All his features were mild. His jaw was rather weak, his lips thin, and his nose wasn’t quite the right size. The slightest of widow’s peaks dripped down into his moderately broad forehead. Overall, he had a very forgettable countenance.
Just your average dead guy.
As the cadaver patiently waited on the table to be embalmed and properly dressed, the mortician picked up the case log.
C.O.D.: blood loss due to severed radial and ulnar arteries [self-inflicted]
Height: 5ft 9 in.
Weight: 172 pounds
Hair Color: brown
Eye Color: brown
The mortician looked over the information, being careful to skip over the name. Not once had he ever looked at the name that belonged to a body. It was not a conscious habit, but somehow he knew his work would be more difficult to carry out if anonymity were to be compromised. After the name and vital info fields, the log went on to include the coroner’s final comments, but such information as the location of bruises, cuts, or any other imperfections as well as what personal items the deceased was wearing had been left for the mortician to carefully document. Double-checking his smock and gloves, the mortician began his work.
Stepping behind the corpse’s head, he began by massaging the neck muscles to temporarily relieve rigor mortis.
“First time here?” he asked quietly as he slipped a block beneath the head. This would keep the head at a fifteen degree angle, which allowed for better viewing during the wake. The mortician walked to the side of the table and turned the arms over.
“Geez buddy,” the mortician mused, finding an identical pair of slashes marring the right and left wrists, as the case log had indicated. He’d seen suicide victims before, but was always slightly overcome nonetheless in the presence of the shells they left behind.
After meticulously writing in his own description of the wrist wounds and other bruises he found on the body, the mortician inspected the face for any jewelry that needed to be removed. All he found was an eyebrow piercing.
“I apologize in advance if I pinch you, I’ll try to be gentle,” the mortician said as he began unscrewing the nub that hung below the corpse’s eyebrow. Once he’d removed it and placed it in a small plastic bag, he turned on a small showerhead attached to the table by a hose. He began rinsing the cadaver, shampooing the hair and then using a coarse sponge to scrub the remaining blood from the arms. Once the mortician had towel-dried the corpse, he grasped a thick suture needle and string.
“This is really going to hurt,” he said, as he began stitching the wrist wounds. The flesh was no longer resilient and required some effort to pierce, and the minutes ticked by as the mortician did his best to close the gashes. Luckily they would be unseen in the casket once the corpse had been dressed and its arms positioned.
When the mortician had finished, he turned his attention to setting the cadaver’s features. Prying open the eyelids, he carefully placed two eyecaps on the exposed eyeballs. The small, rounded devices would help the eyelids keep their shape and prevent them from sagging inwards. With the caps in place, the mortician surveyed the mouth. The jaw hung slightly open, and the lips were beginning to shrivel with dehydration.
The mortician once again reached for a suture needle. The one he selected was large and curved, specifically designed for use on the mouth. The mortician leaned in close, piercing the skin beneath the man’s jaw with a steady hand to send the needle up into his gums. Adding a little pressure, the mortician felt the needle puncture the nostrils and septum before easing it through to come back down to pierce the gums on the other side. Holding the two ends of string, the mortician pulled the jaw closed and tied two knots, tight enough so the torque pulled them slightly into the skin, yet loose enough so the jaw didn’t appear to be clenched unnaturally tight. To finish, the mortician dabbed stay crème on the lips to reverse the signs of decomposition and dehydration.
The mortician stepped back from the table and stretched. Now it was time for the actual chemical process of embalming. He walked over to a switch on the wall and flipped it, activating the fume hood over the cadaver to keep himself from feeling the effects of the formaldehyde.
* * *
The young man quietly lay among the folds of the white silk, his head comfortably supported by a matching silk pillow. His neatly folded hands loosely grasped a rosary, and his face held such a tranquil, content expression, one might guess he was dreaming the most wonderful of dreams.
Though weariness tugged at every inch of the mortician’s body after having spent the better part of a day readying the cadaver, he checked and rechecked the body. He made sure the hands were even and their placement didn’t wrinkle the corpse’s shirt; he nudged the jaw a little to be sure it stayed in place; he adjusted the rosary. Before turning from the casket, the mortician gently ran a fine-toothed comb through the cadaver’s hair one last time. Finally he stepped back from the casket, gracefully wiping his comb on a handkerchief before slipping it into his breast pocket. Straightening his own suit and removing his cotton gloves, he nodded to the funeral director. The director returned the nod, then left the visitation room. When he reentered, he led the bereaved family of the deceased to the casket, as the mortician stood respectfully to the side, hands clasped before him. A fresh torrent of tears burst forth from the family members, and the mortician suppressed his pride upon hearing their murmured agreements that their beloved had never looked better. “Maybe he’s just asleep?” he heard one of them choke quietly.
The family turned from the casket to the mortician, weeping their thanks as they desperately shook his hand, as though he were some miracle worker. Then they turned back to the funeral director, speaking in hushed tones as they made final arrangements for their beloved’s wake. The funeral director furtively caught the mortician’s eye and gave him another nod. The mortician inclined his head to him slightly, acknowledging that he was dismissed and allowed to return to the embalming room.
The mortician pushed open the steel door to the small, tiled room in the basement and flipped on the fluorescent lights overhead. As they hummed to life, the mortician glanced at the other black bag he’d left on the table. In it was his night’s work, patiently waiting to be embalmed.
Pulling on a fresh smock and pair of gloves, the mortician couldn’t help but compare himself to an EMT. They were both on-call 24-7. The only difference was a matter of life and death.
The mortician allowed himself a small smile at his dark pun before approaching the table and reading the attached case log. As usual, he avoided the name.
C.O.D.: heart failure
Height: 5 ft 5 in.
Weight: 164 pounds
Hair Color: auburn
Eye Color: blue
The mortician let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding before setting down the clipboard and unzipping the body bag. Starting at the feet, he slowly inched the opened bag underneath the corpse. If a body was too heavy, a motorized sling was usually employed to help lift it, but the Mannheim Family Mortuary was small, and help usually came from the funeral director himself. Luckily this corpse was manageable. He worked the bag past her ankles. Past her knees. Past her hips. After several minutes the mortician tugged the bag free and fully inspected the cadaver.
Her skin was neither pale nor tanned, but a comfortable shade in between. Her stature was nothing remarkable, certainly not model-material, but the mortician couldn’t help but wonder how she would measure up on her feet. Her jaw line was flawless, gracefully defined, yet it exuded a strength to match that of her prominent cheekbones. A delicate, ever so slightly aquiline nose rested above equally delicate lips, and the tangled hair that framed her face was the deepest auburn. Her features conveyed an amaranthine serenity that caused a lump to form in the mortician’s throat.
Maybe she was just asleep?
Clearing his throat loudly, the mortician looked around for a head block.
“First time here?” he murmured, slipping it gently beneath her head. Silently he inspected her body, finding neither a mark of harm nor any personal effects. After making notes in the log, he proceeded to cleanse the young woman’s skin with the showerhead. Painstakingly he shampooed her hair, working out the knots and snarls with his fingers. The mortician slowly blotted her dry with several towels, then draped one over her as an afterthought. When he had combed and dried her hair, the mortician ran his fingers through the soft tresses.
The mortician sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose in attempts to prevent a headache that was making itself known. Stifling a rogue yawn he brought his tray of tools closer to the table to start the feature setting. He stared down at her, unsure of where to begin and not wanting to disturb the tranquility of her appearance. He continued to gawk dumbly at her for several minutes.
“I’ll…be right back,” he finally said, gesturing over his shoulder to the formaldehyde pump on the wall behind him. He walked over to the pump and began mixing the chemical agents in the centrifuge. Immediately the smell of the formaldehyde and dye lunged into his nostrils and made his eyes water. He turned his head away from the smell, looking over his shoulder at her. She was still there, lying peacefully on the table.
“Just…go back there,” he urged himself. The mortician took a deep breath and marched back over to the table, ignoring his growing headache and approaching the table with new resolve.
“Hi,” he smiled. “I’m back.” The young woman continued to lie immobile on the table.
“Right, let’s get to it then,” the mortician said, rubbing his gloved hands together. He selected an eyecap from his tray and leaned over her, tenderly prying open her right eyelid. A stormy ocean of an iris stared up at him, a maelstrom with frothy white breakers converging around an onyx pupil, and the mortician found himself gazing into it for several seconds. He dropped the eyecap.
“S-sorry about that,” he apologized as he bent over to pick it up, brushing it off on his smock before hastily placing it over the eye. Snatching another from his tray, he opened the left eye and positioned the cap as quickly as he could, not allowing himself to drown in its depths.
Raking a shaky hand through his hair, the mortician studied the young woman’s perfect mouth. He glanced at his suture needle. Wordlessly he picked it up, gathered the appropriate length of string and stepped closer to the table. His hands began to tremble as he bent over her, positioning his needle beneath her jaw. He hesitated, the point of the needle barely poking her flesh.
“This, this is going to hurt,” the mortician warned. His hand shook violently as he applied pressure to the needle. As soon as it sunk into her flesh, the mortician winced and jerked the needle back out. Hastily he pulled away from her and tossed his instrument aside. Instead he reached for the stay crème, applying moderate amounts to the inside of her lips to ensure they remained shut. He carefully wiped away the excess, his finger lingering over her lips. He cast a glance upwards at her closed eyes.
The mortician stepped back from the table again with a tremulous sigh, rolling his head on his neck to pop the uncomfortable kinks. His headache continued to pound the insides of his skull as he returned to the centrifuge. It was time to start the embalming process.
The mortician wheeled the apparatus closer to the table and stared down at his tray of tools. There was his arterial pump, glinting malevolently in the light from overhead. The mortician repressed a shudder at the thought of marring the young woman’s skin with the necessary incisions to allow the fluid into her veins. He ran a hand along her arm to reassure her, feeling her skin’s smooth coolness through his latex gloves. His breathing quickened.
Suddenly the mortician wheeled the pump backwards, releasing it halfway and letting it roll back into its spot along the wall with small crash. The mortician gripped the edge of the table with both hands and continued to look at her in silence.
“I’ll…I’ll put some make-up on you,” he stammered, running to the shelves that lined the wall next to the formaldehyde pump. He grabbed his cosmetics case and quickly returned to the table, setting it down roughly on top of his instruments. His eyes were beginning to water profusely now, and his headache threatened to split his head in two.
Foundation crème in hand, he gazed at her peaceful countenance, then tossed the tube back on his tray. She didn’t need it. He snatched up the lipstick instead, a light bronze colour that shimmered as he shakily applied it to her lips to mask the stay crème. Like a painter before a canvas, he swiped her cheeks with blush in a final flourish. He was finished.
When he was done, he let the brush clatter to the floor, resting both hands on the table and gulping for air as he drank her silent splendor in. Then his vision grew severely blurred, and the mortician blinked repeatedly. When the fogginess had cleared, the mortician froze at what he saw.
The young woman had raised her right hand.
Several seconds passed.
The hand reached. The mortician paused, then stepped closer to the table, so the hand wavered in the air mere inches from his nose.
The mortician leaned in closer.
The hand brushed his face, then turned to see what it had touched. It slowly felt his nose, his lips, his chin. Suddenly the mortician took the hand, gripping it urgently and interlacing his fingers with hers as he wiped the tears from his eyes. Clutching her hand to his chest, he reached out to stroke her cheek with a trembling finger.
Closer. His nose was nearly grazing hers as he stared at her eyes, willing them to open. His vision blurred again.
An eternity passed. Or maybe a moment. He wasn’t sure. When next the mortician blearily opened his eyes, he found himself on the floor of the embalming room, the surgical tables looming above him on either side. Feeling a painful echo of his headache whenever he moved too quickly, the mortician slowly rose to his feet, detecting a trace of formaldehyde still hanging in the air. Hurriedly he stumbled over to the wall and flipped the switch on the forgotten fume hood, then turned around to look at the room.
On his left, was the now empty table where he’d prepared the suicide victim. On the table to his right, lay the young woman. Apart from several of his instruments lying on the floor, everything seemed to be in good order.
The mortician cautiously approached the table, reaching for the young woman’s right hand.
It was ice cold and rigid.
The mortician sighed, pulling his fingers out of hers. As he resumed his work, he did his best to ignore the fact that the faintest hint of a smile danced on her closed lips, and the bronze lipstick had been smudged from her mouth.
© Andi Dobek 2015