I saw the horror flashing across the faces of the women crowded above me as I slipped down, backwards into the crack between the moving bus and the platform.
I met John* my sophomore year of college in 2001 through my roommate at the time, who worked with him at Pizza Hut. John was a non-traditional student, an older man (26), therefore much more worldly than my 19-year-old self. We had very different interests, yet we were on the same wavelength as far as intelligence and values go. I was a Studio Art major and a hardcore Beatles fan who loved "Rocky Horror Picture Show"; he was a Biology major who loved "Phantom of the Opera" and Renaissance festivals. He also happened to still be married.
When he separated from his wife, he moved out of the married student housing and into the dormitory that I lived in. I left him an anonymous Valentine’s Day card from his secret admirer on his dorm room door, but my roommate later ratted me out to him. That was embarrassing, but luckily, the feeling was mutual, so we started dating.
As a biology major, John wanted to be a crime-scene investigator or some other law enforcement related scientist. He was looking for a job more related to his career goals than managing a pizza place, and when he saw an internship position at a local funeral home, he applied for it.
When he broke the news to me that he got the job, I was less than excited for him, because part of the compensation for working there was a free apartment. At the funeral home. It was a good deal for him to get free rent, but I was wary, because I knew I would be spending a lot of time there with him.
A huge part of being in the funeral business is the “on call” element of the job, and frankly, it sucks. You never know when your dinner plans will be interrupted by a “call” and you must drop everything you’re doing to go retrieve a body. Things like embalmings don’t strictly happen during business hours. The normal protocol, at least at this particular funeral home, was to go pick up the body, and immediately prepare it upon returning to the funeral home. This process can take quite a while, between cleaning the body, stuffing body cavities with cotton to prevent leaks, super-gluing lips shut, draining the blood, and replacing it with embalming fluid. Glamorous, huh? There were some long nights when he had to wake up to his beeper going off, do all that work, then try to get some sleep before class in the morning. It made perfect sense that the apartment was right there, so it was mere steps to falling back into bed.
This funeral home had two student interns every year, and they took turns being the person on-call to assist the morticians with the bodies. When John started working there, there was another student who already had been there a year, and she had the better of the two apartments. His apartment was the basement apartment next to the "prep room." Besides having no windows in its cinder block basement walls, there were other reasons this was not the desirable apartment.
There were exposed pipes that ran along the ceiling, and they obviously went between rooms, because we could always hear when someone was working next door. They stored a big spool of thin gauge wire for sewing people up by hanging it over the prep table from one of these ceiling pipes. It would unravel as they needed to use some and we'd hear the noise coming from next door as it rattled through the hollow pipe. So of course I always knew exactly what was happening and it severely creeped me out.
One of the interesting parts of the home was the casket showroom. I didn’t realize it even existed until a few months after John moved in. The basement had dimly lit hallways, and one day I asked him what was in a closet. It turned out to not be a closet at all. He opened the door, and it was a huge bright showroom full of caskets. It looked like Sears, but with coffins and vaults. I wanted to get in one, but chickened out. He wouldn’t have let me anyway.
As an artist, I love textiles and found this beautiful vintage floral sheet in the dryer one day while I was doing laundry. It was very ’60s mod, and I wanted to make curtains out of it so badly. I lobbied hard for John to ask them to let me have it, but they wouldn’t budge, considering it was used to drape over bodies in the prep room and potentially had been exposed to who knows what. That was enough to convince me that I didn’t want it that badly. (Now that I think about it, I’m a little grossed out thinking about how I washed my laundry in those same washers. Ew.)
The grossest thing that ever happened in that place wasn’t dead body related. Well, not a human body, anyway. I was walking down the hall to John’s apartment door, and stopped dead in my tracks (haha) because I saw a HUGE centipede just chilling on the wall. Centipedes are my number one phobia in life. I’m not much of a swear word user, but when I see a ’pede, I flip out. I ran as fast as I could to his apartment, hugging the far side of the hallway. I got a neon pink post it note and wrote “KILL ME!!!” with an arrow pointing to the centipede. I stealthily snuck back down the hall and posted it on the wall about two feet away from the horrendous beast. I then called upstairs and asked John to come down quick, it was an emergency.
He came downstairs to find me nervously hopping around in the open doorway to his apartment, keeping an eye on Satan, my nickname for our new pet. He looked at me, I pointed to the wall, he looked at the wall, read the post it note and laughed. He then MADE A FIST AND SMASHED THE CENTIPEDE WITH HIS BARE HAND.
I’ll wait here while you throw up.
That was the single most disgusting thing I have ever witnessed and it still haunts my dreams, over 13 years later. I never looked at him the same way again. And I insisted that he wash his hands about twenty times before he could even come near me. I think we didn’t have sex for a while after that. Being macho kind of backfired for him on that one. The idea of dead bodies suddenly became less gross and scary to me. There were live, scriggling ’pedes to worry about.
The bathroom for John’s apartment was actually in the hallway outside of the rear apartment door, because the funeral home needed to have a shower readily available in case of emergency chemical spills in order to comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) laws. One day, I skipped class to sleep in, because I had already overslept enough that it was business hours and I hated sneaking out through the main part of the building and risk receiving judging stares from the million-year-old owner of the funeral home for having spent the night like the harlot that I was. (My boyfriend was divorced by this point, however, but I doubt it mattered to that guy, as we were not married.) I can say from experience that the “walk of shame” is amplified tenfold by being observed and judged by an ancient somber mortician.
Anyway. I woke up alone, because John was upstairs working (probably washing hearses or something -- there is a LOT of car washing involved in the funeral industry). I had to use the restroom, so I groggily padded through the kitchen to the door to the hallway. When I opened the door, there was an elderly woman’s corpse lying uncovered on a stretcher only feet away from me. Talk about an effective way to wake up in a hurry! It was surprising, to say the least. I held my bladder and just jumped back under the covers, because I was so freaked out.
I found out later that she had to be wheeled into the hallway so that her daughter, a beautician, who had insisted on doing her makeup for the viewing, would be able to access her. No one was allowed into the prep room who wasn't OSHA-certified. I am very glad that I didn’t walk out in my nightgown while the daughter was there as well, as that would have been embarrassing for both of us! It also could have appeared to be disrespectful to the dead, in my opinion, for the family to know that sexy times were happening next door to their loved ones’ bodies.
Gravitas is a very important part of the funeral industry. It is crucial that funeral directors have the trust and respect of their community. It is often the reason that they join churches, even if they don’t believe in the afterlife as science-minded people. It’s the biggest connection to a large customer base. Everyone will eventually need their services, but it’s a buyer’s market. This is a case where people are going to base their decisions not on price comparison, but on emotion.
When it is the last thing you can ever do for the person you lost, many families feel the need to spare no expense to show how much the deceased was loved. This can also be fueled by an attempt to appease guilt if they didn’t have the greatest relationship with the person they’re picking out the coffin for -- especially when life insurance is paying the bill. It’s kind of funny how many people are elevated to sainthood just because they happen to be dead. Only the best for mean old Grandma! Empathy is a must for dealing with grieving families, and the directors train themselves to speak in soothing low tones, clasp their hands together, and basically agree with whatever the survivors say to make themselves feel better about their loss.
The following year, John was promoted to the "over the hearse garage" apartment when the other student graduated. It was much better than the basement apartment, and felt so bright and sunny with all of its windows. The stairs to his apartment over the garage were off of a hallway on the first floor, so we had to walk through the main lobby of the funeral home to access them. I became accustomed to walking past bodies on display in the visitation rooms every day. Exposure does seem to build tolerance, and eventually it didn't seem weird to me.
Things didn’t end up working out between John and I, (he later broke my heart) but I don’t regret anything about my first time falling in love, even if it meant hanging out in the general vicinity of corpses all the time. We spent a lot of our free time together binge-watching "Six Feet Under," and it was cool to be able to relate to the Fisher family as fellow mortuary insiders. It is a fascinating industry, and it clarified to me what I would like to have done with my body when my time on this planet is up. (An immediate visitation at home within 24 hours, and a natural burial without any embalming. Preferably with a tree planted on top of me.)
If you have a curiosity to learn more about the funeral business, I highly recommend reading The American Way of Death Revisited, by Jessica Mitford. It is an interesting, informative, and surprisingly funny and entertaining expose of the funeral industry. My experience of spending time in a funeral home was actually pretty cool, and boy, does it make for a great story.