Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training
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If Bill Bryson were to apprentice at a funeral home, searching for the meaning of life and death, you’d have Curtains.
blue Dis-Spray, which smells of rubbing alcohol. Both of us are dressed head to feet in splatter gear: scrubs, a paper bonnet, a plastic face-guard, a surgical mask to keep from inhaling chemical fumes. You never know what you’re going to get when you open the shroud, she says. Could be a bloody accident victim, or an old lady with no teeth, her mouth wide open. Nat’s enjoying this. She loves the prep room and she wants others to love it too. With a snap she reveals a handsome bald gentleman,
it comes time for the service, he can flip it around and no one will see the dirt. I decide I’m too superstitious to take my clothes off in a cemetery, and besides, all I’ve got is a ring of muck around my pant cuffs. I wipe them on the grass. When we get to the church, Neil’s already there with the hearse and the casket. On top of the casket, in place of the usual spray of flowers, is a bundle of dried wheat, in honour of the dead man, who was a farmer. Inside, the church is late-model Lutheran
cerebral tissue, or cartilage, or possibly embers from caskets. I’ve seen wood embers that still glow on the sort table. Blow on them and they glow brighter. If these coral bits wind up in the processor, that’s how you get your unappetizing grey powder. They’re the source of my problem. So I flick them aside with a screwdriver, into a separate pile for the slag bin, and sweep the white bits into the processor with a horsehair brush. This goes on for half an hour. It’s hypnotic, Zen-like. I
funeral–cemetery combo owned by the Arbor Group, and more than Neil: they were burying him. Curly had come up through the corporates, and Larry was a former wedding deejay; now they were in bitter competition over the so-called “shoppers” market, the customers for whom price meant everything. When the widow, Mrs. D., lost her husband to a heart attack, which he suffered while riding the Number 12 bus, she went to Curly because of his advertised price: $695 for direct cremation, $1,500 for
corpses. I take pictures while he lowers Annie into a casket. She claps with joy, but I feel ill, the image now burned in my head. In a room off the main exhibition hall, an undertaker from Louisiana draws a red line on a dry-erase board and labels it Cremation. “This is a warning sign,” he says. People take notes. Warning sign, they write. “And death won’t bail us out.” He has a preacher’s gift for the long, telling pause. “The Centers for Disease Control keeps getting better and better, and