I used to work in a funeral home.
Rains & Talley, the establishment was called. It occupied a pink brick building that had 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 tiled 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. The whole business took less than 30 minutes, as I recall.
With the embalming complete and the table hosed down, we would then have to wait for the burial clothes to arrive. Sometimes this took a while. When the clothes arrived, though, we would dress the remains, in best blue suit or graduation dress or confirmation gown or whatever, and then the mortician would “set” the features by hand—eyes closed, slight smile on the lips, etc.— and apply whatever cosmetics were deemed necessary. (Sometimes a lot were.) If the remains was female, a beautician would be brought in to do the hair. In the case of males, occasionally the jaws might need a fresh shave. Then it was off the table and over into the casket—which would have been chosen by the family, after consultation with Mr. Blalock, from our fairly extensive collection on the second floor—and back up the elevator to one of the viewing rooms on the main floor.
Of all the remains I helped prepare for burial in my months at Rains & Talley only two stand out in memory after the passage of more than 40 years. One was that of Margie Wiley, who had been a grade behind me in high school. A pretty girl, religiously inclined, Margie had gone off to a small denominational college up in Tennessee and had been killed one night in a two-car collision on a winding mountain road in the Great Smokies. Her injuries were internal, her body unmarked. I can still see her laid out on the table in Rains & Talley’s basement beneath the bright overhead lights: the gray, plucked-chicken pallor of her skin and the wispy dampness of her hair, both on her head and at her crotch. In high school I might have given almost anything to see Margie Wiley naked. Now there she was, and the feeling the sight of her inspired in me was the precise opposite of erotic. It made me wonder for a moment, in fact, if I would ever want to see a naked girl again.
The other unforgettable remains was that of an adulterer, a husky fellow of about 40 who had been met at the backdoor of his paramour’s duplex one midnight by her husband, with a shotgun in his hands. The killing had occurred point blank. The entry wound was just below the heart and was about the size of a silver dollar. The exit wound in back wasn’t much bigger, attesting, I guess, to the muzzle velocity of the weapon. But the odd thing about this remains, the thing that makes me remember it after all these years, was how vital it still seemed. I almost expected the man to sit up and hop down off the table. He was big and good-looking, with a barrel chest and lots of virile black chest hair. But none of it had done him any good when that shotgun went off. I can remember gazing down at his poor shrunken genitals, the flaccid little penis and the wrinkled, drawn-up scrotum, and thinking, There’s a lesson here. Learn it.
All the other dozens of remains I handled in those days simply fall into the category, by now, of the anonymous dead. They were mostly the old and infirm and we usually picked them up out at Marshall Memorial Hospital or in their rankly medicinal-smelling bedrooms at home. For some reason the old always seemed to die at three o’clock in the morning, and invariably, it seemed to me, on a night when I had a quiz over at the college the next day. We kept a telephone at bedside up in the dormitory with a flashing red light on it, and whenever the phone rang and the light flashed whoever was on duty that night knew to get up, get dressed, and meet Mr. Huffman, who lived just a few doors away from the funeral home, down at the ambulance.
“Who is it this time, Mr. Huffman?” I would ask, backing the old Pontiac ambulance out of Rains & Talley’s big multi-car garage.
And, “Miss Maybelle Atterbury,” he might say, firing up one of his ever-present Pall Malls. “She taught me history and social studies in the sixth grade.” Or: “Old man Tom Venable. Just turned 80 last week. I was in the service with both of his boys.”
“Where to? The hospital?”
“No, this one’s out at Good Samaritan Rest Home. Why don’t we take the back way.”
Claire Huffman was an interesting man. Of all the interesting people I worked with at Rains & Talley, both men and women (the mother of PBS’s Bill Moyers processed insurance claims for us in an office out back), he is the one who lingers most vividly in my memory. Physically, he was spectacularly unattractive. Ugly, in a word. With his droopy, hound-dog features and his big-pored, pockmarked skin, he always put me in mind of the old screen heavy Rondo Hatten, who used to play a character called “The Creeper” in a Grade-B horror-flick series of that era. Beneath the skin, though, Huffman was pure gold. He was maybe the gentlest, kindest, calmest man I have ever known. He’d been a bombardier during World War Two, flying those daylight B-17 raids over Germany for the Eighth Air Force, and I think that must have had something to do with his demeanor when I knew him. Also, there was a story going around that he’d had to embalm his own daughter, the apple of his eye, after she died of some such sudden, contagious illness as spinal meningitis in her early teens. But I’m not sure I ever believed that one.
Huffman was utterly unflappable, though. He was at his best in the worst of situations: grisly three-car pile-ups out on Highway 80, burning buildings with babies inside, suicides that splattered every bedroom surface including the ceiling. Whatever it was, he could handle it. Hysterical relatives, irate parents, churlish hospital administrators, and high-handed doctors: he dealt with each of them in their turn, quietly, courteously, and with an unruffled ease. He was oil on troubled water, and a monument, always, to tact. I can remember thinking early on, If anything bad ever happens to me, I want Mr. Huffman in charge.
It was something I soon noticed, in fact, about funeral-home professionals in general, at least the ones I came in contact with. There was a quiet competence about all of them, an understated sense of certainty and easy command no matter what the situation was, whether dire or picayune, that was impressive. When you deal with death routinely, I suppose, you get pretty good at it. And anything short of death comes to be viewed after a while as fairly inconsequential. A snap, really. A piece of cake.
In addition to the grim, behind-the-scenes aspect of funeral-home work, there was also its public, ceremonial side. This was the easy part. I always sort of liked driving the hearse or the “family” car out to the cemetery on burial days, for instance. Both vehicles were recent-model Cadillacs, with plush interiors and powerful, ultra-quiet engines, and since it was the first time in my life I’d ever been surrounded by such luxury I found it fairly easy to fantasize that the vehicles were mine, and that what I was actually doing was cruising a country road, say, or taking my time on the way to pick up a hot date.
I also got used to the looks of respect and solemn inquiry (Oh, Lord, who now?) from my fellow townspeople as we moved in our slow processions through the downtown streets, the way they’d pause in whatever they were doing, sometimes even remove their hats or, if they were one of Marshall’s handful of Roman Catholics, cross themselves as we went by. It was an odd feeling being the focal point of such deference, and not an unpleasant one.
Other ceremonial duties included manning the big double front doors on “visitation” evenings and greeting the mourners—quietly, solemnly—as they came in; ushering people to and from their seats in the adjacent chapel before and after the funeral services; and just generally being present and available whenever there was a remains on display in the building. I had a sports coat that mother had given me for high school graduation four years before. It was a subdued plaid number, combining shades of maroon and gray, as I remember it, and I wore it day in and day out with a tie and a pair of charcoal trousers as my official ceremonial attire. I’m sure my co-workers, and maybe even a few veteran mourners, must have gotten tired of seeing me in it, but nobody ever said anything.
There was a staff lounge just off the director’s office there on the main floor at Rains & Talley, and that’s where everyone hung out when nothing else was going on. The lounge featured a coffeemaker, a soft-drink machine, and a refrigerator and was comfortably furnished with plush leather chairs and couches. Like the hotel barbershop downtown, it attracted various town characters, who would drop in usually around mid-morning for the free coffee. Some lively discussions used to take place in there, covering everything from politics to religion to high school football (another form of religion in East Texas). From time to time Mr. Blalock would have to come out of his office and tell everybody to hold it down.
Probably the strangest thing to happen at the funeral home while I was working there was something I didn’t actually witness but that one of my co-workers did. It happened late one Sunday evening while I was upstairs studying and the co-worker, a boy named Clayton Langley, was on duty down at the desk. There was a remains of an elderly woman on view in one of the front rooms, but everyone had cleared out and gone home by then except for her husband, a wiry little man, also quite elderly, in a shiny brown suit. I had hung around downstairs until the place all but emptied before heading on up to study and had seen the old man sneaking nips from something he kept in a paper bag inside his suit jacket. I didn’t think too much of it, however; it was a common enough occurrence. But as I was lying up on my bed studying I began to hear what sounded like singing coming, from time to time, from downstairs. The building’s walls and carpeting were quite thick, though, and the sound when it reached me faint, so I didn’t pay much attention to this either and went on studying.
About an hour went by like this. Then suddenly Clayton came bursting into the room upstairs.
“Jesus!” he said. “You won’t believe what’s been going on down there!”
“What?” I said. “What happened?”
“The old guy,” he said, “the one in the brown suit?”
“Yeah? What about him?”
“He starts singing at the top of his lungs. “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” and “Roll Me Over in the Clover” and stuff like that. Then he goes over to the casket and smacks the old woman in the face—with his fist!—and says, “Take that, you old bitch. I’ll sing all I want to. You can’t stop me now.”
“No! No, I’m not! After he smacks her he starts singing again. “Roll me over, lay me down, and do it again” and so on. Then he goes over and smacks her again. He does this three or four times.”
“Jesus is right. Where is he now?”
“Still down there.”
“What’s he doing? Should we call somebody?”
“Nah, I don’t guess so. He’s passed out in an easy chair, snoring like a champion.”
I relaxed a little. “Did he hurt her, do you think?”
Clayton looked at me. “Hurt her? Not a whole lot. ‘Course, she’s already dead.”
That was the strangest thing. On another evening I was physically present for something that wasn’t so much strange as it was profoundly touching for what it said about the disorienting nature of grief. This time the remains was that of a middle-aged man and the viewing room was filled with mourners, most of them the grown sons and daughters of the man, together with their own young children. The poor widow, distracted and obviously beside herself, kept circulating among them throughout the evening, going from one group to the other, asking repeatedly, as if she expected an answer, “What could Dad have been thinking?”
My strongest memories of those funeral-home days, however, have to do with the quiet afternoons and evenings when there was nobody else around.
It was such a great place to study!
I had come home from the Marines imbued with the sense that I had fallen far behind my peers and had a great deal of catching up to do. Though nobody else in my family had ever seen the need, I was aflame, for some reason, with the notion of getting a college education. In the beginning my confidence that I was even “college material” was somewhat shaky; my grades in high school hadn’t been that good. But those months in the funeral home turned out to provide just the right atmosphere for learning. I couldn’t have asked for a better study hall. I had a little raw pine bookcase beside my bed up in the dorm and I can still remember how proud I was to see it gradually, week by week, filling up with textbooks, and with the paperback novels (Lolita, Bugles in the Afternoon, Catcher in the Rye, The Caine Mutiny) I had begun buying more or less indiscriminately off the drugstore racks downtown. In those days I was rarely without a book in my hands, and it is a habit that has stuck with me, more or less unabated, ever since.
“What’s that you’re reading?” my colleagues at the funeral home used to ask.
If it was a textbook I’d tell them, and if it was something else I’d tell them that too.
“Lolita, huh? I hear it’s pretty spicy.”
“Nah. I thought it was going to be, but it’s not. It’s pretty good, though, in a peculiar sort of way.”
I was so afire to prove to myself that I could get a college degree (the idea of the degree being much more important in my mind in those days than any education that might actually go along with it) that I used to sit cross-legged on my bunk at the end of each semester playing with the little grade slips the college sent out in the mail, shuffling them, stacking them, tossing them up in the air, sort of like Scrooge McDuck in his vault. I completed all the required course- work for my freshman and sophomore years of college while working at Rains & Talley and I made the dean’s list at Kilgore College after each of the three semesters it took me to do so. In the whole time I went there I think I made only one B. All the rest were A’s. For this I give the funeral home much of the credit. Once I got down to Austin and the University of Texas, with all its distractions, my grades weren’t nearly as good.
People used to ask me what it was like working in a funeral home. They would ask me there in Marshall and they would ask me on the campus over at Kilgore, once it became known. They would ask me on the street, and down at the car wash where we used to take the hearses and the family car, and at the Dairy Queen as I stood in line for a hot fudge sundae. Aunts and uncles and cousins used to ask me at family gatherings, and so did people I had never seen before in my life. Even my mother asked me once.
“Quiet,” was the answer I finally settled on.
And if that didn’t satisfy them I’d try to be a bit more descriptive; depending on what I figured they wanted to hear. “Well, it’s a great little place to study,” I might allow. Or, if that didn’t seem to be what they were after, “Oh, you know, not too bad, once you get used to it.” The “it” being the thing they might then feel free to press me further about.
And usually that would suffice.
If someone were to ask me today, though, what it was like working in a funeral home, I am confident I could be more forthcoming.
Instructive, I’d tell them for openers. And useful; advantageous. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and hear some things that might come in handy down the line. An excellent vantage point from which to explore certain of the trickier nuances of our common humanity. A great place to buff up such under-rated character traits as courtesy, humility and empathy. And beyond all that, of course—the ne plus ultra—invaluable preparation for the inevitable.