Disenfranchised Loss and Your Clients
I wish I were a cool mortician. If only I were a former teen goth who took this job for the aesthetic and the philanthropic thrill out of being the last person to touch these bodies. I would like to say that I imagine each cold body in front of me is my own, as if the grieving families that will judge my work after it's done are my liege lords. Truthfully it feels more like the families are entrusting me with something of no more value than a car, or a chair that needs reupholstering. It varies, some bodies are more loved than others, and besides, love doesn’t bear much on how devastating the loss is. Cars and chairs can be precious items, nearly human in their capacity to be cost-inefficient and personable, but they are objects, and as cruel as it is, the bodies are too. I feel for the people that used to use them, but I’ve never felt like those souls were in the room with me while I work. Embalming a person is not the same as knowing them.
My friend Leon works with computers. He repairs them, undoing years of damage caused by irresponsibly downloaded software and cakes of grime under keyboards—sometimes inches thick, he says—punched in by aggressive typing. He yells at me often, because he knows I smoke at my desk. He says he can tell by the color of the dust in the vents. I’ve asked him about what it’s like, about the kind of pressure he feels from his clients. I wanted to know how he judges how much care he should take. He told me that the people with the truly extravagant machines, the people who build them themselves and pick out special hardware that costs more than my rent, do not come to him. If they can’t fix their problems themselves, they have specialized tech apothecaries on deck. The people who come to him are people who do not know enough about their machine to understand how they broke it.
Most of the time he finds problems brewing within the wires and circuit boards that the customer won’t notice until their screens freeze and bruise. By the time this happens, it will cost hundreds of dollars to extract their data from the busted internal drive if they haven’t backed it up somewhere. Leon’s even given me a couple of hard drives to make sure I don’t lose anything, as if my old TurboTax .pdfs are nonrenewable resources. When he was an apprentice, he would point these issues out to the customer and tell them that he could take care of the problem before it began. Some of them were appreciative, but more of them resented his meddling, assuming that he was trying to scam them into paying for unnecessary repairs. After a while, he stopped trying to be proactive. When we were getting to know each other, I said it sounded like what we did for a living had a lot in common, and now it’s a joke that gets made between us semi-frequently, but especially when we’re introduced to new people and it makes for a convenient ice-breaker.
The difference between what I do and what Leon does is that my work doesn’t need to last. No one is going to see my work deteriorate, nor be able to judge the speed at which it does. My clients know that my work will decay, but they also know that it will do so deep underground or sealed inside a crypt, or burned. My work is tedious and labor-intensive, and it only needs to last for a few days, a week at most. Like an ice sculpture. Not everyone who does what I do feels this way. I’ve met people who pride themselves on the fact that their bodies stay in pristine condition for months, even years after it’s done. It always sounds like grandstanding to me. There are many kinds of families, and even the most devoted don’t go digging up the body for a quality check. As long as their loved one looks presentable for the wake, I’ve done well.
At the funerals I’ve been to, the embalmer’s work is graded on a scale from “She looks good” to “What can you expect?” The bereaved know that you can’t cheat death; if their loved one looks orange, or if their lipstick looks cakey, they don’t complain. Even the poorest embalming jobs are sparing them a gruesome sight and a lot of mourners recognize that this ritual is already grotesque. There are horror stories of course, about embalmers who bungle the job so badly that the body is unrecognizable, but you have to be seriously negligent to fuck up that badly. Either that or the mourners just need to throw their anger at someone. When I was in school, I decided that I wanted to be cremated. Once I’m gone I won’t have the capacity to be upset over whether or not my wishes are respected, but as long as I’m alive I want to live believing that I won’t be laid out in a formal nightgown while my relatives play mourning.
I don’t work in the front office. My contact with the grieving is filtered through my supervisors, the people who ask the families to choose from a range of overpriced packages full of services no one—least of all the dead—need. But they have to pick something, and they all want the option that pushes their budget to its bursting point. They want to do the best for the ones they love, and the funeral is their last chance. For a lot of families it’s a way to apologize. Unfortunately, people don’t say enough about how they want to be memorialized, leaving the ones left behind to guess and throw money around. I can’t be too critical, I’ve never put my cremation wishes in writing. As it stands my parents are my next-of-kin, so I’ll be given a three-day wake in a perfumed parlor with a cold outdoor burial to follow. They’ll make everyone take apart the casket sprays so they can drop a flower in the grave like they did for all my grandparents, and probably for Mia. Floral arrangements typically cost anywhere from $75 to $200 each depending on whether or not they’re in season. In all my imaginings, my burial happens in the winter, as I imagine it does for all people who die young.
Work is sending me to my first mortuary science conference this year. Now that I’ve put in a few years I’m getting some new privileges (though I would prefer a raise). I’ve been tasked with handing out business cards and being a good representative of the home. What I’m most looking forward to is the selection of seminars and panels they’re giving, but I only get to go to one event of my choosing; the rest of the time I’ll be taking notes on the panels work has asked me to attend (“New Innovations in Donor Collection” and “Crushing Injuries: What You Need to Know”). I’ll be one-half of a networking duo with Lise, one of the crematory operations specialists.
Lise and I don’t have many opportunities to get to know one another. This is certainly due to our workloads, but I’ve also been told that I’m not the most gregarious person, and after you’ve been told that, you give up on being gregarious. She and I are due to meet at the airport for our company-booked flight at five in the morning. “This is the airline where the guy got punched, right?” She’s talking about an incident that went viral a few months ago, which I think has happened at least five times, but Lise assures me that it’s rare. We Google, and as it turns out this is not that airline, but its logo is remarkably similar to the punching one, and confusion like Lise’s is what drove their ticket prices down low enough that the home could afford to get us business class. Given my predawn exhaustion, I was very excited to pass out with legroom.
I found out that Lise is one of those people who is very prepared for air travel, which means that she must also be one of those people that always has hand sanitizer. I had a backpack and a carry-on, Lise had a bag to check and a tote full of nasal spray, gum and mints, and masks both medical and moisturizing because the plane air dries out her skin. In the terminal, I asked her if she wanted to get anything to eat, but she had her own snacks. Fruit. I didn’t let that stop me from getting my breakfast at the in-terminal Wendy’s. As a test, I offered her a few fries. She took them.
“You excited?” I asked her.
“Yeah, I went to the one in Pittsburgh a while ago and it was kind of fun. Do you know which panel you want to go to yet?” I told her about a talk on disenfranchised losses I’d been looking at, and she was impressed. There’s something ostentatious about being interested in social issues.
“I was going to do sociology if I didn’t do mortuary science,” Lise tells me. I was surprised.
“Why didn’t you?” Lise hovers her hand over my fries like a question, I nod and she takes one. “I didn’t know how I would make a living.”
I don’t know how much sociologists make, but a mortician with a decent job makes about 70k annually. I haven’t gotten there quite yet, but this is another thing that keeps me tethered to the vocation.
“Maybe I’ll go to that one too.” Lise says, after some apparent consideration. I wasn’t expecting this, and for a moment I regret telling her about the panel before I remember that I can handle a little interaction. So far, I like Lise, but I don’t think we’ve bonded much beyond what we already knew of each other through passing comments in the work kitchen and occasional bump-intos in the parking lot. Leon sends me a text: “hey just checking in again, how are you?” I appreciate his persistence, and I wish it would reward him. The last time we saw each other, I screamed at him, “You can’t fix me!” It was supposed to be overwrought enough to push him away, but one forgives a lot of the grieving and Leon is kind. I respond, “good. about to board a plane” and I wait to see if he lets that go or asks where I’m going. In normal circumstances, I would have told him about the conference as soon as work offered me the trip, but right now we have an arrangement sort of like the protocol for interacting with an aggressive dog: he gives me all the space I need and I’m free to approach him if I’m interested. Leon’s the only friend of mine who didn’t accept it when I ghosted them, and now that I’m in my right mind I can appreciate it, on certain terms.
The plane begins to board, and Lise and I wait for the elite ticket-holders to get on before we, the semi-peons of business class, are permitted to slough into our seats. When we sit, I grant Lise the window seat—“You’ll get it on the way back!”—and she pulls out some lemon scented wipes to clean her tray table and armrests. She offers me one.
“These are dirtier than toilet seats,” she says.
“Do you wipe those down too?”
“Absolutely, if I had to sit in those germs all day afterward I’d be nauseous.”
The panel room has the clean but humid smell of freshly steamed carpet. Lise did decide to join me, and I’m still trying not to regret putting the idea in her head. She is respectfully quiet during the presentation, not like the grey-suited dicks around us who won’t shut up. Clearly to most people this is just another opportunity to network and boost their oiled caskets or high-powered cremation furnaces. The presenter’s voice is clear and loud enough to make it over their stage whispers, she must be used to this crowd. “Disenfranchised loss is disenfranchised for a reason; it’s because we don’t talk about it.” She’s wearing a white pantsuit. A lot of people wear white or grey or blue here, avoiding black to skirt the stereotype. “We, as providers of memorial services, owe it to our clients to understand this phenomenon and be prepared for it.”
I wondered if the people who’d taken care of Mia had been prepared for her. I’ve done all I can to try to figure out what happened to her, but no luck. A friend of Mia’s from high school who I stayed in touch with said that it was an open casket, ruling out an accident that would have disfigured her. That same friend said that my parents had told no one, leaving everyone else guessing just like me. I would hope that if it were an illness they would tell me in case it might be hereditary, but frankly I don’t know what they’re capable of hiding from me. That left only a few things I could think of: drugs, homicide, or suicide.
“When a loved one passes from something like an overdose or by taking their own life, it robs the family of their right to grieve openly. It is shocking how easily people can write off grief,” the presenter continued.
If Mia had killed herself, or if she’d been on drugs, there’s no question that I would never know. My parents are never more religious than when the time comes to plan a funeral. I know they’re not naive enough to think that hiding Mia’s cause of death hides it from God, but maybe that’s how they self-soothe. Sometimes I think that they aren’t telling me just to spite me. I know that if I confronted them about it they would tell me I was being “vulgar”. Growing up you could have told me that Vulgar was my name. Mia’s too.
I hear a tiny sniff next to me, and I see Lise’s eyes have turned red. I’m almost too shocked by her tears to be uncomfortable, but not quite. I look straight ahead and try to ignore her. The presenter has written a few books about grieving. I wonder if in addition to these kinds of events she gets paid to go to self-help, or psychology conferences, and which ones she prefers.
On the last day of the conference, Lise and I stay in the hotel room and finish off the contents of the minibar. We haven’t touched it the whole trip, and it’s already paid for by work, so why not? It was Lise’s suggestion. The idea of drinking with a coworker seems like such a classic bonding activity that it’s a relief to have the opportunity to do it. It’ll be one more thing I can say I’ve done. Lise’s thing is Fireball, mine is vodka. I’ve had better drinking experiences, but the buzz is nice. The air conditioning in the hotel room has been a nightmare since we got here and couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. It’s so cold that at night I wish I could tuck my feet into my own stomach. It only takes a few sips for me to start feeling warm and light, but from the looks of it Lise has a heartier constitution than I do. “This stuff is disgusting but it burns right, you know?” She says. “I know what you mean,” I tell her, staring down through the little airplane-sized bottle they stocked us with.
Lise looks at the bottle in my hand, “I’m amazed you drink that stuff straight.”
“They make it from potatoes.” That makes her snort. On this whole trip, we haven’t talked much, but the few conversations we’ve had have been pleasant enough. After the disenfranchised loss seminar, I didn’t ask her what she thought. By the time it ended, her face had gone back to normal enough that she wouldn’t have to tell me she’d been crying if she didn’t want to, and I’d already started wondering if maybe what I saw was her having an allergic reaction to someone’s cologne or something. Here in our hotel room though, she decides that she wants to share, “I have to tell you, I got a little choked up at that seminar you picked out.” I do my best to act like I didn’t notice and that it doesn’t matter to me, “Oh, how come?”
“It’s a pretty heavy subject, you know? I think about it all the time, how people grieve. It’s awful. Not the people, obviously, but how people can make you feel so shitty just for being sad.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Did you pick it because you’re thinking of moving to front house?”
I could give her a made up excuse very easily, but I’m feeling comfortable in this room for once and I know that if I just tell her “oh I thought it was interesting” or “I just want to be a more compassionate mortician” it’ll give her the impression that I’m not interested in having a conversation, which is an awkward position to put us both in when I agreed to spending our last night here drinking in silence. “My sister died a couple of months ago and I thought it would be a good idea.” This is not a secret, but saying it feels like a confession. When I told Leon, he hugged me hard enough that it hurt, but it’s different when you tell someone months afterward. This is supposed to be a healing wound, if tender. People no longer feel the same delicacy they feel in the immediate aftermath of a death. Lise doesn’t offer me any verbal condolences, but her brows hug her eyes and she frowns while vaguely gesturing to pat my hand or shoulder or something, but it’s not clear whether she decided not to touch me or she missed.
“How did she die?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Was it like an unknown illness?” I wonder if Lise always asks bold questions or if she’s drunk.
“I don’t know, my parents were her next-of-kin and they won’t tell anyone.”
“We don’t really speak. If they’ve told anyone it’s not someone I’m in contact with.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Thank you.” Lise looks like she’s thinking about something, and she changes out her near-empty bottle of Fireball for a beer. She trips a little on the way to the fridge, so maybe her constitution isn’t as stern as I thought. I know I’m a little impaired at the moment, but I think that even if I were sober I’d still find it easy to talk to Lise. She doesn’t poke around much, and when she listens to me she squints a little, like I’m a line of fine print. It turns out that I like feeling studied, it feels like I’m being understood better. I want more of it, so I continue despite her lack of follow-up questions.
“My parents are pretty conservative, so they don’t really reach out. They didn’t talk to my sister either, but I think when she died they got all possessive over her funeral.”
“Were you close to her?”
“Not really, but I thought that maybe we’d get closer when we got older. I thought that maybe one of us would get married or have a kid or something and we’d want to be there for each other.”
“If your parents don’t talk to you, how did you find out?”
“They sent me a card.”
Lise makes a sound like a horse, a huffing shrug out of her mouth to indicate sympathy. I appreciate it. She looks like she wants to put a hand on my shoulder, decidedly this time, and I feel like I would let her but she doesn’t. Instead, she rolls her head around her neck to look up and the ceiling and she asks me a question, “What do you want them to do with your body when you’re dead?” I tell her that I want to be cremated, and she grimaces a little. “What?” I ask. “Well, no offense, but I cremate people all day so I was hoping for a different answer.” This makes me laugh. If I’d asked her the same question and she told me she wanted to be embalmed I might have said the same thing, and maybe she would want to be embalmed for the same reason I want to be cremated.
“What do you want them to do with your body?” I ask her.
“I want to be laid out at home.”
Home wakes, once the only kind of wake there was, still exist, though it’s a tiny practice. It’s like the home birth of death. “I want to be put in my pajamas and laid out on my bed with flowers and stuff.” She pulls out her phone where she has a whole album of home wake photos, like Pinterest. There are photos of people laid out like she says, on beds or on couches, some of them have shrouds or are wrapped up in the blankets they used while living. I imagine that each person is smiling, whether they are or not. There’s one photo that I like a lot, of a person laid out on their living room floor in front of a fireplace with fir branches around them. Lise and I are sitting close enough to each other that I can put my head on her shoulder. It’s more comfortable than I thought it’d be, Lise doesn’t have sharp shoulder bones like I do. She’s soft, and she puts an arm around me. “If there were a funeral home that did this kind of stuff near us I think I’d go work there.” I don’t want to say anything, especially not since I’m getting sleepy and I don’t want to wake myself, but I imagine my response, I’ll go with you.
Alex Nolos is a trans writer and editor born and residing in Brooklyn. His writing centers queerness and housing strangeness. Social media: @alexnolos on Twitter and Instagram. Website: alexnolos.com. Pronouns: He/him