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KS Cover no. 72 2006 May

MAY 2006 :: 072


The final act

Sometimes foreigners in Japan need to be reminded that there are other ways to earn a living here that don't involve the English language. In fact there are some lines of work where communication isn't an issue at all — especially when it involves embalming the dead, as Matt Duffy does.

Growing up in Chicago, with his father, a funeral director, Matt was ex-posed to the processes involved with death from an early age. It was, so to speak, a natural part of his life.
“I saw my first embalming when I was 3,” Matt says, “and from the age of 8, I began assisting with cosmetic work, dressing, and embalm-ing of bodies in preparation for funerals.”

Following high school, Matt completed a degree in Mortuary Science, studying subjects from anatomy and physiology to grief counseling and psychology, in order to equip him to handle all facets of funeral directing. He came to Osaka in July 2003 after seeing an available job in a trade magazine. At first it was strictly embalming, but now it has extended to teaching his vocation to Japanese students.

He notes that Japanese attitudes towards death are very different from that of the States and other western countries. How a person looks after death is not the primary concern it often is elsewhere.

“The Japanese look past that and see who the person used to be,” Matt enlightens. “In Japan, the family may take the body home, no matter what condition the departed is in, for one last night so that relatives and friends may pay their final respects. So embalming is a fairly new concept here.”

“My job is to prepare the body for viewing,” Matt says matter-of-factly. “I must start by replacing the blood with a formaldehyde solution that is used to not only kill any germs and bacteria still living but also to help preserve the body and bring a more natural colour back to the skin.”

Cosmetic artistry is also a required skill, working from photographs to make a person appear more natural for their final viewing. This can also necessitate complete facial reconstructions if the person has died from unnatural causes such as a car accident or difficult suicide.

Sometimes though, Matt can do too good a job.

“For example, to shape the mouth, I place cotton inside, to give a natural contour”, he describes. “But if the deceased had crooked teeth, the shape of their jaw and mouth would have been different, and the family might say 'They looked too perfect. Their mouth was usually a bit open!' or something to that effect.”

There are situations when embalmers have every right to refuse work on a body, depending on the cause of death.
“Some diseases don't die with a person like severe tuberculosis, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a form of Mad Cow Disease. In these instances, bodies should be immediately cremated.”

In order to cope with the mental demands of his work, Matt says a sense of humor and a good hobby are musts. In Matt's case, he likes hitting the decks with drums'n'bass under the moniker of TripleBypass and can often be heard around Osaka at Oasis Lounge, Café Absinthe, and numerous other venues Matt perceives his work as being the final, ultimate act he can under- take in helping somebody complete their life — the last thing that can be ever done for a person, and one he takes great pride in and is very sensitive towards.

“There are times when the person who has died is a foreigner,” Matt explains. “At such times, these families really appreciate seeing me, a fellow foreigner in Japan, at the other end. It is comforting for them and makes a painful time in their lives somewhat easier — that is what keeps me in this profession.”


Text: Elisabeth Lambert • Photos: Matt Duffy

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