The Dead Never Rest
I am the son of a funeral director and the grandson of a funeral director. When I was only five, before I started school, my father took me down to our funeral home where he had a dead corpse on the embalming table. He said, “If you are going to be a funeral director one day you have to get used to death. The best way is to touch a dead body. I began crying and saying, “No, I do not want to.” My father had been an officer in the army, he had fought in North Africa in World War II and received two purple hearts. He was a harsh man and expected to be obeyed. Even at five I knew better than to resist him for long. I braced myself, slowly went forward and hesitantly raised my hand and touched the dead body. Until this day I wonder if what I felt was really happening, if it was physical or etheric, or just my imagination. Because I felt a strong electric shock go from my fingers up my arm, all the way to my heart.
There were six siblings in my immediate family. My father had decided that his three boys were going to become funeral directors. This was in the 50s. My older brothers were eight and ten years older than me. They were in their teens and were quite the rock musicians and Casanovas. As my youth progressed they started coming home late in the evenings, if at all many nights. My father was a strong man, but due to one of his war wounds, his back could only support so much weight. After midnight, if my father could not get anyone else to help him, he would wake me up and I would go with him and help him pick up the bodies of the recent dead. He especially needed help in the old, three and four story tenement buildings in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which had been built to house mill workers in the late 1800’s, and had no elevators.
I would often have to strap the body on my back to get down the thin stair cases. Then after helping Dad embalming the body, he would give me a ride home. I would shower and eat breakfast and catch the school bus. I would drowsily look at the other kids and think that none of them had to get up in the middle of the night, fetch dead bodies and embalm them before they went to school.
For most of my school years, I was an unofficial apprentice in the funeral home. I worked other jobs like grocery clerk and being a lifeguard at the local pool. But when Dad was short of help, I would always pitch in. One night we were having a terrible New England snow storm, We used to call them North Easters, because they usually came off the ocean from the northeast. That particular night my Dad had to go retrieve a body sixty miles south of Lawrence. He called me to aks me to embalm another body while he was away. I will always remember the name – Walter Tobias. My father had picked up Walter earlier that evening and had not been able to find the time to embalm him before he had to go to pick up the second body. I still remember the howling winds and heavy snow falling as I drove slowly to the funeral home, slipping and sliding down the narrow street.
At eleven in the evening I was in the funeral home, by myself. I had taken to smoking cigars when I embalmed, because the smell of the embalming fluid was foul smelling – almost intolerable. I went to get a match in another room. When I returned, the dead body was sitting up on the table, with a very crazed look on its face. I had seen many scary and upsetting things in my youth, in and around the funeral home, but this made me scream and I ran out of the morgue. I went into my father private office where he had his old oak desk and a couch he would sleep on when he had to stay in between late nights and early morning business. I went straight to his merogamy liquor cabinet. Here he kept his brandy and top of the line cognac. I poured myself a glass of Dad’s cognac. It calmed my nerves and strengthened my resolve.
There was no noise coming from Walter in the morgue. I made my decision and walked back into the morgue and up to Walter. Obviously, the coroner had pronounced Walter dead, but I knew that pronouncing someone dead had always been an inexact art. The look on Walter’s face seemed to say, “I hate you and plan to do you harm.” I tried to ignore that, and said, “You are dead right Walter?” There was no answer, so I touched Walter’s arm and it was ice cold. I felt his chest and there was no heartbeat. I slapped his face lightly, but there was no response. I checked all his vital signs and finally convinced myself that Walter really was dead.
The tradition of the wake began as a way to give a body a fighting chance to show if it was alive. But in more recent times funeral directors took the coroner’s word because the methods to prove someone dead had improved. Embalmers could usually rather quickly embalm the bodies to keep them from decomposing as they tend to do quickly. I knew there was a lazy coroner in Lawrence who sometimes did not run all the tests. Still, I was pretty convinced that Walter was undoubtedly dead. I pushed the body down. Of course I knew about Riga mortise. I had seen corpses whose fingers twitched and arms moved. But this was extreme. But I assured myself that Walter was dead and that it was just Riga mortise.
Suddenly, there was a noise in the front room. I nearly jumped out of my own skin. It was Gene, who often helped my father around the funeral home. He told me my father had called him and was stuck on snow packed roads outside of Boston. My father had asked him to pick up another corpse and bring it over for me to embalm. This deceased person was named George Decors. I put on my coat and went out to the hearse together with Gene. We carried George into the morgue and due to the weather Gene quickly left to make it home safely.
The storm was had gotten worst. Even in the morgue I could hear the winds howling outside. I decided to embalm George first, just to let Walter settle for sure. Part of me still feared Walter might be alive, even though my rational mind knew that was impossible. I looked at Walter and that look on his face had not changed. It sent a fear filled shill down my spine.
I turned back to George and began the embalming. It used to take me about an hour to embalm a body, depending on the specific challenges. Just as I was near finishing up on George, there was movement behind me. I turned and yelled. Walter had sat up again. In my hands, I held the sharp tool used for pumping out the body fluids and pumping in the embalming fluid. I always thought it seemed like a short shiny metal spear. I seriously considered stabbing the sitting up corps in the chest. But my professionalism did not allow me to. I put the tool down, pushed the body back and I rechecked all vital signs, each one three times in every way I knew. When I finally convinced myself over again about what I already knew, I began embalming Walter’s body. I had to work hard to adjust the expression on his face. When I finished, I washed both bodies and dressed them in the clothes their families had sent for them and placed them each in a casket.
I sat down, still shaken by Walter sitting up twice. To settle my nerves I had another glass of my Dad’s good Cognac. As I sipped it my father called and said he was about twenty miles away and that I should just go home, as he would embalm the body he had picked up on his own. I bundled up and walked to the front door, opened it and thought it is too bad a storm to drive home in. Then I walked back and looked at my father’s couch, thought about Walter and even though the roads were in terrible condition, I went out and shoved the snow away from my car and on terrible roads I made my way home. I eventually made it to our farm, which of course was across the street and down the street from large, old cemeteries. When I got home I showered and went right to bed.
I dreamed of the funeral home and about Walter and George in their caskets. Walter had the same look on his face, as when he had sat up on the embalming table. In my dream I felt the same chill down my spine. Both Walter and George talked to me. They were not happy, didn’t like me, and wanted to hurt me. Then their spirits floated out of their bodies and started flying around me. Walter kept saying, “I did not want to die. I hate you for being alive. I will kill you. It was too soon for me to die. You should not live.”
I woke up shaking and sweating even though it was cold. I had only slept a little over an hour. I had a glass of water, and told myself this was just a dream. After a while I went back to bed hoping to dream about something more soothing. But instead the dreams came back, and now there were many ghost flying around me at the funeral home. Some I recognized as bodies I had embalmed. They kept flying at me. It felt like bee bites when they howled at me. They were all trying to kill me. I felt deep fear. I kept seeing Walters face, as it was before I embalmed him. I woke up, afraid for my life. Then I thought of my father being alone with these bodies and became afraid for him too.
I went back to the funeral home filled with apprehension. My father was snoring on the couch, so I made coffee and checked the bodies. They all seemed normal. When my father woke up, we rearranged everything for the wakes, which would probably not be too well attended the first night, due to the terrible weather. I looked at each of the three dead bodies again. I could have sworn that the third body, which my father had driven so far to pick up, had been in my dream. That deeply worried me. But they were all dead I assured myself. Why was I so petrified?
I finally got up the nerve to tell my father about the corpse sitting up twice and the terrible dreams that followed. I also told him about the threats, and the third corps being in the dream. He said, “Michael you will see countless strange things in this profession, more than you can imagine. You just got to get used to them. The strange dreams stop after the first decade, or so. I might go to church every Sunday, but I do not believe in heaven, or hell, or ghosts. When your dead, your dead, when you are buried you have no spirit that can come back and hurt anyone, when people forget you – you no longer exist.”
I thought about this and I knew he was wrong.