TW: mild horror, gore
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the cold.
Five years working here and I still can’t stop the shivering that dances up my arms. I suppose it’s just my size or maybe I need more iron... more layers, more something.
The preparation room is small and as cold as a tundra. My station is exactly as I left it, and standing by my next project is my supervisor John. He was reading a file and snapped his head up when I entered the room.
He places the file on the counter and ducks out with a tight smile. I don’t take it personally - he never likes to stick around for this. He once remarked to me, “I’ve had my fair share of dirty work, thank you. Only paperwork for me.”
This work doesn’t bother me and I don’t think of it as dirty. Besides, after a while you get used to it. Just another day on the job.
I lower myself onto a stool with rolling wheels and gaze at my next project.
The young man on the table is beautiful.
I shiver and pull my arms close.
His lips are full and parted limply, the eyelashes against his pale cheek are long and dark. His hair is dark and rich, a bit of a bird’s nest but Nancy can fix that later. Even crumpled in on himself like he is here, he’s handsome.
While I’m normally used to seeing the elderly, it’s not too unusual for beautiful young people to end up on the table. They die just the same.
Stripped down to his underwear, he’s bared out flat, save for his head propped up with a small block. The angle is better for the light, it lets me focus on my work more clearly and keeps the fluids of his body from bubbling up. Not a lot of people know that corpses drool.
I tilt my head at him. His skin - his skin has a slight rosiness that I’m not used to seeing. I stare a little longer, an uncertainty gnawing at me. It’s really rare for there to ever be that sort of mistake and it’s never happened to me personally.
Still, as rare as it is to be wrong about this sort of thing, it’s better to be sure.
Reaching over with a gloved hand, I lift his wrist and feel for a beat, any sign of rushing blood. The silence is calming, the lifelessness echoing back like an empty cavern. I reach over with my other hand and gently lift the lid of his right eye and reveal his big brown iris to the light.
The pupil doesn’t react, fixed lifelessly in the distance. The edges of the eye have begun to darken. There’s a little bit of cloudiness in the cornea but I don’t dwell on it.
Nothing. It’s a corpse. In a few days if not sooner, the eyes will fall back into the skull and collapse entirely.
And it’s funny, I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of bodies at this point, and almost all of them had eyes that were flat and dead, dulled and sinking back into darkness. But I never really thought about it, never looked into the iris like I’m looking at this big eye which seems so alive even in its death.
I let go of the eyelid and gently push it shut.
Now I can work.
The limbs are always so heavy, a true dead-weight that makes it hard to rearrange. While I clean the body, I rub my hands up and down the muscles, trying to work away any remaining rigor mortis and to get some mobility back. As I drag a clean rag up and down, up and down, the air thickens with the smell of disinfectant.
I look at the face as I try to uncurl the body’s stiff clawed fingers. I remember speaking to his mother. You can see the family resemblance. I remember that I had asked her if she had any questions about the process and she had stared at me for a long moment before informing me in a low voice that I wouldn’t be able to answer the questions she had.
Parents are always the hardest. You never quite know what to say.
And frankly, I can’t answer any of that. I don’t work with people, just bodies.
There’s a photo in the young man’s file. Looks like high school graduation, he’s smiling so beatifically and sincerely he’s practically unrecognizable compared to the somber body on my table. It’s nice to have references like these, it shows me the habits of his face that his skin is too young to tell me.
I gently clasp his jaw and shift it until it looks natural. My needle injector is a familiar weight as I push it past his lips and inject pins into the soft tissue of his gums. His teeth clack together when I tighten the wire and pull the jaw shut. A little bit of glue and some prodding and - well, his face still looks nothing like the boy in the photo but his serene smile somewhat mimics that friendly face.
As I work, his eyelids gently raise on their own accord - a natural event from facial muscles contracting.
“Shh,” I whisper and lower his eyelids again, “You’re supposed to be sleeping.”
Those brown eyes are still so bright, even as they are slowly but surely falling back into rot. They gaze out at the world for the last time before I slip two eye caps in, holding them shut forever.
With practiced efficiency, I take out my scalpel and make the incision on his lower neck.
As the embalming fluid is pumped into the carotid artery through a long tube, the blood is pumped out through another. In the meantime, I watch his face. The artificial preservative is replacing the bacteria-rich blood within the chambers of his body. I grab his extremities periodically, massaging the feet and hands to make sure the embalming fluid spreads evenly.
Once he’s out of blood to give, I lift my trocar and lower the long metal instrument to his abdomen, impaling him slowly in the direction of his ear. I puncture his organs and the built-up gases in his body deplete. The embalming fluids seep in, the cavity of his body solidifying.
Such a young, complete body makes all of this really easy. Sometimes you get bodies that have decomposed significantly already. Or you might get victims of violence, and reconstruction can be a nightmare. Diseases that eat away at their face before taking their life.
But this body was easy, now smooth and solid like a porcelain doll. His face imitates sleep.
His cheeks seem paler than before. Either the embalming fluid has chased away the rosiness or maybe I imagined a lively flush that never existed.
I hold the graduation photo up to the light next to the body’s face. The difference is night and day. I never let myself dwell on it too much - that the bodies were once people, full of life. Maybe that’s the sort of realization that happened to John, why he can’t do this sort of work up close and personal anymore.
I don’t know. As I tilt my head and examine my work, knowing that this body once belonged to a boy who smiled so sweetly at his graduation... it doesn’t paralyze me. The entity that operated the body is gone and now it’s an empty vessel, no - even better - it’s a memorial site. A bloated skin bag of rotting organs and escaping fluids has transformed under my hands and has become an homage to a young man.
Before today, I never really thought about it like that.
His face is sweet in his repose. I lean back and clean my station, readying it for when Nancy comes in later. She’ll be able to put some life back into those cheeks and fix that hair but I’ve done all that I can do.
By the time I leave the preparation room, my bag slung over my shoulder, the warmth of the rest of the funeral home is a shock to my freezing skin.
The doors to the visitation room are closed - there must be a wake in process. On the couch next to the big doors sits a familiar young girl - John’s daughter Jane. She’s reading from a textbook propped on her knees with a look of concentration on her face that makes her look like her father. Must be homework.
She glances up from her reading and sees me, smiles wide. Her sweet brown eyes twinkle in the low light and for a moment, I think of the boy on the table.
One day she’ll be on a table too. Her eyes will sink backwards away from the world and she’ll look nothing like this, but maybe someone can try.
I smile back at her and leave for home, the doors slamming shut behind me.