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Inside a Funeral Home with Mortician Victor Sweeney

Victor M. Sweeney, a licensed funeral director and mortician, gives a tour of a funeral home in Minnesota. From the intricate processes and tools used to embalm a body to the "selection room" filled with caskets and urns, this unique tour gives unprecedented access to a mortuary and funeral chapel.

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Director: Katherine Wzorek
Director of Photography: David Diebel
Editor: Matthew Colby
Talent: Victor Sweeney
Guest: Shawn Nygaard
Line Producer: Joseph Buscemi
Associate Producer: Paul Gulyas
Production Manager: D. Eric Martinez
Production Coordinator: Fernando Davila
Casting Producer: Nicole Ford
Camera Operator: Haylie Flesness
Gaffer: Jason Bedard
Audio: Phil Kerr
Production Assistant: Riley Thelen
Post Production Supervisor: Alexa Deutsch
Post Production Coordinator: Ian Bryant
Supervising Editor: Doug Larsen
Assistant Editor: Andy Morell
Graphics Supervisor: Ross Rackin
Designer: Lea Kichler

Released on 11/01/2023


Hi, I'm Victor M. Sweeney, licensed mortician.

We're here at Korsmo Funeral Service.

Come on in.

[classical music]

We've been given unprecedented access

to the whole funeral home.

We're gonna go into the prep room

where we embalm and prepare bodies.

Normally, if a person from the outside,

like yourself wanted to go into the prep room,

they wouldn't be allowed.

We've been given special access today

from the Department of Health.

And we're going to look at caskets,

urns, that kind of stuff.

We're gonna get to see the funeral chapel,

and then we'll also get to take a tour of the hearse.

See how that works.

With us today is Shawn.


Thanks for having me here.

I really appreciate it. Thanks for being here.

Death can be kind of scary.

There's a lot of things about our field that are unknown.

I'm excited for you

to bring those answers to everyone today.

First, we're gonna go inside the prep room.

Why don't you come with me,

and I'll show you what we do.

[classical music]

So here we are in the prep room,

the room where we do all the embalming.

Embalming is meant to sanitize and preserve bodies,

as well as provide some level of restoration.

So, for instance, if someone is grievously injured,

we can kind of work to reconstruct them

in addition to making sure that their body holds up

for maybe the week that we have

in between the time when they die

and the time when we have the funeral.

In this funeral home, the prep room is off of the garage.

I don't want to be bringing cots

with bodies on them up or downstairs

or through the whole funeral home to get them here,

because then we can go right from the van

to the room where the magic happens.

[bouncy music]

We've taken our dummy Mike from the back of the van

and now we are ready for the embalming.

Every time you prepare a body, you kind of start from zero.

So you're going to do inventory,

you're gonna look them over, you're gonna make sure

that you know everything about their condition

and then adjust your embalming processes accordingly.

In a normal situation, I'm covered from head to toe

with personal protective equipment,

and that's mainly to keep me safe

when I'm dealing with blood and pathogens.

I'm also dealing with embalming fluids,

so these are things

that keep bodies preserved and sanitized.

And a lot of these contain aldehydes.

These are actually toxic chemicals.

Every prep room is going to have ventilation,

it's going to have formaldehyde level monitoring.

All these things are in place to keep me safe

and to make sure that we don't infect our public spaces

with what we have to do here in private.

[gentle music]

One of the first steps of embalming is setting the features.

So making the face into a natural expression.

These are called eye caps.

Sometimes when people die, their eyes are open,

and we can position the eyelids and have them stay that way.

We use this device called a needle injector

that actually punches these sharp brads

into the upper and lower jaw, kind of keep it in place

so they'll stay that way.

The next part of embalming after we set those features

is we're going to do what's called arterial embalming.

So we're gonna gain access to the arteries,

and then that's how we're going

to use our embalming machine to pump fluids in.

[bouncy music]

So there are three different kinds of fluids

that embalmers use when preparing a body.

The first, arterial solutions, are going to be fixatives.

So they're going to sanitize the body,

they're gonna preserve it,

and they're going to fix it into place.

Other fluids are what we call co-injection,

or accessory fluids.

Co-injections might add fluid to tissue,

they might draw fluid out, they'll add color.

Sometimes maybe a rosiness is helpful.

And then we have other fluids that are really good

at preventing certain types of decomposition.

Probably the most common place for a funeral director

to gain access to an artery is right up here in the neck,

and that is called the carotid artery.

Let's say you choose not to raise the carotid artery,

you can actually embalm a whole body

right here from the leg.

So the femoral artery is one

of the largest arteries that we have access to.

If you push fluid up, you can open the corresponding vein,

and then the blood will drain out.

And arteries are interesting

because they're very rubbery.

Think like a tube rubber band.

And so when we put high pressure into them

with the embalming machine, they're able to withstand that.

The fluid just goes right into the body.

[gentle music]

So this tank here is the embalming machine,

and this tube goes right down the artery,

and then is gonna shoot fluid in at a high pressure

in order to circulate that fluid through

while pushing out the blood

that's been pulling in the venous system.

So this will actually simulate something of a heartbeat.

So if you have large clots

that are stuck in a venous system,

you can pulse the fluid through at a high pressure

and push those clots out of the body,

and that'll create better distribution for our fluid

and better preservation in that final procedure.

[piano music]

This one is called a tissue spreader.

So let's say you have someone with a little extra weight,

and you need to get into, let's say,

the meat of their leg to gain access to their artery.

This guy, you can put in like this,

and it spreads out all that fat.

Any number of handy scissors,

a curve is nice sometimes, especially as you're cutting

through arteries or maybe other tissue.

This is called an aneurysm hook

because it's used for separating tissue

and hooking the arteries and pulling them out

where you have access to them.

This is called a grooved director.

I can hold this, put it into the artery,

and then this hard surface in the bottom

is gonna open up the artery

so I can slide my other tools right in.

An angular forceps.

This you can actually use to pull out clots.

This guy is called a drain tube.

Typically, this end here is going to be hooked up

to another tube that we run down the table,

and then this end is going to go inside the artery.

One thing that's great about a drain tube is

that we can actually control how much blood leaves the body.

If we're having drainage issues, you can stop it.

Pressure is building in the body,

and then all of a sudden you'll pull the end,

and whoop, it'll come pouring out the bottom.

So you want to create that pressure

because sometimes you need a little extra

to get into the extremities,

like into the toes or the fingers, something like that.

Cavity embalming is the second part

of preparing a body in which we want

to puncture all the hollow organs

and then drain out all the goo and nastiness

that wants to live in there.

So the tool we're going

to use to do that is called the trocar.

The trocar is a great, big steel spear.

This tip is going to puncture the organ,

and then this part is actually hooked up to a vacuum,

so it's going to [Victor slurps]

suck all that goo right down the drain.

And then the holes that we make

will actually provide access points for introducing

what we call cavity fluid.

So embalming fluid that's made to kill all the bacteria

and solidify those hollow organs

so we don't have any issues down the road.

This is a trocar as well.

It's slightly different in that it doesn't suck fluid out,

but puts fluid back in.

So, in this case, we'd take a bottle of cavity fluid,

we would actually twist it in

and attach it to the top of the trocar.

And then right through that same hole we made before,

we'd go back in,

all the while gravity is actually drawing the fluid down

and inserting that from the end of the tip

back into all the holes we made,

into the heart, into the lungs.

And then you'll go around back down into the abdomen.

This is really the lower part is

where all the bacteria like to hang out.

And that my friends, is how you embalm a body.

When I embalmed my first body,

it is kind of scary, kind of unnerving,

because it's one of those things you have

to do right the first time and you only get one chance.

So if you screw up and maybe pressure is too high

and the face starts to swell and you don't see that,

you've caused a problem with grandma or grandpa

that you can't really fix.

So attention to detail is everything.

[gentle music]

Welcome to the selection room.

If you have a loved one that passes away,

odds are good you'll end up in a room just like this

to select your funeral merchandise.

When a family chooses cremation,

the family might want to select an urn,

and these range all over the place.

There are simple urns

that maybe start at $100 or less.

There are really fancy, maybe cast bronze ones,

that are hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

Or some families just opt to use the container

that comes from the crematory, just a simple plastic urn.

Any one of those is perfectly suitable

for what a family wants to do.

So one thing that can kind of be confusing

and is often used interchangeably is the difference

between a casket and a coffin.

In other parts of the world, like in the UK, for instance,

they have what are called coffins.

So these are what we might call anthropoid shapes.

So they're narrow at the top where the head is,

they widen out at the shoulders,

then they come back in again towards the feet,

whereas caskets are uniformly rectangular.

In the United States, we use almost exclusively caskets.

Caskets vary as widely as you can possibly imagine.

We have very simple cardboard cloth covered caskets

that might be more suitable

for a simple burial or maybe cremation.

And then we have high-end caskets made from hardwoods

like mahogany or cherry, or even bronze caskets.

Variety is really the spice of death here.

[serene music]

Here we are in the funeral chapel.

We've taken our dummy Mike,

and now we are ready for his family

to come and say their final goodbyes.

This opening here is called a cap,

and this is an example of what we call a half couch casket.

So you're only going to see from about the midsection up.

You should note every person in the casket

is wearing pants, but not always shoes.

When we go to close a casket,

oftentimes, I have the deceased family around me.

There's a locking mechanism under here,

and we're just going to simply pull that up.

We'll open the latches here at the bottom.

And then with the family, we'd all grab hold,

we'd slowly lower the lid, and then we say goodbye.

As the last step, I'll have you come with me

as we load the casket into the hearse,

and we'll make our way to the cemetery.

Come on.

[gentle music]

Oh, this is such a cool one.

Oh, look at the lights on the inside.

You have a great hearse, Shawn.

[Shawn] Hey, thanks.

[gentle music]

So the vehicle behind me, some call it a hearse,

some call it a coach, but in any case,

it gets the deceased from point A to point B.

There's some special things about a hearse.

The first thing you should know is

that every single one is custom built.

So there's not a single company

that makes hearses right off the line.

Every one is made with a normal car,

cut in half, extended, and totally rebuilt.

You do not need a special license

or anything to drive a hearse being built

on Lincolns and Cadillacs, usually.

They have nice big engines,

and they go well over 100 miles an hour if needed.

On the backend, they normally have a vinyl top,

at least in the States.

That swooshy design on the back is called a landau bar.

It's kind of the quintessential mark of a hearse.

It's a remnant from when they used to be coaches,

So horse-drawn carriages, and the top would pull back.

Today, we don't have convertible hearses,

but it's a nice mark.

When you see one, you know exactly what it is.

So one thing you'll notice about a hearse

is that the door opens really wide.

So when you have six casket bearers,

you can get nice and close

before you put the casket on the rollers.

And the rollers go all the way inside,

so it's a nice smooth roll into the hearse.

When you get the casket in place,

you're gonna take this stopper, put it just like this,

and keep the casket so it doesn't go flying out of the back.

When I load a hearse, I always go head first.

The reason being,

when you tilt the casket a little bit to get it in,

then their feet are down,

and if they slide, they slide towards their feet.

Whereas if you flipped it around the other way,

they'd be going head first and it's awfully heavy.

So always the heavy head end first and the feet will follow.

Well, why don't we try loading it up with our friend Mike?

We've taken him from point A.

Now, let's go to point Z,

and Shawn is gonna help me here.

[serene music]

[classical music]

I so appreciate you coming with me

on this trip today through the funeral home.

I hope you've learned some things,

and that maybe you feel a little bit more comfortable

as you come with me on my life with the dead.

Starring: Victor Sweeney