On one episode of acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under, Melissa Machado remembers watching one fictional mortuary worker morbidly engaging in a discussion with the body he was embalming on his table. Amid surgical tools and cosmetics, the body shockingly began to talk back.

After that, Machado says people began asking her if she ever talked to the bodies on her embalming table.

“They have to sell it, right?” says Machado, 29. “People look at my job and there’s always that myth that goes along with it. It’s really not what it is on TV.”

Machado is a funeral director at Toronto’s Humphrey Funeral Home and A.W. Miles Chapel. In a given week, she says she handles the remains of about five recently deceased individuals.
From initial disinfection of the body, through its preservation, to its restoration, it’s Machado’s role to ensure the body is given the same respect in death as it had in life.

“I do all the embalming, the dressing of remains, the casketing of remains, the (cosmeticizing) of remains, the ordering of supplies, ordering of caskets and articles as such to go along with that,” she says.

Machado admits perfectionism is her greatest downfall. “My biggest struggle is that I never want to stop. I just keep striving to do better,” she says. But Machado’s meticulousness is warranted by the responsibility absolved of her by Humphrey arranging director, Joseph Peters, 41.

While funeral directors at some other homes are responsible for both embalming and directing funerals, at Humphrey, tasks are divided. Although he has filled Machado’s shoes over his 21 years in the business, Peters now acts as the face of funerals, meeting with families and handling processional operations.

What the pair does have in common, however, is the background that brought them to Humphrey. Both Peters and Machado are graduates of the Funeral Service Education program at Toronto’s Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, the province’s only institution other than Collège Boréal in Sudbury that offers training in the field.

The two-year program involves one year of academic learning in medical sciences, humanities and funeral-specific courses. The second year places students directly in funeral homes, where they are expected to complete a full internship. After college, graduates must be certified by the province by writing a test comprised of multiple choice and written questions, plus perform an embalming in front of a certified director.

But despite official requirements, Peters says patience and compassion are requisite for all funeral directors due to the standard of respect shared by the industry.

“You have to not necessarily embrace these people and hug them and hold them but you need to be there for them … I wouldn’t say that’s a learned trait at school. Compassion is something you have to acquire.”

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