Being an embalmer and funeral director isn’t on the list of many people’s career choices. In fact, it’s often a trade handed down through generations of a family. But for Cassandra McNabb-McKinney, it’s work she felt called to do, both by her own experience and her faith.
When she was 16 years old, there was a traumatic death in her immediate family. Although she was young, she was grateful the person who worked on her loved one’s body spent 18 hours doing what’s known as “restorative art,” so Cassandra’s family was able to have an open-casket funeral and the closure they needed.
“Giving our family that moment was something I just kept thinking about,” says Cassandra, who, like many in her field, is licensed as both a funeral director and embalmer, but works strictly as an embalmer right now. “The fact that I’ve been able to give so many people that moment through my work means a lot to me.”
A winding path to her career
Cassandra didn’t start out wanting to be an embalmer, especially since she’s the only one in her family in the trade. Born with atypical congenital nystagmus, she’s had low vision and been legally blind since birth. She has vision – and good color perception – but objects are fuzzy. For example, she can’t tell the difference between a light switch and an electrical socket on a wall from a distance.
After being taught at home through third grade, Cassandra attended both public and private schools and graduated in the top 15% of her high school class. She went on to college, thinking she wanted to pursue chemistry. But when she was taught by a professor-in-training who didn’t understand adaptation in calculus for someone who is blind or low vision, her negative experience turned college into more of an exploration of what she wanted to do. Cassandra considered becoming a special education teacher, but one day it hit her: She decided to become an embalmer.
“I wanted to work with people who are grieving, not just because of our family’s experience but also because of my faith – I felt the Lord wanted me to help those people,” she says. “I registered in mortuary school in 2005 and have been doing this for nearly 17 years.”
Now 37 years old and married to her grade-school sweetheart – with 4- and 6-year-old sons, the eldest having the same eye condition she does – Cassandra started her career as an apprentice, which is standard for the trade. But she’s since gained so much skill that she has been the teacher to six apprentices so far.
Learning to do her dream job
Cassandra didn’t have any guides or resources to teach her to be an embalmer with low vision. She says it was literally a process of trial and error to learn how to do her job using touch.
She must locate the jugular vein and carotid artery and cut a slit in each to insert the tools to do the embalming. Cassandra had to learn what a vein feels like, even though sometimes she’s able to see them. But veins can move – a challenge for any embalmer – which is where her sense of touch can be particularly valuable.
“When someone passes away, their body returns to the temperature of the room around them, but the vein cools down faster than the tissue around it,” she says. “It just took a long, long time to learn how to find the veins.”
Although Cassandra realizes a lot of people aren’t comfortable with the topic of death, she’s become very used to being around bodies of the deceased. In fact, the embalmer spends the most time with the deceased.
“I do think it takes a unique person to work in death care, because you have to put your own emotions aside and say, ‘It’s not my pain to bear – I’m here for the people who are hurting,’” she says. “For most embalmers, it’s sacred work, just as it has been since ancient Egypt.”
Cassandra admits a lot of people supported her aspiration to do this work, while others doubted her. Clearly, she’s proven the latter group wrong and, in fact, never let it slow her down.
“I think the biggest advice I would give someone who is blind or low vision who is trying to pursue a career that is out of the ordinary is that if you’re really willing to work hard and never give up, one day you’ll look back at the struggles you overcame and you’ll be doing your dream job –something you’d do with the same vigor and enthusiasm you’d have even if you’re not getting paid, which is how I feel.”
Watch an interview with Casandra (Cassie) McNabb on a recent episode of Career Conversations.