CONTENT WARNING: Descriptions of dead bodies below.
During a stint of unemployment in 2008, I watched a great deal of daytime A&E with my mom. It was then I saw A&E Investigative Reports: Business of Death. As a fan of Six Feet Under and the macabre, I was fascinated. I thought I could totally be a funeral director. The idea stayed in the back of my mind, and in moments of “What am I doing with my life?” it would pop up.
In 2011, I had a job I hated and decided as part of my New Year’s resolutions for 2012 that I would either get a new job or start mortuary school in the fall. Well, I got a new job in February and started mortuary school in the fall. I was lucky there was a program at a college only 40 minutes away from me.
I started out going part time only needing the program prerequisites because I had a B.A. I then took the only funeral services class you could take without being in the program: Introduction to Funeral Services. It covered the history of funerals and death rituals dating from the ancient Egyptians to today. It was so much fun; I could not wait to get into the program.
With those under my belt, I applied for the college’s Funeral Services program. As one of the most competitive mortuary programs, they have over 100 applicants for 20 spots. Some people apply two to three times before getting in. I got in the first time. I attended orientation super excited. I met my fellow new program members, all fellow weirdos fascinated with death and possessing a dark sense of humor. It was like a homecoming.
Since all but the embalming and reconstructive classes were online, I decided to go full time. It was also during this semester that I had an amazing opportunity. My mom informed me of an ad from a company looking for a mortuary transporter. I applied and told the owner I was in school to become a funeral director and that this job would be a wonderful experience and foot into the industry. After all, they did removals not just for the medical examiner but for several funeral homes in the area. They hired me, and I left my other job. I was on call 24 hours, five days a week, given a company van to drive and a cell phone to use.
I quickly learned how physical this job would be. Nobody tells you how heavy dead bodies are. They are literally dead weight.
I quickly built strength and took pride in moving a six foot tall 200 pound body by myself in front of police officers who doubted me because of my sex and age. I slowly grew accustomed to the weird stuff I encountered. People rarely die with their eyes closed; it’s usually this stupid look of one eye open, one half closed. A body in full rigor mortis is difficult to move because limbs in extended positions during this stage do not fit easily on the gurney. Skin slippage, when the outer layer of the skin separates from the other layers, makes a body difficult to move for it hinders your ability to keep a tight grip. It’s also the freakiest thing I’ve ever felt.
My first removal of a body in advanced decomposition is burned in my mind. It was a call at two in the morning. The smell of decomposition is the worst thing I have ever smelled. To this day, my nose still crinkles when I talk about it. Vapor rub under your nose while wearing a mask mutes the smell, but it’s still there. I put booties over my shoes and stuck extra gloves in my pocket. My partner put on a full hazmat suit. We walked through a pool of bodily fluids to get to a man sprawled on his couch, covered in a pile of maggots.
Other weird cases came up and, as a defense mechanism, I referred to them based on their situations:
— 500 pound man with MRSA who took a hospital security guard and I 20 minutes to get into the van.
— 400 pound man who died on the third floor of a house with no elevator who took three police men, my partner, and I to get out of the house.
— Legs shouldn’t do that, guy who was hit while riding his bike.
— Decomposition man with the ankle blood blister I accidentally kicked spraying blood all over the room. The crime scene photographer rolled her eyes at me as she took additional pictures of the altered scene.
— Dog Lady: After she died, her dogs ate her to the point that all that was left was her torso, head, and one arm.
— And then there was the baby. He was born premature and died almost instantly. I took the little bundle and headed into the cooler. Now I’m not that fond of babies, but I stood in that cooler, holding that baby and cried. I cried until I sobbed.
I was still going to school full time during all of this. It was confusing learning theoretical death while all my on-the-job experiences were the contrary. I had a hard time with the sanitized version of death we were being taught: It’s not a body, it’s remains; it’s not a cooler, it’s a climate-controlled room; it’s not a cardboard box, it’s an alternative container; it’s not ashes, it’s cremains. Why are we spending so much time on thanochemistry when 80 percent of the bodies I moved were being cremated?
I used my dark humor as a coping mechanism, but it wasn’t working. I was breaking down. I sometimes went 48-hour periods with only three hours of sleep. I had to leave events with friends, even dinner, whenever I got a call. I had no time for my hobbies.
Constantly being “on” was aggravating my bipolar. I became preoccupied with the mortality of my loved ones. I hated nursing homes and decided I would go bankrupt with home care before putting my parents in one. Which one of my parents will die first? I’m totally inheriting their cats because my brother-in-law is allergic. My dad wants to be cremated, but will he be mad if I bury his “cremains” because I love cemeteries? I’m older than my sister by three years, but will I outlive her?
It all came to a head at 3 a.m. in a Hospice House’s nurses’ station. I sat there filling out paperwork and just started crying. The head nurse noticed and asked what was wrong. I opened the flood gates and told her everything. She grabbed me some tissues and held me tight in her arms. She told me I was still young, and that if I was this miserable I should get out before I invested anymore time.
I called up my old job the next day and was able to get it back. I dropped the van off and told the mortuary transporting company that I couldn’t handle this. I only worked there a little over two months.
I emailed the director of the Funeral Services program asking what kind of schedule I could expect as a funeral director because my health needed a regimented one. He informed me that, as a director, being there for the families would always be top priority. I got letters from my therapist and psychiatrist and was able to withdraw from my classes without having to pay tuition due to medical reasons.
I also made the painful decision to withdraw from the program. In doing so, my whole world came crashing down. I knew I did the right thing for my health, but what about my future? I now had to mourn the death of my career in the death industry.
I discovered I wasn’t alone. While at a friend’s birthday party, I learned one of his friends dropped out of the same program also for health reasons. I discovered my new dental hygienist dropped out of the same program as well while discussing how I never focused on teeth in human anatomy. She informed me that she made more money as a dental hygienist and got to keep a regular schedule. She then gave me a free deep-scale cleaning because, as she said, “You’re weird like me, and we get each other and for that I like you.”
It’s now been over a year since I left the Funeral Services program. While I still think about the whole experience often, I made my peace. I am taking care of my mental health, getting eight hours of sleep a night and make weekly plans with friends. I’m thinking about my future again by looking for a new job that lines up better with my other interests. I finished the first draft of my novel, returned to my crafting projects, and am even learning how to do new ones.
This doesn’t mean I’ve given up my fascination with death. I read death industry blogs like Confessions of a Funeral Director, and I love Ask a Mortician’s Caitlin Doughty. I acted like a total fan girl when she answered my question on Gizmodo’s Ask a Mortician Anything Chat.
There was even a recent article about the growing number of women going to mortuary school. It seems like death has become fashionable in the world of social media. I’m actually really happy to see these conversations about death happening. For too long, we as a Western society have sanitized death, refused to talk about it as if by ignoring it would go away. I am often reminded of this when I talk about my experiences. I have to remember most people have never seen a dead body, let alone one in all the various conditions I’ve seen.
I’m not saying everyone should drop what they’re doing and attend mortuary school. The death industry takes a special kind of person and among those an even extra special person to survive it. All I suggest is to take a step back every once and a while and appreciate your own life. Is what you’re doing with it making you happy? If not, take small steps to change it. I hate to sound cliché, but life is fleeting, you should spend some time doing something you love.
Talk to your loved ones about making a living will and discuss the tough issues like what you want done with your body when you die. It doesn’t have to be a constant conversation; I realize how difficult and painful this can be. However, discussing these things early and ahead of time can reduce the amount of stress and decision-making during an emotional time.
I finally told my parents that I didn’t want them going to a nursing home, and my dad informed me that his VA disability benefits will cover in-home nurse care. I told him how I want to bury his “cremains,” and he said that was fine because he’d be dead and it didn’t matter to him. He just insists on an “alternative container” as a way to save money.
As for me, I hope by the time I die the natural burial movement is more widely accepted and I can be put in a wood coffin and then directly into a hole in the ground. I still want a fancy tombstone for future people like myself who find cemeteries fascinating.