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A Great Embalmer

His name sounds as though it belonged to someone famous: Desmond Henley. In fact, he was famous, but only in his unusual profession. He was one of the biggest names in British embalming. He was also one of the best.

That’s why he himself met so many famous people, like King George VI, the father of the present Queen; the great prime minister Sir Winston Churchill; the film-star and singer Judy Garland; the legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix; the legendary general Lord Montgomery; Lord Mountbatten, friend and mentor of Prince Charles; Bon Scott, the lead singer of the Australian rock band AC/DC; and Billy Fury, the charismatic but unlucky ’60s pop star.

But Henley didn’t have any interesting stories about his meetings with these big names. For one thing, they didn’t say anything to him, because they were dead. For another, discretion and respect for privacy are an essential part of work in the funeral industry. He could no doubt have earned a lot of money from a tabloid newspaper by talking about his work, but he never did so.

It wasn’t in his nature and it would have ruined his professional reputation. He had put too much time and effort into learning his craft, which had been the centre of his life since he was a teenager. He was born in 1926 and joined the London funeral directors James H. Kenyon in 1941, part way through the Second World War. The firm had been running since 1880 and had won the official title of  Undertakers to the Royal Household. They were at the top of the funeral profession and Henley was determined to make a name for himself there.

He studied hard, learning the complicated and difficult skills of embalming, and in 1952, at the young age of twenty-six, he had risen to become Kenyon’s chief embalmer. His standing in the profession was recognized when he became an examiner for the British Institute of Embalmers in 1961. By then, he had established his name as a skilful and discreet embalmer, able to do his best work even under the pressure of working with the bodies of the most famous people.

He was also an expert in disaster management, that is, the recovery and transport of bodies after a major loss of life. For example, he worked on the Zeebrugge ferry sinking in 1987 and the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. Disaster management is difficult and demanding work both physically and psychologically, but it is an essential public service and Henley helped pass his expertise on  to many students. He was recognized for his efforts by the award of an OBE in 1997.

But his skills were known far beyond British shores. He embalmed many important people from other countries. In the 1960s and ’70s he worked regularly in the Gulf States, whose oil wealth allowed them to hire the services of the best in the funeral profession. The Greek oil millionaire Aristotle Onassis also flew Henley to Athens in 1973 to embalm the body of his son Alexander Onassis. Henley never betrayed the trust that so many rich and successful clients placed in him.

Some of those embalmed by him, like Judy Garland and Jimi Hendrix, passed away long before their time, but he himself was blessed with a long life. He reached his seventy-first birthday in the same year as he received his OBE. He would enjoy the honour for thirteen years more, before passing away in 2010. He isn’t a famous name to the general public, but he set the standards in a profession that serves the public at some of the most difficult times in life.