Monday, March 21, 2011

Field Trip ~ Mortuary

Artwork by ~En-Gel

We rode together in Courtney's Yukon to the funeral home.  It was the first time I'd been in her car, even though we go back nine years.  Actually, in all that time, I'd never met her outside the hair salon.

With gas prices so high, it didn't make sense to drive separate cars the seventy miles, round trip.  But the real reason?  Neither of us wanted to be alone with our thoughts.

Courtney had called me the night before.  Again, I'm usually the one calling her, to make my hair appointments.  But she'd remembered months ago I'd asked about her training, and about whether mortuary beauticians also learned their trade in regular beautician schools, or if there were specialized schools for that industry.  At the time, she told me there hadn't been anything in her curriculum about mortuary hair and make-up techniques.  But she had worked on deceased clients.

Our eyes had met in the mirror.  See, I was crafting a character at the time and was seeking avenues for research.  I picked Courtney's brains that day, the whole while she worked on my hair.

So she thought of me when her friend contacted her last week.  

Her friend's family was in the throes of tragedy.  Courtney's friend's brother-in-law, Carl had been going through a lot recently.  Work sucked.  He'd been fighting with his brother.  His girlfriend split with him.  But no one thought he'd take his own life.  He was just twenty-four.

On the phone, Courtney asked if I'd like to go with her in the morning to cut Carl's hair.  It's one thing to want direct experience when researching for fiction, but the reality of this situation took my breath away.  Still, I couldn't -- wouldn't -- pass up the opportunity.  I wanted to know too much.

Of course, I wanted to be able to describe the inner chambers of a funeral home.  What you see, smell, hear.  But I was more curious about the people who work there.  I'd read that mortuary staff view their work primarily as services they provide for the surviving family, to comfort them and minimize their grief, by laying their loved one to rest in a way that honors that life.  But the staff works, hands-on, with dead bodies.  How, I wondered, do they maintain a level of professionalism that weaves compassion with the detachment necessary for their line of work

We walked into the funeral home.  A faint smell of cut flowers hung in the air.  My heart was pounding.  I couldn't really feel my feet as I walked down the carpeted corridor to a glossy, wooden door with a plague that read 'Business Office.'

We were led by a young, round woman, whose red beaded necklace jingled as she walked, to the end of a back hallway.  She asked us to wait there and she'd "pulled him out."  Courtney and I exchanged a nervous glance as the woman disappeared behind a door.

My body was in a heightened state of awareness but my mind had gone into numb survival mode.  I felt like I'd accepted a dare and passed the point of no return, only now I questioned whether I wanted to -- could -- follow through.   Too late.  The door opened again and the woman ushered us in.

Carl lay on a gurney in the center of the small room.  He was dressed in a suit but covered from the chest down by a blue blanket that hung halfway to the floor.  I could tell that beneath the blanket his hands lay folded on his stomach, and his shoes lay flat so that his heels faced each other, toes pointing at the walls to the left and right.  The floral scent of the hallway was gone, replaced by what smelled like my fifth grade science classroom, the week we dissected fetal pigs.  Only stronger.

Courtney told the woman she'd brought a drape from the salon.  The woman thought it wasn't necessary, that normally they simply placed towels under and around the head to catch the hair clippings.  From a wall of cabinets to the right, the woman retrieved two white, bath-sized towels.  She plopped the short stack on Carl's chest.  Carefully, she slipped a hand under Carl's head and lifted, pulling the neck stand away.  His neck was surprisingly pliant.  With her free hand, she snapped open a towel and maneuvered it to cover the end of the gurney.  It started to slip, and Courtney grabbed the towel and held it until the woman had the neck stand back in place.

She tucked the edges of the bottom towel  under Carl's shoulders, then draped the second towel across his chest.  She pulled the center edge up under his chin and flattened the rest down the backs of his shoulders.  When she was satisfied, she asked Courtney if she needed anything, then left us alone.

By now, I'd been in the room about five minutes.  My heart rate had slowed, but when I walked closer to help Courtney get her hair dryer and clipper cords plugged in, I noticed my feet were still numb.

I've been to wakes and funerals.  This was not the first time I'd looked at a dead person.  But it was the first time I'd stood over one, close enough to see the wrinkles in his skin, the glisten of glue holding his lips closed, the stitches, barely visible, woven into his eyelashes.

Courtney misted Carl's hair with a water bottle, working the humidity in with her fingers.  "Feels like mannequin hair," she commented.  She worked the scissors at increasingly complicated angles, cutting as best she could considering her client was flat on his back.

During this time, there was a shift in my sub-conscious mind.  All remnants of fear dissipated.  I was at ease on a level that I couldn't have imagined fifteen minutes before.  It was surprising to realize.  It was very clear to me that Carl was not there.  His life-force, his soul, his energy had moved on, and we were attending to his human shell, left behind.  I can see people's auras.  I tried hard to see Carl's.  There wasn't anything to see, not a shimmer, not a color, not a thing.

Going around Carl's ear with the clippers, Courtney touched him.  She'd been trying hard not to come in contact with his skin, out of respect, I think.  But she looked at me after she nudged him.  "He's so cold," she said.  

I moved next to her, hovered my hand above his face.  Cold radiated from him.  With as much gentle reverence as I could muster, I grazed the tip of his ear with the the top side of my index finger.  It was stiff, velvety soft, and cold.  Sadness squeezed my heart.  Things could have been different for this beautiful human being.  So sad.

Within thirty minutes, Courtney was finished.  I asked her how she was feeling, as we packed up her gear.  She said she never feels sad in here, working on people she knew.  But she anticipated breaking down at the wake the following evening.  She said that's when it usually hits her.

The atmosphere in the car on the way home was more animated than the ride there.  We talked a lot about what we'd just experienced together.  I felt the exhilaration that follows a long period of fearful anticipation.  Or maybe it was because I'd just lived an hour wholly present, in the moment.  Either way, I felt good.

It took a few hours, though, before I didn't think I smelled formaldehyde everywhere.