We still get affected in this line of work. Don’t think that death is any less sad for us. It is no less mysterious, no less frightening, no less a thing of dread. I’ve seen plenty of bravado in the trenches, to be sure. I engage in it myself. It is how you brace yourself against the never ending dark parade. It’s the same with humor. Sure, we crack jokes sometimes, although probably not as often as people do at office jobs. It’s our form of gallows humor. Still, we do our jobs with dignity and care, even if something is eating at us inside.
There were three times when I nearly lost it, but not from gore or gruesomeness. I became very sad. This is not a thing we talk about much at work because we don’t want to bring the others down, but it is not a taboo topic, and sometimes I’ll talk about it a little with whoever is my partner while we wait in the hearse during a funeral. In a fourth incident, I considered getting hysterical, but decided against it. That one wasn’t from sadness exactly, although maybe it is in a way. I am not a psychologist.
Two times, the cases were simple enough. Both times occurred in the embalming room, and both were very routine. Yet they hit me hard nonetheless. They surprised me; caught me off my guard.
Jerry, the embalmer, had called me in to bring him some supplies from the storeroom. I did this all the time; I passed the storeroom on the way to the vehicles every day. So, on one ordinary day I grabbed some gauze and some cotton balls as requested and drove one of the golf carts over to the detached embalmer’s building. I strolled in, inhaling a good whiff of bleach through my nostrils, and saw what he was working on.
It was a teen-aged girl. She was a black girl, maybe 16, with very delicate features. She was dressed in a beautiful white gown, and looked for all the world as if she had just dozed off. I was struck by her remarkable beauty; I had never seen a case look as sweet and innocent as she did in her death.
“What happened to her?”, I asked, surprised at the tenderness in my own voice.
Jerry was washing his equipment in the sink with his back toward me. He didn’t bother turning around to reply. “Crossing the street. She didn’t see the bus; the bus didn’t see her”, he replied in the matter-of-fact tone of his profession. “You bring the things I asked for?”
I later learned that the girl’s parents had brought the white gown from home earlier in the day; she wore it to church most Sundays. She is one who still haunts me.
Another that haunts me is a Korean woman of about 35. I don’t know how she died. I saw her suddenly as I swung the door open to the embalming room. She was nude and spread-eagle on a surface tilted at a 45 degree angle, facing the door directly as I walked in. My impulse was to excuse myself and walk out, as if I had intruded on somebody in the restroom. She had long, jet-black hair which was wet; I realized Jerry was working on her, holding a spray nozzle in his hand.
“You walked in while she is in the shower”, he told me, noticing that I seemed a bit stunned. “Surely a guy like you is not going to tell me he’s never seen a naked lady before”, he added. “You got my supplies?”
Sure I’ve seen naked ladies before, live ones and dead ones. It wasn’t the nudity that affected me. There was nothing sexual in what I felt. It was closer to horror. I imagined that in life such an intrusion would have mortified her. It was this lack of mortification that hit me the hardest. What I saw wasn’t a naked woman, it was an empty shell.
My third sad one was a child. He had been sickly most of his life, and died at the age of seven. What got me there was the size of the casket. I was working the funeral as an assistant, and was sent to fetch the boy. The casket was so light, I could easily lift it over my head if I had been so possessed. I placed it at the front of the chapel, and opened it up for the viewing. The boy was small, but not under-grown. He was just thin and fragile, with almost translucent skin.
After the funeral the mother came up to me. “It was beautiful” she told me. It was one of Chloe’s funerals; she always took care of every detail. “I felt like he was watching it too. Do you think he could see it?” I glanced in her eyes, which were focused and intent and yet also dilated and distant. The eyes of shock and grief.
“I think he can see you any time you think of him”, was all I could say to her, but it seemed to be the right thing. I don’t believe it, though. I don’t know where he is or even if he is at all. I’d love to imagine a Heaven of sunshine and happiness, but then why would a seven year old have to suffer his whole life to get there?
Towards the end of my days in the business, I finally had the incident that provided my moment of clarity. I had gone into the cooler to drop off a case. The only open slot was the top shelf, and so I used our lift. We are supposed to do this with a partner, but it was late night, and nobody was there. I got him on that top shelf, but his weight was balanced just a little off, and he came crashing down, bringing all three bodies below him with him, pinning me underneath to the floor.
I remember consciously thinking, here I am buried under 800 pounds of dead bodies. The sum total of all my life events had brought me to that moment, and here I was, unable to move, my kisser against the foul floor drain.
The impulse was to panic, and scream, and weep, and curse my lot in life. But when I opened my mouth to do so, all that came out was laughter. It was a bitter laughter, but laughter nonetheless. And it grew until my whole body shuddered with laughter. I laughed for all mankind, how the schemes and machinations and plots of all men end up exactly the same. I laughed at petty human vanity, and pettiness itself, and ignorance. I laughed because the joke was on all of us, but at least I figured that part out early. I laughed because our only defense against death is laughter. Laughter and love, and even they don’t protect us forever. Finding a well of strength in me that I ever knew I had, I shook the bodies off me and went about re-shelving them.
That same night, I banged my girl good. She was into it. “You’re strong today, baby”, she kept whispering in my ear. Was it Bukowski who said that sex is like giving death the middle finger? Death got two of them from us.