The first time I saw a real dead body I was twenty and had just started as
a “student” at the mortuary. By “real” I mean an unaltered corpse.
There had been no makeup or embalming, nothing had been drained from the body;
nothing had been done at all.
Jerry told me that a “Mr. Gaines” had arrived in the
coach for identification and I was to help unload him from the back. I’d only been there for a
month and this was the first time I’d seen a body meant for cremation.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d seen plenty or corpses. There was no way to avoid
them, or the smells, the flower petals crushed on the floor next to snotty
tissues. It was everywhere in this place, routine.
He told me there wasn’t much to it, I was to assist them in unloading the
body and get him on a bier so that a family member could arrive and make sure
of the correct body before the cremation.
I didn’t give it too much thought at first. I’d unloaded caskets before
so I pushed a bier through the various rooms to the garage and watched as the
coach backed slowly towards me.
Jerry emerged from the driver’s side and unlocked the back while I moved
the bier into position.
The door opened to reveal a long, body sized, cardboard box with a slip of
paper taped to the top.
“Um…” I stammered. “Where’s the casket?”
“We don’t use caskets for cremations.” He always spoke of the most
amazing stuff as if he were explaining how to do car repair. ”Once you use a
casket for one body you can’t use it for another. We don’t burn caskets -
“ he shrugged. “It would make cremation far too expensive.” He leaned his
body into the coach and started to pull out the box. “Here, take that side.”
I moved around the right side and began guiding the box onto the bier. It was
the first time, unloading a corpse, that I’d thought about the weight of the
body. Caskets had some weight to them and I never associated it with their
contents. This box was heavy. It wasn’t the box.
He moved out of the coach as it slid forward and I felt the weight
increase. It was too flexible to just hold up the end and allow it to slide, as you would a casket. We had to lift it, and shift, lift it, and shift.
The slip of paper showed a black line outline of the front and back of a
body. There was an “X” across the heart of the outline, a few other
marks here and there, dates and times, and the name “Gaines”
written haphazardly in marker across the top. It always amazed me just how
simple, human and routine death could become.
“What happened to him? I asked as we settled the box into place.
“He had a heart attack while driving on 465.” Jerry started fussing about how it sat on the bier.
“Push on your side, I don’t think it’s even.”
I lifted, pushed again, and felt the box give way to hit solid
body. Jerry lifted his end and pulled it into place.
“OK, take him into the east calling room and I’ll meet you there.” He
exited the garage and I was left with the box.
I wheeled it toward the room, shifting my hold from the box to the bier as we
reached the carpet. I brought him into the calling room and settled the bier between the floor lamps.
Jerry arrived with a folded white sheet, lifted the shallow lid and hooked it
across the backside.
In movies, when they show identifications, they show sterile metal cases, coolers, drawers and serene looking faces. This was none of that. It wasn’t
horrible or shocking. The body just wasn’t what I expected.
While Jerry spread the sheet across the top of the box, I walked around and
stared at the face. The dead man's expression was unchanged from his moment of death. After
rigor mortis sets in it’s very difficult to change the lay of the body, morticians have to break the rigidity before they do any real work on a corpse.
I noticed that his hair was messy, skewed and oily-looking across the top
of his head. His eyes were half opened and dark, his mouth seemed pulled to one
side, open and dry. His face drooped.
“Why is just the lower part of his face discolored?” I asked. It was
dark and tarnished.
“Blood always settles in the lower parts of the body, the back, the back
of the legs. Those become discolored first.” He arranged the sheet and folded
it back so only the face would show. He stepped back to make sure that everything was right.
I was struck by the reality of this. Prepared bodies, that came in caskets,
always looked somehow unreal to me. Like wax figures or silk skinned dolls
without any substantial relation to the person they were when alive.
I tried to imagine what the family would expect to see when they came in to
identify this man. I know what I had expected and this wasn’t it. I tried to
imagine someone I loved in this condition and failed.
It took two days for someone to come into the mortuary to identify him. By
that time he had started to smell. It wasn’t a horrible reek as I expected -
that would come after a bit longer - but a background smell that leaked from
room to room. It never made it to my apartment and I was grateful for that.
I wandered back several times, during his time there, to see any changes.
I didn’t notice anything substantial - only the background smell that I
eventually got used to - as I vacuumed the room around him or changed a light
We sent him down to Fall Creek for the actual cremation immediately after the
He returned to us three days later as I sat playing 3-handed euchre in the
office with Jerry, and one of the receptionists. Martin sat a cardboard box-
about a foot cube, wrapped in white paper- on a side desk and left.
It looked almost like a present, some secret prize hidden in paper with
the man’s name written neatly on top: “Mr. Gaines.”
“That looks nice.” I looked long and hard at it, thinking of his
face. I didn’t want take my eyes off it for a long time.
“Yea, it is.” Jerry tapped my shoulder, smiled at me, and handed me the
cards. “It's your deal.”