As part of a valuable experience I was seeking for a story, I worked part time for a week in a funeral home. You know, just to get a feel of what Six Feet Under was like. I have to admit that there is no monkey business to report after a few days, all is calm and regal. The dignity, the sorrows, the crying people, the persuasive organ music, the words of priests, preachers, and other head of churches, the absent smell of fake flowers, riding in a hearse -- a lot of first day things were in fact first time ever for me.
I had never seen a corpse. The bizarre feeling of realizing that the shape under the sheet behind the curtain in the anti-chamber of the prep room is an actual person, lying in state, awaiting his or her cheek blush and face powder, is quite an unnerving experience. Death is never easy, but a corpse is a disturbing sight, and that first one spooked me -- I guess I'll never be a real pro at it.
During my very short sting as a funeral assistant in training, I saw a boutique full of coffins parts (no room for the whole thing -- you only get to see a sample, that is weird), another room for urns (ashes) -- some quite cute, heart-shaped silver boxes or Teddy bears for little ones.
Heartbreaking. I have decided long ago that I want to be cremated and have my ashes dispersed in the Atlantic Ocean in Brittany, and some of it kept and made into a ring to be passed down to generations to come -- I can be dramatic.
The ceremonies are by definition quiet affairs where we had to wear black or navy, with a tiny speck of white if desired, black stockings, even in the Florida heat; sometimes if a child was buried, rules allow a hint of pink or blue in the outfit, such as a peeking blouse.
Not a licensed mortician I was not allowed (thank you), in any of the preparation facilities, quasi medical, where bodies are respectfully treated in the strictest of rules, to attain eternity in the best possible looking condition. But some dead people simply cannot be seen.
Some caskets are closed, as the dead is not in good enough shape to be witnessed by family members and friends, let alone by gawking neighbors, or former co-workers. Some were killed in the line of duty and could not be fixed for viewing, even by the best make-up artist. I guess that would be the only reason not to show him/her. Unless somebody in the family did not want to traumatize kids/teens, or some adults who could not face death in the flesh, so to speak.
My first day's subject was a former army member, a retired police officer, who was giving the honors of army personal playing Taps on a trumpet and folding the American flag to give to his widow. A double row of cops also stood at attention in the 96 degrees heat, to pay their final adieux to a fallen comrade. Very intense.
I got to ride in the front seat of the hearse, next to the funeral director. I was trying not to think of the movie Ghostbusters. The deceased was killed at age 55, but since he was a retired cop, and I am such a rookie in this field, I was not given any explanation as to why his casket was closed -- was he shot? His wife was cheerfully laughing during the service, maybe it was the nerves.
After a four-hour memorial service, half indoors, half outside, the procession left, and we staff went back to the funeral home to clean and refill the tissue boxes. My job was fairly simple throughout the half day, say hello, do not ask how they are (come on, it's a funeral), hand out pamphlets, show where the bathrooms are, nod in silence, barely smile, look down a lot, cross hands in front loosely, a little like Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge does, do not sit, do not sneeze (!), do not chit-chat, be serene, and do not, under any circumstances, slam doors.
It's a silent and respectful world.