I’d always heard it said that funerals are for those left behind. A final goodbye and a chance to come to terms with the loss. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
I never questioned it until I started working at a funeral home as an assistant director.
My boss, Bill, was a large man. Big build, big beard, big laugh. Not the kind of guy you’d typically see at the head of a prep table, carefully applying Mrs. Flynn’s final coat of dusty rose lipstick. He took our work seriously. When he hired me almost right out of school, the first thing he told me was, “Funerals are for the dead. Remember that, you’ll be just fine.”
When someone like Bill says something like that to you, you roll with it.
I shadowed him for about a month, learning his particular way of doing things. Prepping a body wasn’t a science for Bill; it was a ritual. He went through every step, from cleansing, to embalming, to suturing jaws shut, with great reverence. And he spoke the entire time. It didn’t matter who was laid out in front of him: Bill treated everyone with the same courtesy and respect.
“I’m just going to fold your arm like this, darlin’. Don’t mind my hands.”
“You’ve got a smudge here, Mr. Ricardo, let me get that for you.”
“Oh, let’s just get you touched up a bit, Ms. Ellen. Hardly need it though, do you? Pretty as ever.”
In the beginning, I didn’t talk much. I’d pop my earbuds in and go about my duties, usually washing the bodies down and getting them ready for Big Bill to do his thing. He allowed it for a time, until he came in one day and I carelessly let an old lady’s arm fall unassisted back on to the table. He put a hand on my shoulder and motioned for me to take the earbuds out. I was nervous, he’d never interrupted me before, but he didn’t look angry. Just disappointed.
“We treat them better than that,” he told me sternly. “For all our sakes.”
This time, I did push him for some reasoning behind his words. “What do you mean?”
“What we do is important work, son, and we gotta make sure we do it right.”
“Yeah, I know. I get the whole, ‘The families rely on us’ thing —”
“We don’t do it for the families. Not mostly, anyway,” Big Bill said. “We do it for them, so they can cross over and be at peace.”
Big Bill was the religious type, so I guessed I should’ve known that would’ve been the basis for his great show of care. He must’ve seen something dismissive in my face, because he shook his head.
“It ain’t just about making ‘em pretty, son,” he said. “There’s a right way to do things, and a wrong way, and if you do it wrong, people suffer.”
“How? They’re dead.”
Big Bill gave me a pat on the back and gestured for me to follow him.
“S’cuse us, ma’am,” he said to the body as we walked toward his office.
I took a seat opposite him while he settled into his chair. He scratched at his beard, suddenly pensive, and stared up at the ceiling while he spoke.
“Y’know about ghosts?”
“You believe in ‘em?”
“No,” I said with a snort.
Big Bill’s lips twitched into a small smile. “S’pose this isn’t much of a business for superstitious folk.”
I couldn’t stop myself from pointing out that he was superstitious folk. I was wincing even before all the words had left my mouth.
I was rewarded with a chuckle.
“Not superstitious, son. Experienced. Been doing this work going on 30 years now. I’ve learned a thing or two.”
I nodded along in agreement.
“I ever tell you about my first year as an apprentice?” He asked.
Big Bill’s chair squeaked in protest when he sat back, his hands folded over his stomach.
He was 22, he told me. He landed his first gig with a funeral home in a small Louisiana town right off the bayou. The funeral director there had been a tiny Creole woman, Mama Odette. She took no nonsense and wasn’t the kind given to flights of fancy, but she had her peculiarities.
Big Bill didn’t understand them at first and he questioned everything. Why talk to them? Why be so gentle? Why why why? Mama Odette only tolerated it for so long, until one day, she took Big Bill by the beard and dragged him down to her level.
“You got a curious mind,” she told him.
He didn’t feel like he was in a position to disagree.
“You really want to know the answers? Or are you just flapping your lips to catch flies?”
He assured her he did.
He remembered the way she held him there for a long moment, studying his face with her large, dark eyes, until she saw something that satisfied her. She let him go and told Big Bill to meet her at an address that evening. She was going to show him what happened if they didn’t do their jobs right.
The place she’d told him to go to was an abandoned park. Mama Odette was waiting for him in the parking lot. She instructed him to clear a path through the overgrowth for her and followed him toward a rusted bench overlooking the swamp. She laid down a cloth and took a seat. Big Bill sat down beside her. They waited in silence. When Big Bill tried to ask what they were doing, Mama Odette shushed him like he was a child.
The sun set and they sat and they waited.
Big Bill could never be certain if it was the crying he heard first, or the rippling of bayou water. Every hair on his arms jumped up and a cold, prickly sweat broke out across the back of his neck. He didn’t scare easy, but those first few sobs almost sent him running back to his truck.
Mama Odette put a hand on his leg to steady him.
“You must see,” she said softly. “So that you understand.”
There were people out on that bayou. He saw them, clear as he could see Mama Odette. They weren’t right, though. They seemed to flicker while they drifted over the surface of the water, like they were trying to come through some kind of static. Some tore at their hair, others at their clothes, but they all cried to one degree or another. Their movements were quick and jerky, painful. Big Bill opened his mouth to speak, but Mama Odette stopped him with a finger pressed to her lips.
He said he’d never been so afraid. He could feel their anguish, their fury, their pain. It tasted like copper in the back of his throat. His teeth practically vibrated with it. While Mama Odette sat, calm and cool, he struggled to stay in place.
And the more agitated he became, the more twitchy and violent the people on the water moved, until they were all turning toward him and their sobs had started to turn to low, growling screams.
Big Bill had never run from anything until that day. Mama Odette found him sitting in the driver’s seat of his truck, his hands shaking too badly to start it.
She was patient while he figured out how to get his tongue working again.
He’d demanded to know what he’d just seen.
“They were slaves,” she’d said in that straight forward way of hers. “Died on a plantation. Were thrown here after. No burial, no rights. Just bodies swallowed up by the swamp.”
She told him to follow her back to the funeral home. She made him tea and gave him biscuits. Waited for him to breathe again. And then she continued.
Spirits need a proper burial as much as bodies do. It ensures they are released from this world.
“There are things out there, boy,” she said. “Soul feeders. We living don’t seem them, but people like us, the ones who walk with the dead, know about them. They find the souls who weren’t sent off right and they trap them in this world. They feed off of them, driving the unfortunates to madness. They make them stay long after they should’ve been gone and it is a miserable existence. Like you saw tonight.”
Big Bill asked if she meant ghosts.
“Ghosts, spirits, phantoms. They have all kinds of names, but they all mean the same thing: tortured souls who can’t cross over.”
A mortician’s job, whether they’re aware of it or not, is to escort a body to its final resting place, where the soul can finally be released. They care for it, watch over it, protect it from the soul feeders, who are repelled by the living.
The mortician is the last line of defense before true freedom.
“That’s why we talk to them and wash them and treat them like our own,” Mama Odette had said. “Because no one deserves to be lost.”
Big Bill said he kept those words with him, tattooed under his skin upon his bones.
“You only need to feel it once, son,” he said. “The hopelessness, the fear, the anger. It’ll eat you up. I never wanted to feel it again. I promised Mama Odette that I’d never let anyone who came into my house leave that way. I mean to keep it. So you tell me: can you talk to them and wash them and treat them like your own?”
I waited for him to start laughing and tell me he was yanking my chain, but his eyes bore into me like he was searching down into my soul for the answer.
I nodded, slowly.
Big Bill clapped me on the shoulder.
“Then let’s get back to work.”
And I did. I don’t know if what Big Bill told me was true, only that he believed it. I let that be enough for me. Why risk it? At the end of the day, it just means I do a better job, that I care more.
Big Bill made sure I knew that the funerals weren’t for the living. I’ve passed on that message to everyone who’s ever worked under me. I end every job offer with the same question he asked me: can you talk to them and wash them and treat them like your own?
If they ask why, I think of that huge, bearded man, the one who only ever felt afraid once in his whole life, and I tell them.
No one deserves to be lost.