When I was growing up, we didn’t have the internet or computer games to while away our time. As kids, we actually played with each other, and played <gasp> outside! No, that’s not the horrible part. You’ll have to wait for it. Anyway… I had a lot of friends around the neighborhood, most of which I also attended school with. I’ll have to admit, though, that it was probably atypical for not one, but two of my good friends to be the sons of funeral directors.
In order to maintain a sense of professionalism, I won’t use their real names, but I’ll call them Matt Smith and Brian Jones. Matt lived with his family at Smith & Sons Funeral Home, and Brian with his divorced father at Jones-Johnson Funeral Home.
Early in our relationships, I asked my friends why their families lived in funeral homes, of all places. Couldn’t they live somewhere else, and their fathers just go into work like normal people. Matt said that Ohio law stated that someone had to be present in the mortuary at all times. I guess that in the old days, it was a measure taken to prevent body snatchers and other criminal types who would use corpses for, er… other less savory reasons.
Brian’s father said that for him, it was just easier. Being a funeral director is a 24/7 job. People don’t seem to want to cooperate and only die during regular business hours. Hospitals, morgues, and families would call at all hours for bodies to be picked up. It was sort of like an ambulance service, and someone had to be available around the clock.
Nevertheless, since we all played together there ultimately came a time when we played over their houses. That’s right – in the funeral homes. We usually stuck to the rooms upstairs where their families lived, but when there were no visiting hours being held, we were allowed to play in the large rooms downstairs where bodies would usually be laid out. It was sort of cool to have all of that space.
Naturally, when we hit the age of ten or so, we got curious (and mischievous) and asked Matt and Brian if we could actually see some dead bodies. Both of them had been exposed to the sight of dead bodies, and even watched their dads embalming corpses, since they had been really young, so it was no thrill for them. But it was for the rest of us. At first, this meant slipping into the viewing rooms between visiting hours when bodies were laid out for viewing.
Eventually, though, we just had to see the mortuary where the corpses were stored and the embalming was done. So in due course, we snuck down into the basements of both homes to check out the mortuaries.
Surprisingly, we discovered a lot of funny things about how corpses were treated. Funeral directors see so many dead bodies that they come to realize them for what they are: objects. Empty shells, dead meat. If there is a spirit or soul, it’s gone by the time the get the body in front of them. Their job is to pretty it up for the families and then get it into the ground before it starts to stink.
Not all bodies are embalmed. In fact, most are not. If there is no health reason, the body is not being transported out of state, and the body will be buried within ten days, then embalming is not required. It’s not even encouraged, as it’s not very environmentally friendly.
Just a quick primer on the embalming process, for those who are unaware of what it entails: Typically, the embalmer (Matt’s dad or brother, or Brian’s dad) suits up in personal protective equipment - a gown, apron, shoe covers, gloves etc. - and evaluates the person to decide how to proceed. Every case is different and requires a special combination of fluids, which are mixed according to the height, weight and physical conditions of the deceased.
Setting the features involves closing the eyes and mouth and placing cotton in the mouth to give the person a more natural expression. Next, the arms, legs and fingers are gently flexed to relieve the muscle tension or stiffness of rigor mortis. The body is washed and the genitals are covered out of modesty and respect.
Typically, they use a scalpel to make a small incision near the right collarbone. From there, incisions are made in the carotid artery and jugular vein. Tubes are placed in the artery (one is directed towards the heart, while the other is directed towards the head). A drain tube is placed in the vein to facilitate drainage of blood. The hose, connected to the embalming machine, is then connected to the arterial tube directed towards the heart. The embalming machine is adjusted to regulate the rate of flow. The machine is switched on and the fluid begins to move through the hose, through the arterial tube and into the body. As the embalming fluid is pushed through the arterial system, the blood is forced out through the jugular vein.
The body is vigorously massaged while this is going on to help facilitate drainage and distribution of embalming fluid. The tissue begins to firm and take on a rosy appearance, which is an excellent indication of a successful embalming. The tubes are then removed, the vein and artery tied off and the incision is sutured. Next, the cavity is treated. Fluid is suctioned from the hollow organs with an instrument called a trocar, then another, stronger fluid is placed into the cavity and the incision is closed. The body is again washed. Their hair is combed and cream is placed on their face to prevent skin dehydration. The deceased is then covered and will remain in the prep room until they are dressed, made up and ready to be placed into a casket. Matt and Brian’s dads both used the same woman to do make up and arrange the bodies’ hair. She was a local hairdresser.
The reason I say that it’s not environmentally friendly is that all of the “stuff” that comes out of the body goes down the drain and into the city sewer, along with all of the excess embalming fluid. All of it ends up going through a treatment plant and eventually comes out of the tap in your kitchen sink. So think of that the next time you get a drink of water.
So, in and between all of this taking place, the naked corpse usually just lays on a steel table in the cool room waiting between stages of the process. This is when we would sneak down for a peek. They weren’t dimly lit or dirty rooms. It was always quite bright and even somewhat cheery in the mortuaries. Matt’s father even had a “Hang in There” cat poster on the wall.
Unsurprisingly, being boys and testing out our courage, we had to occasionally dart up and quickly poke the bodies. Just to show that we could. Eventually, as we got older and braver, we would lift the sheets on some of the female bodies to get a peek underneath. Sounds desperate, I know, but hey, we were like twelve. We’d laugh at the huge erections that the men would get due to rigor mortis. Occasionally, a body would moan or make other noises as decomposition gasses made their way through the vocal cords. Then we would all go running upstairs, screaming like little girls.
Time passed, and we turned into teenagers. Other than Halloween or to scare girls, sneaking down into the basement mortuaries lost its shine. When we turned eighteen, both Matt and Brian’s fathers offered a few of us jobs doing late night runs to pick up bodies. Twenty-five bucks a run for each of us. Not too bad for an hour’s work for a young college kid. It was a little strange at first, but we got so comfortable that we would go through the McDonald’s drive-thru or even stop for a pizza with a body in the back of the van. (I don’t suppose that was entirely kosher, so that’s why I omitted the real names of the funeral homes.)
My friends took two entirely different paths around this time. Matt decided to follow in the family footsteps and become a mortician. He went to school and continued helping out with embalming and providing directors’ services for grieving families. He stopped letting us sneak down into the basement and, when we did go down for business reasons, he demanded that we have the utmost reverence for the corpses. He said that he was truly ashamed of being disrespectful as children, even though we had really done nothing outrageous. We thought that he had turned into a little too much of a prude.
Brian, on the other hand… Well, he went the entirely opposite way. He wanted nothing to do with the family business. He wasn’t interested in college, either. He continued doing pickups for his dad, and got a job as a house painter. We would still hang out at his house, and after a few beers (or more), we’d end up sneaking back down into the basement. He’d go so far as to say things like “Hey, check out the tits on this one,” or drape a corpse’s arm over his shoulder and ask one of us to take his picture.
Then, one night, he went a little too far. She was a young girl – about our age – and had been quite pretty. I’m not sure what she died from, but it hadn’t taken any toll on her body. Even in death, she would have been considered beautiful. As usual, it was after a night of heavy drinking that we had ended up down in the morgue. Brian turned the basement lights on and led us over to the table, promising something that we “wouldn’t want to miss.”
We were figuring that it would be some gruesome car accident victim or another laughably large penis, but no. It was this pretty, young girl. He presented her with a magician’s flourish by whipping off the sheet and pointing at her naked body with both hands. “Ta da!” Of course, we all remarked that “Wow, she was hot,” and what a shame it was that she had died so young. Then, he touched her. I mean touched her. First, grabbing a breast, then… then other places. “C’mere, guys. Feel this. It’s almost like she’s alive.”
We all expressed our disgust. Not at touching a dead body – we’d all handled our share of stiffs – but at the way he was touching her, the places he was touching her, and the palpable joy he was getting out of it. “Dude! That’s just wrong,” we protested. “Come on, man. Get away from her,” we said as we yanked him away. He became really defensive and it almost came to blows between him and another of our friends. He finally relented. “Shit, man. I was just joking around.” Brian looked truly wounded, as if he realized how shameful what he did was, but didn’t want to admit to it. I put the sheet back over the girl as my friends dragged him toward the stairs, uttering a little prayer asking God to forgive us.
We turned out the lights and went back upstairs. Well, that had thrown a kibosh on the evening’s festivities. So we all grabbed our leftover beer and headed out, mumbling our goodnights and ‘til tomorrows. I lived only a few blocks away, so I walked home, drinking a beer on the way. Just being in the room when Brian did that made me feel dirty. I couldn’t wait to get home and take a shower. I would need to finish off my six-pack (and maybe break open the bottle of Jack that was in my fridge) before I got into bed if I expected to sleep that night.
I talked to a couple of guys the next day and we all recollected how f---ed up the whole deal with Brian had been. We were really starting to doubt our friendship with him. He had become an odd duck, but that night gave us all pause to think about how far gone he had really been. Even drunk… what a sicko. None of us even attempted to call Brian that day, or the next. My friend Rob was the first to find out, and he called me on that second day to deliver the news. Somehow, crazy as it sounded, I wasn’t really surprised to hear the news.
Brian had been found dead in his room the previous morning. Apparent cause was a heart attack. He’d been having “health problems” according to his estranged mother. His dad had admitted a little more to Rob – something that was to be kept hushed up, of course. He was wondering if Rob knew anything about the irrational behavior that Brian had been exhibiting just prior to his death. Rob told him about what had happened down in the mortuary the night before Brian died. “Oh,” replied his dad, “That makes a little sense, then.”
You see, the naked body of the girl from that ghastly night had been found lying on Brian’s bed.
Credited to Kenneth Kohl