Blood, Skin and Earth
The living want the dead to look like the living.
by CHISOM OBI-OKOYE
These early April days feel too much like November—gray skies and chilly winds that sting. The winter’s snow melts, exposing an earth one season dormant. It is in these early April days that a smell rises from the ground, mingles with the placid air until it overpowers, and then sinks back down into the Valley. I am told that this is the smell of decay, of rot, of things now dead and buried released once more. It happens every April, I am told. An olfactory memorial. There is no relief from this smell. It lingers in your clothes, sticks to your skin. It forces you to carry it with you. In parks, dogs whimper to their owners, begging for refuge. On a college campus, students and professors hurry from building to building, pulling the collars of their coats up and their scarves over their faces. They turn away from it; they scrunch their noses, repulsed by it. You get used to it, I’m told. Then summer comes and the scent of flowers masks it and you forget that it was ever there.
In graveyards, the smell is particularly pungent. It thickens the air. In the late evening of one of these April days, this is where I find myself, in a graveyard along Route 5 in Vermont. I park my car in the basin between two hills, follow the trail up, and pull myself over the rusting wrought iron fence that surrounds the yard. In crooked rows, tombstones sprout from the earth. Some tilted, some now broken. I glide my fingers over the names, the birth years, the death years, the Bible verses, knowing that each touch is an erasure. Thousands more and the name, the years, the verses will be no more. As I walk across sodden ground, I feel the earth shifting beneath me. Bodies shifting beneath me.
Decomposition starts from within. Microorganisms that once protected the body now feed on it, breaking down dead cells in the intestines until the body is hollowed out. Worms and beetles move in and out of sockets where there once were eyes and through the ribs once covered in muscle. Soon the bones, too, will go. In the tropics, it takes less than twenty-four hours for a body to begin to decay.
“In a coffin, I can give you fifty years,” the undertaker says. “I can slow it down.”
* * *
An apron, shoe covers, gloves. Start by mixing the fluids—formaldehyde to preserve; water conditioner to decrease acidity; and dyes to give the skin a natural color. Set the features. Close the eyes and the mouth, flex the arms and the legs to release tension. Dead bodies shouldn’t look so dead. The initial incision should be made near the right collarbone, near the carotid artery that once transported oxygen from the lungs to the brain. Arterial tubes, drain tubes, a hose. Push the fluid through the arterial tube; drain the blood through the drain tube. Strive for balance. Equal pressure, slow speed. Massage the body to spread the fluid, to even out the rate of decay.
“This is my favorite part,” the undertaker says. “The embalming.”
During this time, J— plans the visitation and the funeral. Watching the yellow-orange liquid move into the body and the dark, red blood flow out, he likes to make lists with the embalming machine humming in the background: a list of things to do, a list of things to buy, a list of clichéd sayings to include in the obituary or in the memorial or in the elegy, a list of songs that might embody the spirit of the dead or might ease the members of the immediate family who fall into one another, crying, in the front pew of the church. He likes jazz. He likes the way Chris Botti trumpets melancholy into what he had once thought to be “happy songs.”
“He makes you want to smile and cry,” J— says. “But most families prefer those cheesy funeral songs. The classic ones. These things always end up sounding more and more like the soundtrack to Titanic. Or worse yet, Beaches.”
He begins to sing the opening verse of Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.” When he reaches the chorus, he stands and throws his arms open, knocking a metal tray off the table. The clang stops him. He removes his glasses and places them on his head. He clears his throat.
“Maybe we should move upstairs,” he says.
He leads me out of the basement and locks the door behind him, up the stairs and into his office. It’s a small, dingy room that smells slightly of bleach and stale decay. One yellow light bulb hangs above, flickering every so often. He looks up and adds it to his to-do list. The wood of the desk is chipped along the edge and seems to have been colored in with Magic Marker to make it appear less so. There’s an old Macintosh computer in the corner. Next to the computer are two picture frames, one black with a photograph of a man and a woman smiling and the other a light brown with a photo of a family (a man, a woman, one girl, one boy and a dog). Each photograph is stamped in white letters with the numbers “5 x 7” and the name of a manufacturer. The edge of the desk closest to the wall is lined with trinkets, the kind you buy for a kid in a souvenir store, the kind a kid leaves behind. A plastic teal Statue of Liberty is turned on its side. The rest of the desk is littered with pamphlets that tell you how to grieve and how to write an obituary, pamphlets that tell you what type of flowers to send and the benefits of cremation. I open one and am relieved to find that death costs less than marriage.
“That’s if you don’t count the tax breaks,” he says. He finds this funny. He knocks over a cup of untouched coffee that has been sitting on his desk since that morning. The black liquid covers the papers and drips onto scratched wooden floor. He curses but makes no attempt to clean.
* * *
The days pass quietly here. The undertaker spends most of them waiting for the phone to ring. The calls that the undertaker receives are mostly from telemarketers wanting to sell him life insurance. Sometimes they’re from suppliers. Sometimes, he gets calls from people who have awoken in a panic, having dreamt of their own funeral or of seeing a coffin being lowered into the ground and believed themselves encased within it. The undertaker’s response to these calls is always the same. “Well, come in,” he says. “It’s always better to plan for these things sooner rather than later.”
When the caller comes in, the undertaker leads him to the conference room. He offers the man a seat and makes small talk about the weather as he removes binders from a cabinet along the back wall and lines them around the perimeter of the wooden table. He moves quickly through them, overwhelming the man with information about every aspect of funeral planning. When he gets to the details (the “personal touches,” as he calls them), he opens the binder closest to him. There are too many options to choose from: wooden or steel casket? (“The steel will make the body last longer. But the wood is more traditional.”) Imported or local? (“Vermonters really know how to carve a casket.”) Velvet or satin lining? White, green, blue or lilac? A plain or decorated casing to make the body last even longer?
“I try to encourage them to choose a lining that complements their skin tone,” the undertaker says. He looks up at me. “You would look good in the lilac.”
After showing the caller all of his options, the undertaker gives him few pamphlets about caring for the loved ones he will leave behind. He promises to call to check-in the next day.
The undertaker’s favorite phone calls though are the ones that come from the medical examiner. J— likes the gore of unquiet deaths. His heart races when he learns that there has been a murder, a plane crash, a body mangled in the woods. “It’s an adrenaline high,” he says. He describes the bodies that he has seen. He tells me of the times he was given a pile of limbs and asked to make a woman “look like herself again.” That was unusual, J— says. When it’s that bad, most people opt for cremation.
Behind the funeral home, there is small house with no windows. The crematorium. Past the door, there is a singular room with exposed brick walls. Along the back wall, there are two metal furnaces. One has a white sheet of paper taped to it that reads: “OUT OF ORDER” in thick, black letters.
Since the economic turn of 2008, cremation has become more popular than the traditional funeral. Some Vermont undertakers have dropped out of the funeral business entirely. Cremation is “financially friendly” on both ends. “It gets the job done faster,” J— says. Cremation does in three hours what the earth does in fifty years.
* * *
Preheat the oven to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Put the body into a wooden casket. Using a metal gurney, transfer the body into the cremation chamber. Do this quickly to prevent heat loss. Add a column of fire. Aim it at the torso. The soft tissues will dry. The muscles will char. Add a second column. Reduce the bones to dust. Let the body sit for a few hours.
“Things are changing,” J— says, looking around the room, then at the ground.
The crematorium wasn’t always here. The building where we now stand used to be a garage where the undertaker’s father would tinker with old machines that no longer worked. J— prefers the space as it was. He doesn’t care for cremation. “It’s all so impersonal,” he says. He tells me that cremation services are never as fulfilling as a funeral and a burial, and family members and guests leave feeling as hollow as they entered, now with the urn in hand.
The crematorium is a recent addition. When he first opened it, it accounted for less than forty percent of the funeral house’s total business. Now, the crematorium is its primary business. It’s a 65 -45 split, J— tells me, with the numbers diverging further every year. The crematorium is the only part of the funeral house where J—has no control. He refuses to get licensed, believing that it will “diminish the integrity of his profession.” So, he’s forced to rely on two assistants to help him with the work. J— fears that soon his profession will be obsolete with the rise of crematoriums.
“I don’t like being in here. Smells sickly sweet,” J— says, leading us out. We return to his office.
* * *
In his office, J— opens the bottom drawer of the desk and retrieves a small cardboard box. He sets the box on the table and pushes it towards me.
“These are the ones that I wrote,” he says, smiling as I leaf through them. “It’s all about finding the right formula.”
They all read the same way. Date of death plus cause of death plus life history plus surviving family members. A life in one hundred words or less. The undertaker likes to practice writing these in the quieter hours of the day. He shows me his steno pad of fake obituaries of fake characters. Sarah, 51, heart attack. John, 38, tractor accident. Herbert, 91, unknown, surrounded by loved ones. He blushes when I read aloud the particularly gruesome ones involving scorned lovers, mistresses and steak knives, and lowers his eyes when I read a mock obituary for Michael Hayward, Jr., 42, suicide. Michael Hayward, Jr., who was a real person.
“The one in Valley News didn’t do anything for him or his family,” he says. For J—, obituaries are the final testament of a person’s life, the dead made immortal through print. For J—, obituaries are an apology to the family of the deceased for the loss of a son, a daughter, a lover and for his ability to profit from this loss. J—believes in a universal order, ying and yang, an ultimate sacrifice.
“People have to die so I can make a living,” he says. The thought seems to trouble him.
He retrieves another steno pad from a desk drawer. On the cover in black letters are the three words: Michael Hayward Jr. In the days before the body was found, J—had speculated over what it would look like. Those images appear on the page. The very idea of suicide fascinates him.
He turns to me and asks: “Have you ever known anybody who killed himself?”
“Suicide is really hard on the families, the people you leave behind,” the undertaker says.
The questions you leave unanswered.
He stops to clean his glasses. He continues: “It makes sense with younger people—teenagers, thirteen-year-old girls. With them, it makes sense. Well, as much sense as suicide can make.”
I have known thirteen-year-old girls who were willing to slit open their wrists in pools of warm water, have known girls who almost got away with it, have known girls who got away with it, have known girls who got away.
For Freud, it was the death drive. The body “endeavoring to re-establish a state of things that was disturbed by the emergence of life.” An instinct for destruction; a pleasure in self-destruction. For Lacan, it was thanatos. A desperate affirmation of life through death, which was both sense and nonsense.
In Vermont, it’s mostly middle-aged and death-aged men, sometimes women. Vermont has the 15th highest suicide rate in the nation. J— thinks that the gorge is partially to blame.
* * *
Thirteen thousand years ago, the earth split open to form the Quechee Gorge.
“And it’s the worst thing that could have happened to this pocket of Vermont,” the undertaker says. “It’s too beautiful a way to die.”
J— tells me of the time he was driving up Route 4 and saw a woman jump off the bridge and into the gorge. He says he remembers her well. She had blonde hair, cut short into a bob and had been wearing denim overalls rolled into shorts. On her feet, she wore some type of sneaker—maybe Keds—that had seemed white to him but had been covered with mud and leaves as if she had been running away from something. In the moment when he was driving past, she had turned, their eyes had met and she had smiled at him. Then she was gone.
“I waited days then weeks then months for the police department to confirm it,” he says. But at the end of the year, when no confirmation came, J— decided that he had dreamt the death. “But maybe others see her, too.” J— says. That was eleven years ago. He dreamt of her again yesterday. She was calling him, inviting him to chase her into the gorge. Maybe she had called out to Michael Hayward, Jr., too.
“All death is romance,” the undertaker says.
One hundred sixty-three feet deep. J— likes to imagine what happens at each 20-feet interval, from the moment when the free-fall begins and the death drive is overcome by other laws of physics—velocity, inertia. He wonders if it hurts. Gravity weighs the body down, pulls the body in. One hundred sixty-three feet deep. It must have hurt. But perhaps not as much of the ritual of living.
“I guess it would be nice to know why,” J— says. He lists some warning signs but recognizes that even this is futile. Warning signs are only warning signs after the fact.
He shows my a news clipping from the Vermont Standard, April 16, 2014: “Police: Body Found At North Hartland Dam.” The following lines are highlighted in yellow.
There was no suicide note in the vehicle and no signs of foul play at the time but Hayward’s wallet and his credit cards were discovered about a mile further down Route 4 scattered along the edge of the roadway near the new Jake’s Market.
“If I had done it, I wouldn’t have left a note either,” J— says, returning the clipping to a folder. He rubs his temples. “It’s hard to write an obituary with no cause of death.”
He feels that suicide is too empty a word.
Three bodies are recovered from the gorge each year, sometimes dismembered, with skulls and bones crushed, bloated with water, wholly unrecognizable to the families who are forced to identify and claim the mess of blood, skin and earth. Most Vermont deaths are clean, natural causes. Suicides are messy. They leave undertakers with the job of making a body human again.
“Sometimes it’s not even Vermonters,” J— says. “Just people driving through on vacation.”
* * *
J— leads me to the visitation room. On the walls are paintings of popular biblical stories encased in ornate, gilded frames that seem to be out of place and out of time. Short pews line both side of the room and in front of the room there is an empty coffin. The air is stale and the dark carpet, normally covered for a ceremony, is stained.
“This is where a lot of kids see a dead body for the first time,” J— says, smiling.
This business is all about presentation. The living want the dead to look like the living. J— prides himself on his ability to apply makeup to dead bodies. Some eye shadow, a touch of mascara, dark lipstick to cover the blueness of the lips. Some concealer under the eyes, a bit of foundation to cover unsightly scars and some blush to give a more natural look.
He laughs when I tell him that the undertaker who oversaw my best friend’s funeral this past August had forgotten to paint her nails before the visitation and how it was that sight, the chipped nail polish, that had made her mother, who had been able to hold it together to that point, collapse with tears.
“That’s tragic,” he says. “I don’t make those types of mistakes here.”
The chimes from the door sounds and J— leaves me. In the other room, I hear a woman’s voice speaking quickly and frantically.
“I must buy a coffin,” I hear her say. J— leads her into the showroom and begins selling the deluxe vaulted, steel casket with the soft white interior, the most expensive and the most popular in his collection. “It has breathing room.” I hear him laugh at his own joke.
Alone in the visitation room, I walk around the coffin, letting the tips of my fingers glide over its cherry oak finish. I hear J— in the other room, talking now of the possible funeral packages, telling her the benefits of being prepared for death. I remove my shoes and place them by the front pew. I return to the coffin, feel the satin lining, and I climb inside.