The rituals that we have in order to remember and honor our dead are complicated. And from a distance, they seem pretty weird. We dress them in their best clothes, put them in boxes that keep them from decomposing, and bury those boxes underground. Or sometimes we incinerate them and then put the ashes in a very fancy container and then leave that container on the mantel for years to come. It’s worth mentioning that those things are kind of strange if you think about them for more than a few seconds because the NAPSA–the National Association for the Preservation of Skin Art–has another weird mourning ritual they would like to introduce you to: namely, the act of cutting out the tattooed skin of the dead, preserving it, and framing it for you to pass on to your loved ones.
Charles Hamm founded NAPSA after thinking about his own tattoos. The former financial executive and Cleveland-area tattoo parlor co-owner says he’s tattooed basically from the waist up (“I’m about to start on my legs,” he confides), and he began thinking about the money and time he’s invested in the tattoos on his body. “I was thinking about what happens to me upon my passing,” he recalls. “I’ll be cremated, and all this artwork, which means a lot to me, goes up in flames.”
Hamm left the financial industry, where he served in executive roles at KPMG and CBIZ, a few years ago to focus on NAPSA. He recruited a doctor, an embalmer, and several tattoo artists, and developed a process to remove and preserve tattoos. It’s a complicated process for a few reasons, not the least of which is that there are only a few people who have access to the body after a person dies.
“We put together a whole program. We want to make sure that this wish gets fulfilled. So basically, the person who is the beneficiary has to notify us within 18 hours of the passing. We’ll send a kit out to the funeral home, and that kit will have all the instructions with everything they need to remove the tattoo, put it in a container, and send it back to them,” Hamm explains. Funeral homes that are nervous about the unusual request can be incentivized with a $2,000 “final wish benefit” to make sure that they follow through. “We added that component to make it more likely to happen.”
There are almost no limitations on the size of the tattoos that can be preserved, or the kind–with the exception that face tattoos can’t be preserved because they won’t look right, or genital tattoos for other reasons. Sleeve tattoos, or full back pieces, or other large, unusual tattoos can be saved. So far, NAPSA has saved one half sleeve, and they’re currently figuring out how to display it. (Hamm suggests that they might create some sort of cast for it.)
The process works, though. NAPSA has preserved 21 tattoos thus far, which isn’t bad for an organization that only launched in September of this year–and Hamm knows firsthand how the process works. “I’ve personally had the process done,” he says. “Over several years, I lost a hundred pounds, so I had surgery on my front on my back, but I still had excess skin on my sides, and I wanted to test that the process worked before I did it on somebody else. So I had my plastic surgeon mark the skin that he was going to remove, and then I went and had a tattoo put on each side, and I watched him take them off. It took literally three minutes, and then he went and sewed my skin back together–but, of course, I’m alive.”
Hamm’s tattoos join nearly two dozen others in frames designed to honor the legacy of a person who didn’t want the artwork on their skin to be lost along with their bodies. And some of them are oddly moving: The wife of a man who died suddenly in his 30s had the tattoo he’d gotten in honor of the couple’s first son preserved, while another was a late decision by a terminally ill man who decided to confront death by getting a tattoo of himself as an eagle riding a Harley to the afterlife. Tattoos are literally a part of people, after all, and there’s something touching about the thought that they can live on.