I was Almost a Mortician

I entered adolescence spooky as all get out. I had grown from an emo tween into an edgy teen. As a child I obsessively studied and explored the wide world of Egyptian mummification and death rituals, and as I climbed through grade levels I started poking around the Victorian cult of mourning. I started exploring these rituals and death practices as a way of exploring my scientific and social interest in the field of mortuary science. Plus, I’d recently read an article online explaining that more women than men were getting into the field of forensics, funeral services, and embalming, making the future of American death rituals decidedly female. This is an association usually kept away from our cultural understanding of femininity.

My significant other at the time knew the owners of a local funeral home and arranged for me to visit. I had never been in a funeral home before—my experiences with death were restricted to fiction, the occasional bug swatting or the unfortunate mouse caught by a cat. Before I stepped into the funeral home, I froze in terror over the socially sensationalized idea of sharing a building with the dead. Upon walking in the entryway was centered in front of a stair case. On the right was the viewing/service space. The room’s mahogany paneling, and taupe carpet gave it a cozy and comforting feeling—a psychological tactic to comfort family members in an understandably hard situation. The neat rows of chairs reminded me of a school PSA program, rigidly spaced yet pleasantly familiar.

To the left was the owner’s office decorated like the that of an elementary school principal’s: outdated, worn, yet putting its best face forward. The door behind his desk opened into their show room filled with a few of the most popular casket models, urns, and swatches of wood and metal finishes. Behind the counter another door opened into a spacious hallway. One door led down into private storage, the other to the embalming room. As an older practice, it was still fitted with ceramic walls and tiles. The room’s focus was on one slab like table, set at a 30° angle for easy drainage. The door on the other side of the room stood locked, the sign read “morgue.” We did not go inside. The glaringly wide hallway looped around to the back of the building where vehicles can pull up. The hallway then continued to a small preparation room that led back into the viewing space. Everything was designed for ease of access and transportation. There was no crematorium on site.

Although my journey in exploring the mortuary profession extends beyond this initial encounter into more clinical exploratory work, I share these memories because I did not become a mortician, yet after a decade, I still remember the layout of the building. I also remember the kindness of the owner while I grilled him on the importance of ACT vs. SAT scores on mortuary school applications, and on if it was better to apprentice personally than to start in mortuary school. For the next two years, I worked towards this future. The only thing that held me back was my first funeral with emotional skin in the game, confronted with my grieving mother and a room full of people sharing an immense pain that no one wanted to talk about. For most people present, there was something uncomfortable underlining the sermon, the open casket and pallid corpse resting inside.

Euro-Centric views of death come with stigmas of ghosts, godly-retribution, and fears left over from the dark ages regarding corpses—AKA the fleshy left overs of the human animal. For Americans, this has translated into a separation where we like to pretend our bodies aren’t just bodies but relics to preserve with chemicals so they remain as close to what we remember as possible, pretending our dead are only within their designated spaces in cemeteries as if their existence outside these contexts threatened the living. We’re afraid of green-burials, and human-composting because we view the body as an extension of the person, even when there are no ‘human’ components left. I know that culturally, these options aren’t for everyone and I am in no way commenting on them/endorsing them as my opinions are my own and not for the internet. But largely in America we’re grieving the person to the point of financial and ecological distress where their body means more to their memory than their actual memories. We’ve stratified ourselves and our death-rituals so far apart that we become afraid when in the presence of the dead, and when talking about the dead/death when globally it’s the only universal experience and should be revered instead of vilified.  I’m not a mortician. I’m not in mortuary school nor am I persuing a degree in any other science. I’ve come a long way from books about mummies, and I’ve learned there are thousands of ways we as humans consecrate and honor our dead. Each of these ways are valid, and as Americans, we need to recognize that: they’re not primitive, dirty, or wrong; it’s all part of how we grieve. I was almost a mortician and learned there is no greater service than shouldering the grief of an entire family, and those that do should be respected.

For more information on 'Death Positivity' check out: The Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral directors and morticians trying to change the stigma typically associated with talking about death.