Home Away From Home

Michael Eaton

© Copyright 2022 by Eaton

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk at Pexels.
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk at Pexels.

The summer of 1959 after my junior year I took a job that required me to move into a funeral home and help with various tasks around the home. My dad explained that he had the same job when he was younger, and in speaking to the owner, discovered they were looking for someone for the summer.  He asked if I wanted to take the job.  Always eager for new adventures I said “Yes.”
Mr Hammonds, the owner, initially lived in the funeral home but had recently built a house in a newer section of town, and instead of neatly stacked rows of bricks, he had the bricklayer make the rows irregular, as if the mason had been drinking too much on the job. On Sunday mornings, before and after church, the citizens of Littlefield would slowly drive past the home, commenting maybe that Mr Hammonds had lost his mind. When he grew tired of their criticism he put a sign in his front yard saying, ‘We don’t like your house either’. 

Mr Hammonds brought that same sense of humor to his job so that instead of a morbid place, the Hammond’s Funeral Home was often full of laughter. The "You stab 'em, we'll slab 'em", "One thing about this job, the customers never complain" kind of humor.
The funeral home was an older building. Upstairs lived the young apprentice director and his wife, and I had a room downstairs, next to the room where the embalming was performed. 

My first night I had a dream that while looking into a casket, a hand reached out, grabbed my arm, and started dragging me into the casket. I woke in a sweat, wondering what the hell I had been thinking when I took the job. 

It was time to decide whether to stay or flee. In my pajamas, I went into the viewing room, where an elderly gentleman was lying peacefully in his new abode, pulled up a chair, and watched the dead man to see if there was still any life left in him. As I would begin to nod off, from the corner of my eye I would imagine movement which would bring me wide awake but there was nothing but quiet and stillness. Finally, around three or four in the morning, I decided dead was dead, and slept peacefully through the rest of the night.
One of my duties was to help during the embalming process. This procedure is done to help prevent disease and to preserve the body until the funeral takes place. In the southern states nearly all funerals are open casket, (some families have photographers take pictures) so the loved ones of the deceased can attend a service presided over by a preacher who intones homilies and says nice things about the dead one, and after the service, the congregation, the merely curious, and friends file past the body and casket to say their goodbyes and have one final look.
The body is undressed and placed on a porcelain slab that is slanted, with draining grooves that take care of the run-off. The first step in the embalming process is to wash off any waste, bodily fluids, or other materials on the body. Then the muscles are massaged to get rid of stiffness, called rigor mortis, which can make it difficult to move the body.
We had an older man who kept the place cleaned up. One day I heard him yelling from the embalming room. When I opened the door, he was bent over at the waist, as if he was starting to pick up a piece of trash on the floor, not moving because one of the cadavers just having arrived from the hospital after dying and awaiting our treatment had evidently had an episode of rigor mortis and his hand had landed on the janitor’s back. I moved the arm back to the table and thinking we were going to have a good laugh together, was wrong. The old man straightened up, looked at me then at the corpse, and ran to the front door and left. Mr. Hammonds had to mail him his final check because he wouldn’t come back to pick it up.
The next step in the embalming process is to set the face. An eye cup is placed over the eyes, to hide sinking, and the eyelids are closed and sealed, usually with glue or other adhesive substance. (In the old days, they would put a heavy coin on the eyelids to keep then shut until they stayed closed without assistance.) Then the mouth has to be sealed shut also. Mr. Hammond had a trick of stringing a hook through a nostril, inserting it into the lower gumline, then pulling it closed. He would also turn the head at a slight angle so it would be easier to view before the embalming set everything into place.
Formaldehyde, methanol and ethalnol is pumped through a vein, forcing the blood out of the body.
A year later, on a buddy end-of-school trip through New Mexico, we stopped in a small town to eat, ordered hamburgers, and before I could take a bite the smell of formaldehyde which is unmistakable, (were they actually using it to preserve the meat?), hit me. I couldn't eat the burger. At that same diner, coincidentally, I noticed a large spider floating in my friend's iced tea. We all lost our appetites.
Next step is a small cut above the navel. A tube is inserted into the abdomen through the cut. A pump is attached to the tube, and the contents of the stomach and intestines are pumped out. This also removes all of the gases from the body preventing bloating. The body often makes very human sounds, such as stomach gurglings, while all this is going on.
Finally, everything is stitched up, the body is washed, and the clothing, which has usually been supplied by the family, is cut in half, making it easier to dress the body, slipping on one side of the clothing, rolling the corpse over, then the other. The next day, if the client is a woman, a local beautician comes in to take care of the hair and fingernails.
The only part of this that bothered me during the process was cleaning underneath the fingernails during the cleanup. It is surprising when you think of how much we express ourselves with our hands. The most uneasy thing when I was holding a hand, without the transfer of energy from their hand to mine, they just felt so……. dead.
We also offered ambulance services. One thing I learned about assisting people in bad car accidents, was that when lifting to put them on the gurney, you should always try to take the end of the body with the head and shoulders. The other end, with the legs, often doesn't smell great if they happened to have voided during the accident.
One late night, we were called to an accident scene. The driver, who had been drinking, had veered off the highway, rolled his car, and landed astride some railroad tracks. We had to get him out of the car quickly because we had no knowledge of the train schedule. As I approached the car, all the windows broken out, the hood missing, smoke pouring from the engine compartment, I saw the driver was still alert, holding onto the steering wheel for dear life, blood all over his face and one ear only hanging on by a lobe (this was before seat belts, kids) so I asked him if he was feeling OK. He turned to me and said, "Well, hello sonny. If you will just roll up my windows and shut the hood, I'll be on my way." He survived. The car didn't.
Another night, I was asleep when the front doorbell rang. Everyone else lived upstairs so I got out of bed to see who was there. It was a local lawyer, Billie Smith, big man over three hundred pounds who had a reputation as a brilliant man and a drunk. 

A Mexican woman had delivered her baby at the local hospital, and when she couldn’t pay for the service, the administrators told her she wouldn’t be released until her husband came up with some money. When the lawyer got wind of it, he took the sheriff with him and informed the head of the hospital he was under arrest for the charge of kidnapping. They let the woman and baby go home. 

On Saturday nights, all the teenagers would load up in cars and drive up and down the ten blocks of downtown. He would walk down the street drunk and yell obscenities at the teens. Someone would report him and when the local cops came to haul him in for the night he would grab one of the parking meters and hold on until the policemen got tired of trying to remove him and give him a verbal warning, then leave.  He would unwrap his big bulk from the meter and start cursing again. 

The night of his visit he told me he wanted to pick out a coffin for his eventual funeral, so I humored him and took him to the showroom. He picked out a nice walnut model. Then he told me to follow him to his car. Opening the trunk there was a case of fifths of Scotch Whiskey. He told me to take them to the funeral director with the instructions that he was to use the whiskey rather than embalming fluid to preserve him when he died. 

The next morning I told the owner about the visit and he had a good laugh and told me to put the whiskey in a closet and Billie would remember and come to pick it up. Instead, we picked Billie up at the hospital where he had passed away a week later. Mr. Hammonds told me they had mixed one bottle with the embalming fluid during his preparation for the grave, but never mentioned where the other eleven bottles went.  

Growing up in Littlefield TX, rather than receiving my knowledge in the public schools, I spent my weekly allowance on paperback books learning about the world from writers like Steinbeck and Faulkner.  I graduated from San Francisco State University during the experimental years of the sixties while living in a commune, with an MA in Creative Writing.  I write to stay sane in an insane world.  Currently living in Austin TX helping to keep it weird.

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