Chance encounters - Why I like San Francisco

Monday, 28 March 2011

The man, presumably a neighbour, was entering the elevator as I left our apartment door.
"Hey", he said.
"Hello." I replied.
Roughly 60 seconds later, as I reached the ground floor steps, he left the elevator and walked in front of me, also heading for the laundry room.
"Hello again", I said.
"Hey" he replied.

We walked into the room and started unloading our clothes into adjacent washing machines.
"How was your week?" he asked
"Not bad mate, pity about the shit weather."
"Yeah, I'm supposed to be applying for jobs, but I haven't felt like leaving the house."
"What line of work are you in?" I asked.
"I'm a funeral director."
"Oh. So you've gotta be very sombre at work all the time?"
"Some of the time. But I do autopsies as well."
"Ah. You prepare the body for the casket?"
He put down his laundry basket and propped himself against the machine, warming to the discussion.
"Yeah I do the embalming, but sometimes we have to determine the cause of death."
"How do you embalm a body?" I asked, as I popped a stick of chewing gum into my mouth.
"Well you have to drain all the blood and liquids out first, and then pump the body full of embalming fluid. We have to be careful not to put too much fluid in though, because it makes the body look all puffy and gross."
An image of Mick Jagger's cadaver drifted into my head.
"What's the embalming fluid made from?"
"Do you know what that is?"
"Yeah. Formaldehyde."
"When it arrives, we take it as a solid and then have to melt it down."
"So it acts as a preservative?"
"Yeah. We have to drain all of the body's fluids first, and then take out the organs."
I thought of Egyptian mummies, canopic organ-jars topped with a lid effigy of Mick Jagger's face.
"What do you do with the organs?"
"Once the body is empty we put them all inside a bag and then stuff them back inside, to keep the shape."
"Kind of like a Scottish haggis?"

I closed the washing machine door and started loading quarters into the coin slot.
"Do you become desensitised to death in your business?"
"Kind of." His eyes went dim. A smile crept meekly across his face from one corner of his mouth. "But it's a good thing. You're able to prepare people who've had no experience of their loved ones leaving them, and talk them through the process."
I imagined Mick Jagger's relatives weeping next to his open casket, as Start me up played in the background.
"So you need to be a bit of a counsellor as well?"
"A little. That was part of my Funeral Science major. But most of the skill lies in the embalming of the corpse."
"Do you get many bodies which have to have a closed casket?"
I shut the washing machine door, started the washing on a 40-minute cycle and began to walk slowly back towards the stairs.
"No, most of them are salvageable. Sometimes you just say 'there's no way'... one of the last jobs I had was this teenage couple... they'd just been to the prom, they came in still in their prom outfits. She was driving, and had flipped the car over... he flew out of the windshield... there was nothing we could do with him, his face was deformed, beyond repair - it was a hole. Half of her face was ruined, but it was the left side, right? So I used wax, and restored her jaw, used lots of make-up, and made sure her left side was shrouded in the darkest part of the coffin. Once her relatives saw her in the casket, they said she looked beautiful...
Of course her legs weren't fixed on her by that point, but they didn't know that."

"Interesting work... I'm gonna head back upstairs until this is done."
"Ok. Oh - my name is Gabriel. Nice to meet you."
He offered me one of his embalmer's palms.
"Sam - nice to meet you - see you in 40 minutes."