Before I tell this story, I want you all to know that the majority of people I meet take way too much stock in Hollywood’s versions of dead bodies and what they do, or do not do, in the days before they are buried or cremated. I have had people tell me about the bodies that sit straight up, “ I saw it with my own eyes!” Or watched a woman in a casket breathe, or blink, or twitch a finger, or whatever their eyes told them happened. It’s true that our minds decide what we see, that the dead are not dead, there was a mistake and they are still breathing just really slowly, “Just like in that show I saw” people have told me. I have been brought back into a room where the family frantically asks me to call a doctor because so and so opened their eyes for split second, or their mouth twitched “I swear I saw it”. I don’t mean to make light of these situations because it’s traumatic and sad. The truth, is unless you are around the dead all day, our minds are trained to see a person sleeping. Sleeping people twitch and breath and move, combine that normalcy with the yearning for the person to still be alive and hope to not have to handle the loss in the coming days and years can assuredly create false impressions of movement. It is heart wrenching and I have to calmly explain to the family that they are seeing things that are not there and assure them that their deepest wish is not going to come true.

The hardest of these moments for me was a young girl who lost her mother unexpectedly. She was probably early thirties and an only child. She had not been close to her mother in recent years and there was a ton of unresolved anger and sadness that turned to guilt when she died. The daughter was unmarried, and her father estranged, there was no other family to support her.

When she came in to see her mother’s body, she brought with her four of her friends for support, one of them a hospice nurse. I walked them into the large viewing room, the lights were slightly dimmed, and the woman lay on a table covered to her shoulders with a sheet. The daughter was rightly upset, and emotion overtook her as the girls stepped up to the body. I felt the daughter had all the support she needed so I stepped out into the hallway to give them time alone, letting one of her friends know that I was right outside the door if they needed anything.

It took less than a minute for one of the girls to burst through the door into the hallway practically yelling, “Call 911, she is still alive!” and “Call a doctor quick!” I have to say that I was only surprised because one of these girls was a hospice nurse. She should know that dead bodies don’t come back to life funeral homes. Yet, this is what happened, and the girls were most assuredly feeding off of each other’s frantic energy.

I calmly walked her back into the room and listened as they all told me the same story of an eye twitch. I thought it best to look the woman over again myself in an effort to look like I was investigating the situation, but she was just as still as before, not at all twitchy. I turned around and addressed the girls while standing next to the dead woman explaining to them what they were or, more accurately, were not seeing. To give context, the woman had not been embalmed, there would not be a service and she was to be cremated later that day.

I remember the daughter as if it happened yesterday. She turned to me with clear, bright blue tear filled and hopeful eyes as she argued that maybe the doctors got it wrong “Can you please just call?” she pleaded. My heart ached for her. Her pain was real and tangible. She argued where had seen a show where a dead person was only in a coma that made them appear dead and then later came back to life. So, after more explanation of the trickery of our eyes and helping them understand the real, hard truth, the girls finally calmed down. The daughter slumped her shoulders and hung her head in resignation and I asked her friends to come into the hallway with me and leave the daughter to have a final conversation with her mom and hopefully resolve some of the guilt that she will undoubtedly struggle with for the rest of her life.

I will forever remember the first embalming that I performed on my own. It was late in the evening maybe ten or eleven o’clock, well after sunset . The director and I had just picked up (“received” in mortuary lingo) a deceased man from his home  and were now back at the mortuary where we transferred him to the embalming table. The director said that he was going out to grab something to eat before he could get started on the preparations. He gave me  instructions to start the process and told me to complete as much as I could on my own. In preparation I tied my hair in a bun, suited up in my white embalming smock, shoe covers and blue latex gloves. Imagine a reverse Smurf in small human form. At this point I was comfortable “setting” features (closing the eyes and mouth for a pleasing, natural look) and “raising” vessels (finding the artery and vein needed for embalming)  on my own, so I knew I could complete this much while the director refilled his calories. The room was bathed in bright fluorescent lighting, I was surrounded by stark white walls and the white porcelain table  bearing the dead man was in the center of the room with the foot end butted up against a set of white cabinets and counter-top, a sink, drain and the embalming machine. I pulled out the chemicals that were needed and lined them up next to the machine to wait until it was time to mix them all together.

I enjoyed this time of getting to know my patient. He was long and thin, a real “tall glass of water.” He had brown hair mussed from being bed ridden and ill. He wore red sweat pants, a white t-shirt, and white socks which were all stained and wrinkled from long wear. I placed a clean towel over the private areas, then carefully removed his clothing keeping the towel in place for modesty. He had died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. I remember how his limbs were pulled unnaturally and his muscles and tendons were stiff, making it a chore to straighten them out. I also spoke to him. I told him that once this part was over, his family would be grateful of seeing him at peace when they came to say their goodbyes. It was the first in what would become a natural routine for me, talking to the dead people in my charge. Maybe it was an attempt to give them, or me, some kind of comfort, maybe it was because I felt they deserved the kindness, the company. I don’t know if the “spirit” stays with the body, but I know it felt like I should give them some sense of substance because they had lived and were loved, even if their physical heart was no longer beating.

I kept talking, I told the dead man how beautiful his wife was and that she was going to have a hard time now that he was gone but she understood he had to go (all of these things I had witnessed when we “received” him from his home). Once I had the man disrobed, modesty towel in place, I pulled out all of the instruments that were required for the procedure and laid them out neatly on the embalming table so that they were easily accessed when needed. I turned on the tap and directed the long hose from the sink to pour water down one side of the table. I washed the man’s face with soap and fussed over closing his eyes and mouth so that he would look peaceful, at rest. I shaved the bit of stubble from his neck and chin making sure to get as close as possible without causing razor burn. Then I made the required incision and prepared the vessels for the embalming. Once I was finished with this, the director  had not yet returned, and so I waited, but not for long.

It was getting late, and I was sure the director would be back at any moment to help and manage things, so I continued the process on my own. I mixed the chemicals, attached the hose of the embalming machine and flipped the switch to on.  As the machine churned fluid into the man’s body, the gentle whir of its motor  and the soft splashing of the water spilling from the hose were the only sounds in the room. I poured soap over his limbs and massaged his muscles, (this is to help facilitate blood flow and ensure that fluid is getting to all areas of the body.) I went slow and watched everything carefully. Walking around from one side of the table to the other assuring that I wasn’t missing anything. Before long I had completed the process and was in the final stages of washing the body. That is when the director finally walked into the room. I asked if everything was okay, since he had been gone so long. He chuckled and revealed he had been in the front office the whole time! He confessed of sneaking in to check on me throughout the evening and that he had never even left the building! He had meant for me to do this on my own all along. He walked up to the man on the table with a huge grin as he inspected and then praised my work. That was a proud moment for me, another test passed!

I was also beginning to learn that most funeral directors have a wicked sense of humor. The next morning, I walked into work, chest puffed out, head held high, remembering my big accomplishment from the night before. I was greeted by the funeral home manager as I walked in the door.  Usually a jovial guy and always ready with a quick joke at your expense, so I was shocked as he walked up to me with purpose and a stern demeanor and immediately asked, “Who embalmed Mr. so and so last night?” I froze, then slowly in a smaller than normal voice answered, “I did.” He paused and said, “Follow me.” He turned on his heel and deliberately stomped away towards the embalming room. As we walked down the long-carpeted hallway, the walls seemingly getting narrower the closer we got to the door of the embalming room. My head was reeling, what could have happened? I set the features, fluid was fine, body washed, cream on the face and hands, body covered with a sheet! As we entered the room the senior embalmer was already there standing over the man with his arms crossed. Oh man, this was serious, what did I miss?! This is what a deflated balloon must feel like. The fluorescent lights of the room felt hot, like a spotlight in an interrogation room. Then the sheet was pulled off of the table exposing the man that I had embalmed, by myself, the night before. Modesty towel still in place.

They both stood back with arms folded and asked me to look at this man lying on the table and explain to them what was wrong. I did this, citing everything I had done the night before step by step, I stated the fluid mixture, I massaged every limb, every appendage had good fluid, I closed the eyes, cleaned and trimmed the nails, and he looked good! So, I turned to them both and said “Nothing, there is nothing wrong with him.” A moment of tense silence and then,  laughter?! Like hyenas they laughed, and I was so confused! Once these men were able to catch their breath I heard the most beautiful words, “Nope, there is nothing wrong with him, you did a great job!”