodies.

"The modern embalmer is a much different technician than he was at the turn of the (20th) century," Starrett said.

People expect more and they should, Lewis said, and even a small error in the posing of the body's mouth can ruin a funeral.

"The last thing you see," he said, tapping the side of his head, "is what you're going to hold up here your entire life."

• Contact reporter Dave Frank at dfrank@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.

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