***DISCLAIMER*** As you can probably already guess from the title, this post talks about some touchy subjects. If you aren’t comfortable hearing about some of the details of embalming/funeral service, please, do not read on. You’ve been warned!
I mentioned in a recent post that my childhood home finally sold. For those of you who don’t know, that childhood home happened to be a funeral home for the first 11 years of my life. In my creative writing class last semester, I wrote a personal essay on growing up there, and it was very well-received in my class, so I’ve been wanting to post it for a while now. I guess this gives me an excuse to do so! Enjoy. 🙂
“So, what now?” I asked as I watched my dad work. The pile of homework in my lap was glaring at me, but I couldn’t be bothered by it. He holds up a tool, about six inches long, that looks like a giant tweezers.
“Well, once you find and snip the carotid, you put the pump in one end and the angular forceps in the other and…” he pushed a button on the pump, and blood started shooting out of the incision. I can’t help but flinch. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it, I’ll never get used to watching someone’s blood drain.
“I don’t mean physically,” I said, setting my homework on my stool so I could stand and get a closer look.
I still remember the first time I fully realized it wasn’t normal to live in a funeral home. My family hosted an exchange student when I was in sixth grade, and one day we had to get the groceries into the house before a visitation started. This sounds like it would be completely normal, but the way my house is set up, you have to pass through the funeral home to get from the garage to the actual house. My sisters and I started running things back and forth, everything all set up for the wake—dead body and all—without a second thought. It took us a minute to realize that our exchange student was practically paralyzed, staring at the body we were passing without a second thought. We apologized for the shock, gave her a minute to get used to the idea, then went back to running groceries into the house. By the end of the year, she was running groceries right along with us.
I always knew the funeral home thing was weird, but I guess this was the first time it fully registered. I’m from a ridiculously small town—graduating class of twelve whole people—so all of the people around me were pretty much used to the idea. My childhood best friends used to play and watch movies out in the funeral home just like I did, never batting an eye. I spent hours hanging out with my dad while he got bodies ready for funerals. Because my parents owned and operated the funeral home, that was my first job, beginning around age 14. The funeral home has since moved out of my house to a better building down the street, leaving us with a pretty awesome movie room. It’s the perfect place to binge horror movies, especially ones that try to use funeral homes as their creepy setting. Nice try, A Haunting in Connecticut, but that’s not gonna scare me.
“What do you mean then, Suzie?” my dad asked. He began rinsing the standing pools of blood down the drain. “Heaven?”
I shook my head. It wasn’t worth getting into. “Never mind.”
How the hell could I be so comfortable around dead things and still be so scared of death?
Since coming to college, the funeral home thing has once again come to my attention as something strange. Suddenly, I can use that as my “fun fact” about myself again, but then I also need to explain it a little. No, I guess the funeral home wasn’t technically in my house, but it was connected, and I spent plenty of time out there, so I’d say that counts. No, I’ve never slept in a coffin, and we usually call them caskets rather than coffins. Yes, this means I’ve seen a lot of dead people. Yes, I’m pretty sure my house is haunted (but that’s a story for another time). No, I haven’t seen My Girl, and yes, I know I should. Yes, I do have a strange relationship with death and all things macabre.
I know many people that have never even been near a dead body, and then there’s me, who spent my entire childhood surrounded by them. My level of comfort with dead things shows through in many areas of my life, but especially creatively. From the time I was thirteen years old, I’ve been writing stories that border on horror. Almost every story I’ve written contains at least one death, but I still haven’t quite gotten into writing about what comes after the death. I guess there’s a certain level of familiarity with the dead themselves that I feel seeps into my writing. Not only does it show in the art that I produce, it also shines through in the types of art that I consume.
“Time for the aspirator,” my dad said. I brace myself; it’s my least favorite part—aside from when the dead release their bowels. That’s definitely the worst. The aspirator is essentially a tool used to remove any remaining liquids in the organs, to ensure the preservation of the body. It’s pretty gnarly.
I watched my dad measure carefully from the dead man’s belly-button, and then he inserted the long open-ended tube. I flinched again.
“What? It’s not like he can feel anything.” It’s safe to say my dry sense of humor came from my father. He pushed the probe at various angles, hitting each of the major organs one-by-one.
“Now I get why Saw didn’t gross you out,” I said.
I’ve been obsessed with horror movies for as long as I can remember, and I blame that almost entirely on living in a funeral home. The fact that my parents are also horror movie junkies doesn’t help. It takes a lot for horror movies to actually be scary for me, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that horror movies rely heavily on our fear of dead things in order to scare us. I can watch the goriest scenes in (almost) any movie without even flinching, because, once you’ve watched the embalming process (see specifically: aspiration), any on-screen gore seems pretty mild by comparison. The same goes for medical shows. I’ve never shrunk back when they show a surgical shot, because the “surgeries” performed in the prep room are probably worse. Dead things just don’t have that effect on me, but somehow this leads me to crave these dark stories and films even more. Maybe the paranormal intrigues me because it offers an explanation of what’s next, maybe slasher films pique my interest because I like to see what lands people in the funeral home. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but it’s a thrill to see what sort of things actually end up scaring me, since it takes so much to do so. My love of horror aside, growing up in a funeral home has had a positive impact on my views of death and grief.
I’ve met several people that have never attended a funeral. Meanwhile, I’ve been to more than I can count. Granted, most of them have been for people I didn’t know personally. Nevertheless, my proximity to funerals has made it much easier to deal with death when it hits near me. Many people don’t know what to expect when they attend a funeral, but this is clearly not the case for me. I know what it will be like to see the dead body (which, if the funeral director has done a good job, shouldn’t look all that different from when they were alive). I’ve been to a few funerals, including one of a close friend, where the funeral director did not do a good job. I think it’s more traumatizing to see a dead person when they look so… dead. There’s something about it that brings out the uncertainty of what comes next. Shitty embalming aside, I have a general idea how things are going to flow throughout the service, and thus which areas are most likely to make me cry. And probably most importantly, I’ve gotten to see firsthand that there is no “correct” way to grieve.
People deal with the tragedy of death in all sorts of ways, and there’s no better way to see this than by observing funerals. I’ve worked funerals with plenty of smiles and laughter, and I’ve worked funerals where there wasn’t a dry eye the whole time. I’ve heard people cracking jokes, and I’ve heard people yelling at the deceased. Funerals are weird and uncomfortable, and so is grief, but being able to see so many of them up close and personal has allowed me to realize that grief is a process, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it.
At the funeral of my grandfather, I found myself surprisingly stoic. I’m a rather emotional person, so this didn’t make sense to me. Did I not care about this loss? Was this some form of acceptance? I guess in this case I could believe the “he’s in a better place” line, since he’d lived a full life. In the six years I’ve had to ruminate on this, I’ve come to realize that this was just how my mind chose to deal with the loss. My parents, whose faith is much stronger than my own, were adamant that his soul was at peace, and their insistence helped me to come to terms with it.
I’ve had a much harder time coming to grips with the death of my two-year-old cousin. This was one funeral where I could hardly stop the tears from flowing (which may have partly been because it was the third in a two-week succession of deaths near me; the first being a freak accident that killed a close friend, the second being the death of a classmate’s mother). How could people look at me and tell me this was all that was meant for the life of this little boy? It’s something I’m still trying to work through, something my funeral home upbringing never could have prepared me for.
Nevertheless, I’m grateful that my funeral home upbringing has helped me to realize that either response (and any other response) is completely valid. Allowing yourself to feel the heartbreak—in whatever way feels right to you—is the first step in allowing yourself to heal. It’s always said that funerals are for the living, and it’s true. It’s our way of kickstarting the mending process.
Growing up in a funeral home is something I wouldn’t change for the world. Since my high school days, the funeral home has been moved to a building across town (i.e. two blocks away, since my town is so small) from my house. It still bears my surname, despite the fact that my dad left funeral service for a while. He recently came back to it, but he now works at a different location, due in part to my parents’ divorce. It’s a difficult profession, acting as the final bridge between the dead and their loved ones, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. My dad is genuinely one of the best at his job, and it was his passion for the job that allowed me to grow up having such a healthy (albeit strange) relationship with death. Sure, growing up in a funeral home hasn’t given me all the answers, and I’m still scared to death of dying (no pun intended) (actually, scratch that, pun fully intended), but it has left me well equipped to navigate the grieving process, not to mention leaving me with an awesome movie room. It’s almost surreal to think that I’ll never get to watch scary movies there again, but such is life. That funeral home will always have a special place in my heart.
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xoxo, second sister suzie