What People Are Made Of
I’m sipping coffee and reading over a stack of files atop an otherwise bare necropsy table. There are coffee stains on my lab coat. Uncle Frank is wrist-deep in the abdomen of a corpse at a neighboring table, aspirator in hand, patiently suctioning once-vital floods from the stomach cavity. Soon he will inject the corpse with embalming fluids, suspending its decay indefinitely. When he’s done with that, he will clean it. With latex-gloved hands, he will wash the face and gently press the eyes closed.
Uncle Frank is something of a genius. He’s probably better than anyone in Mississippi. The sleight of hand he performs with these corpses is, honestly, remarkable. He takes this dead flesh and in only a few hours gives it the illusion of life in a way that borders on mystical. Decomposition has a head start on us by the time that the bodies reach us, but we have an arsenal of tricks at our disposal to keep it in check. Hair and nails do not continue growing after you die. Rather, your body becomes dehydrated, which causes flesh to shrink and retract. It’s an optical illusion. To combat it, we slather moisturizer on the corpses, rubbing it into faces and scalps and hands. We apply make-up to return color and depth to flesh that no longer has blood flowing through it. We tame hair with gels and sprays. We lift limbs and torsos comically to fit the deceased into reserved but stylish suits and dresses. We are fearless. Death is always messy. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t need to clean it up. When we’re done, though, time has been turned back just a notch. Often, the families will say that it looks like the deceased is sleeping, and this is the highest compliment. Dead people are not sleeping. They are dead. But we take what we can get.
For cremations, things are simpler, but there’s still work to be done. If the deceased has a pacemaker, Uncle Frank removes it. Their batteries explode, which can damage the furnaces. Though nobody will ever see his work, he removes the pacemakers with the care of a heart surgeon, deftly removing electronics from muscle beneath the tiniest incision. He stitches them closed when he’s done, though it’s pointless. It’s not out of empathy, I think, but rather the challenge of it. He likes to confirm to himself in small ways that he’s very good at what he does.
Before I know it, we’re finished. Uncle Frank says, “Thank you, Ted. That’s all for tonight. Let’s go home and sleep like the dead, right?” I frown at him. “Ha ha,” he says. Uncle Frank teaches simply by having me watch and assist him, over and over again. One day, I will be the boss instead of the apprentice. If everything stays on track, I may run a funeral home of my own by 30, which is good enough for me. The job is not without its disappointments, but I still believe in it.
My parents died in a car wreck when I was a senior in high school, and Uncle Frank took care of the arrangements. There are only two funeral parlors here in Alligator, Mississippi, actually—my uncle’s and Mr. Bird’s. Mr. Bird is black, and all the black folks in town use him. All the white folks use my uncle. I don’t know why it’s like that, but it is. Much in Alligator is separated along these lines.
I’m sure that Uncle Frank had not wanted to embalm his brother and sister-in-law, but he did it without hesitation. I didn’t care who did it, only that it got done. I was really still a child, after all, and I’d just lost both parents. I couldn’t think about much at all, and feeling came in sharp, desperate, overwhelming spurts, then left again for hours or days at a time.
My father, and all the fathers my father associated with, knew how to do things. Men like this, they could pop the hoods of riding lawnmowers and shove wrenches into engines. My father could grunt and sweat and use his hands on a machine like he might a lover, and the thing would cough and then sputter to life, and he’d pull his grease-stained hands up from inside, smirking. He could install new plumbing when the pipes froze, negotiate sternly with used car salesmen, and make modest but sound investments that paid off in the long run. He could wear camouflage and hunt ducks, and he could just as comfortably tie a Full Windsor knot in a necktie. He was, basically, a winner, I guess. And he wanted this for me, his only son, as well. He was trim, fit, and clean-shaven, with an outdated haircut that suited him well. Frank was balding and overweight.
Where my father was expansive, my uncle was withdrawn. Dad had an insatiable drive to succeed and a strict definition of what that meant; my uncle seemed content to be very good at what he did, even if it lacked glamour. My father hoped, I believe, to create the kind of son for whom the world’s doors threw themselves off of their hinges, who might (though hopefully wouldn’t need to) enjoy a prosperous life on the strength of dumb ambition and desire for admiration. Uncle Frank was awkward and introverted, and at family gatherings he rarely spoke. As I grew older, he stopped coming altogether. I never saw him for more than a day in a row before my parents died, but he handled the funeral from start to finish. I don’t have much to say about it because I don’t remember it clearly, but I recall it being perfect. It went without a hitch. It wasn’t important to me, because I knew that I would not say goodbye to them in this way, or at all. It felt like a motion that I had to go through, and then one day, when I was clear-headed and it all stung less, perhaps I’d process things.
I got drunk with Uncle Frank that night, for the first and only time, on the back steps of the funeral home. The first thing he said was, “Your father hated me.”
“That’s not true,” I told him, though it might’ve been. How should I know? I hadn’t heard my father speak of him in any significant way for years.
“We were just too different. It was nothing personal. When we got old enough, it seemed silly to keep pretending that we had anything in common. I still loved him, obviously.”
“Obviously,” I said. I held a mostly empty bottle of Jim Beam by the neck between two fingers, staring at the pavement. “It’s only the two of us left now,” I said.
Uncle Frank nodded. Then, he offered me a part time job at the funeral home as his assistant.
The first funeral I worked that summer was for my fifth grade music teacher, Mrs. Carter. She was 64 when she died of breast cancer, and the first thing we did was re-dye her hair black because the gray roots were showing. I hadn’t seen Mrs. Carter since Junior High School, when we’d laughed at her for her orthopedic shoes, 70s dresses, and quick temper. She drilled us on the names and seminal works of classical composers, whose portraits she kept on the classroom wall. She was a tiny woman, but it took six pallbearers to carry her inside the coffin. That’s what I remember most, the weight of it. It took six people because it was made of oak, not because it held a body. By comparison, the body was weightless, insubstantial. I watched the visitation unfold from the lobby hallway with detached compassion, studying the pain of her grieving family as one might study bacteria beneath the lens of a microscope, impartial and above it all, cataloging the ways people react: the desperate criers, the fakers, the people who fold up into themselves. I directed people to the guest registry with my best sympathetic smile.
All of these people sat together in the Viewing Room, with its patterned carpet like something out of an aging hotel, its chapel-like pews, and its almost imperceptible soft pink lighting, yet another trick to give the corpse’s skin color. The walls were lined with bouquets, dozens of colorful arrangements, many of them huge, certainly more flowers than she’d ever received in life. There were, in fact, more bouquets than people present. Later, I would note this as a trend. Sending flowers lets people off the hook and allows them to skip the potential awkwardness of the funeral entirely. You pay your respects, even if you don’t have any.
Uncle Frank moved through the rooms like a specter, somehow out of sight until the moment he was needed. If the snacks ran out or someone needed directions to the bathroom, he would suddenly be there, as if he’d materialized from the walls, hands clasped, and take care of them. He looked better in his black suit than I’d ever seen him, more confident, ten years younger. Comfortable. Self-assured. Sympathetic. Uncle Frank just understood; that’s what the clients all knew. He was the one who, in his small way, took them by the hand and led them through a dark valley and safely out the other side. As each of them filed out the door and to their cars to drive to the cemetery, they clasped his hands in theirs and thanked him.
I decided that this line of work was something of social value. It was a chance to alleviate the worst kind of pain a person can feel, and I threw myself into it. Uncle Frank was a repository of interesting, morbid tidbits about death and funerary practices. He had a keen sense of dark humor, though he spoke softly and rarely. Though the hours were long and the studies grueling, I took to them with an optimism I had never known. Before the end of the summer, I enrolled in a two year program at Northwest Mississippi. Then, I moved back to Alligator to begin an official apprenticeship with my uncle.
I started down this career path to do a difficult service to grieving families of strangers and to learn how people cope with death. To understand its intricacies on the human psyche and the means by which people move on. To examine up-close and hands-on the morbid fixation on mortality that humanity has cradled close to its heart since Genesis. Just under a year later, the only conclusion I’ve come to is that everyone you know will be burned or buried. This truth is neither pleasant nor small.
I have learned a number of corollaries to that in my time as an apprentice. I have learned that, sometimes, your relatives will ask us to remove gold fillings from your teeth so that they can sell them. I have learned that some of your acquaintances will wear jeans to your funeral. I have learned that, all too often, your closest friends will not come at all. They will text during the service. They will sneak outside to the parking lot when it’s time to sing hymns to smoke cigarettes and steal swigs from flasks of whiskey, telling each other that you would’ve wanted it that way.
Some funeral directors are even less romantic. During school, I visited a funeral home in Clarksdale, run by a guy who liked to say things like, “This is the last thing you can do for your mother, and I know you want the best for her.” He had a storage closet that contained hundreds of plain stainless steel urns. He also had a big stamp that read, “For Temporary Use Only.” When the director presented families with the ashes, he stamped the urn first, and every single time they saw it and their hearts dropped, just like that. You could see it on their faces. And every single time, they’d ask about buying a different urn, and he would sell them a more expensive one. He could just have given them the plain urn without stamping it, if he wanted to. He really could have just done that for them. But he didn’t.
The next morning, I arrive at the funeral home before Uncle Frank. Sometimes he accidentally sleeps in—one of the perks of being the boss. There’s a message on the answering machine from the county coroner’s office asking that we come pick up a body. I scrawl a quick note for Uncle Frank telling him where I’ve gone, leave it at the front desk, and head out to the parking lot.
When I make it to the hospital, it’s almost eleven o’ clock and already sweltering. Alligator is baking beneath the angry heat of a June sun, and when I get to the hospital I leave the hearse running so I can keep the air conditioning on. Transporting corpses in a hot car is not ideal. There’s a special entrance for this, and I can back the hearse right up to the doors, then help the tech on duty transfer the body. I step out of the hearse, already sweating through my dress shirt. If you stare out across the hospital parking lot at the right angle, you can see the mirage-like shimmering off of the asphalt as the heat rises and dissipates.
When the morgue technician wheels the corpse out to the hearse, it’s in a body bag. The tech hands me a small plastic box of the possessions found on the deceased’s person, which I put in the back of the vehicle. I sign the necessary paperwork, and the morgue tech tears off a copy for me, which contains information about the deceased. “Thanks, man,” he says. He’s in scrubs and a lab coat, and he can’t be much older than I am. As I slam the hearse doors shut, I scan the death record, skipping to the part I’m always most curious about, which is the cause of death. In this case, it’s a cervical spine fracture, and in the margin, the coroner has written “(hanging).” He has ruled it a suicide.
On the sheet, it specifies that the deceased is a man, 56 years of age. He stood 5’11 and weighed 264 pounds. Next of kin: Theodore Moore.
Me. I scan the deceased’s name, and my breath catches in the back of my throat. I read it again, then a third time.
A voice behind me says, “Are you okay?” It’s the morgue tech, perched near the hospital door, smoking a cigarette. “You’re white as a sheet. Someone you know?”
“Just an acquaintance,” I say. “Francis Moore. My uncle, Frank.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “That’s awful. You didn’t know him well?”
“No,” I say. “I didn’t really know him at all.” I have no idea why I said it. “It’s okay. Thanks for your concern.”
The tech nods, and his eyes are narrow in a thoughtful way, and he tosses the cigarette butt onto the pavement. “Call if you need anything,” he says, confusingly, and then disappears between the swinging twin doors of the hospital’s side entrance.
I climb back into the driver’s seat and crank the air conditioning up to full blast. Then, I read the death record again. My uncle has hanged himself, and his corpse is in a plastic sack in the back of the car. I turn on the radio. There’s nothing to be done right now but transport the body, so I do that. I don’t hurt. Not really. All I can think—and I think it over and over again—is that now I’m the only member of my family left alive.
For now, I’ll have to keep Uncle Frank’s body in our refrigerated storage room. Working in this industry means that when this happens you’re preoccupied with the arrangements, and I don’t want to think about anything else just yet. I’ll need to arrange for the body to be transported to another funeral home and cremated. Frank told me once, off-handedly, that he preferred cremation to embalmment. Besides, if I arrange for a funeral, nobody is going to come.
There’s not a soul in the building. I push a metal cart like a stretcher up to the back of the hearse, then slide Uncle Frank’s corpse onto it, gripping the plastic body bag by its end and dragging. I put the box of his belongings on a rack at the base of the cart. Frank is heavy. Heavier than most. I remember that the record said 264 pounds, and I think of something Uncle Frank told me the first time I helped him move a body. He told me about Duncan MacDougall, the doctor who tried to weigh souls by putting dying people on scales. He got Tuberculosis patients from an old folk’s home and would move them to the scale when he thought they were finally about to die. Though nobody took him seriously, that idea that the body becomes 21 grams lighter upon has stuck around, and Uncle Frank said it was nonsense. He also said that MacDougall did the same experiment with dogs, which he almost certainly poisoned. The guy taught me a lot, and when I think of him this way, I get this curious itch, and I know I want to see him.
I wheel him into the refrigerated holding room, crinkling my nose at the sterile chemical smell, then grip the zipper at the top of the body bag. I’m going to regret this. I’m going to see it eventually, either way. There’s nobody else to see him off, anyways. No family left, no close friends to speak of. Someone who knew him should see it. It has to be me.
I draw the zipper down in one long drag, and the body bag falls open around him, like a cocoon peeling away to reveal a butterfly. It’s definitely Frank. He looks like he always did, only paler and naked and slightly deflated. Around his neck are ligature marks, a hoop of bruises faded from blue to black as night. When I cock my head to the side and bend down, I can see where a vertebra is displaced and protruding near the base of his neck, almost breaking the skin. He must’ve made sure he’d drop pretty far, maybe two or three feet, when he hung himself. It would have been painless.
I did not love my uncle. I didn’t know him well enough to. But nobody looks good like this, and I find myself asking the question everyone always does: Why’d he do it?
That’s when I find the note. Inside the box of possessions is a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, as well as the contents of his pockets—his wallet, a set of keys, and a folded up piece of paper. Before inspecting the rest of it, I read the note:
Ted, you’re probably the only person who might see this. You’re my only living relative in Mississippi, in fact. Apart from you, there are only a few far-flung cousins who I haven’t spoken to in years. I probably don’t have to tell you that I don’t have many friends.
First, I’m sorry. People always say suicide is selfish, but usually it’s really not. In this case, it kind of is. I know that you’ll be the one who is called to pick up my body, and I feel guilty about that. I like to think that it won’t bother you much, but I’m sure it’s not comfortable. I just want it to be someone who at least knew my name before I was gone, okay? I don’t know anything else to do now.
I’m sad to perpetuate the stereotype of the death-obsessed mortician. Honestly, I am. It’s not something that happens to all of us. Most of the guys I know in this line of work have very healthy, happy lives. I worry though, a little, that you’ll end up less like them and more like me. If you think that’s the case, I think you should quit your job. It’s true, I’ve been very positive about it in the past. I told you we do a very important thing. It’s not worth it, though.
I work very long hours, and I work mostly in solitude. Often, I work through the night for morning funerals. I spend the night with corpses, touching them, fingers inside of them, trying to make them beautiful. I catch up on sleep when I’m free. The schedule makes it hard to keep a social life. Before you know it, most of the people you’re spending your time with are dead.
I haven’t been with a woman in six years. Imagine the hands of someone who touches dead flesh all day, and then imagine those same hands caressing your bare skin. As a younger man, I could get laid without ever needing to talk about work, but one-night stands are harder to come by when you’re 56.
Living my life really makes you think. Here’s what you realize, eventually: that nobody will care much when you die. To most people who know you, you will be worthy of a slow, sad shake of the head. Perhaps they will toast you at your regular bar. They will marvel briefly at the shame of it, then move on with the business of living. They cannot be blamed for this. Actually, this behavior is required of them. It’s necessary if we’re to function in the face of something so massive as the reality that we will die. So, we meet this truth halfway, offering it a few hours of our time at once, then ignoring it the rest of our lives. We tell ourselves we will be remembered fondly, but the truth is that we won’t be remembered at all.
You may understand this intellectually, but it is another thing entirely to feel it. Unless you are lucky, you will not realize all at once, in some sort of terrible epiphany. It will seep its way into your bones one plodding day at a time, making you feel heavier and less motivated, until one morning you are driving to work or sitting in a coffee shop and you realize, with quiet but terrifying certainty, that you are nothing.
You might try, like I did, to embrace your newfound nihilism, thinking of it is a new brand of freedom. This would be very zen of you, but also a waste of time. Cut your hair, take a vacation, start painting, whatever. It won’t fucking matter. You won’t ever feel the same again.
Then, when you’re done with all that, you might ask yourself the Big Question: how would I do it? I chose a way that wouldn’t be too messy. That was for you. Again, I’m sorry. I’m sorry you had to read this, too. I just wanted someone to know about me. Goodbye. Take care.
I sit there for a long time, looking at Uncle Frank’s sunken body. I try to consider the words in his note, but my train of thought gives out every few seconds. His blue eyes are still open. I should close them, but I can’t. I’m not done looking at them. It’s cold, though. I’ve been sitting in a refrigerator. I didn’t feel it before, but I do now. For now, I leave Uncle Frank.
The room beyond the door, where embalmed corpses rest until their funeral services, is called The Slumber Room. It’s for the families. They dead don’t notice whether I’m here or not, and they don’t notice the shadows growing long as the sun goes down outside, the last bit of orange light creeping through the ground-level windows before it’s finally dark.
At last, I look at the rest of what was in Frank’s pockets. The wallet’s empty, save for his driver’s license. The keyring holds three keys: one to his apartment, one to a ’96 Toyota Camry, and one engraved with the number “103” and the words “Clarksdale Mini Self Storage.”
I know the place. It’s only five minutes away.
The self-storage units are the kind with individual sliding doors facing the parking lot, the ones you can access freely any time. I coast past the rows of them, all orange and identical, squinting to read the unit numbers in the glare of my headlights. I look for number 103. The lampposts on this row are dead, so I park directly in front of the unit and turn on my headlights. Now, well after dark, it’s cooler but still humid, and the cicadas are in full chorus. Moths flutter and dart across the light from the car’s headlights, and a bird or a bat, something fast, shoots past me to pick one out of the air. I kneel, slip the key into the lock, and then lift the sliding metal door, which retracts with an unnerving clang.
The objects in the unit are coated in a thin layer of dust, but it’s easy enough to tell what’s in there without having to dig around. There’s the metal skeleton of a bench press and treadmill in back. A cello, missing two strings, rests upright in the corner. As far as I know, he never played the cello. There’s a clothing rack along one wall too, hanging pants, shirts, and a few suits. At a glance, I can tell that none of it would fit the man at his current weight. In the middle, there’s a stack of canvas paintings. I kneel down in front of them, flipping through them like perusing vinyl at a record store. They’re in various stages of progress, but all the work of a clear beginner, quit and cast aside. Frank tried, it seems, a few different approaches, and dates marked in pencil on the back allow me to trace the timeline of his efforts. At first he tried oil paintings of landscapes, though his trees looked crooked and unnatural. One pictures a location I’m pretty sure is a particular bend down near the river, beside the park. He gave this up a few months later and tried portraits, though these were unequivocal disasters. I don’t recognize any of the people he painted, but at the same time, they’re barely recognizable as people at all. Later in his aborted career, he made some attempts at minimalism and abstraction, maybe deciding it took less technical skill, I guess.
This place is a shrine to false starts. It’s a catalog of inadequacies and unfulfilled desires, a museum of frustrations and aspirations. All at once I feel the weight of his every private failure, and my heart clenches at the thought of this man, unremarkable but kind, and the load that he carried every day, the load all of us carry, staggering towards the finish line, alone. Not one single fucking person, myself included, thought of him this way. We thought of him in terms of one-word roles. Mortician, uncle, brother. We didn’t think of him as a complete man with dreams and lusts and secret shames and grudges.
I feel a hard lump in my throat and a wild desire to fix a man far too late. I have the sense that I did not know him well because nobody could, because it would have taken effort and time and nobody had it to spare, me included. Part of me—and this is the worst part—feels like I’m looking into the future. Uncle Frank gave so much of his energy to his job and his clients because he thought it would do some good, and he gave a damn about doing good. In return, the world left him in a place where he felt most comfortable with a noose around his neck, a makeshift gallows in a closet or from a balcony—where’d he do it? I didn’t think to ask at the morgue. My father had been the kind of man the world opens its arms to, and my uncle had been the kind it needs but doesn’t recognize, and both of them are the same kind of dead and most days nobody thinks of them at all, and it feels like the floor is giving out from under me. I slam the storage unit door shut, then climb back into the car, turning off the road back towards Westchester Funeral Home.
An hour later, a rolling stainless steel tank containing embalming fluids sits at my right-hand side, and two tubes emerge from its top like tentacles. I pick up a syringe from the instrument tray, sliding it with ease into the right common carotid artery, then attach it to a tube. The other tube is for drainage, and I attach it to the jugular vein. I have not done this part myself before, but I have seen it done dozens of times. It is not difficult. The centrifugal pump pushes the embalming solution into my uncle’s veins, and as it empties into him, displaced blood and interstitial fluids drain out of the second tube, like the life of him is pouring out, flowing down the tube and spilling out into a drain at the foot of the embalming table. That blood drains into the septic system, the same as the toilets.
“Up close like this, it’s strange to think that this is what we are, isn’t it?” I ask. I know he’s dead. It doesn’t even bother me, really. But people talk to dead loved ones all the time. Tell me the difference between this and prayer. Tell me.
I say, “We’re mostly empty. We’re made up of a bunch of cavities and tubes and bladders. Empty space.”
Gently, like touching an infant, I run my hands over my uncle’s skin, massaging to break up blood clots. It’s important that the embalming fluids are distributed properly. I stroke his cheeks, then move upwards to his bald scalp, my fingertips tracing over each obscure bump and imperfection. I think briefly of when Uncle Frank explained about Lincoln’s embalmer, Thomas Holmes, who was obsessed with phrenology. He kept preserved heads in his living room.
“Our tissues are made up of cells, which are also mostly space and water. That’s all made up of atoms, which are also just little nuclei with a bunch of electrons spinning around in even more empty space.”
I move on to the scalpel and trocar, an instrument with a sharp point and a hollow tube, like a fountain pen. I make the tiniest of incisions above the navel, his skin parting easily beneath the blade. “It won’t even leave a scar,” I quietly say, and slide in the trocar. I puncture his stomach. I puncture his bladder. I puncture every organ with a cavity, saving his heart for last. I slide the aspirator in to remove fluids, further draining him, emptying him out, then fill the cavities with a formaldehyde compound. When I’m done with all of that, I begin the process of stitching him closed.
“In your letter, you said we’re nothing, and I get that you didn’t mean that in a physical, literal sense. But, still. From this angle, if you really get right down to it, and you ask what someone’s made of, the answer is: not a damn thing, save a little water and air.” I remember my parents in their caskets, the sunken faces, the borrowed suits, the production of it all.
I apply the make-up in the same ways I’ve seen him do it, and a false sense of color begins to appear in Frank’s skin. We don’t have any suits that will fit Frank very well, but one’s close enough, and I manage to get him into it, albeit clumsily.
Pulling up a stool, I look at him. I stare at him until the sky turns from black to the palest blue, thin shadows appearing along the floor around us. I watch him, and he doesn’t move, but he looks like he might, and for just the briefest of moments I allow myself to think that he could have. And it seems to me that he looks peaceful, like he’s sleeping, and I feel better for it.