Meet your local embalmer: Cody Bartlett

There used to be a time when those who worked at East Lawn’s mortuaries acted as both embalmers and funeral directors, but times have changed and more recently the business has switched to centralized embalming out of the Greenback Lane location. Serving three East Lawn mortuaries, two local embalmers manage to do all the embalming for the company. Valley Community Newspapers spoke with one of them, embalmer Cody Bartlett, and about his work experience and his caring for bodies as a purpose in life that he feels so strongly about.

“I know that to someone who doesn’t do it, it might seem odd or overwhelming or even unimaginable,” he says about his work as an embalmer. “To me, it’s not that way at all. To me, I love what I do. I feel like I am giving back to my community. It’s where I fit. I am an embalmer. It’s not just what I do, it’s who I am.”

That self identification wasn’t realized until he actually started getting to know his coworkers at East Lawn and a humanizing thing happened, fulfilling his curiosity about those who work in a funeral home.”People always think we walk around in this dark building and we always resemble Riff Raff from the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’, but it’s not that way at all,” he said. “I found we are people just like anyone else. We just happen to work in an industry that’s a little mysterious because we live in a death-denying society.”

Asked by friends and family the same questions – Have you seen any ghosts? And, do the bodies ever sit up? – Cody is sorry to say “no” on both accounts. “I guess my day-to-day is so normal to me.”

The moments that are most unforgettable, to Cody, are those that show his expertise in embalming. “When a family is concerned about seeing an open casket and then once a family member sees the body and says it looks so good that they definitely want to see open casket” — those are the times, he said, that are the most memorable.

Our culture’s veiled taboo around death and also the fact that most people haven’t had to arrange a funeral, surely is going to evoke a certain emotion when visiting a funeral home, but to Cody and others in the field, they try to make that experience as positive as possible.

To ensure that high level expectation, Cody said professionalism, being an ethical person and most importantly being empathetic are required characteristics for an embalmer. “If you don’t you probably won’t be very good in this industry and if you’re not (good), you won’t last. You have to put yourself into this breathing person’s shoes and understand what they must be going through and help them through the process. It’s not a self-serve place. We have to guide them through that process.”

Cody grew up in Nevada City and after he graduated Nevada Union High School in 1997, he moved to Kauai where he obtained his associates of arts degree from a community college. “I wasn’t entirely focused at that time. I was 18. I got an AA in liberal arts. It was broad spectrum. Then, I moved back here in 2000-2001. That’s when I started as carpenter.”

While at Nevada Union High School, Cody decided to apply to a mortuary just due to his curiosity, but without accomplishment. “I was curious about who or what kind of people worked there, but I didn’t get the job, then I kind of forgot about it.”

So, he was a carpenter for a bit until his daughter was born, and then was a stay-at-home dad, while his wife worked to support the family. But, when it came time for his little girl to go to preschool, he realized he needed to get back to work. It was then his interest in the mortuary industry came back around, even though he did not realize at the time necessarily how fortunate he was to land a steady position. “I applied here at East Lawn and got the job.” He started with “transfers” and cleaning the funeral home. “I just worked my way up and went to mortuary college (at American River College) and finished that. I got my national and state license in embalming and have enjoyed it ever since.”

Curious thing about his classmates at ARC was that unfortunately for many of them they weren’t able to land as easily as Cody. “Not too many got jobs unless they had a job before they started (the mortuary program). It can be difficult to find work in Sacramento because of the mortuary school. I was pretty fortunate to randomly toddle into a mortuary just because I was curious. I didn’t realize what a competitive industry it is (in Sacramento),” he said.

While the competitive nature of the industry may seem ironic, the truth is there are only two mortuary schools in all of California, the one at ARC and one in Cypress, which is located near Anaheim.

When he first told his family of his plans to go into the mortuary business, he said his parents thought it was an elaborate joke, but after they saw how passionate he was about this kind of work, their minds changed. “Now they think it’s great and they understand my point o f view of doing this work and where I fit in serving this community.”

While he has spent most of his career thus far at East Lawn, for fewer than 2 years between 2013 and 2014, Cody had the opportunity to work for the body donation program at UC Davis, which had him embalm cadavers for the medical school and apply tissues for researchers.

At UCD, they had the standard operating procedure of how to embalm. No cosmetics were done. As Cody puts it, “It’s much more utilitarian. Here, at the funeral home, I’m able to use all of my embalming knowledge.”

The lack of creativity that went into the work as an embalmer at UCD was the very reason he returned to East Lawn. “Work (at UCD) was very monotonous. I like the challenges and flow of work at the funeral home because I am able to use my knowledge better and serve my community more than at the university.”

His dedication does not go unnoticed. Evidently, those in his field respect him tremendously. As Lisa West, marketing director for East Lawn said, “Cody is a gem. Everyone at East Lawn loves to work with Cody because he is so knowledgeable and willing to share his knowledge with others. He is very generous with his time and an extremely empathetic and compassionate person. He treats the deceased with enormous respect and dignity.”

Outside of work and time spent with his family, Cody enjoys gardening and practicing Brazilian jiu jitsu. Having participated in martial arts since he was 8 years old, he started jiu jitsu in 2001, when he moved back from Hawaii. Currently, he assists in teaching the art at Carnage Mixed Martial Arts in Orangevale. Cody also enjoys gardening and has an impressive year round vegetable garden.

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