It's a damp Tauranga day in March, and Kylie Sprague needs to make sure the silver mortuary table is clear.

"I don't think there's anyone in there," she says, throwing a spooky, sideways glance. "Let me check."

She turns on her high-heeled boots and pads away from us, down a carpeted hall.

She returns a minute later, and motions for us to follow.

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It's an empty mortuary, but it's impossible not to quickly scan the room 360 degrees. What might leap out?

Sprague darts around the room tidying things away in cupboards, while next door in the "trim room" is a casket draped in a sheet. The lady inside is awaiting her funeral.

The immaculate mortuary is centred around a stainless steel table, with a hose at the base, that curls its way to a drain. To the right is a blue-and-white striped hoist.

Embalming uses surgical instruments to inject or apply chemical substances, fluids or gases to preserve or disinfect a body.

It's a scientific process, and quantities are calculated differently per person.

Sprague isn't kept awake at night by what she sees, but she does get emotional. Photo/ Andrew Warner
Sprague isn't kept awake at night by what she sees, but she does get emotional. Photo/ Andrew Warner

Death is an uneasy topic, but Sprague - embalmer, funeral director and assistant manager at Elliotts Funeral Services in Tauranga - is determined to demystify it.

At age 43, she's been in the funeral industry since she was 21 and is writing a book about her life.

She came into embalming after studying trade mechanics, and was unusually motivated by the death of her father, Stuart Marsden, who was crushed at a quarry, under a fully-laden 80-tonne dump truck.

"The injuries were from here up," she says, motioning from her chest upwards.

"I don't know if he wasn't viewable, or if the embalmers at the time didn't have the skills to make him viewable, because we never saw him." That was hard, she says.

She is matter-of-fact because death is matter-of-fact. This is one job where the days are never predictable or an endless loop.

"Your day could change just like that," she explains. "You could get a phone call to say: 'One coming in,' and that could be the next 12 hours for you."

Your day could change just like that . . . You could get a phone call to say: 'One coming in,' and that could be the next 12 hours for you.

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She is one of three embalmers at Elliotts in Tauranga, but her special interest and skill is in restorative embalming.

She puts her hand up to work on those badly disfigured at death by way of accident, murder or illness. For her, it is a privilege - and she's embalmed "thousands".

Nowadays, there are few instances families couldn't view a body. Before she begins restoring features, she embalms.

She does this in the mortuary, on her own, listening to radio station The Hits.

Sprague says restoring features to those who have died via trauma or illness, is a privilege. Photo /Andrew Warner
Sprague says restoring features to those who have died via trauma or illness, is a privilege. Photo /Andrew Warner

Embalming can take anywhere from two to 12 hours depending on the condition of the corpse.

A solution called Formaldehyde sanitises the body, making it safe to handle, and preserves tissue so the body can be viewed for the funeral period.

About 70 per cent of bodies are embalmed (its popularity has declined in recent years) and 80 per cent are cremated.

She embalms in gumboots and a white uniform resembling a beekeeper's suit. It has an inbuilt breathing apparatus with a hose that snakes down her back.

When embalming, every case is treated as infectious.

If restorative embalming is needed, she works from a supplied photograph of the person.

She snaps her own photo of them before she starts work, and once finished - often days later - she'll take an after-photo for her portfolio. She uses wax, putty and cosmetics.

If limbs are missing, there's nothing she can do, but wire netting can replace bone that's lost in the face.

"There's not many that can't be viewed or can't be fixed," she explains. "But when you start getting into advanced decomposition, you wouldn't be able to."

There's not many that can't be viewed or can't be fixed . . . But when you start getting into advanced decomposition, you wouldn't be able to.

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Legally, funeral homes cannot deny families from viewing a body, but they can advise against it, which on rare occasion is ignored.

Restorative embalming can mean a lot of work for Sprague, but there's no extra cost involved for the family, just time.

"Sometimes it's just not viable, because as we understand, families want them back at the house as soon as possible."

Once embalmed, a body can last for 12 months, but the longest they've had one at Elliotts is three months. "Normal case, easy-peasy, they can last months," she says.

Example: The "lovely" and elderly George*. "I still remember him. His family had just left to go on a once-in-a-lifetime, three-month cruise around the world."

After three months, he was still "absolutely perfect".

Sprague's not your stereotypical funeral worker in a long trench coat. She's a fearless female, and full of respect and sympathy.

Restorative embalmer, Kylie Spragg, in the morgue at Elliotts Funeral Services. Photo/ Andrew Warner
Restorative embalmer, Kylie Spragg, in the morgue at Elliotts Funeral Services. Photo/ Andrew Warner

She reckons it may make her sound "crazy", but she talks to the dead when working on them.

"Two days ago when they were alive, I wouldn't have ignored them when they walked into a room, so just because they're dead, I don't ignore them."

She tries to connect with who they were, and how they died. "I always think: 'What was going through your mind? And were you scared? And did it hurt?' I get quite teary thinking about it."

In discovering a death, she finds a life story.

She isn't kept awake at night by what she sees. In fact, she's never made use of the company psychologist on offer, but she does feel.

"The older I get the more I cry, which is really dumb because I'm getting a bit teary now thinking about it."

She leans on her "work family" and healthy humour to get through. Like the time she locked the keys in the hearse, with the body, at a funeral in Morrinsville. Thankfully the family were "beautiful" about it, she says.

Hearing music from funerals (she attends up to 100 a year), is a reminder of some of her tougher funerals. At the moment, Ed Sheeran's music reminds her of a particularly heart-wrenching case.

She sees "too many" children in the morgue.

"Some accidents. Most babies we get in are stillborns. You can't remember every funeral that you've done, but you will remember every single child."

You can't remember every funeral that you've done, but you will remember every single child.

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She's a mum to three girls, and married to Grant, a car dealer. She embalmed throughout her pregnancies, and her girls have grown up comfortable with the topic of death.

India, 18, is studying nursing and hopes to embalm as a part-time job, middle child, Molly, 15, wants to be a forensic pathologist and Ebony, 13, is also interested in the anatomical side of things.

So too was Sprague growing up. She once took a dead seagull, covered in glad-wrap, to Matua School for show-and-tell. "Who does that?," she whispers.

Her fascination with death has never gone away. She's currently reading a book about US research facility, The Body Farm, where decomposition can be studied in a variety of settings.

Away from the funeral home, she's doing housework, transporting kids and grocery shopping. The family goes overseas once a year to escape and relax. This job isn't for the faint-hearted.

Sprague isn't kept awake at night by what she sees, but she does get emotional. Photo/ Andrew Warner
Sprague isn't kept awake at night by what she sees, but she does get emotional. Photo/ Andrew Warner

Families become upset with police or lawyers referring to loved one as a "case", "evidence" or "the deceased". Sprague says: "They are to me, Jimmy or Sarah."

To debunk some fears about dying, she says: "Don't worry about your modesty, and bodies aren't locked in a chiller and left alone. They are 'loved'".

She likens embalming to a small procedure at a day-stay in hospital.

"It's a very gentle process that can have such a different outcome if (embalming) isn't done, because the body changes so fast after death. Your blood is actually the first thing to decompose and that can start decomposing within an hour."

It's a very gentle process that can have such a different outcome if (embalming) isn't done, because the body changes so fast after death. Your blood is actually the first thing to decompose and that can start decomposing within an hour.

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There are nine funeral homes in Tauranga and the city has about 1100 deaths a year, mostly in the 65-plus age group.

A trend emerging is no-service cremations, particularly for the elderly who have requested "no fuss". However, Sprague believes families cope better having support and closure.

She has her own spiritual beliefs, saying she feels, hears and sees things on occasion in the morgue. "Some people will think I'm bat-crazy so I don't tell anyone."

The Australian psychic Deb Webber once picked Sprague out in the audience at her show at Baycourt, saying she could see a whole lot of coffins around her.

There's so much sorrow in death, but at the same time, so many rewards for Sprague, who has plans for her own finale when the day comes.

She'll be embalmed, taken home, and then buried in a solid rimu casket, adorned with lots of bright flowers.

She wants plenty of food for guests at her reception at Pyes Pa's Olive Tree Cottage. There'll be a release of balloons at the cemetery, and maybe doves.

It'll be a celebration, she says, and she'll go out to Dire Straits, The Eagles and Live's Lightning Crashes.

"I'll tell you what, it's going to cost my husband a fortune," she says, smiling cheekily. "I'll make sure I get rid of a good twenty grand or so".


*George is not his real name.