[In the fall of 2012 I went to work with a friend. I spent 12 hours shadowing her as she went about her duties. She's a funeral director in the DC metro area and that day with her changed my life. This is what I wrote afterward.]
"Are you ready?"
What I should have said was no or I don’t know or never.
I said yes.
Jen and I were standing in front of a big silver door my brain refused to believe was a freezer. She opened it and the first thing I saw was a sharp beaked nose, then a quilt, and, finally, socked feet. I don’t think I said anything as I looked at the five or six bodies inside.
"You okay, Ro?" she asked as she closed the door.
Jen asked me that all day long, the whole time I shadowed her at the funeral home. Each time I answered, “Yes, I think so.” But I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure what I felt at all.
Death is overwhelming. Death in such abundance is even more so.
I thought I understood what I was getting into when I got the go-ahead to go to work with her. I’ve seen death. I’ve been to funerals. This though, this was something different.
When we’d first arrived, Jen had given me a tour of the upstairs part of the funeral home, the part you and I have seen. The chapel. The visitation area. All the secret passages that allow the employees to get around unseen. The casket show room.
Then we walked down a flight of stairs and into a room with a couch. Then into the garage where there was casket after casket lined up between vans. Then that freezer.
There was another freezer. This one held bodies bound for Arlington Cemetery — apparently if you want to be buried there you’re in for a months long wait.
The room I was not prepared for — well, I wasn’t prepared for any of it — but the room that almost made me run screaming for my life was the embalming room.
"Are you ready?" Jen asked again.
She opened the door and the first thing my eyes landed on were the large tanks the embalming fluid goes into. And then … then I realized there were three people in there.
"I’m really happy with how she turned out," Jen said as she ran her hands through one elderly woman’s beautiful white hair.
I lightly ran my fingers through it, too.
"You can touch her," Jen said.
And so I did.
I’ve touched other bodies. My Papaw’s, my grandmother Rosita’s, the body of the track star who died while I was in high school.
The night before Jen's roommate, Adam, had told me I had to poke the bodies.
"You’re a writer," he said, "You need to have that experience. You can’t go and not touch anyone."
What struck me about the old woman was how strange her temperature was. Not cold, but not warm.
"Room temperature," Jen said as she busied herself prepping a body to go into a box to be, basically, airmailed to Maine.
The woman also felt sort of waxy. Not like a candle. Or anything else I’ve ever touched. But waxy is the best way I can describe it.
After I got over the shock of being so close to all these dead I helped Jen finish boxing up the Maine woman and then watched as Jen began to prep another person.
"He’s being cremated, so he won’t get the full treatment, but we still need to make sure he looks good."
I helped her move him from a stretcher onto a table and watched as she made sure his eyes and mouth stayed closed.
Can I tell you how strange it is to watch this person you love, this person so filled with life, sew someone’s mouth shut and glue his eyes closed? How strange it is to watch as she fluffs eyelashes and considers the man’s lips the way an artist considers an easel?
"Lips are my thing. I really try to make sure they look good."
Although the only thing that really bothers her, that makes her queasy when it comes to her job, are the mouths.
"Everybody has their thing," she said as she sewed the old man’s mouth shut. "Mine’s mouths. And dentures? Ew…"
Somewhere in this process she began to work to break rigor (rigor mortis) in the corpse. It looked like she was trying to help the old guy do yoga. At the time I was standing in the doorway, in scrubs, watching.
"Throw on some gloves," she said, "Come help."
For a moment I thought, “No way.”
Instead, I said, “Okay.”
I put on a pair of tight blue rubber gloves and stood on the other side of the man’s body.
"Take his arm and move it back. You want to work on the joints. Move his arm up and you should feel his arm release."
I took his arm in my hands, took a deep breath, and began to push. It felt a little stiff and then, suddenly, I felt something slip. My shock must’ve registered on my face.
"Cool, huh?" Jen asked.
"Yeah," I said, "Really cool."
I did the same thing for the man’s elbow and wrist.
What a strange thing, to hold a dead stranger’s hand in your own. This thing, hand holding, a sort of intimate experience, one that binds you to another living person, becomes passé when the hand is cold and can’t squeeze back.
Once rigor was broken we could get him dressed and then we put him on a lift so he could be set up in a visitation room.
"What do you think?" Jen asked me as she lit a cigarette, having earned a break.
"I don’t know," I said. "They just seem so small."
"Yeah. I mean, obviously they’re not. But that thing that gave them life, that energy that animated them, it’s gone. They seem small; shrunken. They’re not people anymore."
"They’re not people anymore," she repeated as she took a puff.
"That thing that made them people is gone. I mean, they’re still people to all those who loved them, but that thing that made them them … it’s gone."
It was about this time Jen got a phone call.
"Want to see a hospital morgue?" she asked me after hanging up.
The hospital morgue was a disappointment. After having spent my morning hanging out in a room of dead people, to walk into an empty morgue just to pick up a bag in a freezer was a bit of a letdown.
The letdowns were over when we got back. Jen unzipped the bag and immediately zipped it back up.
"Fuck," she said, "It’s a full donation."
I had no idea what that meant at the time, but as she called upstairs for backup, I knew it couldn’t be good.
(I will tell you right now, I fully intend on donating all the useful bits of me I can when I finally go. Not skin, though. I would like to keep my skin.)
Jen’s coworker came downstairs and they began to unzip the bag.
"Anytime you need to walk out of here, you do it, Ro," Jen said as the bag revealed what had, till now, been shrouded in white plastic.
I will spare you the gory detail, but I will tell you they took everything they could. Muscle. Skin. Long bones.
And the woman, who’d apparently died of an asthma attack, had a breathing tube still down her throat. Which Jen had to pull out.
They spent several hours working on her. It would take them a second day to get her into visitation shape. But what they did was magic. Magic aided by science, but magic just the same.
I had stepped out for a moment as they began the embalming that would affect her face. (Usually embalming is done through just one artery and it circulates to the whole body; they could not do that with this woman and had to target embalm her.)
I came back in and the transformation was amazing.
When Jen'd first pulled the morgue bag away from the woman's face, her eyes had been open -- wide and staring -- and there had been that breathing tube in her mouth. Her face had been gray and slack. Upon my return her mouth and her eyes had been closed and now her face had a slight pink tinge. It was not the flush of life, but it was not as alien as that other color.
"You know, we have to get the body done right but what I really care about are the face and the hands," Jen’s coworker said. "The face and the hands are what the family sees. I want that to be right for them when they see her for the last time."
What she said echoed in a way what Larry, the funeral home groundskeeper, had said earlier as we’d prepped the Maine woman for her trip.
"I care about my people," he said after making sure all her things -- a string of pearls, some costume jewelry -- were in the box with her.
These are people’s mothers and fathers and children and siblings and partners. And, yet, in the most inglorious moment of their time above the ground, we trust them to someone else. Someone else dyes their hair blue and green, someone else massages cream into their faces to keep them from drying out, someone else makes sure she’s wearing her long strand of pearls and flowered screw on earrings.
In death we trust those we love to complete strangers, expecting them to make our loved ones look the way they did in life.
It’s a strange thing to expect, no?
I was talking to a journalist friend about this over brunch (I am a delightful companion) and he said to me, “I don’t think I want a visitation; I don’t think I want people looking at me.”
But, ultimately, it’s not about the dead. It’s not about their expectations or wants or needs.
I know I’m not an expert, but I will tell you they have no expectations. They’re dead.
It’s all about ours. It’s about our need for closure and our need to say goodbye. Our need to see our loved one that last time.
Our need to know it’s real. To know that death is real.
And here are people, people full of life and stories of their own, worrying over whether someone’s daughter’s hands look right. Worrying over whether the blue and green stripes are going to turn out. Worrying over whether grandma looks like grandma.
Every day, this is what they do. They surround themselves with death — and sometimes awful death — in order to give us comfort. In order to give us that closure. That time to say goodbye.
"How are you?" Jen asked as we finally drove home.
"I don’t know," I said. "But I’m good. I’m processing."
"Yes," I said.