There are a lot of actors in the cemeteries around Los Angeles. Some are well-known, some are forgotten, and some are notorious. We had one guy come in who was in his twenties who had been in some movies in bit roles, but hadn’t quite made his mark when he died from a heroin overdose. I had never heard of the guy myself; he looked like any one of countless actor-types populating the city. However, it turned out that he was well known by some heavy hitters; over 300 were expected for his funeral, including some names I did know.
I didn’t have to go on any body runs, so I was enlisted to bring the casket to the chapel for the service. I brought one of the assistant funeral directors, Soledad, with me to the embalming room, where the young actor lay in a handsome bronze-toned casket. I propped the doors open, so we could wheel him right out, while Soledad opened the casket to check on him.
“Ugh”, she announced. “He spit up”. This is always a danger; bodies are full of fluids, and once you’re dead, the fluids begin to leak out of every orifice. Spit-ups were common; fluid would leak from the case’s mouth, especially after moving. Normally, you just wipe it up, but sometimes you might have to actually change the case’s clothing, if an open casket was expected.
“Well, how bad is it?”, I asked Soledad. I could see though the doors that a traffic jam was developing on the cemetery grounds; dozens upon dozens of cars were arriving for the service, which was due to start in minutes.
“It’s not so bad, but not good”, replied Soledad, who was trying to clean him up with wet paper towels. “It got on his shirt and tie”
I took a look myself. The kid looked peaceful, almost grinning, as if he were up to mischief, and the spitting up was a prank on his part. A big, ugly brown stain discolored his cream-colored tie and a bit of the shirt beneath it. This was a problem; his mother, who had arrived with another woman in a powder blue 1967 Cadillac convertible, was big on appearances, and had been riding Soledad hard to ensure the funeral was befitting of the script in her head, and one little spit-up could ruin the whole thing.
“Give him your tie!” Soledad urged me, when it became clear that the stain could not be removed. “Hell, no! This is a Bugatti tie”, I told her. “Pure silk”
“Please! We don’t have time. We need to get the case to the chapel in ten minutes!”, she said, a tone of panic coloring her words ever so slightly. I looked at her. Soledad was one of my favorites at the funeral home; a Mexican with intense dark eyes and raven black hair, done in a style that reminded me of a silent-era film star, she was earnest and dedicated. Her greatest fear in life was not death or dead bodies, but failure to provide perfect service for her client.
I couldn’t let her down. I reached into the casket to untie the case’s necktie, and found the whole tie moist. The dampness made the tie hard to undo, but I was able to loosen the knot enough that I could slip the whole thing over his head. The tricky part was getting my tie on him. I had never put a tie on a corpse before; they don’t exactly cooperate. It was not a pretty procedure, especially trying to tighten the Windsor knot (I didn’t try to get fancy and give him a double-Windsor; the embalmer had only tied a granny knot). I had a weird sensation as if I were strangling him, as I pulled the knot tight. I muttered an apology in my head.
As I tightened the knot, the back of my hand touched his lips, which were cold. It almost felt as if he had just kissed my hand. In fact, I became convinced that he had; in some strange way, the kid was thanking me.
“He’s happy you gave him such a nice tie”, Soledad said softly, as she touched up his makeup, reading my mind. We wheeled him to the chapel just in time, where I caught a glimpse of some familiar faces I knew from television. The kid had been in the same workshop with other young actors who had hit big. His mother made a dramatic entrance, and I took a place in the shadows, where I usually stand for funerals, and waited to assist.
I’m not dead yet, but sometimes I do think about my necktie, buried six feet under for years now. A little piece of me; the first to go.