I appreciate life differently to most: Shannon Raymond
Death is inevitable and this is one fact we should deal with in life. The loss of a loved one is a difficult process to go through and we have come across various such encounters in our lives. But to someone who deals with death almost every day, this could be quite a different challenge. The life of an embalmer is one such critical role which involves much courage, concentration and responsibility. In an interview with Life Online, Shannon Raymond, qualified as one of the youngest embalmers in South East Asia spoke about his career, while recalling several unforgettable incidents and the challenges he faces.
Give us a little background about your company.
This company was established in 1885 and the reason why it was established was because my grandfather A.F Raymond was a carpenter by profession. Where the present BMICH is today, used to be the infectious diseases hospital and the asylum was where the Arcade Independence Square is standing today. My great grandfather was given the contract to inter the inmates who passed away and this encouraged him to start the company. From there onwards there was an entire list of firsts in the company – this goes from the first motorized hearse in Asia to the first qualified mortician in the region and many others.
How has this business evolved over the years?
We are constantly evolving because the needs of our customers change from time to time. We are also looking at using modern technology in providing our customers with a better service. Sometimes family members who are abroad might not be able to take leave to attend a funeral, or the family may wait till someone comes from abroad, we take all these factors in to consideration and try to improve the way we cater to the needs of our customers.
When did you encounter the first experience related to embalming?
I witnessed my first autopsy at the age of seven. It was of an eight year old American girl who had died of a brain tumour. I used to come and play in this office premises back in the day. If I pick one moment which changed my life I would definitely say this was it. At the age of seven to know what was inside of me, leave alone what made us function as humans was such a learning curve.
For this I give all credit to my parents as I was not brought up with unrealistic notions of fear or superstitions. However, on a lighter note, the knowledge I gained as a kid, became a problem later on, as in my health science class I used to correct my teacher when he used to draw distorted diagrams on the black board.
You qualified at 18 as the youngest qualified embalmer in South East Asia. Tell us about your educational background.
I studied embalming with the Australian Institute of Embalmers. The course we do is like doing some years of medical college and apart from learning about anatomy we have to know the circulatory system, the study of blood flow and how and where blocks can occur and some Pathology as well, as the drugs that are given for certain illnesses etc can cause chemical reactions when treating cases. We also must have some ability to ascertain the time of death and other contributory factors. It’s very intense but it was quite interesting at the same time. Hence I received the status of a Qualified Embalmer/Qualified Mortician, which is awarded by the British Institute of Embalmers and the Australian Institute of Embalmers.
But when I first joined the company I studied carpentry, masonry, stone-engraving and then I studied embalming all by the time I reached the 18. I have also done a diploma/degree in Performing Arts and I have performed in London and Australia. Currently I teach at the Nelung Arts Centre. (Yeah, I know that raises a lot of eyebrows!)
Tell us some of the memorable experiences you have had.
I can recall one incident where an Italian drowned in the Maldives and we had to go over there to repatriate the remains back to Italy as per the family's wishes. I went with a team of 3 and we didn’t know what circumstances we would encounter. When we got there, the person in charge of the cemetery asked us why we hadn’t brought any electrical equipment with us. I asked him if they had electricity in the cemetery to which he said no. I was fortunate as my father had been there on a previous occasion, on similar work, so we kind of knew what to expect. We had to exhume the body and treat it for repatriation. There is a requirement by the airline that the bodies have to be treated and certified by a qualified embalmer. It involved quite a lot of documentation as well. They required certificates from the company and we follow all international regulations with this regard. The company has also handled all the international plane crashes that had occurred in Sri Lanka, that is at Maskeliya and Katunayake.
During the tsunami, most embassies had sent identification teams to help identify their citizens. They also wanted to know our documentation process and how we coordinate, tag, treat and document each case. I can say that they were pleasantly surprised that we had everything under control given the large number of cases we handled. So much so that one day Lord Venes from the British House of Lords turned up totally unannounced and gave us a special certificate of commendation for the service we had provided to her Majesty's government. We hardly ever get any recognition in this profession, so it’s rewarding when it happens. After all, one must note that this company is an integral part of this country’s history, as we have served in both World Wars and pioneered this industry not only here but in Asia, and these are things we are very proud of, yet very few know about. Hence our company motto, “Silently Serving the Nation”.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
My cousin and I are the only qualified morticians in South East Asia. We also do reconstruction of accident cases and those who have passed way under traumatic circumstances. It can take anything from 12 to 16 hours to reconstruct as in the two victims of a recent train accident. No two cases are alike as individuals differ from features to skin tone to hair texture etc. and that is a challenge. Our aim is that at the end of the day you don’t see marks, or injuries. It’s tough because people come here since they have faith in our ability to do so.
It is still very hard for me to handle a case of a child. Back in Australia, there was an incident where I had to treat an eight-month old girl and the mother wanted to spend as much time with the child as possible and requested from the company as to, if she could sit and pray during the treatment process. So the manager came and asked me if it’s possible and I reluctantly agreed. I took a white cloth and kept this little girl on my lap and did the entire case while she was lying on my lap. I didn’t want the mother to see a clinical process.
We focus more on why we are doing this service rather than what we are doing. That is how we train our staff as well. People who come here are emotionally distorted, having lost a loved one and confused as to how to get about funeral preparations. Our role is to advise the family so that they can fulfill their wishes in performing the last rites for their loved one, and thereby trying to relieve their grief as best we can. People have different ways to reacting at a time of a death of a loved one. So it’s up to us to understand that and deal with it. The entire process of reconstruction and embalming is a clinical process and what helps me focus is my music, which is in my ear as I work.
We are prepared to go to whatever extent needed in order to help our customers. We are sometimes privy to lot of things we shouldn’t be privy to such as personal information etc, But we too are bound by a code of conduct and thereby everything is confidential which is why, even we don’t keep a photographic record of the cases we do. There are so many things that happened here which makes one look at life in a completely different manner. That is a motivating factor in my life as I believe that if you don’t do whatever you want in your life now, you might never get a chance to do it. You get to appreciate life in a completely different way.
One of the drawbacks I didn’t have is that I have never had a fear for anything. Fear is something that is inculcated in children by parents but thankfully my parents didn’t do that.
Roughly, what is the minimum amount that one should have in hand in order to complete a funeral process today?
As a company policy, we don’t charge for children’s cases. During my grandfather’s time, it started off with stillbirths and infants but now it's way beyond that. Running a business is one thing but understanding human nature and human emotions is something very different. Imagine the plight of parents who have lost their child? Can one even begin to comprehend what they go through?
Roughly, someone should have Rs. 250,000 - 300,000 in hand and this is for the service we provide which includes the casket, embalming, providing the funeral requisites etc. The misconception a lot of people have is that we sell a product as in a casket. But we don’t. Even in such cases where reconstruction is involved we do not charge extra to do so. Having said that the cost can vary depending on what the family requires and requests.