Bring Out Your Dead
Note: This is not a word for word transcript.
The first dead body I ever saw was that of a sixteen-year-old street kid with shoulder length brown hair and a battered blue body curled up like a fetus. He was in a white plastic bag. It’s the same bag we put everyone into before we stick them in the cooler with the others. The cooler is a bit like a triple-tiered dorm room, except it’s coed and everybody in there is dead.
I didn’t intend on working for a funeral home. I didn’t even think of it as a possibility up until it happened. It’s a good thing it happened when it did, too, ‘cause at the time my bank account was sitting steadily in the low 100’s and rent was due. Had it not been for the 300-pound man in my Sambo class, it never would have happened either.
Sambo is a Soviet-era martial art which stresses its practitioners’ ability to throw another through the air by way of pushes, pulls and pops. Once the sambist has successfully thrown their opponent onto the mat, it is then the sambist objective to either pin or submit their opponent as skillfully as possible. A submission is signaled one of two ways and demonstrated through either a tap or a high-pitched holler. To pin your opponent in Sambo means the same thing it does in western wrestling, which is basically just another way of saying, “make it so your opponent can no longer physically respond to what you are doing to him.”
Only after I had been swooshed, toppled, and submitted any number of ways by the 300-pound man, did he offer me a job.
The hire happened on a Wednesday at around 7pm. I had driven The Volvo up to Lake City to get in some grappling practice early on in the week. I don’t compete or anything, but I like the way the exercise keeps my head outside of itself. After changing into some shorts and a ratty blue t-shirt, I sat down on the green mat with my coach and the 300-pound man and began to stretch.
“How’s the job search coming?” my coach said.
“It’s coming, but nothing too final yet,” I said.
“Just dropping off resumes around town?”
“I went all around 1st and 2nd Avenue this morning. I don’t really want to work in a restaurant or coffee shop again, the last place was enough shit for a lifetime, but it’s looking more and more likely.”
My coach isn’t your typical martial arts teacher. He’s more like your favorite teacher in high school who just so happened to know a whole lot about choking guys out. By trade, he’s a firefighter. Typical of those who succeed in that career choice, he is by leaps the best person in the room at all times.
“You watch the game last night?” my coach said.
“The only time I watch football is when my mom and I have a Super Bowl party each year. It’s something I started back when I was 16 or so. And it’s really just an excuse for the two of us to cook buffalo wings and eat cocktail dogs.” I said.
“You got a suit?” the 300-pound man butted in.
“Me? Yeah I’ve got a suit.”
“You want to pick up dead bodies for a living?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Well there you go…” he said.
In order to keep the family from looking at us like the over-dressed movers we are, we in the removal business refer the plastic bag we use to cover a loved one’s body as a “vinyl shroud.” Accompanying the vinyl shroud is the linen sheet, the quilted blanket, the red velvet cot with golden zippers, and the single red rose that we keep in the freezer next to the plastic gloves. Every body gets the same treatment and every family, assuming they are dealing with professionals and not the second rate guys down the road, has this treatment explained to them each and every time.
Here’s what a typical interaction between a remover, and a family looks like.
“So we just want to make sure she (insert name of deceased) doesn’t have any valuables like rings or necklaces on him/her,” I say.
“No, she didn’t wear any jewelry for these last couple years,” they say.
“Perfect. So what I am going to do now is go back to my vehicle, grab our equipment and return here in a couple minutes time.”
“Alright,” they say.
I should note here that the responses given to these statements are not always so brief. I’ve had people on both sides of the extreme. Sometimes they just want you to get in there and get out, and other times they want to tell you how their loved one was really something special and that you wouldn’t believe what he or she did just before they passed.
After going out to the van and grabbing the equipment, my partner and I will then return to the house, roll the velvet cot into the room, lower it to the appropriate height and pull the body onto it.
“We’re going to now use the linen sheet to transport (insert name of deceased) onto the cot. As with all this, you are welcome to be as part of this procedure as you feel comfortable.”
“I think I’m just going to wait out in the hallway,” they often say.
“Alright. We’ll be just a minute.”
Once we’ve loaded the body up onto the cot using the linen sheet, we then wrap them up in the vinyl shroud, fold the velvet sides of the cot to cover the body, coat the cot with a red quilt and place a single red rose either on the empty bed or atop the cot. Note: if we can avoid it, we never zip the cot in front of the family. This is done to separate the professionals from the removers you see in the movies. After we’ve got the body on the cart, we then say our goodbyes and go on back to the funeral home to tape and label the deceased.
Enter the sixteen-year-old street kid.
It was my first day. The 300-pound man and I had just come back from a tour of the cemetery and facility. Walking in through the back entrance, we came upon Nicole, a mortician in training.
“How’s it going, Nicole?” The 300-pound man said.
“Did you see this kid yet?” she said, motioning to the call slip in her hands.
“The one who jumped from the bridge.”
“Let’s see it.”
“It’s just like the stuff you see on the internet. It’s by far the worst body I’ve ever seen.”
“You alright?” he asked me.
“I’m alright,” I said.
Nicole went into the cooler and rolled him out. He was on the top shelf and I later learned he had been a pick up from The King County Medical Examiner. The medical examiner is where a body goes if county officials aren’t sure of the cause of death and there is reason to believe there might be foul play involved. Unwrapping the clean tape from the white plastic, Nicole opened the bag to show us the kid. Inside, lying with his arms folded in front of his chest in a prayer position, the kid lay stiff and crumbled. Each section of his body was a different color and each section told a separate morbid story. He didn’t look human.
As I’ve said, the kid was homeless, or at the very least, he was a runaway. Because of this, it took awhile for them to get a positive ID on who he actually was. By the time we got him to the funeral home, he had been dead for what looked like a couple months, but what was probably more like a week or two tops.
Officials almost never tell us much about the specifics of how someone passes and most of the info we do pick up has done a bit too much of grapevine travel to be taken as anything more than probable rumors. What I can tell you is the kid either fell or was pushed from the top of the 405 bridge in northern Washington early one morning. At the time of his death he was on any number of substances, most notably alcohol. After he hit, at least three cars or trucks ran his body over. We don’t know if it was the fall that killed him or the trucks but it all happened pretty fast and if he was in pain, he most likely didn’t feel it for too long. After that, he was called in, picked up, autopsied and wrapped in a plastic sheet by the medical examiner’s office until further identification. Only after they had given up trying to figure out how exactly he died did they declare him a suicide and call us to come get him.
“Is that his tongue?” the 300-pound man said while looking at the swollen blue thing hanging halfway out the kid’s mouth.
“No, it’s a towel.” Nicole said.
“Why’s there a towel in his mouth?” I said.
“They must have had to stick one in there in order to keep his face from collapsing. If you look closely, there is nothing holding his face up. No bones or structure. With out it, it would just look like a deflated balloon.
“Is that for identification purposes?” I asked Nicole.
“Probably,” she said.
The next day my boss and I did my first house call.
The home was out in West Seattle. It was raining outside so we both opted for raincoats in place of our usual suit jackets. Black is the standard, but I wear blue. After getting lost in the van and finding ourselves with no more road ahead, we turned the silver bullet around and went back down the hill. Making a right, we slowly crept into the wooded cul-de-sack. Nestled in the far corner, we found the house—a single story structure, with a narrow walkway leading from the rear bedroom to the driveway. Backing the van into the driveway, we went to the front door to meet the family.
“Hello,” we said.
“Hi,” an older woman said. “Evelyn is downstairs.”
Following the woman through the house, I silently made notes to myself of any possible obstacles we might later face. And while the living room was crowded, mainly with books and chairs and television sets, and the stairwell rounded and narrow, I didn’t find anything too unmanageable.
“She was a nurse for 45 years,” the woman said before opening the door the lower bedroom.
“That’s a long time,” my boss said.
“She was a good woman. '86 years isn’t too bad,’ she would say. She wanted to live as long as her mother did. That was 84 years. Before she went, I told her she did it and she smiled at me and said she knew she would.”
The woman in the bed, Evelyn Shields, was small. Her hair was up in a tight knot and her nails were painted a dark red. Aside from her skin, which looked more like powdered wax than anything I’d seen among the breathing, she looked healthy. Surrounding her bedside were five loved ones, most were nurses themselves at one time, they said. The others were her family.
“She had quite the network,” they told us as we wrapped her up and hoisted her onto the cot.
“You’re so gentle; it’s wonderful to see you be so gentle. Like real professionals,” another one of her friends said.
“We’re going to take her out through the back door now. We’ll be back after we load her in to say one last goodbye to you all.”
“Alright,” they said.
We then pushed the body out through the garage, past the laundry and gardening tools and through rear door.
“You mind unlocking that chicken wire before you go any further?” my boss said.
It wasn’t raining much anymore but the driveway was still slick. Careful not to slip on the oily asphalt, I dug the heels of my dress shoe’s into the ground, collapsed the legs of the cot, and slowly slid the velvet boat into place its place.
“Good?” my boss said.
“Good.” I said.
One last thank you and assurance that we would take good care of Evelyn and we were back on the road heading to a hospital morgue for another pick up. This time she was in her 50’s and weighed over 400 pounds. They can’t all be easy.
Driving up the freeway, my boss and I listened to the rain hit the windshield and the baseball game over the radio.
“You’re not going to cry or vomit are you?” he asked.
“No. I’m fine,” I said. “Just ready for lunch.”