My local mystery writers’ organization, Capitol Crimes, organized an intriguing talk by a retired funeral director, to help us write a convincing crime scene. He covered many behind-the-curtain aspects of death, from picking up bodies at crime scenes to autopsy, embalming, dressing, make-up, and casketing the deceased.

1. Genetics play a vital role in one’s health.

During his years as a funeral director, he had embalmed numerous bodies, ranging from infants to centenarians. Sometimes, he would embalm a 104-year-old who was a lifelong drinker and smoker, and found his arteries robust like a garden hose; other times, he would see a young person who lived a healthy lifestyle, had blood vessels that are narrow and hard.

In October 2010, the journal Nature Genetics reported 32 distinct genetic variations associated with obesity or body-mass index. And this New York Times article reports challenges to maintain weight loss for those inflicted with obese genes.

This is not to say, if you carry an obese gene, you should give up all fight to stay healthy. It just means you may need more diligence to maintain the weight that makes you feel good.

2. Size does matter.

Extra-large caskets cost a lot more than regular-sized ones. Because a coffin goes into a burial vault, which is placed inside a plot, an oversized casket requires a larger vault, and even two burial plots to fit.

On the other hand, infant-sized caskets are hard to find, and thus more expensive than you would expect, even though it requires much less material to build than a regular-sized one.

3. The smell of death.

Bodies smell. At autopsy, a healthy body smells like red meat; a diabetic person has a fruity fragrance; a drunkard who drowns carries a strong liquor smell, and people with cancer or other terminal illness have a distinctive odor as well.

4. A job hazard.

As a funeral director, every so often he had to check on the crematory furnace interior to make sure everything was working well. That could only be done by crawling inside the chamber with the 800-pound door closed from the outside. With a push of a button, he would be trapped in the 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit fire with no chance of escape.

Talking about job hazards, can you imagine the feeling of being locked inside a crematory furnace? In case you wish to know more about the cremation process, here’s an excellent place to look.

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