I've never been entirely comfortable with the idea of death. As a kid, I never liked to poke dead animals with a stick. I hated dissecting fetal pigs and frogs in biology class. And I still avoid funerals like the plague. That's why I find it so strange to be sitting here in a small funeral home in Central Pennsylvania, visiting my friend Donald.
Donald has recently graduated with a Master's Degree in Mortuary Science and is proudly showing me around his new digs. He lives upstairs at the funeral parlor and unless there's a funeral or visitation in progress, he and the dead people are the only residents. I'm so used to being around people who hate their jobs that it's somewhat of a shock to be talking with someone who actually seems to have found their calling. Donald loves his work. He demonstrates the perpetual seal on one of his high-end solid copper coffins with the zeal of a Cadillac salesman showing off a 32-valve Northstar engine. I learn how to select a grave liner, why the pants on a burial suit have a drawstring waist instead of a belt, and more than I'd ever want to know about doing flattering makeovers on the deceased.
Donald says his firm doesn't believe in excessive use of make-up. They find they can achieve a more "natural" look with the use of special color balanced lights. I try to remember where I've seen these lights before and then it hits me; they look exactly the same as those red looking lights you see shining above the meat department at your local supermarket. I guess if it works on hamburger, it works just as well on dead people. I sit on the bier in the main viewing room under an array of these pinkish lights and sure enough, I do look a bit fresher myself.
There are evidently many traditions in the funeral business. House lights are left burning twenty-four hours a day, doors are always unlocked to welcome the bereaved and the temperature inside is always exactly seventy degrees. The carpet pads are so thick that it feels like you are walking on a giant sponge. This is all supposed to make friends and family feel more comfortable, but it is having the opposite effect on me. Donald says the music is specially selected to meet the needs of each funeral party and then proceeds to play me his favorite tapes. All the cuts sound strangely like the soundtrack from Twin Peaks.
This is not a bit like I expected. Donald is talking about investing the bonuses he receives from selling caskets in Pepsi and McDonalds stock. He is cracking jokes about people who were too big to fit inside their casket. And he is telling me never to buy the cheap $700 model because it is made out of cardboard. Nothing in the place appears quite like I thought it would. I expected the funeral parlor morgue would be like one of those places you see on television cop shows, complete with a gleaming stainless steel table and lots of drawers that slide into the wall to store the bodies. What I see instead is a small room that looks suspiciously like the utility room in my house. A big sink and a folding gurney stored in the corner are the only objects in the room that look remotely medical. Wigs, cosmetic wax, formaldehyde and other tools of the trade are stored side-by-side on shelves with boxes of promotional key chains and give away ball point pens printed with the funeral home's logo.
I ask Donald if this room has seen any action lately and he says yesterday was a busy day. A thirteen year old girl was killed when the boy she was with ran his car into a tree at two in the morning. Both kids and a seventeen year old friend of the girl were drunk. The younger girl died and her body had required over ten hours of restorative work before visitation. Donald said the hospital had shaved the girl's head during emergency surgery and although they returned all the hair all in a plastic bag, it took hours to glue it all back so it looked natural. Donald's boss, who is also the county coroner in addition to owning several area funeral homes, checked the girl's boyfriend out of the county jail where he was sobering up after the wreck and made him come to the funeral home and assist with embalming his girlfriend's body. He apparently threw up several times and had to be revived with smelling salts. I asked if this might not be considered cruel and unusual punishment and Donald said no. "It works," he said. "When they see what they have done, they seldom do this again."
Later in the day Donald said the girl's parents, who were divorced, got into a huge argument over what color the casket should be. "This happens all the time." he said. "One set of relatives wants cremation, and the other wants a traditional burial." "We often have to get a court to send people to arbitration before we can proceed with the service." I keep thinking that all this would be terribly depressing, but Donald seems to take it all in stride. "You get used to it," he says. The only time he got freaked out, he tells me was when family members belonging to a snake handling religious sect took their brother out of his coffin during a visitation service and tried to raise him from the dead.
Donald supervises seven employees who greet people, park cars for the funeral party, drive the hearse and keep the place look spotless. "Doesn't it bother the other employees to have all these dead people around," I ask. "No," Donald says, "they just vacuum around them." "Sometimes we even talk to them." I'm curious where all the bodies are kept, since there is no cold storage area in the building. "Once you embalm a person, they'll keep for months," Donald says. "We just put them in their caskets and wheel them around to keep them out of the way." There are caskets all over the place and I must have had a nervous look on my face because Donald tells me not to worry. "They're all empty now," he says. He then proceeds to tell me that a new body will be arriving around midnight and that I'm welcome to stay and watch him do the embalming if I want. I politely decline and retire for the night at a fleabag motel a few miles down the road.
The place is a dump and smells like the inside of a vacuum cleaner bag, but I don't care. I'm tired and I'm on the road again tomorrow anyway. I wash my face with a rather grey looking wash rag and call it a day. About three in the morning I am awakened by a cacophony of noise on either side of my room. The walls in the motel are paper thin. I should have known I was in for trouble when I saw a piece of saran wrap covering the dial pad on the room phone. I have foolishly forgotten that this is a Saturday night during football season. Penn State is only forty or fifty miles down the road from this sleepy little town and the entire area is filled with drunken Ohio State students, celebrating their victory on the way home. In the adjoining room to the left of me are a pair of idiots who think the way to get their female companions to go to bed with them is to rent a single room for all four of them in a fleabag motel. The girls are crying and screaming at the boys to go sleep in the car. I don't know what the boys are doing, but I keep hearing things like "You don't even have to touch it," "This will be an education for you" and "Just imagine it's a corn dog."
In the room to the right of me there are what appear to be an entire roomful of fraternity brothers who think they are Steven Spielberg. They have hooked up a camcorder to the motel television and are apparently showing a video they just completed minutes ago featuring themselves driving around in a convertible mooning people on public streets, waggling their willies at passing cars and trying unsuccessfully to pick up girls by offering to film them naked. They play this atrocity at full volume, complete with a car stereo soundtrack featuring "Born to be Wild" and "Ninety-Six Tears." These "party" songs are twenty years old if they are a day, which probably proves nothing except for the fact that drunken fraternity boys haven't changed much over the years.
I have a pillow stuffed over my head and am wishing I had decided to stay at the funeral home with the dead body instead. At least it would have been quiet. Maybe Donald has the right idea after all. He's got a recession proof job. He's got a rapidly growing pile of Pepsi stock. And he'll certainly have the last laugh with the drunken sods on either side of me. Once day soon they'll run into a tree and wind up under Donald's care. He'll fill them with formaldehyde, line their caskets up in a row and ask them all to sing "Born to be Wild." one last time while the viewing room is being vacuumed for their visitation service.