I saw life and death in bare detail working for a funeral home.
The dead body, having festered for four days, reeked. The stench of its rotting flesh filled the embalming room and, unavoidably, my breathing.
Fortunately, in such situations, our smell system overloads and goes numb after a half hour.
When a person dies, their body dies gradually. At first, the stagnant blood turns blue and the body heats up. Rigor mortis sets in after about four hours, lactic acid locking the muscles. That’s why they’re called “stiffs.” If it were the case, I would have had to forcibly “break loose” his face, arms and legs. In this case, he had gone lax, even floppy. The wild anaerobic bacteria thriving in the lifeless organs made the dead body swell and reek. Little bags of dark fluid formed just under the skin.
Gulping back my gagging, hardening to my grim task, I set in to embalm the rotting body.
In high school I had hired into the three-generation firm to do yard work and to set up chairs for funerals. Then I had helped haul caskets and pick up stiff bodies from cold hospital morgues. Eventually, I was attending junior college, as preparation for mortuary school, while also driving and attending the funeral home’s ambulance at night.
Our big, silver-blue Oldsmobile hearse doubled as the local ambulance. We’d take the panels with the big slanted “f” off the side-back windows, put the big light on top, clasp in the folding stretcher, strap in the oxygen bottle, stock up the bandages, and be on-call. I liked ambulance work. We wore white coats and caps, giving us a professional look, even if all we had was on-the-job training. (I did go on to learn and teach first aid.) I got to drive fast, get to the scene, do what I could, and take wounded or sick people to the hospital.
In my ambulance and embalming work I retrieved the mess of car and plane crashes, received vets “home” from the new Vietnam War, and dealt with the aftermath of suicides and murders. Usually though, my work dealt with old, naturally dead bodies, like this rank one.
I cut open the skin above the side neck muscle, split it and pulled up the cream-colored, tough carotid artery and the dark blue, thin-walled vein. I slid the injecting tube in the artery, clamped it off, opened the vein, and pumped the formaldehyde in around the circuit, pushing dark red blood out the opened vein onto the stainless steel table, where it went down the drain. That part was not so bad.
Trocaring the inner organs felt ruder than the rest of the process. I poked a long, hollow, stainless steel tube with little holes in its sharp point into his belly. I shoved it here and there, sucking out fluids from the stomach, bladder, and various organs. The suction came from a fast-running faucet with a hose attached to the side, pulling the fluid through the trocar. Down the drain it would go. When more or less empty, I’d reverse the flow, this time hooking the hose to a bottle of formaldehyde, draining it from on high into those same punctured organs. This flushed the cavities with the drying, harsh chemical that would prevent bacterial growth, preserving the body at least long enough to be viewed. The formaldehyde added its own astringent stink to the room’s stench.
I sewed the mouth shut, shaved the old man, washed him, combed his hair, and put make-up on his face and hands. With help from my boss, Bob, we dressed him in a suit and put him in the casket. He looked better than he was.
Done for the day, I climbed the stairs and passed through the casket show room. Various caskets were on display for purchase, from a grey, cheap simple one to an expensive solid mahogany model. Some were bronze sealers; we’d crank down the top against a rubber gasket, sealing the embalmed corpse safely inside.
Past the casket show room, in a corner of the casket store room, along with stacked extra caskets, I had my cot, desk, and radio. I’d listen to a Detroit jazz program, “This is Rockwell, and these are records.” It felt focused and cool to do my studies there, on-call for the ambulance.
At pre-dawn, a call came in to take a woman to the hospital to give birth. Bob drove fast; we got her on the cot and hurried in. On the way, she couldn’t wait. There I was, 19 years old, the only one there to help.
I could see the wet dark hair on the baby’s scalp just inside the growing opening. The mother spoke only Spanish; I didn’t. We sped along, right there between the old insane asylum and the new mall, the siren wailing. A big push, and, bloop, out past its head and shoulders the infant slid, crying. I didn’t “deliver” the baby. The mother delivered the baby, or maybe Life did, through her. My job was to receive it and hold on, no matter how slippery in all those gushed fluids.
Moments later, as all that slick fluid turned a dry, tacky white, I put the infant on his mother’s belly. I left the umbilical cord attached; there is no hurry to cut it in such a non-sterile place. I hoped the placenta would emerge later at the hospital.
At the hospital, through a translator, the mother and her friend joked they might call the boy by my name. I felt proud and honored, not so much for the name, more-so for the privilege of assisting at such a miraculous moment, a very earthy event.
Birth and death, even for all the wonder then and between, can both be yucky. Most people live their lives without seeing either. Barely beyond boyhood, I saw both.
I never saw the hint of a ghost, and I don’t know for sure of any afterlife.
Our bodies are precious, precarious, and temporary.
I left funeral directing to enter the ministry. I believe in this limited life we each and all have in our body for our while.
Byron Bradley Carrier
© February 19, 2018