Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

A Season in the Dismal Trade

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

A Season in the Dismal Trade

Article excerpt

I used to work in a funeral home.

Rains & Talley, the establishment was called. It occupied a pink brick building that bad once been a private residence there on East Austin Street, just up from the Dairy Queen, in my hometown of Marshall, Texas. I took the job, despite some initial misgivings, because, one, it sounded easier than stocking shelves at the Safeway (my previous job) and, two, a place to sleep went with it-in the funeral home's upstairs dormitory. I was recently back from four years in the Marine Corps at the time, and was almost 23 years old already, and it didn't seem right to me that at that advanced age I should be bunking on a spare cot in my widowed mother's two-room apartment, which is what I had been doing. Besides, after four years in the Marines I had sort of got used to dormitory living.

The year was 1959. I had come home to Marshall to begin a belated college career and was taking classes five days a week over at Kilgore College ("Home of the World-Famous Kilgore Rangerettes"), 35 miles away. There were three of us college students working part-time at Rains & Talley, and Mr. Blalock, the funeral director, let us arrange our work schedules around our schooling.

My misgivings about working in a funeral home were the ones most people would probably have. Did I really want to spend my days carting around dead bodies? Wasn't there something a bit spooky and, well, strange about the kind of people who chose to work in such places? Would I have to hide in the men's room or find myself a closet somewhere if ever I wanted to so much as smile?

Like most people, I suspect, I knew little or nothing of what went on in a funeral home before I went to work in one. That there was something called a "preparation room" might have seemed likely to me, if I'd thought about it, and that that was where the bodies were made ready for burial might have sounded reasonable to me too. But the dimensions and the location of the place, what it looked like and precisely what went on there, would have been as foreign to me as Sanskrit.

Our "prep room" at Rains & Talley was down in the basement, next door to where the furnace was. It was a large room painted hospital white and its main features were the two porcelain tables that sat out in its center, side by side. Over against one wall were some tall cabinets stocked with the various fluids-bottled, and with labels carrying their brand names-used in the embalming process, and with several trays of esoteric-looking stainless-steel instruments that my curiosity always fell just short of leading me to examine more closely. As I remember it, there wasn't much else in the room.

Oh yes, the floor was filed and there was a drain in it for the runoff. The term of art for a deceased person at Rains & Talley was "remains." It was never a body, never a corpse, and never, ever a stiff. It was a "remains." In the year and a half that I worked there I probably assisted in the "preparation," down there in the basement, of a hundred or more remains.

Except in extreme cases of, say, fire or decomposition, the procedure never varied. After retrieving the remains from wherever its former occupant had died-hospital, home, lover's apartment, or wreck on the highway-we always took it straight down, by elevator, to the prep room. There we laid it out face up on one of the porcelain tables and undressed it. Then one of the morticians, either Mr. Blalock or Mr. Huffman, would make a quick, neat incision inside the collar bone up near the neck and another, similar, incision down by the groin and we'd insert some plastic tubing and begin pumping in the embalming fluid. As the embalming fluid went in, through the carotid artery up top, it pushed the blood out, through the femoral artery down below. The procedure was simplicity itself. There were runnels in the table to carry away the blood and excess fluid, and an attached hose for washing up afterward. …

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