Do you remember meeting your first corpse? I do. I was 23 years old and had just taken a job at a crematory.
My position there was going to be not only cremating the dead but also preparing the bodies so the grieving families could see them one last time. I won’t say my first meeting with a corpse, day one at this new job, went entirely smoothly. I walked into the sterile preparation room, and there he was: laying under a white sheet. I was a little terrified of him, to be honest, I slowly pulled down the sheets to reveal his face, and he looked so dead. But in spite of his glazed over eyes, his gaping open mouth, his sunken skin, in spite of him looking deader than I had ever seen anything look dead, the room still seemed to pulsate with electric energy.
There was something so visceral, so powerful about being in the same room as a dead body, something that my society, your society, as well, has systematically kept away from us our entire lives. I said this was the first time I had met a corpse, like formally, but it was not the first time I had ever seen a corpse.
When I was younger, probably in elementary school, I went to a viewing for a distant relative. He had been chemically embalmed by the funeral home meaning his blood was drained out, and a mixture of formaldehyde and water put in. That procedure had swollen his skin and dyed it so he looked a bit more like a wax figure. He was an elderly man, but was wearing a full face of makeup – including pink lipstick – probably not the shade he would have chosen.
So now, 15 years later, at the crematory, I had finally met a corpse I liked better: no embalming, no makeup, no casket, just the reality of death. Even better, I didn’t have to walk up to the casket, peek in, and then scamper away in fear. I was actually going to be able to spend meaningful time with this dead body. In fact, what my boss wanted me to do was shave him.
Never met a corpse, certainly never shaved a corpse, but as it turns out, it’s not that hard. Shaving a dead man’s face is not all that different from shaving my own legs, for example. Use a lot of cream, short strokes, be careful. This might be the time you start to think how you would feel in this situation, and maybe you’re the type of person to say, “You know what? This is no big deal. It’s just a dead body, it’s my job, I can handle it,” or you might be the type of person to go, “It’s a corpse? is it? Nope, nope! Bye!”
Whichever one you’re at right now is completely fine. Since that first day at the crematory, I have been lucky enough to make death my life. I’ve been in the industry for nine years, and I’ve traveled all around the world, and I can tell you that things that we may consider transgressive – shaving a corpse, for instance – do not even begin to cover the intimacy other cultures have with their dead.
Last summer, I visited South Sulawesi in Indonesia. There are remote villages there that keep the dead in the home for years after death. In fact, my interpreter lived with his mummified grandfather when he was a child, for seven years. Every morning, they would take him out of bed, prop him up against the wall, put him in a new outfit, and at night, they would lay him back down in bed, the same bed he and his brother also slept in. The week that I was there, I slept in a home right next door to one of these corpses.
She had only been dead a few weeks at this point, but with the preservation they had done on her, she looked pretty good, to be honest I was allowed to bring her some snacks, which I did. For the people in these villages, none of this amounts to, “Ugh! You got your Grandpa’s corpse in your house. Weird!” For them, when you talk to the dead, they hear you; when you offer them food, they appreciate it. This is not something out of the ordinary. These are your relatives, these are members of your community, and they deserve to be treated as such.
In the West, we have never had quite this close a relationship with death, and I’m not suggesting that bringing all the mummies back into our homes is what we need to do to fix our very broken relationship with death, but before the professionalization of death care, before we began to pay people to take care of our dead, we really were much closer with them than we are now.
In the past 100 years, we’ve outsourced our death. It’s out of the hands of the families and into hands of the professionals, and in that transition, there have been some pretty big myths associated with the dead body – scandalous, scurrilous accusations if you ask me.
The first is the dead body is not safe. It is. Unless your grandmother died of some wildly infectious disease like Ebola – which if she died in Kansas City, or Tokyo, or Vienna, I can pretty much assure you she did not – she is entirely safe to be around. The second is that families are not allowed to be involved, that a funeral director has to swoop in and take the body immediately behind the scenes. That’s not true either. Death is not an emergency. You can take the time to sit with the person, hold their hand, tell stories, and if you’re feeling comfortable and bold enough, even help to wash and dress their body for burial or cremation. This kind of empowerment and closer intimacy with the dead body is why I founded a funeral home in Los Angeles called “Undertaking LA.” We’re a nonprofit, which means we can help people in LA and all around the world feel like it’s safe and legal to do this with their own loved ones.