Death Is His Life’s Work

NAME: Charles Clark
AGE: 57
JOB: Mortician, Oahu Mortuary

START: When he was about 17, Clark attended a friend’s funeral service at Borthwick Mortuary. “The funeral director and I became friendly and chatted, and when I returned to the funeral home the next day, he asked if I was interested in working there.

“I started outside working on the grounds, then preparing juice and coffee, then to living in the funeral home to take first calls (when people pass away overnight) and then doing removals from hospitals and care homes.” He later became an apprentice embalmer.

The Ewa Beach resident has also worked at Hosoi Garden Mortuary and Hawaiian Memorial Park Mortuary.

“I was fascinated with the funeral home business,” Clark recalls. “It gets in your blood. You never know who’s coming through the door each day, and you get to help people.”

WHAT IT TAKES: “I originally wanted to become a doctor, but my family didn’t have the money. Since I was already at the funeral home, I decided to become an embalmer.

“Hawaii is one of two states that don’t require a college degree to become a licensed embalmer. But since we don’t have the college courses here, I had to buy books from the Mainland to study. I was lucky the embalmer at Borthwick was willing to teach me.

“Licensed embalmers have to know anatomy, chemistry, restorative arts, embalming arts, and then pass with 70 percent on the exam. There are a limited number of morticians in the state.”

CHALLENGES: “Embalming is a combination of cosmetology and restoration, to give an illusion of normalcy. For instance, if someone gets shot, I have to fix that area with a wax fill-in, then put makeup to cover it. I might tilt the area so it’s not as visible, or put a veil over it. Sometimes you have a limited time to do this.

“In the old days, we used pure formaldehyde and it was so strong, you’d tear up. Now, they’ve lessened the concentration of formaldehyde, but use other chemicals instead. Certain chemicals are more appropriate for fair-skinned people and others are better for darker-skinned people.”

CSI STORY: “There was this elderly couple, and the wife had terminal cancer. When she died, everyone assumed it was due to the cancer. But I noticed there was a trace amount of blood near her chest. It turned out the husband had stabbed her with an ice pick, and he was arrested for murder.”

DARK HUMOR: “I tell people no matter what the economy’s like, you’ll always have a job. Or, people are just dying to see me. Or, it’s a dead day today. You have to joke around, otherwise you’ll go crazy.”

PAY RANGE: “Depending on the mortuary, an apprentice embalmer starts at $12 to $15 an hour; an experienced embalmer might get $25 to $30 an hour.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Categories: Careers