The first dead body I ever saw was that of a 15-year-old street kid with shoulder-length brown hair and a battered blue body. He was curled up like a fetus and in a white plastic bag. It's the same bag we put everyone in before we stick them in the cooler along with the others. The cooler is a bit like a triple-tiered dorm room, except it's coed and everybody in there is dead.
I didn't intend to work for a funeral home, didn't even think of it as a possibility, but my bank account balance was sinking and rent was just about due. Had it not been for the 300-pound man in my sambo class, it never would have happened. Sambo is a Soviet-era martial art that stresses throwing and grappling; it ends when the sambist has successfully pinned their opponent to the mat, or some other form of submission. Only after I had been thrown through the air and pinned by the 300-pound man did he offer me a job.
This happened on a Wednesday around 7 p.m. I had driven my old Volvo up to Lake City to get in some grappling practice early. I don't compete or anything, but I like the way the exercise keeps my head outside of itself. I had just been having a conversation with my coach about needing a job and not wanting to work in movie theaters anymore.
"You got a suit?" the 300-pound man butted in.
"Me? Yeah, I've got a suit."
"You want to pick up dead bodies for a living?"
"Sure," I said.
A urine test later, I was interviewing for the position with the office manager. A week after that, I was officially an employee of the booming death business.
Like all customer service jobs, most of the art comes down to language. In the death business, every tool has a public and private name. There is the "vinyl shroud." It's really just a plastic bag we removal technicians use to cover a loved one's body, but "vinyl shroud" makes us seem less like the overdressed movers we are. Accompanying the vinyl shroud is the linen sheet, the quilted blanket, the red velvet cot with golden zippers, and the single red rose that we keep in the freezer across from the formaldehyde. Every body gets the same treatment. And every family, assuming they are dealing with professionals and not the discount guys across town, has this treatment explained to them each and every time.
A typical interaction between a removal tech and a family:
"So we just want to make sure [name of deceased] doesn't have any valuables like rings or necklaces on her," I say.
"No, she didn't wear any jewelry for these last couple years," they say.
"That's perfect. My partner and I are going to take a second look when we enter the room just to make sure, and if she does, we will leave those with you."
"It's mainly so there isn't an issue when it comes time for final decisions."
"Okay, so what I am going to do now is go back to my vehicle, grab my equipment, and return here in a couple minutes. Assuming you all have had enough time?"
"Yes, we're ready," they say.
I should note that the responses are not always so brief. This is the average interaction, but I've had families on both ends of the spectrum. Sometimes they just want us to get in there and get out—cautious of the tight corners and the new paint on the walls. Other times they want to tell you how their loved one was really something special and that you wouldn't believe what he or she did in his or her final moments.
After going out to the van and unloading the cot, my partner and I will then return to the house, assuming the call came from a residence and not a nursing home, morgue, or assisted-living facility. If there are stairs, we'll use a blue fireman's backboard with three straps on it. If not, we'll enter through either the front door or the garage. Whatever is easiest and looks best.
"Now," I'll tell the family, "as with all this, you are welcome to be as part of this procedure as you feel comfortable. Some families find it easier to wait outside of the room, while others prefer to help. It's entirely up to you."
"I think we're just going to wait out in the hallway," they often say.
"All right," I say, while pulling gloves for me and my partner from the REI fanny pack attached to the cot. "We'll be just a minute."
Once we've transferred the body onto the cot using a bedsheet as a sling, we'll then wrap the deceased in plastic, tighten the belts around their torso and legs, fold the sides of the cot to cover them, coat the cot with our quilt, and place a rose on the now-vacant bed. If we can avoid it, we never zip the cot in front of the family. This is done to separate the professionals from the removal techs you see on television shows. After we've got the body on the cot, we'll say our good-byes and go on back to the funeral home to tape, label, and store the deceased in a temperature-controlled environment. Also known as a walk-in refrigerator. Exactly like those you find in ice cream shops.
Death, as you might expect, has boom and bust cycles. January through March tends to be the busiest season, while the summer months seem a bit slower. I only worked at the funeral home for a year, but I learned that during the boom months, it isn't uncommon for a funeral home to have so many bodies they don't know what to do with them. When that is the case, a funeral home will hire an independent contractor to store the bodies off-site and deliver them to the funeral home at a later date. I was employed by a midsize funeral home. We weren't the biggest in the state, but we were up there and growing. We had a cooler that could hold just under 30 cold ones. Add in the already-embalmed folks in the prep-room and there were around 40 bodies in the funeral home's care at any time of year.
Including, when I first started, that 15-year-old street kid.
It was my first day on the job. The 300-pound man and I had just toured the cemetery and mausoleum. Walking in through the back entrance, we came upon Jenny, a mortician's apprentice. (All the names in this piece, including Jenny's, have been changed.)
"Did you see the kid yet?" Jenny said.
"The one who fell from the bridge up north."
"Bad?" the 300-pound man asked.
"Really bad," Jenny said.
"Let's see it."
"It's just like the shit you see on the internet."
"You ready?" the 300-pound man asked me.
"Yep," I said.
Jenny went into the cooler and rolled him out. He was on the middle shelf, situated between an old lady and a middle-aged man. I later learned he had been picked up from the county medical examiner's office that morning.
The medical examiner is where a body goes if county officials aren't sure of the cause of death or if there is reason to believe foul play might be involved. Not all the cases the medical examiner sees are homicides, but they do get their fair share of them. The office is a sterile place with large digital scales designed for weighing incoming pickups. There's an autopsy room in back. To the right of that, a cooler full of labeled bodies on metal tables. All the worst pickups come from the medical examiner. The hangings, the burnings, the shotgun-shelled temples.
Unwrapping the packing tape from the white bag and then unfolding the plastic, Jenny showed me the kid inside. There, with his arms folded in front of his chest in a prayer position, the kid lay stiff and crumbled. Each section of his body was a different color. He didn't look human.
As I've said, the kid was homeless, or at the very least, he was a runaway. Because of this, it took the county a while to get a positive ID on him. By the time we got him to the funeral home, he had been dead for what looked like a couple months, but what was probably more like a week.
Different people's bodies decompose at different rates. Some you'll find a few hours after their final exhale and their stomachs will already be turning green. Others can lie around for a day or so, especially in a temperate climate like Seattle's, without showing any indication of death. Me personally, I've only picked up one real decomp. He had been in his apartment for a week unattended during the summer. Never have I seen a body in such a state of liquid.
Because I didn't pick up the kid who fell from the bridge personally, and I was never shown his death certificate, I'm still not entirely sure how he died. What I can tell you is he either fell or was pushed from the top of a bridge up north early one morning. After impact, at least three cars or trucks ran him over. No one knew if it was the fall that killed him or the trucks, but it all happened pretty fast, and if he was in pain, he most likely didn't feel it for long.
After that, the call was made, his body was picked up, and an autopsy was performed by the county. Only after the medical examiner had given up trying to figure out how he died did they declare him a suicide and call my funeral home to come retrieve him.
"Is that his tongue?" the 300-pound man said while looking at the swollen blue thing hanging halfway out of the kid's mouth.
"No," Jenny said. "It's a hand towel."
"Why's there a hand towel in his mouth?" I asked.
"They must have had to stick one in there in order to keep his skull from collapsing. If you look closely," Jenny said, moving in for a better look, "there is nothing holding his face together. No bones or structure. Without it, he would have just looked like a deflated balloon."
"Is that for identification purposes?" I asked.
"Probably," she said.
The next day I did my first house call.
The home was out in West Seattle, near the bridge. It was raining outside, so the 300-pound man and I both opted for raincoats in place of our usual suit jackets. Black is the standard, but I wore blue. After briefly getting lost and having to turn around at a dead end, we slowly drove the van into a wooded cul-de-sac, guided by GPS. Nestled in the far corner was the house—a multistory structure, with a narrow walkway leading from the rear bedroom to the driveway. After backing the van into the driveway and adjusting our ties in the mirrors, we went to the front door to meet the family.
"Hello," we said.
"Hi," an older woman in a pink sweater said.
"Is this the home of Evelyn Shields?"
"Yes. Yes it is. Evelyn is downstairs."
The older woman motioned us in.
Following her through the house, I made mental notes about obstacles we might face with the cot. The living room was crowded, mainly with books, chairs, and television sets, and the stairwell was a bit narrow, but I didn't notice anything too unmanageable.
"She was a nurse for 45 years," the woman said before opening the door to the bedroom.
"That's a long time," the 300-pound man said.
"She was a good woman. Eighty-six years isn't too shabby."
"Not at all."
"She used to say that she wanted to live as long as her mother did. That was 84 years. Before she went, I reminded her that she did it, and she smiled at me and said she knew she would."
The woman in the bed, Evelyn, was tiny. Her hair was up in a tight knot and her nails were painted with a new coat of dark red. Aside from her skin, which now looked more like powdered wax, she appeared to be in good health. Surrounding her bedside were six older women, most of them nurses at one time or another, they told me. The others were family.
"She had quite the network," they told us as we wrapped her in her own bedding and brought her onto the cot.
"You're so gentle; it's wonderful to see you be so gentle," one of the women said.
"Like professionals," another one of her friends said.
"We're going to take her out through the back door now. We'll be back after we load her in to say one last good-bye to you all."
"All right," they said.
We then pushed the body out through the garage, past the laundry and gardening tools, and through the rear side door.
"You mind unhooking that chicken wire before you go any farther?" my colleague said, motioning to the small gate below my feet.
It wasn't raining much anymore, but the driveway was still slick. Careful not to slip on the oily asphalt, I dug the heels of my dress shoes into the gravel, collapsed the legs of the cot, and slowly slid the velvet boat into its place.
"Good?" my boss said.
"Good," I said.
One last thank-you and an assurance from us that we would take the safest care of Evelyn, and we were back on the road, heading to a hospital morgue for another pickup. This time the lady was in her 30s and weighed over 500 pounds. They can't all be easy.
There are changes that come over you after you work with the dead. You see things differently. You notice weight in not only a cultural context, but also a pragmatic one. I can't count the number of times I've been in the grocery store and found myself thinking about how if this or that person died, how difficult it would be to get them into the van with just two people. There is also a sense of commonality that comes with it. You see people not as their class or title, but as what we all truly are, bags of slimy, gooey muscles and bones.
And then there is the sadness. For me, my career in the death business lasted just over a year. In that time, I would guess I picked up more than 500 bodies. All sizes, all shapes, and all ages. There are the elderly, the middle-aged, and the young. The expected, the surprised, and the forgotten. The kids are the ones you never get used to. It was sad every time, and a year was just about as much sadness as I could take. Everyone in the death business has their own way of getting around the sadness. Religion, booze, and time are the primary prescriptions. Eventually, for me, all it took was quitting. And that works for most of us.
But then there are the lifers.
The lifers are born into death. They usually had either a father or an uncle who worked in the business, and they got into it young. For the lifers, death becomes just another part of everyday business. "People die," they will tell you, "and if I can get paid to make that as pleasant a transition as possible, why wouldn't I?"
So there we were, the 300-pound man and me, driving up onto the West Seattle Bridge. Evelyn in the back, secured tightly beneath the red straps of the cot. As we drove, the rain hit the windshield and a baseball game came over the radio.
"You're not going to cry or vomit like the others, are you?" the 300-pound man asked.
"No," I said. This was long before the job had caught up with me. "I'm just ready for lunch."