I used to be a mortician
Interview with Brant on my back porch
M: Why did you get into it?
B: I was just kind of intrigued by the whole death process and whatnot. I really didn't know too much about it at the time - I was like 17 when I started really considering going into it and I decided that - well I was pretty confused, I had not been at a funeral before and I was getting to the point in my life that I knew that eventually people around me were going to die. I was kind of creeped out by the whole thing so I went into it. I decided if I got a job in the industry then I'll understand better what goes on.
M: So a face your fear kind of thing?
B: Yeah. So then I started calling around funeral homes. It took me a little over a year to get a job doing part-time stuff, running, filing death certificates and whatnot. When I finally got the job it was through a friend of my father who knew this guy who owned the funeral home. One of the guys there had thrown out his back moving a body out of a house. So I was just temporarily filling in while this guy recovered. It turned out that the guy who I was filling in for wasn't really into dealing with the bodies. That was more my focus and they were impressed with that and with my work so they kept me on and I stayed on for about two years.
M: Did you pick bodies up from houses very often?
B: I would say eighty percent of the time it was from a hospital morgue or the county morgue another ten to twenty percent was out of houses. They were usually like cancer patients that were in Hospice so instead of dying in a hospital they would die at home.
M: Would a crime victim automatically go to the morgue?
B: Most of the time, but there was this one time, it was actually the first time I picked up a body at a house. This guy was like in his early forties. It was in this kind of white ghetto outside of Detroit. Basically he ended up drinking himself to death. Going in there was this really weird kind of sweet sickening smell and there were these piles of gelatinous blood and like bits of blood and whatnot. We went into the bedroom and the guy - this was the weirdest thing every time I had to pick up a body in a house that it wasn't like bedridden they would always die in the weirdest spots. This guy had somehow managed to fall behind, he had wedged himself behind the dresser and the wall, you could tell the dresser had been pushed out. It was weird, more than once that happened where it was just like a really weird awkward place.
M: Like they knew maybe?
B: Yeah, kind of like 'fuck you you're gonna have to work for this one"... So we had to drag him out and the cops were there and they were making all these jokes and stuff, one of them was a photographer and they're taking all these pictures. So we got the guy back to the funeral home and the next day the coroner shows up and these idiots had never cleared it with the coroner first. The family just said this is the funeral home we want to go with, so they just called us and we picked up the body. Since the cops were there, they gave us permission obviously so it wasn't our fault, it was theirs. The coroner was a little bit pissed off, basically asking , well what did you see - kind of interviewed me and the funeral director. By the time he showed up the body had already been embalmed so any evidence of any foul play, if there was any...
M: How long had the body been there?
B: About an afternoon, I think the family came home, the wife and kids and found the guy dead.
M: So what was the gelatinous stuff?
B: From what I could tell it was his stomach, after drinking so heavily for all those years, it just kind of disintegrated. Yeah, on the night stand there was this little lamp and I remember it was just covered in this red ooze, blood, it was all coagulated and stuff and it was still dripping from the shade of it, it was really bizarre.
M: Did you ever have to pick up someone that had been dead awhile?
B: Yeah there was this one time about three months into me working there, they sent me down to the Wayne County Morgue and they were pretty notorious - none of their equipment worked. They had four vehicles and three of them were up on cinder blocks. Everybody down there was really disgruntled and pissed off. No one would give you a hand moving a body. Apparently they had a deep freeze for really difficult bodies but that was probably like 40 degrees which is still warmer than a normal fridge should be. So I went down there and picked up this body. It was pretty frozen when I got it and it was all wrapped up, I got it into the hearse and was driving up the highway and it was rush hour in mid august. Slowly as I was driving there was this smell that would show up for a brief couple of seconds that was really nasty, it was, again, that really sweet, sickening kind of smell if you didn't know what it was you might kind of like say it's kind of alright. It's one of those weird smells. Then finally it just got really pungent and I turned around and looked and there were all these maggots that were coming out from underneath the cover on the gurney. So basically the dude was thawing. I think they had found him after about three weeks outside in an alley in Detroit.
B: So yeah the rest of the way I had my windows rolled down and my head stuck out the window.
M: So the body comes in, what do you guys do?
B: Remove any clothing that's on it, the hospital gown put it up on the embalming table, there's a head block to prop up the head a bit and you position the arms and legs like you want.
M: What happens when rigor mortis sets in?
B: You can break the rigor, you just have to work the arms back and forth. It's just tendons, you're just basically stretching the tendons back out again. So you position it the way you want, then you go in on the right side of the neck there's a five muscle group - the sterno-cleido-mastoid muscle group and packaged in that is an artery and a vein that go directly from the heart up to the brain. You raise that package of five muscles you go and find the artery and the vein, the arteries the white one and the veins dark blue. You cut the artery halfway so you can insert this metal post that you hook up to the pump. You clamp that on and turn on the pump. It puts on about as much pressure as the heart would. Then you make sure that all the arteries and veins are pressurized - you'll see them raising up under the skin, in the legs and arms. When you see that you know you have flow through the whole body and there's not going to be any problem areas. Then you cut the vein and the blood gets pushed through and drains out the incision that you made. It goes down to the bottom where there's a drain and that drain gets pushed over the sink. After about a half hour or so - you can tell by the fluid that's coming out, it's primarily just embalming fluid at that point, all the blood is out. then after that you cut the larynx and the esophagus to prevent any chance of purge which is when you die and have food in your stomach, that food starts to rot and creates gasses. The gasses will end up pushing up the rotten food up through the mouth and nose and you don't want to have that happen during a funeral.
M: Is that what happens when a body moves? Is it from that gas?
B: That's complete fiction. Dead bodies do not move. The first day that I worked there they brought me down just to make sure I could handle it. The guy that was embalming said "So did you ever hear about these bodies moving on people?"
There's a lot of cosmetic stuff after that. Closing the eyes, there's these little plastic eyeball caps that keep the shape of the eyes, the formaldehyde dehydrates, it bonds with the water and changes it chemically so that it's not water anymore. So around the eyes and whatnot you'll get sunken features. The caps give it a more spherical natural look. You put that in there then super glue the eyes shut. The mouth is pretty much the same thing there's a plastic piece for the mouth and you sew the top and bottom jar together. Right in front of the teeth and under the nose then down at the bottom where your lip actually connects with your jaw. You seal that up with super glue also. There's this silicone you can inject it's the same stuff that you use for lips. A lot of stuff that you use in embalming that you also use in plastic surgery.
M: So the family would bring the clothes and stuff...Did you guys do the make-up?
B: Yeah, if it was a woman there was this lady who would come in and do the hair but we would do the make -up. The guys that I worked with they weren't really into doing the make-up. They would paint on this orange - there were different degrees of orange, one through five, five being really orange and that's what they would use all the time. It was kind of weird.
M: Everyone had a tan?
B: Yeah totally. We would ask for the most recent photo. You could make it appear like you just took fifteen years off their life. You want it to look like the person just the day before.
B: One of the most ironic things that happened was well, it was about closing time and we were getting ready to leave and the phone rang, it's this lady, she says her brother just died, he's at this hospital, this is his name etc. I say ok we'll go take care of it, I'll have the director call you in the next thirty minutes. So we go get the gurney, put it in the back of the hearse get ready to pick up the body and the lady calls back.
I helped with the embalming - it took us like three times the amount of embalming fluid. Normally an embalming takes about an hour an hour and a half, it took us like three and a half hours to embalm this guy.
It turned out he wouldn't fit into a regular sized coffin so we had to order a triple wide coffin. And he was being buried so he needed a burial vault, they didn't make them that big so we had to order a septic tank and he was the town plumber, which was ironic.
M: So why did you stop?
B: At the time I was twenty one - I was wearing a suit to work everyday and none of my friends did and I like my holidays off and my late nights off. It's more a life style than a career really. You need to be involved in the community and stuff. At the time I'd taken so much biology for pre mort sci that I figured I'm almost there to get a bachelors in it. I figured I could go back into it if I wanted. I realized the amount of money I'd be making not owning my own business would be less than a lot of other things I could do. I still think about going back into it, it can be an honest business. I think funeral directors sometimes get accused of putting the guilt on people. But you could lose perhaps a whole generation of people that way. Most families end up going to the same funeral home.
M: Did you ever go out with anyone who was freaked out by it?
B: It wasn't until after I got out of the industry. It was a few years ago, I had a lunch date with this girl that I found attractive, we worked together and we went out to lunch. It turned out she had a boyfriend anyway and he had gone to Wayne State where I'd gone for a couple semesters and she asked what did you go there for? And I said pre-mort-sci and after that she was just like not interested at all.
M: Do you feel like your original purpose was fulfilled?
B: To a certain degree but I did learn though that being surrounded by death all the time it doesn't give me any more insight into it. In a way I'm more desensitized to it. I'm not really freaked out by it at all, I know all the mechanics of it now. But it's different when there's no connection to the body, it's not someone you know.
B: There was this one that affected me...a black mail man in this all white uptight community outside Detroit, and the fact that he had so many people show up to his funeral. It was unbelievable how many people came. He had such an impression on everybody on his route for years that he had the biggest turnout. Not like friends but just people he saw on a daily basis. That was a real bummer to me. He probably never had any idea that he had affected that many people just doing his job.