For the purposes of this essay, I’m assuming that you are dead. My sincerest condolences. Let’s say that, for now, how you died is not an important question. For our purposes, let’s say the moment you started reading was your last. It’s perfectly plausible, after all. Death can be terribly random. Sometimes, our hearts just stop beating. Sometimes, they even explode. In (extremely rare) cases, people themselves can spontaneously combust out of nowhere. So, combusted or otherwise, the way you’ve passed on doesn’t matter much. The point of the matter is that you’re here, reading this, and I’m assuming that you’re dead.
Having accepted this, we move on to the more immediate concern: what comes next? I don’t pretend to have the slightest idea about your soul. Good or bad, theist or secular, you probably have your own beliefs in that regard, and your guess is as good as mine, if not better. What I’m concerned for is your body; the physical, corporeal organism you’re leaving on Earth. Where is that going? What happens to you now, or at least the most recognizably “you” part of you? From here on out, your body is something that must be handled, and handled correctly. You, your body, is about to get the most visitors it’s ever had. People will flock to see it–to see you–lying still, inert, and bloodless. They will stare, cry, perhaps hold your hand or peck their lips on your forehead. They will try to believe that it really is you, or that it isn’t really you, or that you’re just sleeping, never to be disturbed.
But those things are not for you to convince them of. There are other people for that, people who have given themselves the seemingly impossible task of stripping you of the signs of decay, and returning you to some outer semblance of life. Before any of your loved ones have the chance to stare or cry or reach for your hand, these are the people who will be with you. These are the people who will be alone with you in a stark room kept permanently chilled, whose breath will fog the air above your face and crystallize softly on your eyelashes as they bend over you. These are the people who will take a scalpel and make one fluid slice down your chest, the people who will delicately place a soft blue towel over your skin and lift it from time to time to wipe you clean, who will analyze the curl of your toes to see just how much work you need. These are the strangers who will know you intimately, not like a lover or a friend but like someone else entirely, someone who knows things you will never know about yourself.
I want to introduce you to them.
First, you should know that your embalmer is well-trained. All legitimate embalmers must hold at least an associate’s degree in mortuary sciences from an accredited college. Before they can dedicate their lives to dead people—people like you—they have to spend at least two years in a lab with a professor of the science.
That professor might be, for example, Benjamin Schmidt, an embalming instructor at Worsham College, the leading college for mortuary sciences in the USA. He loves his job, and always has. “I am very lucky,” he says. “Unlike many funeral directors, my day is filled with optimism and excitement because of my students. I feed from their energy and enthusiasm and that gets me out of bed on my worst days.” For him, more than anything, it’s about the students, curious students who want to learn how to help people. You can even donate your body to them, for practice purposes.
“We are taught that even though we’re different on the outside, we’re the same on the inside,” says Professor Schmidt. “This is simply not true, and the things that we live with and may never even know are there make those differences amazing.” So maybe you would become a student too, should you donate your body. Maybe you would learn something entirely new about yourself. What anomalies do you have lurking inside of you that you’ve never discovered? Have you ever wondered about the true size and shape of your heart? Perhaps Professor Schmidt will usher his students into a crowd around you, pointing excitedly with his scalpel as he says, “Now look at this, this is really interesting.” With you in the room, he’ll discuss whatever anomaly he’s found, excise it, and pass it around. Your organs will tell your story. A student in the crowd will whisper, “Wow, I wonder if they knew,” and maybe the professor will explain it to you too, but you will not hear. What are you missing, unable to open your eyes and look as the students hold your heart at arm’s length in front of your face?
Still, you communicate with them, in your own way. You’ve left messages in bottles, whether you believe it or not. The life you’ve left behind is etched permanently into your body, and even where your body is found. “The first time I ever provided customer service to a deceased person was when I went on my first transfer of remains at a house,” explains Schmidt. “It was 11 o’clock or so at night, and the woman was in bed. When we went into the house, I noticed they had the same tile floor as my grandparents growing up. I immediately made a connection of how important this person was to their family.” Even the embalming professor has had to go to some painful funerals. Maybe you remind him of someone he once knew. How could you not, as he takes a magnifying glass to every part of you? Maybe it’s the tiles on your floor. Maybe it’s a freckle in between your toes. Maybe it’s just something vague about your face. Maybe he’ll talk to you in the quiet moments before students start filing in for class, like he might to an old friend he hasn’t seen in a few years.
It sounds comforting; someone with a soft voice approaching you as you lie on the cold steel table––a friend just asking how you’ve been.
The average dead person, however, does not donate their bodies to their local school of mortuary science. More than likely, you will go directly to the nearest funeral home. Your loved ones, be that family or friends, will accompany you, where they will meet with a funeral director to discuss the next steps for you. That funeral director may be a young woman like Helen Loring Dear, the president of Porter Loring Mortuary. She will ask whoever comes with you what specifications you made about your remains: cremation or embalming, open or closed casket? If you failed to specify, and your loved one has no preference, chances are she’ll encourage embalming and an open casket. Chances are she’ll encourage it anyways, because it’s her specialty. While you sit back and relax, your loved ones are planning, coordinating, and grieving, all at once.
“Some families are more talkative than others,” she explains, “and some prefer just to get right down to planning the services, which is understandable. They’re all different, and each person within the family is going through different grief stages, and so we have to learn to accommodate that and work with them.” Maybe you know exactly where in the process each of your family or friends would be as they crowd into the warm yellow front room of the funeral home, classical piano playing on the stereo above their heads. Who will be the lead negotiator for you? Who will look stoically at the check, pick out the wood finish for your coffin, and present the reference picture for your viewing? And which photo will they choose? All of this is important for Helen Loring to do her job fully.
But why does she do the job in the first place? Why is it so important to dress up a dead person like you? Not only are you going in the ground, but you’ll never know or care whether she’s doing your hair and/or makeup more like your graduation photos or your prom photos. “It preserves the body a little bit longer, and then it slows down the decomposition process basically,” explains Loring. “I’ve seen the difference, if someone’s been really sick and they just didn’t look like themselves in the hospital, and then they’re embalmed and their color’s back to the way the family was used to seeing it… it really does help. It helps to see them like they’re just sleeping.”
Death is a blunt and obvious process. As much as it may have surprised you to die the moment you picked up this paper, it surprised the people surviving you even more. Your funeral is where those people will go to begin the process of believing. For many funeral goers, it seems, seeing is believing. But they can’t see too close, not until you’ve been cleaned up. It would be too hard to identify you in decay as “you.” They need to see you in that casket in order to understand. In the embalming tradition, death is a truth that must be covered up to be fully believed. You must be recognizable, so that your loved ones know it’s really you they’re sending away. It really was you who fell down dead while reading one day. It is you lying there, looking as if you might stir and wake up at any moment, tell them you love them, and it is truly you, they begin to understand, who will never do so again.
By now, you have been waiting in the mortuary for a few hours. The sterile table you lie on is cold on your back, but you are covered from head to toe with a scratchy, white sheet. You look like a Halloween ghost who’s fallen asleep in costume, minus the eyeholes. You are not alone. Four or five other slumbering ghosts lie on tables on either side of you, also awaiting treatment. It’s a sleepover with strangers. After a moment, a short woman in a white lab coat, a blue face mask, and latex gloves enters the room through a sliding metal door. She’s outnumbered, interrupting the party, and yet she walks calmly amongst you and your new friends, checking tags and labels. She stops when she gets to you, humming to herself.
How does one make death look like sleep? The process is more complicated than a closing of the eyes, or a swipe of blush on the cheeks. We’ll see what she does with you.
She rolls your table into a separate room, a lab that smells pungently of formaldehyde and cleaning chemicals. She puts you directly in the center of the room, locks your wheels, and then her footsteps retreat for a moment. From the corner of the room, a radio begins to play. Maybe it’s a song you loved. Maybe it’s a song you always pretended to hate. It gets her moving faster, more sure of herself. She’s back at your side in a beat, gently tugging the blanket off of your face. You are shrivelling. Your face is a pale shade of green, your hair the consistency of seaweed sprouting from your head. Your lips are as dry and cracked as if you’d been out playing in the snow all day. Your eyes are shut and your mouth is slightly open, as if you’ve been snoring.
“Hello,” says your embalmer. “Are you ready?”
She starts with your face. A hot towel blots your forehead and wipes down your nose and chin, gentle and repetitive. With each stroke, she wipes away the sweat and anxiety that was frozen to your skin, the stresses of dying dissolved in warm water and squeezed into a bucket. She rolls the towel down another few inches and begins to work methodically down your body. She only exposes what she needs briefly, then covers it back up and moves on. If you were feeling cold before, you aren’t now. She is singing softly. She finishes with the bottoms of your feet.
“To relax the muscles,” she says next, before beginning to massage and knead you with her fingers. You feel each stiff toe begin to uncurl slightly as she works. Your feet look almost as if they could stand on their own again. She finishes her kneading your face, where she moves her thumbs in circular motions on your cheeks until your jaw goes slack, and your mouth opens in a yawn. “You’ll want that closed,” she says conversationally, and pulls a sewing needle and thread from the table. The needle passes smoothly through the chapped yet soft skin on your lips, pulling tight against them until your mouth is slowly guided shut by the thin, black thread.
She moves to your hair next, combing it out carefully, so as not to rip it from your scalp. Once all of the knots are out, she presses the hair into a bowl of warm, scented water and swirls it around. She then wraps your head neatly in a towel to dry, as if you’re in a salon.
Finally, it’s time for the incision. The scalpel scrapes as the embalmer picks it up from the sterile table she works off of. In one deft stroke, she makes a long, deep cut in your chest. This is for the embalming tube. She will insert it directly into your artery. Once the tube is secure, she starts up the machine, a white box with a tube protruding from either side. It roars like a vacuum as it works. It is pushing a sterile, pink liquid into your veins. As it does so, your blood rushes out of you at first, then slows to a reluctant drip in its tube. All of your darkened red is replaced with fluorescent pink. As she does this, the natural color in your skin returns. The pink was needed to simulate the glow of life. The liquid also rehydrates your skin, plumping it from its quickly wrinkling state and taking you from cold, inert death to outstretched, leisurely sleep.
Your embalmer finishes with some old-fashioned foundation, and makeup as needed for your face. Sleep. Almost pretty sleep. Almost comforting. Using a combination of chemicals, drugstore powders, and human touch, your embalmer has brought you back to life.
At least, for a couple of days.
Work complete, your embalmer covers you again with the sheet and wheels you out into a different but identical room, also filled with sleeping ghosts, as well as a few custom-made caskets of various colors and sizes. One of these may be yours. You will be placed in it using ropes and a special machine for lifting bodies gently. Then you will be wheeled to the appropriate location for your viewing. Then you will have the funeral. Then you will be buried. People will have their last looks at you before the coffin lid is closed, and then you will be lowered into the Earth.
Although you have been dead this whole time, now you are really gone. Gone forever. Officially dead, with everyone in agreement. The nature that already took you is finally allowed, reluctantly by your loved ones, to have you. They feel as if they had a say in the matter, no matter how small.
All of this is to say that you have been taken care of. Concluded. You are in agreement by omission. All of us together now: goodbye, we hope you had a wonderful stay. We’ll visit you someday. We speak for you now. That’s just what dying is.
This is also to say that you’ll be in good hands. Still, they are hands you’re not likely to shake in your lifetime. Maybe knowing who those hands belong to will provide you some comfort. Maybe it doesn’t help you at all.
Still, you say, what does it matter? Why is this the only story I can hear?
Okay, fine. For the purposes of this essay, I am now assuming that you are alive. I’m assuming that your blood runs red in your veins, your toes stand uncurled, and your mouth no longer hangs slack, but opens and closes at will. Welcome back. Deep breaths. Maybe this comes to you as a relief. Maybe you’ve stopped reading, turned and said to a friend, “Eh, it was okay,” or “that was more than I needed to know about corpses in my lifetime.” Or maybe you’ve been reading angrily this whole time, thinking: Who do you think you are? You can’t speak for me this way. You don’t know me at all. Maybe you want to talk to someone else about something else entirely. Either way, you’ve probably had a few things you’ve been wanting to say.
Go ahead. We’re listening.