For much of my time on this earth thus far, my experience of the human dead was limited (like most folks in America, I think) to the trussed-up, flowered-up, casketed-up, made-up bodies of former family members and close friends. Even these, thankfully, were fairly few and far between: a great-aunt, an uncle, a grandma, a grandpa.
(Not to say there weren’t other deaths; there were many, some of them tragic. But I hadn’t seen them, so they only became real when I drove by their houses and they weren’t there, and never would be, ever again; the loss only solidified when we visited gravestones, shiny and new, with familiar names freshly inscribed thereon.)
I never touched the dead. Not sure why, really. My aunts practically hauled themselves into the casket with my grandma (which I may or may not have paid to see), and most people seemed to at least caress a hand or stroke a curl. Probably a combination of reasons account for me keeping my hands to myself: I’m the absolute opposite of a risk-taker, and touching the dead was something new, so I opted out. It seemed disrespectful to handle the dead – I, as a layperson, shouldn’t be doing that. Or I might injure the body and something biological might come squirting out. You know, what regular people think.
In fact, come to think of it, I never touched anything dead, until the Newfoundland.
My first real-ish job after college was as a veterinary assistant at an emergency veterinary hospital in Dayton. I worked third shift, where they threw the less-experienced people willing to stay awake and vigilant while the rest of the world slept. I had been on the job for two days (nights, actually), when a woman drove up in a van at around two in the morning.
She was large, with long blonde hair, and she had a tired and defeated look about her. “Our dog got loose a few days ago,” she told us – me and the only other assistant on duty, a petite girl named Mallory. “Well, we found her. She’s been hit.”
We started to scramble to prep for an HBC – hit-by-car.
“No, no,” she assured us, “she’s dead. We found her on the side of the road. I just need somewhere to keep her until we can figure out what we want to do.”
Ah. We expressed our sympathies, and wheeled the gurney through the dark parking lot to the side-door of the woman’s van. Lying on the floor, wrapped inexpertly in a flowery fitted sheet, was a dead dog.
I had never touched, or even seen, a dead dog before. This was my first. And it was one hundred and fifty pounds of three-day-old side-of-the-road dead Newfoundland, brown leaves tangled in her long, soft black hair, lolling tongue purple-gray, skin sliding about over the muscles as though she was made of stone, deep down.
I didn’t stop to think. Together, tiny Mallory, myself and the woman managed somehow to wrangle the stiff sulfurous beast onto the gurney (which suddenly seemed wholly inadequate) and wheel her back inside. We tucked the dog away in the back, around a corner, and the woman paid for freezer time; we hugged her and she went home, to handle what needed handling.
We used two giant cadaver bags, taped together, to contain the dog, because she was too large and stiff to fit into our largest bags. We lowered her as carefully as we could into the freezer, to stiffen a bit further.
It was the first of many, many veterinary deaths, of all different varieties and flavors. I became, I suppose, an expert in animal death. Sometimes the death was smooth, sometimes not; sometimes the death was a relief, and sometimes it was not. I was there for them all, and I can't think of one death when I didn't cry. I always told myself that the day I didn't cry, was the day I needed to leave.
Clients eventually requested I please be present while they let go of their smallest, best friends. I will, I said. And I was. I gave them that, because it was my job, and because I could, and because there was no greater honor.
And still, I had never touched a dead human.
Many years and changes later, I find myself at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, waiting to go into the clinical lab for the first time to watch and learn as a Mr. Robert Smith (not, obviously, his real name) was embalmed. The instructor asks if anyone has not seen a dead person before – I lie by omission, declining to raise my hand (no one else did). I mean, I’ve kind of seen a dead person. In caskets. In books.
(But it’s not the same, and I know it, acutely.)
It’s a conversation I've had with my family and my own brain many times: can I do this? A pet is one thing, a human… entirely different. No one in my family or friend group is in the funeral service, or ever has been, so my frame of reference is limited. Will I pass out? Will I grab the trash and throw up? Will I otherwise embarrass myself in front of a score of semi-strangers who are no doubt light-years ahead of me when it comes to this kind of thing?
I suppose I’m about to find out.
We unzip the white plastic body bag and make ready to transfer Mr. Smith to the preparation table. There are seven of us, so not everyone knows where to put their elbows, so to speak.
“If someone could hold his head, so it doesn’t hit too hard,” the instructor says.
I step forward as the body is lifted, reach out, and cradle Mr. Smith’s cold, mostly bald head in my gloved hands. He’s moderately stiff, though not as stiff as I was expecting, and his neck has some movement to it (though his head doesn’t appear to be in imminent danger of falling off, as the peanut gallery of my imagination suggested it might). I hold his head tenderly, but securely, as I had held many muzzles and paws in the past. I look down into his drawn, dry face, supremely incapable of giving one sterling shit about my internal struggles, and think of how he feels as though he is made of stone, deep down.
(I didn’t pass out, or throw up, and may even have gotten away with not embarrassing myself too much, though that’s always debatable.)
The first step has been taken; the seal has been broken. While Mr. Smith was a relatively pleasant corpse, many will not be, and several will be downright horrifying. It’s the way of things when you handle the dead, and the families of the dead. There will be struggle. There will be sadness, and helplessness, and grief so wide it couldn’t be crossed in a big ship. Can I do it? I ask myself. I have no doubt that this is a question I will hear echoing in the chambers of my brain many times in the future.
Can I? Can I? Can you?
I will. Because it’s my duty – not simply my job. Because I can. Because there is, even after all these years, no greater honor.