Inside the coroner’s office, Henry stared at the body lying on the autopsy table—the body he needed to transfer to the funeral home so he could start the undertaking process. But he couldn’t bring himself to move. It was like his legs and arms were detached from his brain, communication severed. It was like they had gone rogue on a mission to be burdensome, numb vessels of bone and meat and disbelief, holding him hostage with their weight.
This dense immobility continued to sheathe Henry as, distantly, he heard the coroner, Matthias, enter the room. Henry’s eyes remained fixed on the body, his own body inert, as Matthias made a beeline for the sink to disinfect his hands.
“Stop!” Uncle Arnie yells in a sing-song voice, pointing a bottle of disinfectant spray at Henry. Between them, a naked body lies on the mortuary table, its genital region concealed by a thin paper sheet. “In the name of disinfection.” Arnie points the bottle toward his mouth, holding it like a microphone. He closes his eyes, cocks his head to the left and leans back a little, throwing his other hand in the air. He belts out dramatically, “Before bacteria spreads!”
11-year-old Henry is dressed in a smock and gloves that are much too large for his small stature. He giggles from behind his mask and protective goggles, though he doesn’t understand his uncle’s reference.
“But really,” Arnie composes himself, “this spray will prevent infection. You spray it all over the body and inside all of its ‘orifices’—meaning the eyes, nose, ears, mouth, belly button, and, uh,” he pauses cautiously, “in other holes.” He purses his lips and squints his eyes, reconsidering. He then makes a face and waves his hand dismissively. “Well, no. You know what? You’re old enough. You’ll have to learn eventually.” Deciding to keep on with his lesson, he states with a seriousness Henry hasn’t encountered in his uncle, “You spray it, if the body’s genitals are female, in the vagina, and no matter the genitals, in the body’s butthole.”
Henry scrunches up his face. “Ewwwwwwww.”
“I know, I know. I once felt that way. But as you do it more, you’ll be less appalled by the body and more enamored with its beauty, even in its apparent ugliness—the beauty that lies within each person that the death process begins to hide. As morticians, we uncover that beauty so that families don’t have to see their loved ones in a bad way.”
Henry nods slowly, blinking as he looks from the body to his uncle. He feels a strange sensation of tears building behind his eyes, a strange impulse to cry, yet he’s not sure why.
Arnie smiles. “You’ll understand better when you’re a little older.”
The body lay pale and still before Henry. An intrusive overhead lamp pointed at the head. Artificial light bathed its translucent skin and thick, sunset orange hair, as if trying to revive the body the way the Sun revives living bodies escaping their tombs following a long winter. As if trying to breathe life into its nostrils and open mouth.
Florescent light flooded the frigid, unrelaxed room. It flooded the windowless white walls, the blue tile flooring, the metal tables. It flooded the sinks, counters, drawers, supplies. It flooded Henry, Matthias.
Henry’s eyebrows were crumpled inward, his eyes intent as he lost himself in thought, his mind folding into itself. The body was a force pulling at his eyes, demanding him to behold it.
The 21 year old was well acquainted with death. He was one of Marsh Creek’s two morticians—the second was his uncle, who he’d been working alongside for a decade at Jacobs Family Funeral Home, undertaking acquaintances, friends, and strangers from the small, lakeside Michigan town. However, this time was different. This time was hauntingly unfamiliar. Uncharted.
Henry sensed Matthias watching him.
Matthias cleared his throat and swallowed. “Henry.” His timid voice broke the thick, heavy silence. He hesitated. The silence weaved back together and became thicker, heavier. “We can get someone else to do this.”
Startled from his trance, Henry blinked and looked at the floor. “I’m fine. Besides,” irritation stained his tone as the body pulled at his eyes again, “there’s no one else to do it.”
Matthias sighed and stepped closer to Henry. Matthias had seen his young but wise friend’s eyebrows knit together like this countless times before—while undertaking a body, tending to someone in need, absorbing a sermon in church—but this time was different. Henry’s eyebrows did not join in concentration but in inescapable, overwhelming anguish. “Really, Henry. I can help you temporarily hire someone to—”
“I said I’m fine,” Henry snapped. Sighing apologetically, he turned to Matthias and let the words come out softer. “I want to do it.”
He reached into his pocket and retrieved a plastic wristband that read ARNIE JACOBS, which he fastened over the body’s wrist.
20-year-old Henry can’t stop crying as he helps Arnie work on a body. He wipes his eyes with the backs of his hands and smiles apologetically at his uncle, who uses a makeup brush to scoop thick foundation from his palm onto the forehead, nose, cheeks, chin, neck, and hands.
“You’d think after nearly 10 years of doing this, I’d quit crying. Or at least figure out why exactly I’m crying.” Henry says, rehashing a conversation they have had umpteen times before, in various forms. “I don’t know.” He pauses, thinking. Thinking, as he has done a lot over the years. Thinking, which has led him recently to a new development, an epiphany of sorts, in their conversation. “All this time, I’ve had trouble describing what type of emotion I’m feeling. I mean, I still don’t quite know what precisely I feel, but I know I feel something as we transform these bodies. And I know it’s something good, something relieving, even, but I don’t completely know how to articulate it.”
“I know, Henry.” Arnie halts his makeup blending and studies the way Henry’s jaw, shoulders, and hands have loosened at his revelation. He questions why he hasn’t been completely honest with his nephew; he decides to try now. “I feel it too. Not as often anymore, like when I was your age, and it manifests differently—I don’t cry like you do—but I feel it too.”
“Really? What is it?”
“I don’t really know either.” Arnie resumes blending the foundation, giving the face a lively radiance. Henry unleashes more tears as he hands Arnie the blush. Arnie pops the container open and pats “dusty rose” onto the cheeks with a new brush. “All I know is there’s great beauty in the work we do, and it really makes me feel some type of way.”
Arnie clasps the blush shut and releases a subtle, low sigh as he stares vacantly at the body. He glances at Henry, who is wiping runaway tears from his cheeks. Arnie reexamines the body, expressionless, for a long moment. Finally, he scowls.
“Okay.” Henry heaved a sigh as he took a step back and planted his hands on his hips. He looked from the body of his uncle to Matthias, who was still wary. “Let’s load him onto the gurney.”
In the basement of the funeral home, beneath the parlor and the chapel, the conference room and the offices—beneath a floor of normalcy—the body lay on the mortuary table, waiting for Henry. He sat in a neighboring chair, a pen in his hand and a clipboard on his lap, completing routine paperwork for the funeral home’s records.
Arnie Jacobs. 2-24-1979 to 5-24-2019.
Henry paused from writing.
40 years old. Suicide. Transferred from the coroner’s office to Jacobs Family Funeral
Home by Henry Jacobs.
Henry glared at what he just wrote. He jerked his head away desperately, dropping his pen like it had shocked him. He pressed his eyelids together hard, like he was willing them to swallow his vision. To take it from him.
Henry stood and approached the table. He clicked on the overhead lamp, directly illuminating the body’s face. The green eyes were glossy and dull as they peered at nothing.
They were void of joy, purpose, hope, fear, despair. They were just void.
Henry adjusted the light, beaming it at the torso. He carefully unfastened the shirt’s buttons and unveiled each arm. This was his favorite shirt of Uncle Arnie’s. The dominant red in the plaid pattern had always called attention to his fiery red hair, while the subtle, thin blue lines had drawn out the green in his eyes.
Henry was a lot like his uncle.
Crouched in the dark, 16-year-old Henry hears the office door creak open slowly. The light flashes on. Hushed footsteps shuffle toward the desk under which Henry is hiding. He can tell by the rhythm of the feet, the tap of the shoes, that it’s Uncle Arnie. Henry holds his breath as feet and shins appear in front of him.
Arnie stoops to the ground, lowering his head to look at Henry.
“What’s wrong?” Arnie asks delicately.
Henry inhales a shaky, jagged breath. “It’s just…” His voice is strained, cracked. He
gestures in defeat.
Arnie nods knowingly and offers Henry a sad smile. “One of those days?”
Henry laughs without humor and rubs his nose. “More like many of those days, strung together. One of those lives.” As Arnie studies his nephew’s eyes, puffy and wet with gloom, he wishes they weren’t so alike.
But because they are, they find solace in the same thing.
“Want to help me work on a body?”
Henry gripped the left shoulder, hoisted it up, and extracted the shirt. He felt the faded, worn fabric in his hands. He brought it closer, tucking it beneath his chin and clutching it tightly to his chest. He closed his eyes as he hugged it, breathing in Uncle Arnie.
Henry folded the shirt and set it on the counter by the table. He removed everything else—the undershirt, the shoes, the pants, the underwear, the socks. Nakedness was commonplace in Henry’s work; he had long ago grown accustomed to the total human form. He was immune to that awkwardness, even when undertaking those he knew personally, even in this instance, when undertaking his uncle.
Henry grabbed the disinfectant spray bottle that hung off a rack above the counter and turned the nozzle to ON. He sprayed the ears first. Then the eyes, the nostrils, the mouth, the entire body. In the same way the liquid dripped onto the body, heaviness dripped onto Henry’s shoulders, his arms, his legs. His stomach sank with it. His neck struggled to keep his head upright. While he cleansed the body of disinfectant using the showerhead, he also squeezed and pushed and bent rigid joints and muscles, making them pliable again.
Henry shrouded the genitals with a paper sheet and opened a drawer, taking out a razor and shaving cream. As he slid the razor across the face in long strokes, stubby hairs upended like dominoes. Each swipe of the razorrevealed a patch of silky skin; the patches blended into one smooth whole.
Henry longed to feel tears in his eyes.
Arnie and 21-year-old Henry simultaneously step back from a body, their eyes still plastered to it. Wiping fast flowing tears from his face and swallowing the lump in his throat, Henry casts an apprehensive glance at his uncle, who’s seemed off lately.
Immersed in thought, Arnie glowers at the body.
“What’s the matter?” Henry’s been working up the courage to ask this for several weeks—not because he’s been afraid of how his uncle will react, but what his answer will be. “I don’t,” begins Arnie. He scowls, perplexed, and runs his fingers through his hair, clutching two fistfuls at the back of his scalp. He looks at his nephew and then drops his arms to his sides with a slap. “I don’t feel anything anymore.” He relinquishes his hands, palms up, to the barren air. “I don’t feel anything anymore, Henry.” He scrutinizes the body again.
A woman lies on the table. She is adorned in the dress that is her widower’s favorite, a flowy white one patterned with blue and black flowers. Her thick, shiny black hair is styled in tight curls, her bangs pinned back with an elegant barrette. She’s wearing her signature makeup—a hint of eyeliner and wine-tinted lipstick—plus the facial makeup the two employed to negate the budding implications of death. The blush is an especially lovely touch, adding the warmth of flowing blood back to her face. A silver locket containing a picture of her daughter rests on her chest. Her silver-nailed hands are folded atop her stomach.
Henry traces Arnie’s line of view to the body. Henry takes in her appearance and then looks back at his uncle. “Anything? Anything at all?”
“Anything.” Arnie shakes his head and looks at Henry. “It’s weird. I mean, I know in my head that this is good work, that this is beautiful work. But I can’t feel it. I just feel numb.”
“For how long?”
Arnie shrugs and looks up, thinking. “A long time.”
Henry gathered two small eye caps from the drawer and gently inserted them underneath the eyelids, which he eased shut. After death had taken over, the eyes had started to sink in, but with the caps in position, the eyes were steep, curved hills.
From a separate drawer, Henry unloaded a package of cotton. He stuffed the cotton into the body’s mouth and esophagus, as well as its nose, to prevent bodily fluids from seeping out.
The cotton’s presence in the mouth resulted in a faintly natural visage; it grew all the more natural when Henry secured the jaw shut with wire and applied his fingertips to the corners of the mouth, manipulating them upward into Uncle Arnie’s usual kind, inviting smile.
Henry’s eyes burned, but no tears came. Now, more than ever, he wished they would.
He breathed in, his lungs swelling with a dread that shook his body and escaped through slitted teeth and parted lips. He clenched his teeth together while he considered his next step.
Henry needed to embalm the body.
In order to distract himself from the reality of this task—the reality that Arnie really was dead, his body merely a chamber of flesh and bones, no spirit—Henry recited the only lines he had memorized from his uncle’s favorite poem, the ones that always got stuck in his head without fail whenever Arnie quoted them. As Henry embalmed, he kept comforting himself with the words:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so…
Henry washed the body one last time. The water pelted like tiny pebbles and melted into streams that trickled down the body, consuming the remaining blood that had spilled onto the skin while embalming. He dried the streams with a towel.
Using a blow dryer and comb from a cabinet under the counter, Henry fashioned the hair from thin and damp to thick and velvety. He then picked up a white bottle from a makeup-filled bin on the counter and moisturized the face, neck, and hands, his two fingers blending the cream into the skin in circular motions. The skin began to take on a subtle glow that resembled Arnie’s luminous joy whenever he was engrossed in the undertaking process.
Henry grabbed purple color-correcting primer and squeezed some into his palm, warming it so it would blend more easily on the body’s cold skin. He covered the face, neck, and hands with large movements and then smaller ones, steadily dampening the yellowish, pallid hue of decay. The face seemed less worn with each movement until Henry could hardly recognize that the body had spent most of its life being worn, or that the wornness was so innate that everything became knotted into it.
Henry was startled by the sudden emergence oftears in his eyes; they multiplied quickly and blanketed his vision with blurriness.
He raised his hand in the direction of the makeup bin, but he didn’t look as he fumbled for the foundation. He couldn’t peel his eyes off the face. It was gradually but definitely transforming into what it used to be—what it had been before despair had burrowed into Arnie’s flesh, his bones, his spirit.
Henry twisted the cap off the foundation, emptying some into his hand. He blotted sloppy circles of the ivory liquid across the skin and brushed the forehead, the nose, around the eyes, the cheeks, the chin and the jawline, and the neck and hands. To conclude his work, he dabbed a small amount of blush onto the cheeks.
Henry stepped back and took it all in.He looked not at a corpse but a living person.
Color returned to Arnie’s face like it had never left. His full eyes were shut as though simply in a deep sleep, as though they would open soon and view the world with crisp and clear and hopeful vision. His skin and lips were soft, his hair combed and styled just the way he liked it.
Tears poured out of the corners of Henry’s eyes with great urgency.
Henry waited for Arnie to inhale forcefully, as if regaining consciousness after almost drowning, as if receiving the breath of life from a creator. He waited for Arnie’s eyelids to fly open, for him to yawn and stretch, rub his eyes. For him to swing his legs over the table, sit up, look at Henry and say, “Well, want to help me work on a body?”
Henry smiled. “Welcome back, Uncle Arnie,” he said, half-expecting Arnie to hear him.
Henry’s chest and throat tightened, giving way to lung-rattling sobs as he sat down.
April is a Michigan-based writer whose work tends to center on place and the seemingly mundane. She has been published in Great Lakes Review and Front Porch Republic (under the name April Kragt). When she is not writing, she enjoys reading and traversing Michigan with her wonderful husband, Jaden. More of her writing can be found at miraculousmundane.com