It's not the first career choice of most. But embalmer Elise Wolfgram loves working in the industry.

The 27-year-old, who has worked at Gillions Funeral Services in Dunedin for several years already, has cleaned up the premier awards for the country's student embalmers.

Wolfgram travelled to the capital this month to graduate with her diploma in embalming from the Wellington Institute of Technology.

Along with her diploma, Wolfgram returned home with the overall top student award and the top award for both the theoretical and practical sides of the course.


She received a range of tools after winning the awards including an aneurysm hook, vein guide, incision spreader and forceps.

Wolfgram, who also holds a bachelor of science in anatomy and a postgraduate diploma, said the embalming course involved two six-week teaching blocks interspersed with practical assignments, culminating in a high-stakes practical assignment at a working funeral home.

"You just can't make a mistake."

Wolfgram said embalming was important in New Zealand as Kiwis were a lot more "touchy feely" with the bodies of their loved ones than people overseas.

"Some people want to give them a big kiss.

"I've even seen cats sleeping on a [deceased] person."

Embalming also helped people transport the bodies of family members long distances for a tangi, where they could lie in state for several days.

"Embalming allows them the freedom of time."


One of the things she enjoyed about the funeral industry was the "life and vibrancy" of seeing families come together to celebrate the life of a loved one.

However, the ageing population was presenting challenges for embalmers, as was the growing number of obese people entering the mortuary, as issues like arterial sclerosis could make the process more difficult.

"We end up with people whose bodies were barely functioning."

Her role was about restoring the body as close to its living appearance as possible, entailing far more than just preserving the body using embalming fluid, she said.

Wolfgram typically spent hours brushing teeth, combing hair, and applying make-up if it was worn while the person was alive.

She relished the opportunity to work in the funeral industry and "couldn't imagine a day where they weren't any dead people around".

"I'd do it even if they didn't pay me.

"But that'd be weird."