I got called to the embalmer’s building to assist. Waiting for me at the front door was another driver from Rose Hills who had just delivered a case. He was in no hurry to go inside, and offered me a smoke, which I accepted. He lit mine, then his, and we each took a couple drags in silence.
I wasn’t sure why Rose Hills had sent him and his case to us, but I waited for him to tell me. I don’t like asking questions of strangers. Unless there is reason to doubt a stranger’s competence, I assume we’ll get to work-related chit-chat.
Sure enough, after he had smoked enough to sharpen his mind, he told me we had an indigent case. This meant that the poor soul wasn’t gonna get any prime real estate in Rose Hills or even Hollywood. He was gonna become a cardboard box of ashes, which we’d keep for six months unless somebody claimed him. If nobody did (which happens more often than most people might realize), he’d wind up being buried with all the other unclaimed cremains in a simple ceremony attended by a couple of grave diggers and whichever funeral director wasn’t busy. A dignified prayer would be recited, their names would be read to the wind, and the gravediggers would shovel some dirt on top. These indigent burials were usually very kind in spirit, despite how sad they are. Funeral professionals still acknowledge the humanity even in those who can’t afford a memorial and have nobody to mourn them. I felt better about the business after attending my first one.
However, there was more to it than that. “The Sheriff’s in there”, he told me. “He needs pictures”
“We might as well not keep him waiting then”, I said. “We’ll get his clothes off, flip him over, and we’re done”
This Rose Hills guy continued to nurse his Camel. “This is no simple procedure”, he told me. “This dude weighs well over 300 pounds, and he was dead a week before they found him. He’s already liquefying like a mother”
Nothing more needed to be said. A putrefying 300 pounds is about the worst thing to deal with. Nothing is as heavy as dead weight, and his rotting condition meant he’d be leaking all over. I was gonna ask for specifics to plan a course of action, but the door opened and the Sheriff’s deputy stuck his head out the door. “Guys, if you don’t mind…I have other places I need to be”
The worst thing is to look like a dilettante in front of a Sheriff’s deputy, because they’ll mock you and bring it up every time they see you. So, we marched right in and got to business. This is what we got paid $12/hr to do, and we had to be professional.
Mr. Rizzo, whose name I have changed for this story, was on the table. He was a bearded, large man of 68. Heart attack was his cause of death. He was wearing jeans that had turned rust-color with fluids, and a blue shirt. He was still fairly intact, but was in a state of moderate decomposition and had that macabre, agonized look corpses get as they rot away.
First, we emptied his pockets. He had a glasses case and a soaked-through folded piece of paper with stuff scrawled in blue ink on it in his breast pocket, which I set aside. We fished his wallet out of his back pocket. It contained a drivers license that had expired two years prior, and three dollars. Some other papers had pretty much disintegrated into mulch in his front jeans pockets. The stench was powerful; what was left of his skin was cracking, and orange-brown fluid, resembling pumpkin soup was spilling onto the stainless steel table every time we moved him.
We got scissors and went to work. The Sheriff’s Department takes photos to document the presence or absence of any wounds. They also take photos of tattoos for identification. So, we had to get him naked. This meant getting very close and personal, and exposing not just his body, but whatever was leaking out of it. It’s funny how your mind helps you with such tasks. A kind of tunnel-vision sets in. I could only see the scissors and the cloth; the whole rest of the room pixelated into nothingness, as my attention was zeroed in on just cutting. We both gagged a few times on the stench, but managed to get his shirt off. His skin was slipping off, making him difficult to grip, but we flipped him over and went to work on his jeans. At one point, I tried yanking his underwear off, but it was stuck. I kept pulling the elastic, stretching it, expecting it to rip.
“Whoa, don’t do that”, the Rose Hills guy muttered, working from the other side. “Look”, he said, pointing. Cupped in his underwear was an orange, grapefruit-sized ball of feces, blood, liquefied innards, and other detritus that was about to slingshot right into my face if the elastic band were to rip. Close call narrowly averted, we rolled him over and got his underwear off that way, keeping most of his mess wrapped up in a ball of cloth.
The deputy snapped his pics and walked out without so much as a thanks, but we were used to the thankless aspects of the job and were just glad to see him go. No longer being watched, we were able to fairly quickly get him bagged up in a fresh bag and stowed in the cooler. The table was a riot of shit and fluid and junk, so we hosed it off, tossed the bio-waste, and split.
Later, I tracked down Chloe, the closest thing to a friend I had among the assistant funeral directors, and I asked her why Mr. Rizzo was a indigent case, since we had his name and ID and place of residence.
“The family won’t claim him”, she told me. “Rose Hills was in touch with them, we’ve been in touch with them, and they just don’t want to know about it”
“So they are telling you to just let him rot, so to speak?”
“They didn’t put it that way. A sister lives out of state and is on assistance; she says she has no money. Another relative said he hadn’t talked to him in twenty years and doesn’t feel the need to get involved. So, he’s probably going to sit in the file cabinet in the office for six months.”
I got curious about Mr. Rizzo, and when I got home, I tried to pull up some info on him on the internet. There was almost nothing, except that I learned he had once been a model plane enthusiast. I couldn’t find anything about family, except that he did indeed have a sister in Arizona. I almost considered contacting her and offering to pay for the cremation and to have his ashes sent to her, which altogether would cost about $600. However, I closed the browser and put the idea out of my head. Whatever it had been about Mr. Rizzo in life, it had led him to a place where nobody even cared he was dead. It wasn’t the money. Some people just don’t inspire love after death.