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One The Factory
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says that humans are the only creatures who know they're going to die, and even worse, they know they know it, and it's not something they can "unknow." All they can do is distract themselves, briefly, like you might mask the smell of burnt food by spraying the kitchen with Lysol. The main reason I'm here, working as a trainee in Neil Bardal's funeral home in Winnipeg, in my ham-fisted, dignity-challenged way, is to figure out if the screwball rituals we perform and the industry that's evolved to support them are part of the Lysol, or if in fact the way we handle death, with caskets and trinkets and stone markers, is our way of facing up, finally, to the smell. Not that I think that by being mindful of death we can lead richer lives. A life "forgetful of death," Bauman says, "life lived as meaningful and worth living, life alive with purpose instead of being crushed and incapacitated by purposelessness - is a formidable human achievement." I'm with him, and Epicurus too, who said that there's no need to fear the oblivion after we're gone if we never cared about the oblivion that came before we were born. Cheer up. Death obsessing is for boozy existentialists and bad poets.
Which prompts a bony question: why do we each spend up to $10,000 - for most, the third-biggest cash outlay in our lives after a house and a car, according to Jessica Mitford, who wrote The American Way of Death - on funerals?
Neil Bardal says we need the ritual to know the person who’s died. We need to see the body, we want the proof: we're empirical, modern, enlightened souls who benefit from looking at death when it comes, standing up to sing and pray in its presence. Neil's my boss. He's a third-generation undertaker, his oldest son Eirik is an undertaker, and Jon, the youngest, works at the crematorium (although, like his cousin Glenn, he's not keen on it and is studying to be an electrician instead of an undertaker). Neil's sister Jean answers the phones and his wife Annette does the books. There are four other funeral directors on staff, and in flush times they sponsor trainees. That's where I come in. Neil has agreed to take me on as a paid intern (plus free dry cleaning and a company golf shirt) if I agree to hump caskets and flowers, set up chairs at service, mop floors, wash the hearse, help the directors do what they do, and otherwise participate in the day-to-day rituals that families need, even if we don't agree on what constitutes an empirical, modern, enlightened response to death. Full disclosure: when I die, I've asked to be left in a blue bin at the curb on recycling day.
The funeral chapel is downtown in a strip-mall on Aubrey Street, ten minutes from my house, but the crematorium is a long bus ride away, near the airport, the last building on Notre Dame Avenue before Winnipeg turns into plenty of flat, treeless nothing. From the street there's little to betray its purpose: could be an insurance office, until you see the hearse parked in the side lot and the stone slab in the walkway inscribed Ask Not For Whom The Bell Tolls. Could be a very frank insurance office. Inside I meet Jon. He has his father's sad eyes and he yawns a lot.
My internship starts with a slapdash tour, beginning in what Jon calls the Committal Space, a faux living room with faux colonial furniture, faux plants, and prints of other faux plants on the walls. Each end table has a box of Kleenex with a single, perfectly teased-out tissue, and on one there's also a picture frame, empty, which gives me a chill. There's something unwholesome about an empty picture frame. The Committal Space is where the family gathers to "view" the body before cremation: there's a nook for the casket, and a brocade curtain for privacy. At the back of the nook is a heavy armoire with a bronze sculpture of a horse. The room is cold and clean, and smells of Endust; it reminds me of the living rooms of kids I knew whose parents had some kind of preservation fetish and declared the good furniture off limits. The horse is a nice touch, a bit of whimsy, but the horse turns out to be an urn: the ashes go inside the wooden base. The Chinese lantern next to it is an urn too, and so is the little blue porcelain teddy bear holding an umbrella, designed for infants. I don't want to touch anything in here lest it contain someone.
Not only can you view the body before cremation in this room, you can also watch the main event, car-wash style, through a window separating the Committal Space from the working side of the crematorium. When Jon snaps open the blinds, I'm face to face with a monster machine, one of the facility's two "retorts," which looks like an over-designed Soviet-era East German pizza oven, with a fat stainless-steel chimney growing out of its head and a small glass porthole in its black iron door. A single unblinking eye. This is Retort Two. She's fussy, tends to belch black smoke and burn out of control when dealing with the heavier bodies, which the Bardals prefer to assign to Number One, an older, less temperamental machine. Number Two prefers thin, elderly bodies without much fat.
This whole place is built like a theatre: a public space up front, with its living room set, and a backstage where all the magic happens. Only Neil's broken the fourth wall, encouraging people to bear witness, to see the event through to the end, which is both noble and oddly post-modern. Jon admits most Winnipeg families prefer not to watch, unlike in England, where watching is the norm. But if you're into it, Neil's the only open-window cremator in town.
Backstage presents a different vibe than front-of-house. Twenty degrees Fahrenheit hotter, and noisier. As soon as Jon opens the connecting door I hear the low rumble and feel the dry heat. We pass Number Two's backside and all her ductwork, stop at the sort table, where the remains - shattered bits of bone and whatever else survives two hours at 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit in the retort (casket hinges, pants zippers, artificial knees and hips) - sit to cool before human is separated from non-human. They use a magnet to pick out the metal artifacts and then sort through the pile by hand, chucking out anything that doesn't look white and bony. Then it all goes into a sturdy blender, which turns everything to powder.
Jon hands me a plastic bag full of a recent customer: it's about the size and heft of a two-pound bag of cornmeal, clearly labelled with name and number, since at this point we all look very much the same. I sneeze. It's dusty at the sort table; there's a thin white film on everything, on the heavy black vacuum hose that hangs over the table, on a Remembrance Day poppy stuck to a bulletin board, inside the blender. People dust.
To get to Number One I follow Jon down a dark hallway lined with medieval instruments: long-handled iron hooks and brooms with steel bristles, and a winch affair, an upside-down L-shaped bracket with three blue canvas straps for getting a body into a casket without wrenching your back. Number One is in action, and I feel the rumbling of its burners in my chest. Jon explains the routine: body comes in from the hospital, it's transferred to a cardboard box and stored in the cooler, waiting for its place in the cremation queue. Or, if it's going to be embalmed or "prepped" for what Jessica Mitford called the full-fig funeral (viewing, visitation, open-casket service at the chapel or church) it goes onto a gurney and into the prep room, the door to which is always locked, to keep civilians and wayward deliverymen from walking in on an embalming-in-progress. This is a full-service operation: some bodies are cremated, some are prepped, some are even prepped then cremated, an act, if you'll forgive me a one-time use of the term, of overkill. It all depends what the family wants. If you want a full-fig funeral followed by cremation, you get it.
If you buy a casket for the service, the casket goes into the retort: the Bardals don't reuse them. Some funeral homes rent caskets for the funeral - cremation combo. The casket is a shell with a collapsible door at the foot end, through which slides the body in an MDF (medium-density fibreboard) liner: the body goes in for the service, comes out for the cremation. The shell goes back into rotation. The rental fee is usually the wholesale cost of the casket, so the unit pays for itself after its first outing: factoring in depreciation (nicks and scrapes), the undertaker may get fifteen or twenty uses out of it before the casket is retired. Neil doesn't carry rentals, he doesn't like the concept. "Same concept as shoes at a bowling alley," he says. If you just want to scatter at the lake, the body might go straight into a cardboard box off the van and into the retort, and you can pick up the ashes the next day. Every former soul that comes in through the garage door is assigned a number: it's written in Sharpie on their cardboard box and the corpse's wristband, not unlike the wristbands they issue at raves and folk festivals.
We pass another doorway, through which I can see a young woman brushing an older woman's hair. The older woman is lying on a gurney in a blue dress and clunky black shoes. The younger woman smiles and waves at us, then goes back to work, cradling the older woman's hair in the palm of her hand, pulling the brush gently so it doesn't snag. There are two other women on gurneys, both dressed in skirts and cardigans as if they were going out for afternoon tea with the third. One clutches a purse. It's a quiet, domestic scene. They look so still and benign that there's no reason my heart should be racing, but it is, and I back away from the doorway. It's the stillness that scares me. Even sleeping people have some animating spark, you can sense it, and if you watch them for long enough you'll see it too, a twitch or an itchy earlobe scratched. These women are empty. Well dressed and nicely groomed, but done.
Jon flips the cover off the peephole on Retort One so I can have a peek. The man's body is on its back in the chamber, hands at its side, feet pointing ten o'clock, two o'clock. The orange and blue fire roars from the roof of the retort like water from a firehose, hitting the chest, and I can see another jet farther down the chamber, and bits of fly-ash circling in the turbulence. The body is black, and the bones glow in the way a burning piece of firewood glows if you blow on it hard. There's no smell, but I can feel a draft on my ear as an air current rushes past me, through the porthole, into the chamber.
"The head burns slowly, the heart burns slowly," Jon says.
Hanging on the wall next to the retort are two iron hooks. When the body no longer looks like a body, when all that's left are scattered bones and a black mass the size of a pumpkin, Jon feeds the longer of the two hooks through the porthole and rakes everything into a pile under the gas jet, to finish the job. Then he opens the door a crack to let the bones cool, and I can see the stone wall of the retort and the pieces, a hip ball-joint, a jaw, glowing red.
We break for lunch and I scrub my hands and forearms in the bathroom and rinse my mouth with Scope until my gums sting. I tell myself I'll get used to it, like the others who work here. And I know I'll lick the primal uneasiness that drove me from a room full of harmless little old dead ladies, but right now I can't imagine ever getting used to the violence of the retort.
I find Jon and the young woman in the arrangement room having lunch. I have brought a sandwich from home, but my appetite left me somewhere around the baby urn. Jon eats a pizza sub and leafs through Maxim magazine. Natalie - I can call her Nat - used to work at Shoppers Drug Mart, where she sold cosmetics before she became a funeral director. Her hometown is St. Claude, a French farming community south of Portage la Prairie, which has both a dairy museum and the world's second-largest smokable pipe, 20 feet long and weighing 430 pounds. Nat's lunch is a microwaved pork chop that she saws with a plastic knife, holding her fork in her fist the way a child does. She is the chief embalmer. Jon flashes her the Maxim centrefold, who wears a leather bikini.
"Nice," she says, not looking up.
There's a stack of funeral trade magazines here too: American Cemetery and Canadian Funeral News, no centrefolds, but Dodge chemicals has a full-page ad in CFN for Plasdopake, an embalming fluid that looks alarmingly like orange soda, and promises "fine tissue texture, glowing color undertones and faultless preservation." It's a "humectant-type arterial wholly free of circulation-clogging animal fat precipitation," with a skull-and-crossbones on the label. I remind myself to drink only tap water at the new job, never anything from the fridge.
I meet Annette, Neil's wife, who shakes my hand loosely. I smile, she doesn't. My impression of her impression of me is that I'm an interloper whose motives for nosing around her family business are still unknown and are presumed muckrakey. She's a skilled hairstylist who still works on corpses from time to time when things get busy, but her daily job is as office manager. Not only is she the boss's wife and business partner but she's responsible for cutting the paycheques, so I promise myself I'll be nice to Annette, even though, so far, she scares me half to death.
That afternoon both retorts are roaring, and Nat has a job for me: helping her dress another of her endless supply of old ladies. I tell her, so she knows, that I sometimes have trouble dressing myself (button alignment issues), but she says there's nothing to it. The arms and legs will be a bit stiff, but don't be shy about manhandling them: the dead are uncooperative, but they respond to gravity and brute force, a kind of mortuary tough-love. Have I ever dressed another person? she asks. I don't have kids, but there was that incident in college involving tequila and a grad student, and certainly I've known people who respond only to gravity and brute force, but otherwise all I can do is follow her lead.
The lady is wrapped in a flannel sheet, her face and hands goopy with Kalon skin cream to keep them from drying out. She's also green. Not sickly peaked green in the cheeks, but forest green, an artifact of the embalming chemicals reacting with the jaundice she had before she ended up here. This will be covered up by makeup, but for now she looks like The Hulk.
We take turns, alternately rolling the woman to one side and then the other, scooting up her hose and skirt in stages, then the bra and blouse. It's a funeral director's job to counsel families on clothing for their dead: find something with a high collar (to cover the incision near the neck where the embalming chemicals went in) and please send underwear. Turns out most people don't think of it. "I won't bury anyone without underwear," Nat says.
They keep a bag of spares. Once they had an apprentice who was so firm on the matter, she used to raid Neil's office for boxers and socks, where she knew he always kept a change of clothes for services ("Do you know how many people are buried in my clothes in Brookside cemetery?" he told me). Most men are laid to rest in suits and ties, and it's got to the point that Nat can only tie a tie from above. When her boyfriend Robbie needs his tie done, she makes him lie down. "I had this dream once," she says. "I was dressing my uncle, and he wasn't even dead."
She shows me how to roll a corpse without dropping it: grab a wrist and a hip and hug tight, being careful not to be too rough with the bare skin, which has a tendency to slip.
"Slip?" I ask.
Come off. Bodies that have been dead a few days before embalming accumulate little bubbles of gas under the skin, which can cause the skin to slip off like wet saran wrap if you're not gentle. Our lady is still quite sturdy and fresh, but I do as I'm told, hug a hip and pull. Her goopy left hand is hard to hang on to, and as a result she slides more than rolls, to the edge of the gurney, where gravity's waiting. I hug tighter, and now we're face-to-green-face. This must be embarrassing for her, that's all I can think. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry she's green, and half naked, and in the arms of a hapless stranger when she'd rather be alive and home watching Wheel of Fortune.
The blouse is next, which requires wrestling with an elbow that won't unbend: it's like dressing a tree. When I lay her flat, her hand slaps me on the chest. Fair enough.
To stick to the skin, real makeup needs heat, which the dead no longer have. Mortician's makeup is more like paint. The green woman needs a heavy base, but for most corpses, Nat just adds a bit of colour to those spots on the face that naturally respond to sun (tip of the nose, forehead between the eyes, cheeks) and then works it in with a gloved finger. Lips are painted purple, which looks more natural than red on a dead person. Nat has a trade client named Reg, a local undertaker on Erin Street, behind a sports bar. He subcontracts her as an embalmer, instead of carrying the overhead of maintaining his own prep room. Reg likes a lot of purple on his corpses' lips, even the men.
Nat steps back to examine her work, then adds a layer of powder, and blows lightly on the woman's face to remove the excess. I can smell Nat's peppermint gum. Then she grabs my hands and holds them against the woman's scalp.
I do feel something, two knotty bumps over her temples.
"Horns!" Nat whispers, wide-eyed. I pull my hands back. "Must be from the cancer, poor thing."
Cut into conceptual bite-sized pieces, all this might one day, like Jon says, be easier to swallow: the dead put on their pantyhose one leg at a time like the rest of us. But there's something black and malevolent breathing in here too, behind that rumbling noise. Call it uncanny. For Freud, that feeling of vertigo when the rational and irrational collide is uncanny: he says there's nothing more uncanny than a dead body. We're still savages on the subject, informed by pre-modern ideas that "whoever dies becomes the enemy of the survivor, intent on carrying him off to share his new existence," even as we know, rationally, that they're just spent biology: dead meat. Freud also says that if we repress these primitive fears they'll sneak back to haunt us later as neurotic symptoms. But I think repression is underrated. I have the feeling it'll be my most valuable friend here at the death factory.
When Glenn comes back from a removal with a small cardboard box, we gather around to see what he's brought. Natalie opens it. Inside is an infant, blue-grey. She lifts it up. It's still wearing a Muppets diaper.
"Aww," she says, "I can't wait to start having kids."
Neil has an electric piano in his office. To relax he plays ragtime, slowly, the way Scott Joplin said it should be played. On his desk is a copy of Rheinhold's sculpture of a philosophizing ape holding a human skull, a humble charm against hubris, a memento mori: if we think we're indestructible, at the top of the food chain, nature has other ideas. When Neil was an apprentice, his father and uncle ran a conservative funeral home: they embalmed everything that came through the door. Cremation was a fad for pointy-headed university professors and Unitarians, until Jessica Mitford wrote "that book" in the early '60s and the fad evolved into a social trend. But it wasn't until twenty-five years ago that Neil finally embraced cremation and became what the mainstream industry calls a "bake-and-shaker," a lower-cost provider of a cleaner, more manageable, less Gothic and scatterable end product. Although he still believes in the therapeutic power of a well-embalmed body, you can't fight a social revolution. Especially now, with the baby boomers idling in their Humvees at the lip of the chasm - 76 million of them have already left their muddy tire-tracks in every other intersection of the economy, from pop culture to fashion to the derivative markets (well done there) to yoga and the ovo-lacto frozen dinner-treat industry, and are now facing a guaranteed 100 percent death rate. They'll want something different from their grandparents' church services.
"The traditional funeral is gone," Neil says, "and it's never coming back."