All my life I have been told by would-be friends and acquaintances that I have an off-putting and slightly odd demeanor. My humor and interests have been called dark, macabre, and even disturbing. As a small child I was obsessed with the entombment rites of ancient Egypt, mummified corpses found in the remote regions of Earth – at the tops of mountains, preserved in ice for centuries; or common folk buried in shallow, sand-filled graves in the Nile delta. I wanted to be an anthropologist and study ancient civilizations to learn why they no longer existed. From a very young age I felt secure in my own knowledge that everything in this world is finite; civilizations come to ruin, buildings crumble under the wrecking ball of a ticking clock’s pendulum; a human life being the most fleeting of events given the long course of history. So fleeting, in fact, that a life is measured not by the length of time it lasted, but by the events enacted by the owner.
As I grew older and learned of this thing at the library called the non-fiction section, I began to expand my knowledge of and interest in the human condition by learning about vast pandemics of disease and human violence over the course of our species' existence. I read books about epidemics like Cholera, the discovery and production of various poisons and medicines – often the same substance with a variance of recipe, human migration patterns over the course of history, religion and global mythologies. Reading all these reinforced my strangeness, of course, but it was the books about the historical and contemporary treatment of the dead and the dying that really creeped people out. I was fascinated by the way that people treated, and found uses for, their dead.
A dearly loved graphic novel series I own called The Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman and penciled by Sam Kieth, features one book in which various random characters find themselves stranded in a pub at the end of time during a storm. They take turns sharing stories about themselves and their lives to pass the hours until they can return to their respective homes. My favorite story was that of the Undertakers guild, who have cared for the dead since the beginning of time and who pride themselves on their familiarity with every death rite of every culture that has ever existed. I was rapt. Yes, it was gruesome; but the point was excellently illustrated: that which is abhorrent to one culture's people is absolutely essential to the well-being of another. This is as much, if not more, true for the individual as it is for the society. Death wishes are the ultimate expression of that particular need; and to ignore or diminish any aspect of an express instruction or desire for care of the dead is to diminish the respect for that individual life entirely.
That is my attraction to the care of the dead, to whatever end or use the decedent selects for their earthly remains. All dying wishes for the care of a body are all burial rites; including the wishes of those who prefer to continue to be of use long past the time when they can command their own flesh by will. Individuals who chose to donate their remains to the uses of others after their demise show, perhaps, the grandest form of respect for their own bodies and lives. It is a strange form of heroism for many whose time for heroics has ended.
In my early twenties I was preoccupied with searching for the perfect career, as many of that age are wont to be. I had never been fantastically successful in school, often being ridiculed by instructors for not living up to my potential, and by classmates for being aloof and – as I later learned – for their perception of me as a teacher's pet; a truly ironic experience in that both groups had essentially the same issue with me, albeit for opposing reasons. I did not attend college directly out of high school, as the overwhelming majority of graduating-age children seem to do these days, but rather sought full-time employment to support myself in a small apartment. Like many “young professional” contemporaries, I have since had closets larger than the kitchen area provided in my first flat. Life - otherwise known as paying the bills – carried on from various flats in various parts of the city for many years. The search for the profession that would make all the bullshit magically disappear continued when I had a few spare moments of not dealing with said bullshit.
It was during one of those rare breaks that I had the opportunity to job shadow a local mortician. For those who have not had the pleasure of meeting a mortician, they tend to be jovial and active people who despise wasting time and energy on events and interests other than those which enrich their short human lives. Dealing with death every day, all hours of the day, only serves to remind one that every moment lived is a choice in how you spend it; so these few choose to spend those moments wisely as they are all too aware the choice will someday be taken from them; and that 'someday' could come any day, and without warning.
Unbeknownst to me at that time, I have a cocktail of neurological conditions which make complex motor functions involving movement - like driving or riding a bicycle - very difficult for me. I walk or take the bus nearly everywhere when I am alone, so I walked from my small downtown apartment to the funeral home where I was to meet the undertaker. This is before everyone had a cellular phone plugged into their brain every second of every waking hour so when I arrived and we had said our hellos the gentleman owner, whom we shall call “Jim” for ease of storytelling and the protection of his privacy, informed me that he had just received a first call. This is what undertakers term that first telephone call from the family or hospice letting them know that someone has died and needs to be picked up. I was welcome to either wait at the funeral home until his return or I could come along on his pick-up. I was dressed rather nicely, as I generally am – it is not uncommon to see me out in a dress jacket with my jeans or even a casual suit - and Jim informed me that I was perfectly presentable for a first call pick-up; and besides, the family would not be there so I would not be put in a position to have to say anything. I replied that of course I would be delighted to accompany him and we climbed into a very nondescript baby blue van with darkly tinted windows as Jim finished tying his tie in a quick half-Windsor.
We chatted on the way to the nursing home and got better acquainted. As it turned out, the orderly at the home was happy to help Jim move his ward into the van and the three of us got underway back to the funeral home. The orderly had taken back his ivory-colored sheet used to cover the body for transport, so the lady, whom we shall call “Mrs. Daisy” rested in the back wagon with her mouth gaping open and eyes staring at the roof. Unlike in the movies, when people die they do not generally have peaceful expressions on their faces. We are much more like our animal cousins who die with their eyes open, exhaling that last breath of life before we move on to whatever end. She did not look undignified exactly, just uninhabited. Jim and I talked about chemistry and the coursework needed for certification as a mortician, as well as the state exams required. We talked about the long hours and middle-of-the-night calls. Our new passenger relaxing quietly in the back didn’t chime in with her thoughts.
Jim looked momentarily startled and asked me, “Say, I almost forgot – would you mind if we made a quick stop at the printers? I’ve got to get these proofs over there by noon and I brought them along since we would be so close. We’re expanding our business and we’ve just finalized the plans for a new funeral home.”
“No, not at all. Congratulations on the new building, that's very exciting news! You must be doing very well to afford a second location like that.”
“You know what they say… death and taxes. This is a pretty steady business. We have our competitors in town, but there is enough business for everyone here. I won’t be long.”
We detoured to the south a couple of blocks and pulled into a tiny parking lot at the back of a shop in the middle of a mixed residential and industrial area of town. He threw the shift into park and grabbed a packing tube wedged between his seat and the center armrest of the van. “I’ll be right back.”
So it was just Mrs. Daisy and I while we waited for our mutual chauffeur to return from his errand. I looked around the van for a minute or two and then it became apparent that Jim, friendly and outgoing man that he was, had probably gotten into a discussion with the printer and would be a while. I settled in and turned in my seat to check on my road-trip companion. She stared out the tinted window, seeing nothing, thinking nothing, smelling slightly of disinfectant and the ammonia smell of urine – as we all will when we finally go. My thoughts inevitably turned to the human soul and I wondered what denomination this elderly lady held in life. Is her soul in heaven, being weighed on impossible scales; is her family lighting candles and crying in a synagogue in the center of town? Does she even have a family left? Who is she; what did she die of; was anyone there? “Who are you, I wonder.” I asked her aloud. Later that day, Jim would meet with Daisy's family and remaining friends to plan the service and gather information for writing the memorial brochures. Morticians are multi-talented people in their professional, as well as private, lives.
Jim returned and apologized for taking so long. I replied that it was just fine, but couldn’t help wondering if this was some sort of test he plans for prospective interns; leaving them alone in the van with a fresh corpse for countless minutes to see how they handle the one-on-one time. He glanced at me and seemed to approve, confirming my suspicion, and became immediately the same high-spirited man who had leapt from the driver's seat with his architectural prints 20 minutes earlier. Conversation resumed, and we were back at the funeral home in what seemed like seconds.
Jim pulled the van around back and wheeled the cot – the same kind they use in ambulances that have pressure-sensitive folding wheels underneath for a minimum of fuss and a smooth, quick load and unload – through the basement doors of the funeral home. The preparation room was strait out of the 1950s. Mint green tile and sparkling white grout covered every inch of the walls and a high steel table stood in the center of the room; sinks lined the walls underneath oak and glass cabinets. Rubber hoses ran from tubs in the sinks to the center slab and then back again into the sinks. The table itself had a neat little headrest built in and was tilted ever so slightly so that running water – or whatever – would drain through a hose at the foot of the table. Hand-held spray nozzles hung from the ceiling above the table. Two clear plastic smocks, almost like you would wear if it were raining, hung from pegs on the far wall. This was a room designed for a purpose.
“Wow.” I said aloud before I could stop my own tongue.
Jim laughed. “Yeah, it’s a bit much the first time you see a prep room. This is one thing that those CSI shows actually get right.” He chucked again, clearly enjoying my awe.
He gently moved Mrs. Daisy from her cot to the table and I realized why the majority of people in this traditional profession have been men: it takes a great deal of strength to move an inert amount of mass like a human body. Mrs. Daisy was old, and like many older folks, not very large. Still, she had to weigh at least a hundred pounds. This man half slid, half picked her up from her resting place on the cot and transferred her to his slab easily; without even a sound of effort or change of his kindly facial expression. He didn’t look like a strong man but then I thought back to how lithely he had sprung from his seat in the van earlier. Even though his hair was more silver than brown Jim here was probably in better shape than I was, and he was easily thirty years my senior.
His voice broke my self-deprecating reverie, “Say, you don’t have to get suited up or anything, just stand over there or have a seat,” as he motioned to one of several ice-cream shop style chrome bar stools with a cracking, brown leather seat. “You shouldn’t get messy from that far away, even if I splash a little.”
I took his suggestion and sat down. The stools were well-used but very comfortable, as things made before the mass-production era of the 1980s tend to be. My thoughts, again, turned temporarily to Mrs. Daisy’s mysterious life and I wondered if she had ever worked in a factory making sturdy, American-made products back in the ‘40s when so many women had taken over men’s factory jobs during WWII.
Jim then proceeded, accompanied by a running monologue about the mortuary profession and his memories of being an apprentice taking night calls in his twenties, to do the single most startling thing I have ever seen in my life. He took a pair of scissors and cut up the center of Mrs. Daisy’s nightdress, half sat her up, and removed the ruined garment from beneath her. At the time I was utterly shocked, although I think I did a relatively passable job of disguising my surprise. Of course, the body would have to be washed and embalmed, as is required by state law – even if it is to be cremated, and no one would want the garment that an old woman died in. Well, there was probably someone out there who might want it, but this was a mortuary not a specialty interest club with international shipping policies and discrete, no-name label packaging. By the time I had stopped rationalizing my surprise at seeing an eighty-year-old dead woman disrobed under fluorescent lights, and my culture-shocked blood pressure had settled down, Jim had deftly washed her body with state-regulation disinfectants and was inserting one of the rubber hoses into an incision he had made in an artery. From another incision, red blood flowed as he cleansed and disinfected the internal portions of the corpse. His monologue continued, explaining to me what he was doing and why, as her blood began to flow clear. Jim then switched to embalming fluid – not the formaldehyde people are familiar with, but a concoction of other preservatives much less harmful to the groundwater and soil.
“Most states outlawed the use of formaldehyde years ago,” he clarifies for me, “due to its harmful effect on the environment. We don’t use it anymore. One more thing those CSI shows always get wrong.”
Jim seems to have a grudge against modern media’s portrayal of his profession's practices. The more I watched him get Mrs. Daisy ready for her last outing, the more I could understand his frustration. After she had been washed, disinfected, drained and embalmed with Jim’s special concoction of just the right combination of color additives to give Mrs. Daisy the glow of health, Jim propped up her head on the head rest and took out a jar of moisturizer.
“I like to use pure lanolin,” he tells me. “Dead skin is very dry and after the embalming fluid goes in it gets even dryer.”
He slathers the lanolin all over the body’s face and neck until she looks a bit like she’s got cold cream on for the night, like some aging starlet in a vintage film getting ready for bed.
“You’ve probably heard that old wives’ tale that hair and nails grow after you die; it's not true. That’s just the dry skin receding back from the cuticle. Happens to the teeth too,” he explains to me as he stuffs the body’s mouth with cotton fibers like a taxidermist stuffing the family dog. “The cotton gives the cheeks the roundness of health and life - counteracts gravity a bit.”
He then takes some wire and staples her teeth shut. I know she can’t feel it, but with each thing Jim does to restore her to the image of health she would have had had her life continued uninterrupted by death’s inevitable touch, I think of her less and less as Mrs. Daisy, and more and more as a corpse. Jim then uses glue to seal her lips closed, and she no longer has the slack-jawed gape of a corpse but just looks very bored, staring at the ceiling waiting for her nightcap to arrive in this unlikely boudoir. He then takes two spined, white, rubbery contact lenses and applies a small amount of adhesive putty to the concave side of each. He applies them to her wide-open eyes and closes the lids. He carefully adjusts the lids to the most peaceful-looking position. He takes out a convenience store razor and shaves the hair from the corpse’s face so that when the skin shrinks she will have the downy peach fuzz natural on all women’s faces instead of looking like the bearded lady. He takes some more cotton and gently inserts it into her outer cheeks, coaxing a wise smile from her lifeless lips. He smooths down her tree-knot hands onto her stomach, erasing the remaining evidence of her painful last few minutes on Earth. Wiping off the residual lanolin lotion, Mrs. Daisy now look natural and restful; her sunken orbs padded out with soft rubber contacts, her skin soft and healthy looking, her smile peaceful and a little wry. It suits her very well, that smile. In less than an hour, Jim has taken this recently vacated corpse with its death grimace and clutching hands, buckled knees and smell of disease and fear and erased all signs of hardship or worry. Despite her obvious lack of life and complete nudity, she looks dignified on his prep room table and ready for whatever lay beyond.
“Well,” he breathes, as he removes his gloves, protective glasses, and smock. “Like Mexican food? I’m starving! My treat…”
I can’t help but laugh as I reply, “I love Mexican, and I would be honored.”
We hop back into the blue van and have a delightful lunch at a local family-owned restaurant. Jim watches me keenly and seems to approve of my retaining an appetite after seeing all that he has just shown me; the secret world of morticians. I begin to get the feeling this professional caretaker of the dead had seen more than his fair share of would-be apprentices come and go after getting a clear view of what, exactly, is involved in the care of our dearly departed. I also suspect that Jim is highly self-aware and attuned to human emotion, as he suddenly returns my curious stare with a slightly sad one of his own.
As if I am some radio-noir hero and he has tuned in to the late-night station broadcasting my inner monologue, Jim says, “Most people who show interest in this profession, I never hear from them again. It’s hard work and the hours are long. You don’t take your work home with you; your work is your home. It’s good for insomniacs, though!” and he laughs his hearty laugh again, and then sobers slightly. “The schooling isn’t easy either. You have to be good at chemistry and have a real good memory to get through the bar; but the business is good, and it’s the most rewarding work I have ever done in my life.”
We finished our meal, I thanked him for his time and for the opportunity to see him at work, and we went our separate ways. That was nearly 8 years ago.
I did not enroll in course training for mortuary science. I did not take chemistry classes or study for the state bar. Perhaps Jim knew that already, looking at me; as he had undoubtedly looked at many young prospectives over the years of his career. Unlike so many others, it was not some displaced fear of the dead that dissuaded me from pursuing a mortician's certification, but the fear of the living. I have no terror of chilly, grasping hands twining themselves around my neck or grasping the bedsheets at night. I am not disturbed by blood, teeth, and staring eyes. Old flesh devoid of color does not repulse me. It was the thought of talking to a widow or a father - comforting them, having to say the right thing at the right time - that frightened me beyond comprehension. Jim found his work rewarding because of what he could do for the living by caring for their dead, but also because he can do that thing which humans take for granted: he could connect verbally and physically with the living and share their grief and pain with poise, visible sympathy, and humor. He would be whatever was necessary for the departed's loved ones whenever the moment for that necessity arose. He naturally did things that I would be incapable of doing for any length of time.
I enjoyed my time with Jim and Daisy, none the less. The use I have ultimately found for that experience is, undoubtedly, unusual amongst Jim's prior shadows but I hope they would both approve. My search for knowledge and my collection of people's stories grows ever broader as a result of the unlikely lesson I learned from driving Mrs. Daisy: never be afraid of what people with think of you, there is no shame in being exactly what you are.