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UWRF alumnus goes on to embalm in Japan

September 17, 2019

“Often death is more welcomed than life,” said Kevin G. Pavek, a 1999 UW-River Falls graduate. The son of two dairy farmers, Pavek chose a  different route. He now has funeral service experience in Minnesota, Wisconsin, as well as four years that Pavek taught embalming in Osaka, Japan.

In his time at UWRF, Pavek majored in Sociology with a minor in Biology and Pre-Mortuary Science. “During my Freshman year, I chose Sociology because I had a strong interest in it. Jean Hector-Faley was a professor that I respected a lot,” said Pavek.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota’s Program of Mortuary Science in 2000, Pavek became a specialist in embalming. “I’ve embalmed just about every kind of body you can imagine; burn victims, babies, severely decomposed bodies,” said Pavek.

Before attending UWRF, Pavek already knew he had an interest in the funeral business. On a class field trip in the fourth grade, Pavek was introduced to a local funeral home in New Prague, Minnesota, where he toured the embalming room.

“Seeing the unusual instruments and equipment, it was obviously a room for conducting some very specific work. The room was well-lit and clean.” Pavek continued, “I remember seeing a radio on the countertop and imagining that he would listen to the radio while he works in here. I wasn’t leary of the funeral home at all. The tour made a good impression on me, and that was when I first came to consider the profession as possibly something that I could do.”

While attending UWRF in 1996, Pavek applied for a program called National Student Exchange, allowing him to spend his junior year at the University of South Carolina.

“At that time, I thought it was a rare opportunity to experience something beyond what I was used to, which was the upper midwest to that point.” Pavek continued, “When the opportunity to work in Japan came, I’m sure that I looked back on my NSE experience as an indication that good things would come from expanding my horizons,” said Pavek.

Pavek did not originally plan on going to Japan. In 2001, he was finishing his 10 month Minnesota Funeral Director’s internship, where he had the option to continue as a fully licensed funeral director. However, one day while waiting to meet with the head of the Mortuary Science program at the U of M,  he picked up a magazine.

“In it, I noticed an ad in the employment section, ‘Embalm in Japan.’” Pavek continued, “I applied. I had an interview by phone, an interview in person at a hotel in St. Paul. It took a long time, so long in fact that I assumed that I must not have gotten the job, but finally after Christmas toward the very end of 2001, I received a phone call asking me if I wanted the job.”

The largest funeral company in Osaka, Japan was adding the capability of embalming to their services. “In the 1990’s, embalming was in it’s absolute infancy in Japan, mostly [just] in Tokyo. Around 2000, the Koekisha funeral company in Osaka had the vision to begin offering embalming. There was an American man from New York who had worked in Tokyo for nearly 10 years. He had decided to retire and return home. Koekisha hired him and asked him to find two more funeral director/embalmers from the U.S.” explained Pavek.

He was selected with another woman from Maryland. The two began work in April of 2002. In Japan, embalming became more prevalent in late 2004, allowing the company to help start the Osaka Funeral Science College where Pavek became an embalming instructor.

Pavek explained that in Japan, the embalming process refers to not only to the process of chemical preservation by replacing blood with formaldehyde-based embalming solutions, but also to  the sub-surface cosmetic treatments and topical cosmetic applications, clothing the body and often casketing. The entire visual preparation of the body is included, which differs from the U.S., where embaling only encompases the chemical process of preservation.

Embalming is a relatively new thing in Japan. “Preparing bodies in Japan gives me a little more satisfaction because I often feel a genuine appreciation for results. I believe in Japanese embalming and I’m really helping it to grow one embalming case at a time,” said Pavek.

“In the U.S., funeral customs are moving away from traditional viewing practices. I’ve embalmed bodies in the U.S., gotten what I believe are excellent results, and the family, without seeing the body, changes their mind to cremation. Of course, in that situation a funeral director can’t say anything,” said Pavek.

Regardless of whether the body was embalmed or not, Pavek said most families in Japan will cremate the body after the funeral. According to Pavek, Japanese embalming costs about twice as much as the services in the U.S., with prices around $1,100 per body. Pavek said only about 5% of people in Japan utilize embalming services.

Pavek has found many challenges while working in the funeral business. Pavek reflected on his experience back in 2010, “I was on call that night for our funeral home and around 11 p.m. I took a call from the coroner’s office that four autopsies were complete and we had four removals.”

Making two trips, Pavek brought the bodies of four young men  back to the funeral home. “Three were brothers and they were exceptionally large men. They had the bodies of college football linemen. They were autopsied, like I said, which adds to the embalmers work. They were also cranially autopsied which adds further to the work. And the size of the bodies made the work tiring. I worked all night on these four and into the morning.  At some point during the night, our mortuary science student who lived in the funeral home, we all lived there, came downstairs to the prep room. From that point he helped me by sewing bodies and helping me move bodies,” said Pavek. 

Without the assistance, Pavek would not of been able to complete the embalings by morning.  “In funeral service, when that phone rings you never know what’s waiting for you on the other end.”

Another layer of the funeral business that Pavek finds challenging is dealing with flowers. Outside of difficult transport, “Thousands of dollars are often spent on flowers for one funeral and after a certain point the flowers, in my opinion, don’t add to the funeral unless the deceased was especially into flowers. They get your suit dirty and I really don’t like setting them up. Setting them up includes having flower stands for them, which are often moved place to place with the flowers. Other funeral directors never like the way I set the flowers up around the casket,” Pavek said.

Pavek has gathered many stories over the years in the business. “In 2005 I embalmed bodies that had died in the Amagasaki train derailment,” said Pavek.

A train conductor in Osaka was running late, and rushed to the next stop. “Where the tracks curved the train derailed and almost all of the people in the first two train cars died. Our funeral home began getting these calls, and for three days straight I embalmed 7 accident cases. It was tough duty. Everybody had damage to the left sides of their bodies.” Pavek continued, “They were just people who happened to be using that train station at that time. I was so busy working I didn’t know the details until much later. Then on the third afternoon of working on these cases the funeral home drivers put an ordinary peaceful looking elderly man on my embalming table. The office secretary told me, ‘They wanted to give you a break.’”

While he was still working in Minnesota, Pavek also had an experience where he picked up the wrong body. “When I got back to our funeral home the directors asked me, ‘Who did you pick up?’ So, I told them the name. They told me to go back, that they gave me the wrong body,” said Pavek.

Pavek continues his work today at a funeral home in Kyoto, Japan. He is currently a funeral director and embalmer, and hopes to continue expanding embalming in Japan.