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I Embalmed My Friend

The date was January 12, 1995.

Although a cold, Minnesota January evening, I inhaled and exhaled quietly into the Minnesota night. My shallow breaths produced a vaporish like cloud, slowly dissipating with each step closer to my Isuzu pickup truck. Cars were buzzing by me on East Seventh Street, as I was wondered where all these people were going.

My light beige truck wasn’t ideally suited for the Minnesota winters. It was much too light and had rear wheel drive, but she was all I could afford.

I turned right out of the funeral home parking lot on to East Seventh Street, crossing Minnehaha Avenue. Even though I was on-call that night, I lived about ten minutes away from the funeral home, so I opted not to take home the white Dodge minivan.

It was a typical, cold January evening. As I drove home, I noticed the temperature on a bank sign indicated it was twenty four degrees fahrenheit. I dreaded going out in to the cold in the middle of the night while I was on-call.

Being on-call meant that “after-hours”, I would be responsible for any death related calls until eight A.M. the next morning. However, the only time I would typically get “beeped” would be if there was a death. Some nights would go by without a new death. Other times, there could be two or three deaths in an evening.

The evening of January 12, 1995, I thought wouldn’t be any different from any other evening. A light workout, a light dinner, perhaps seeing my girlfriend for a couple of hours and then heading to bed.

Given the nature of the business, most funeral directors I knew, including myself, were “trained” to be light sleepers. In the event of a death, the usual series of events was to page you once, then page you twice. If after the second page did not result in a successful call back to the overnight answering service, the third attempt was a telephone call to your residence.

On the evening of January 12, 1995, my pager went off once, then my pager went off twice. Perhaps I was dreaming of a sunny Minnesota day, versus a cold Minnesota evening. Then my telephone rang. A typical call would be as follows:

“Hello?” I answered in a tone in which one could not suspect I was in a deep sleep. In fact, I was ready for calls just like this one: sound awake, sound respectful and sympathetically respond.

“Hello. This is the answering service. Sorry for bothering you, but we tried to page you twice and were not successful in reaching you,” said the operator. I recognized her voice from previous calls.

“Thank you for calling. I’m sorry I didn’t hear the pager. It must have been on vibrate,” I said sheepishly to to operator.

The operator began to speak, “Your presence is requested at the following address.”

I recognized the address that was given to me and the name of the deceased. I quickly hung up the phone, dressed in my navy, polyester suit and hopped in to my pickup truck.

The temperature had dropped in the past five or so hours, with a light haze of ice now on my windshield. I cranked up the heater, which continued to blow cold air on my hands and feet as I drove the ten minutes back to the funeral home.

Turning off the funeral home alarm system, I hopped in the waiting, white Dodge minivan, turned on the local radio station, started the minivan and headed to the decedent’s address.

As I approached the address, I looked for a place to park in the driveway. The decedent’s address is one that I knew all to well, as it was the address of one of my co-workers. I went inside the house and met the family and then went to the bedroom where my co-worker laid silently.

I hadn’t seen my friend in the past several weeks as I knew that he hadn’t been feeling well, but I didn’t know the extent of his illness. He was much older than I and he worked part-time for the funeral home. Sometimes he would drive the hearse, other times he would attend to family needs during funerals and or receptions. He wasn’t a licensed funeral director, but was just like one of us.

I greeted my co-worker just like I had done so many times in the past. Levity was one of my keys to keeping sane in the death care industry.

I quickly wrapped up my friend in a couple of newly washed sheets, positioned him on to my stretcher and rolled him out to the white, Dodge minivan. The same minivan in which my co-worker had driven many times, in situations just like this one. Albeit he was now the passenger.

I said my goodbye to the family and headed back to the funeral home. I began talking to my friend. Perhaps it was three A.M., or perhaps it was to separate my feelings from what I was about to have to do, embalm my friend.

As I approached the funeral home, I opened the garage door and backed in the stall. I then closed the garage door as well as I had to close off my thought processes.

Bringing my co-worker out of white Dodge minivan, I quickly rolled over to the elevator. I pressed the button and heard the gears of the aging elevator start to hum. Although only one floor, it seemed like the elevator took five minutes to rise one story. Time seemed to be standing still.

I opened the elevator door, pressed B and went downstairs. What seemed like another five minutes later, I opened the elevator door, rolling my co-worker about fifteen feet to a stop. Quickly pressing the combination of the embalming room door, I flicked on the lights and went to work.

However, this wasn’t like any other embalming I ever was about to perform. I was about to embalm one of my friends, which to me at the time and still today, seemed a bit surreal.

Without going in to a lot of details, the process of embalming is relatively mechanical and methodical. Once a decedent is placed on to the embalming table, the embalming process can be loosely categorized in to a series of steps:

  • First, I would take an inventory of any possessions with the decedent. Rings, jewelry, etc., all would be catalogued and turned over to the family.
  • Second, from head to toe, the decedent would be cleansed with a special soap. I would then “set” features such as closing of the eyes with eye caps or using metal braids to close the mouth. All in a relaxed soon-to-be viewed position.
  • Third, arterial embalming would be done, which involved the injection of embalming fluid in to the arteries, while interstitial pressure would force out the blood through the venous system.
  • Fourth, cavity embalming would be done utilizing a trocar (i.e., a long, sharp arrow like object) to inject another form of embalming fluid in to the the stomach regions in order to embalm certain organs that were difficult to embalm using arterial embalming.
  • Lastly, the decedent would be cleansed, dried and moved on to a dressing table. Once on the dressing table, the decedent would be covered with a sheet, almost like I would be covering myself when I would go to sleep.

This process would typically take me more or less around an hour, one in which I would move efficiently and be back to bed to catch some additional sleep.

However, this cold, January, Minnesota now early morning was different from the others, as I was staring at my friend and co-worker I was about to embalm.

For me, one of my personal “death care” rules was that I needed to separate my emotions from tasks I was performing, as being around death all the time can be a bit depressing. Therefore, I was pretty good at separating my emotions.

But on this early morning, I was rather talkative. I was talking to my friend almost like a nurse or doctor would talk to a patient. I was trying to comfort my friend, even though I was the one that needed comfort.

I talked my co-worker through the entire process of what I was about to do. I washed his body and then began to prepare for the embalming process. I apologized to my friend for the cut I was about to make in to his skin. Oddly, my hands were shaking a bit as I made the incision.

I found the carotid artery and jugular vein, quickly separating the two from their protective sheath. I made a tiny nick in the carotid artery placing in a cannula into the artery and using a clamp to secure the cannula. The cannula was connected to a rubber hose that was connected to the embalming machine that would ultimately, albeit temporarily, preserve my co-worker.

I turned on the embalming machine, hearing the familiar noise of the machine kicking into action. After perhaps thirty seconds or so, I nicked the jugular vein, placed a angular forceps down into the heart and proceeded the embalming process.

Then I began to sing. Not anything religious like Amazing Grace, but just a song to keep my mind off of my friend now laying in front of me.

At one point, perhaps I even thought I heard my friend singing along with me. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep. At one point, perhaps I even thought I heard my co-worker talking to me, thanking me for performing this duty. Stranger things have happened to me in funeral homes at three A.M. in the morning.

After completing the embalming process and tucking in my friend to “sleep”, I left the funeral home around five in the morning. I took right out of the parking lot and headed across Minnehaha Avenue. I don’t recall seeing the temperature on the bank sign as I headed home, but it seemed warmer than when I left the evening before.

I crawled in to bed, but unlike every other time I completed this same task, I could not fall asleep. The tune that I was singing to myself, the one I thought my co-worker was signing along, was rolling through my head. I laughed to myself, just like my friend would have expected.

To this day, I can’t recall the song that I was singing, but I do recall that last night I spent with my co-worker and friend 22 years ago.

It was real. It was surreal.