When I started three years ago as a crematory operator–colloquially known as a body burner–I had not seen many corpses. One of my first was Byron. Ah Byron… dear Byron. Byron and I met a few days after I started working at the crematory. I was asked to shave him. A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves. It is the only event in her life decidedly more awkward than first kisses and lost virginity.
“Caitlin. Here, do me a favor. Give the guy in the prep room a shave,” my new boss Mike requested, completely nonchalant, handing me a disposable razor and walking out of the room. For what seemed like a solid ten minutes I stood awkwardly looking down at poor, motionless Byron. The hands of time will never move quite as slowly as when you are standing over the dead body of an elderly man with a pink plastic razor in your hand. When you are interacting with your first real corpse.
The concept made sense. This gentleman’s family wanted to see him before he was cremated, preferably without three or four days of pre-death stubble. Someone had to remove the unwanted facial hair. And today, that someone was me.
“Uuumm, hey, uh, Mike?,” I called from the body preparation room, “so, uummm, I guess I should use like, shaving cream or….?”
Mike stomped back in, pulled some Barbasol from a metal cabinet, and told me to watch out for nicks. “We can’t really do anything if you slice open his face so be careful, huh?”
Yes, be careful. I’d be as careful as all those other times I had “given someone a shave.” Which was zero.
I put on my rubber gloves and gently poked Byron’s cold, stiff cheeks. I spurted some cream on the gentleman’s face, clumsily spreading it around like children’s fingerpainting in the Twilight Zone. I raised the dreaded pink dagger, screwed up my face, and making a squeamish, “eeeeeee” sound only dogs could hear; I began my career as barber to the dead.
With Byron, and the hundreds, nay, thousands of corpses I would meet in the ensuing years, one thing is clear. Corpses are the most real creatures on the planet. They have no pretense.
I love corpses.
I suppose it won’t do to leave it at that. It’s not socially acceptable to say such things. “I love corpses” is not a valid interest like, “I love horseback riding” or “I love shopping.”
Yet love them I do.
Rationally there is very little to love about the corpse itself, especially after it has already been dead for a few days. As the anaerobic bacteria living in the organs try to eat their way to freedom, putrefaction begins to set in. The body starts to smell a vile smell and portions turn green. Decomposition rears its hideously ugly head. This process is difficult to watch, as we don’t like to think of our magnificent bodies in the same terms as a gallon of milk or side of beef. Something that’s gon’ turn. But to our disappointment, the human organism is just that. An organism. Fit to be decayed. Hot to trot to rot.
So it is not really the physical corpse itself that I love, but what the corpse REPRESENTS.
Corpses exist as a warning for the living. Like the dancing corpses of the Medieval Macabre, who say live now, for “as we are, so shall you be.” Seeing a corpse, touching a corpse- this makes mortality real. Byron made my mortality real. And a living man is wise who heeds the warnings of the dead.