DEAD BEAT: Mortician Magic


So, one day I was loading a case into the cooler, and all the shelves were full.  “Where do you want me to put him?” I asked Jerry, the embalmer, an affable black man from the South.  He has a tendency to hum Southern spirituals to himself as he works, and I hate to interrupt him.

“He’ll have to share for awhile”, was his reply, without losing a beat from the song he was humming.

So, I checked out each shelf to see who was skinny enough to share.  The cooler is built for eight, with five shelves on either side.  Everyone on the left looked pretty heavy, but a bag on the right, second from the bottom, looked about right.  The only light was coming from the doorway, so I peered closer to see who it was in the bag.  Most cases stick around for a few days to a week, in various stages of preparation, and you do get to know them by face after awhile.

I pulled back the bag to get a look at his mug, and he seemed to be a dark skinned individual whom I hadn’t met before.  I looked even closer and realized he wasn’t dark skinned at all but had burned up in a fire.  Having not been prepared for the sight, I nearly jumped out of my shoes, uttering an oath that caught Jerry’s ear.

“Now what all is going on back there?” he called from his table.

“Who’s the burned guy?”, I asked him, recovering.  You get used to burned guys; you get used to everything in this racket.  Just, sometimes you need to be prepared.

“I need you to bring him to me next; he’s got an open casket tomorrow”

In those days, I hadn’t seen everything yet.  This was crazy talk.  “Open casket? He’s all burned up!”

“You let me do my job, and you go do yours”, was Jerry’s reply.

Embalmer at work.
Embalmer at work.

So I sniffed around in the Funeral Home and got the story from Brian, a young funeral director who talks more than he should.  The man was a 39-year-old Thai, I forget his name now, with a wife and kids and everything. He had skidded off the freeway in his minivan right into a tree and the whole thing went kablooey.  He got dragged out by Samaritans before he burnt to a crisp, but he was burnt pretty bad and was dead before his rescuers had finished pulling him out.  His condition in the cooler was the stuff of nightmares to the layperson; hair gone, ears and nose mostly gone, his whole face blackened.

I couldn’t help myself; I didn’t have a run the next day but I dropped by the cemetery to see Jerry and take a look at his work.  I entered the embalmer’s room to find him working on a fresh-looking case.

“Where’s the burned guy?”, I asked him.

“Right in front of you”

In front of me was a man who appeared to be peacefully asleep, with nice color in his cheeks, a full head of hair, good features.  He was dressed in a double-breasted suit, and looked quite ordinary.  I knew he was dead, but you might not have, had you seen him. You want to talk about unsung heroes, talk about embalmers.  They are artists in their hidden, cramped work rooms, turning the most gory and mangled accident victims into stunning facsimiles of their living selves, often working from no more than an old photograph.  Jerry was one of the best; a master of clay, makeup, wigs, clothing, anatomy. He brings life back to the most hopeless, dehumanized copses long enough for their families to say goodbye. For this, he is paid very modestly.

“How did you do that?  How did you get him looking so good?”, I asked him.

“I went to school”, he told me.