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Oxford man restores dead to bring peace to living

by CJ Carnacchio

November 09, 2011

These are some of the tools Oxford resident Matt Smith, 39, uses as a restorative artist to make deceased people who have died in car crashes, suicides and murders presentable for open casket viewings. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio.
Death is just a part of life.

But in Matt Smith's world, death is something that not only pays the bills, it gives him an opportunity to serve his fellow man in a unique and personally satisfying way.

The 39-year-old Oxford resident is an embalmer and restorative artist, who specializes in reconstructing dead bodies that normally could not have an open casket viewing because the person died through violent means such as an automobile accident, suicide or murder.

"You simply can't see a body that way if you're a loved one," he said. "But people who lose their loved ones through a tragic death also deserve to have a traditional funeral. There's no real sense of closure unless you actually see the person and get so say good-bye to them."

That's where Smith, who owns M.S. Funeral Service, and his special set of skills comes in.

Smith lays out the body parts "like a three-dimensional puzzle," then begins putting the pieces back together.

If the brittle skull is shattered, he wires it back together. Where bones are missing, he substitutes Plaster of Paris. Where skin is missing, he uses wax, "just like a wax museum."

"The features of the body are formed by the bones," Smith explained. "The skin is like a canvas over the foundation."

Techniques involving cosmetology and air-brushing help create a finished appearance that allows loved ones to see the deceased one last time without any hint of the tragedy that befell him or her.

Since graduating from John A. Gupton College of Mortuary in Nashville, Tennessee in December 1994, Smith's performed about 100 major reconstructions and embalmed more than 10,000 bodies.

During the phone interview for this story, Smith was on his way to Plymouth to embalm an elderly woman who had died in a nursing home. After that, he was headed to Saline to perform a major reconstruction on a 30-year-old man who jumped in front of train.

"I've got both ends of the spectrum," Smith said.

Smith chose to specialize in restoration because he "felt there was a need for it."

"There's not a lot of people that do it," he noted.

Smith's aware of only three other people who travel the nation, just as he does, providing this type of service.

"It's a very, very small group compared to the amount of funeral directors in the country," he said.

Depending on how severe the damage is to the deceased, Smith said a major reconstruction can take him approximately three to 10 hours to accomplish.

But that wasn't always the case.

"My very first reconstruction took over 28 hours of work time," he said. "My next step comes quite naturally to me now. I know what to expect. I know what to do."

He did that first major reconstruction as an apprentice and it involved a person who sustained a point-blank shotgun blast to the forehead.

It all started in Oscoda

Smith noted his interest in the funeral business "dates back to when I was a kid."

He was 6 years old when his grandfather died and was laid out at the local funeral home in his hometown of Oscoda.

"I took a pretty strong interest in it then," he said. "I wasn't afraid of the casket. I was actually hanging out there a lot.

"I remember the funeral director coming up to me and asking if I wanted to take a tour of the funeral home. From that moment, I always had a real interest in it."

It's not about money

Although his services are not cheap major reconstructions can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000, depending on the severity of the case the job isn't about money for Smith, it's about the opportunity to "truly help my fellow man."

"Yes, I got paid to do it, but once I see the family and how they react and the gratitude they have, forget the paycheck," he said. "The paycheck just pays my bills. It's the feeling I get inside knowing that I allowed another human being to see their loved one, one last time. That's what matters to me."

"I can't think of another profession that serves the community in such a unique and profound way as funeral service," Smith noted. "Besides my wedding and the birth of my child, I can't think of anything more rewarding."

For Smith, the biggest reward "is when a family member wraps their arms around you, gives you a hug and says thank you."

"You can't match that. There's nothing more valuable to a funeral director than that."

Without that kind of personal satisfaction and human connection, Smith said there's "no way in world" he could do this job.

"There's no money worth the hours, the stress and the things that we see and have to go through," he said.

Death doesn't take a holiday

Much like a doctor or a fire chief, Smith's career isn't a simple 9-5, off-on-weekends type of gig.

"You're always on call because death happens at any time," he said. "You have to have the ability to just get up and go.

"Death doesn't care about Christmas, your anniversary, birthdays, sports. It doesn't care about anything. When death calls, you have to go. It's all about serving the community."

Even when he's not actively working on a case, Smith said he still considers himself on the clock because he's always poised to leave on a moment's notice.

"I never have time off because my phone can ring at any moment," he said. "I'm always on guard. I'm always ready to go. I always have my phone with me."

Anyone thinking about entering his profession should either be single or have "a very, very supportive spouse" like Smith's wife, Michelle.

"My wife is very understanding," he said. "I give her lots of credit for putting up with my long hours."

He's also grateful for the support of his son Charlie, who's almost 6 months old, and stepchildren, Christian, 13, and Kaleigh, 9.

An extremely personal case

Although a certain amount of professional detachment is required to do Smith's job, sometimes a case comes along that's impossible to distance yourself from.

For Smith, it was choosing to do a major reconstruction on his best friend who had committed suicide. The two had been close friends since junior high school. Then at the age of 31, he shot himself in the head.

"The medical examiner told his mother that he was not viewable and that she would not be able to see her son," he said. "She was going to have him cremated."

To Smith, a mother not being able to see her son one last time just compounded the tragedy of the whole situation.

"She could not believe that she was not going to be able to see her son again," he said. "There's nothing more damaging than to tell someone they can't see their loved one again."

As difficult as it was for him, Smith set aside his own grief and offered to do the necessary reconstruction. The job took quite an emotional toll on him.

"That just tore me up inside working on him," he said. "You can see 10,000 dead bodies and it doesn't matter. That all goes out the window when you see someone that you really care for."

"My emotions were up and down," Smith continued. "Here I am working on him, but also knowing that I'm giving his family the opportunity to say good-bye. That gave me a real strong sense of peace and joy."

In the end, Smith knew he was doing the right thing to both honor his friend's memory and offer the mother some form of closure by having an open casket viewing and funeral.

"She was so grateful," he said.

The importance of a smile

Of all the workshops and seminars Smith gives around the country concerning his expertise in the restorative arts, there's one topic that's requested more than any other.

"Everywhere I go they want to know how I do the smile," he said. "That's really what I'm known for is creating that pleasant expression."

Smith explained the "most important feature is the mouth" and many embalmers use techniques to close the deceased's mouth that distort the natural contour, leaving a "grimace or a frown."

This is one of the main reasons people are turned off to the idea of open casket viewings, in Smith's view.

"When the body looks worse in the casket than it did at the hospital, that's when people are going toward cremation because they would rather look at a pretty picture on the wall as opposed to looking at a disastrous case in the casket," he explained.

Smith said he uses "innovative techniques" to close the mouth without destroying the natural contour. This way he's able to achieve a smile "99 percent of the time."

"There's an art to it. Not every embalmer knows how to do that," he said.

Putting a smile on the deceased's face helps give peace to the grieving family because a smile is associated with happiness and that's associated with being in heaven.

"When there's a smile on their face, it tells everyone that person is now home," Smith said. "That's what we ultimately want to believe when we go to a funeral home and see a family member. We want to know that they're home, they're safe and they're comfortable."

Nearer my God to thee

One of the benefits of Smith's profession is it has made his belief in God as a Christian "rock solid."

"Being so close to death, it draws me closer to my faith," he said. "It's impossible for me to say we were just randomly brought into this universe from random particles moving around. We were created by a higher being."

Despite all his skills and experience, Smith knows his work can never come close to the divine design.

"There's no way I can possibly duplicate what God has perfected," he said.

His work has also given him a "real strong appreciation for life."

"We're here for just a flash," Smith said. "During this interview, I could be wiped out at any moment. I see it all the time."

Seeing the body is still important

Although more and more people are choosing to not have a traditional open casket ceremony and instead, just be cremated, Smith believes this ignores the "value of seeing the body at the funeral home."

"I think it's paramount that people actually get a chance to see their loved one in a casket," he said. "You need that time to say good-bye and have that proper farewell."

America's love affair with all things that are "quick and efficient," from microwave food to text messages and e-mails, shouldn't extend to death, in Smith's opinion.

"Society has twisted and warped our way of thinking. Get in, get out, get it done," he said. "We're human. There's no way anyone can convince me that's a proper way of saying good-bye."

"A life is worth celebrating," he continued. "When a life has come to an end, part of that (celebration) is looking at a body and saying good-bye ."

Not seeing a body actually hinders the grieving process in Smith's view.

"In order for us to get through the grieving process, we need to see the body, we need to know for a fact this person is gone," he said. "As soon as you see the body, you can now move forward."

Making the decision to be cremated without an open casket viewing is "not completely fair," in Smith's opinion, because it's a decision that really affects all the mourners, not the deceased.

"The problem is when people (make that decision) they're consulting with the wrong person because that person is themselves," Smith said. "They're not going to be there. It's really about everyone around us."

"Funerals are not for the dead, they're for the living," Smith continued. "It's got nothing to do with me because I'm not going to be there. I'm not the one grieving about my death. Everyone grieves in their own way."

Smith finds it interesting that white people are more apt to be cremated than African Americans. The cremation rate among whites is 40 percent, while in the African American population, the figure is around 10 percent.

"They understand the need to say good-bye properly better than us," Smith said.

Visit your local funeral home

Smith hopes more people will break the "taboo" when it comes to talking about death by visiting their local funeral home and asking questions.

"I would strongly encourage the community to not think of funeral homes as some creepy place," he said. "I would strongly encourage them to go speak with their funeral director because they're people too. They'd be very willing and happy to talk with you about life and how to cope with unexpected and expected death."

Smith said it's better to ask questions now before it's too late.

"Once death happens, it's almost too late to investigate," he said. "If you don't know the true value of an open casket funeral before death occurs, there's a good chance you will never know that. After (a death), the focus is on what do I do now. That can be a very scary place when a loved one dies and you don't have a clue."

Smith also encourages funeral directors to visit high schools and community colleges in order to give young folks a better understanding of life and death issues.

"The more people that are aware of how fragile and valuable our lives are, the better," he said.

It's like eBay for funeral directors

It's interesting to note that back in March, Smith launched what is probably one of the most unique websites on the internet.

It's called and it's a site where funeral professionals can sell or auction new and used items to each other or advertise services and products through an on-line classified section.

"You can do pretty much whatever you want on the site," Smith explained.

He came up with the idea because he said there's really no way for funeral homes to get rid of their old equipment.

"You really can't put funeral home equipment out on the street to be picked up by your local garbage man," Smith said. "That just draws too much negative attention. No one wants to see an embalming table or an embalming machine on the side of the road."

There was also no conduit to help funeral homes that are looking to purchase used equipment.

Thus was born.

"It was the first of its kind," Smith said.