Thursday, July 3, 2014

Goodnight, Moon

Usually, they’re in a plastic jar, like the kind you get soup in when you order from a Chinese restaurant. Usually, they’re first-trimester – maybe second. Usually, they don’t look like anything but grey matter, flesh rendered to its most basic form. Sometimes, you can identify anatomy. A hand, maybe, or a very, very small foot, the size of your fingernail. It’s usually easy to disassociate from what you’re cremating because it hardly looks human, much less like a human infant.

They aren’t usually 33 weeks, which is how old my youngest sister was when she was born. I remember seeing her for the first time in the NICU unit and being utterly terrified because she was so delicate. The nurse asked if I wanted to hold her, a process that involved moving her from beneath the jaundice lights and bringing all the cords attached to her along, and while I desperately did, I also didn’t want to touch her. She was too little, and the possibility of injuring her was too great. I felt like if I breathed on her the wrong way, something could go wrong. We’d been waiting for so long for her to show up, since the week when my parents took us to Baskin-Robin to tell us she was coming, and now she was here too early and she was perfect but man. Man, she was tiny and breakable. 

So was he. 33 weeks and so small, wrapped in the blue padded fabric from the hospital, the ID tags on the outside bearing only his mother’s name. 

Curiosity is a deeply ingrained facet of my personality, and part of why I love what I do. I work with people, and everyone is fascinating in some way. Because I work in the back, I encounter humans that can’t physically tell their stories anymore, and so I am reliant upon their friends and families to fill in the blanks. Even without our voices, though, our bodies are canvases that our lives are writ upon. Some scars are chosen, like the red and yellow inked feathers on my shoulder. Some are forced upon us, like the delicate red line that filigrees around the curve of my ear from my jaw surgery. There is an intimacy in seeing peoples’ stories laid bare, seeing skin that is usually covered and shown only to people we love. 

That curiosity made me unwrap the blue fabric protecting him. I didn’t need to see his face – it didn’t change anything about my job – but I wanted to see him.

Babies almost always look peaceful. The faces of adults in death are unhuman, sometimes almost borderline uncanny valley. Eyes are open, or one half-lidded, irises clouded with a fog. Mouths gape limply as the muscles go slack. But babies’ puckered bow-lips are almost always closed, and their eyelids stay shut even after death. The skin across his skull is thin, raised ridges where the sutures of his fontanelles met. Dark curls whorl along those edges and loop down around his ear. His body is perfect, unmarred. He has no scars, no time to collect stories outside of the safety of the womb. He only has blood from his birth, caught in the folds of his scapha, translucent fingernails on tiny curved fists.

Beside the scrubbed and gleaming metal of the embalming machine, I let the water run lukewarm and wash him with my blue gloves on. I massage blood from between his toes, felt his tiny earlobe slippery beneath my fingertips. I cradle his head in the U of my thumb and forefinger, careful not to leave his face beneath the running water. 

I dry him with a washcloth, snapping a clean baby blanket open with my right hand as I cradle him in the crook of my left elbow. I swaddle him, no pouty mouth searching for thumb. Then I pull open the refrigerator door, the seal fighting with a sucking resistance, and place his tiny body on the very top shelf.

My sister comes to visit me next week. She is 17 now, lanky and kind, with an animated face that lights up when she speaks and a droll sense of sarcasm that seems to run in the family. She has long pianist fingers and a sketchbook full of so many beautiful words and ideas, I wonder how it’s all contained within her brilliant head. I look at her and know all this, and  still I see that tiny baby I was so excited and so terrified to meet, and I’m grateful and humbled for the opportunity to wash the little boy in the quiet of the back room.

#ReadDeath Winners!


In a frustrated huff, I threw “Hidden” by Catherine McKenzie on page 70 - unsurprisingly, in the chapter called “Six Feet Under” where the funeral director, Karen Anderson, is first introduced. 

And the winners are… tumblr user belleofstarkstower (page 70), Facebook users Skeizix Koshmanosaurus (page 77) and Rhonda Carrigan Carr (page 64)! E-mail me your contact information at so I can get the prizes out to you! 

The gems that made me throw the book include such lines as, “I expect her to offer her hand but she tucks them both behind her back like a museum docent. Maybe she understands about the pain her touch might cause.” (That’s some terrible customer service right there.)

And this subtle segue:

“‘Did you and Mr. Manning ever discuss what kind of arrangements he’d like in this eventuality?’

I feel an overwhelming urge to ask her to speak in modern English, but there’s something soporific in her formal words..

“‘We talked about… We never talked about this part.’

'Would you like to go with one of our standard packages, then?'”

Apparently, Karen Anderson, LFD, is not one for the verbal foreplay of compassion. 

"[Karen Anderson] opens a drawer in the table next to her and hands me a thick piece of cardboard. It’s a menu, a funeral menu, with two headings: Religious and Nonreligious.

…I hand it back to her. ‘The nonreligious will be fine.’

'Good. Do you know what day you'd like to hold the service? We have an opening tomorrow.'”

Were life so easy that I could schedule funerals the day after a death, without regards to the coroner’s office, the schedule of the officiant or cemetery, the troublesome bits of permits and filing death certificates! That my life could be so simple!

To Ms. McKenzie’s credit, she correctly differentiates between a “coffin” and a “casket” while the family is in the showroom, though she confuses the two when everyone heads to the cemetery. 

The writing was fun and the book was hard to put down, but Ms. McKenzie gets a slap on the wrist for research and representation of her poor, cardboard cutout of unlikeable stereotype Karen Anderson and their calloused arrangement conference.

Friday, June 27, 2014



This week’s #ReadDeath book is Hidden by Catherine McKenzie. It has 304 pages. Synopsis is from Amazon.

"…While walking home from work one evening, Jeff Manning is struck by a car and killed. Two women fall to pieces at the news: his wife, Claire, and his co-worker Tish. Reeling from her loss, Claire must comfort her grieving son as well as contend with funeral arrangements… Tish volunteers to attend the funeral on her company’s behalf, but only she knows the true risk of inserting herself into the wreckage of Jeff’s life.”

Y’all comment here, tweet with the hashtag #ReadDeath, or Facebook me the page number if and when I decide to throw the book in frustration. Top 3 responses closest to the page number will win some fancy funeral-related snail mail from me, the contents of which are a surprise!

Contest entries MUST be to me by Thursday, July 2 at 11:59 PST. ONE ENTRY PER EACH OF YA.


Remember, you gotta comment, Facebook or tweet using the hashtag #ReadDeath (which is brilliant, c’mon). 


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Read Death


Hey, y’all! This post is about #FridayReads. I know it’s Thursday. Hold on to your butts.

I’m an avid reader. Since I’m having foot surgery July 11, I’ll be looking at a lot of down time - at least 3 weeks.

So: I read a book about a funeral director or the funeral industry. Books tend to go two ways: inaccuracy levels are SO HIGH that the author has only met funeral directors through Six Feet Under on mute with the subtitles turned off or they’re so accurate that the author is either a funeral director or has probably had intimate relations with one and their pillow talk was weird.

So, your job is to GUESS what page in the book will first make me ferociously angry, angry to where I throw the book across the room and leave a dent in my wall, a la “The Red Wedding.”

Y’all comment here, tweet with the hashtag #ReadDeath, or Facebook me the page number if and when I decide to throw my book. Top 3 responses closest to the page number will win some fancy funeral-related snail mail from me, the contents of which shall remain a surprise.

Friday, June 27 at 10 PST I’ll announce which book I’ll be reading with total page numbers and a brief synopsis. Contest entries MUST be to me by Thursday, July 2 at 11:59 PST. ONE ENTRY PER EACH OF YA.


Remember, you gotta comment, Facebook or tweet using the hashtag #ReadDeath (which is brilliant, c’mon).