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Bringing comfort in the wake of tragedy – the UK’s first post-mortem surgeons

Ross Corney (left) and Martin Jeffery

“We can make a tragic situation a little better”

Advances in surgery have saved millions of lives over the course of the past century and Edinburgh University’s medical school has pioneered many of these procedures.This year, the prestigious college – whose alma mater include Dr. Joseph Bell, the surgeon who inspired student Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Sir Sydney Smith, who introduced the world to forensics – will be playing host to a team who have pioneered surgical advances of a rather different kind.

For the first time in the UK, master embalmers Martin Jeffery and Ross Corney of Edinburgh funeral directors William Purves will be delivering post-mortem reconstructive surgery courses for professionals in the field keen to develop their specialist skills.

This kind of surgery is already practised in the US, where Martin and Ross themselves underwent this advance training, but is altogether new this side of the Atlantic. Yet does it matter? The answer is yes – enough for William Purves to make a ‘significant’ investment in this field and the Embalming Academy it launched four years ago.

A huge part of every funeral director’s focus is to ensure the very best is done to ensure the dignity of the deceased and as much comfort as possible to those left behind. Sadly, it’s not always possible for families to look on their loved one and say their goodbyes, after traumatic accidents when a loved one’s injuries would be simply too distressing to see.

Edinburgh University's anatomy lecture theatre (Annie Caldwell/commons.wikimedia.org)

Now, thanks to advancements in post-mortem surgery skills which Martin and Ross will be passing on to other embalmers, an increasing number of families hit by tragedy may have the comfort of a final face-to-face farewell.

“As a mark of respect, Martin and Ross often perform a reconstruction as part of the embalming procedure, even when relatives choose to not view,” says Tim Purves, who is chairman of the funeral business that’s been in his family since 1888.

“Sometimes the families never know and it’s a service that is not charged for. In one case, a little boy was run over by a lorry and his mother witnessed it. The easy option is to say, ‘you’ll never see them again’ and have the coffin lid closed. Martin and Ross spent three days reconstructing him, so that the family could come and spend time with him. Things like that inspire them.”

The pair have already inspired countless colleagues from within the funeral profession to learn embalming skills, through the introductory courses they hold at the Purves Embalming Academy. These see people travel from as far away as South Africa to take part.

Both well into their third decades at William Purves, Martin and Ross themselves worked their way up through the business to become masters of the embalming science-art, beginning as a workshop technician and hearse driver respectively.

Embalming itself is a fairly straightforward procedure, which involves injecting a preserving fluid through the femoral and carotid arteries and takes about an hour.

“There are various reasons why we embalm,” says Tim, who heads a 100-strong team across his company’s 27 branches throughout Scotland.

“Often, there’s a little delay between the death and the funeral, or it could be that people want to hold a viewing at home. Sometimes, too, it depends on the cause of death – if someone died of cancer, there’s a high retention of fluid and the body can deteriorate quite quickly. I’d say, though, that around half of our funerals, will have the family see them again.”

The skills that Martin and Ross will be sharing in their post-mortem surgery courses are highly advanced, however, and focused on much more than preserving the body and arranging the deceased in peaceful repose. Their high-level mortuary skills see them repair and replace bone and soft tissue, after accident victims sustain injuries so serious they never even make the hospital’s operating theatre.

“We don’t go by photos of the person,” says Tim, who explains, “they won’t look exactly as they did in life. It’s effectively like a jigsaw. But wouldn’t you want to know that a loved one had had that time spent on them, rather than the coffin lid closed, because they are in a bad way?

“From my point of view, we know we are doing the best that we can for the family. They know they’ll never see the deceased in life again, but we can make a tragic situation a little better. It’s about affording a dignity to the dead, as if it’s any of our own loved ones.”

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