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Family Matters

Just in Time for Halloween: Lessons Learned While Living with the Dead

October 7th, 2011

By: Rebecca Fisher

The bodies that lay just beyond my front door were rigid and still, lifeless and festooned for their final farewell.  For the most part the mortuary was dead quiet, especially after hours, but every now and then it would teem with inexplicable activity.

I had just put the baby to bed for the night and was indulging in the weekly magazine I saved for that quiet time when everyone had gone home or was out picking up our newest client.  Just as I had settled into my corner on the couch, the floorboard outside my door creaked with the heaviness of a footstep. With a suddenly accelerated heart rate, I awaited the next step…but it didn’t come.  Either someone was standing just outside my door, or I had imagined it.  A loud crashing noise shook me from my frightened anticipation.  Someone must have returned and was making a raucous while transferring a new body.  I slowly opened the door an inch or two, keeping the chain securely fastened.  Nobody was in the hallway.  Upon thorough investigation of every room, I found that the mortuary was empty, save me and the baby.  Walking quickly, as if followed by death, I made my way back to the apartment, heart racing, hair raised.  I watched as an orb of light followed close behind my reflection in the mirror at the end of the hallway.  I raced into the apartment, quickly locked the door – chain, deadbolt and knob – and returned to my corner on the couch, knees pulled up.  While I rationalized the events, trying to laugh it off, it came again…the creaking floorboard.

The first thing people ask me when they read my book or hear a bit of my unlikely life story is, “You really lived in a mortuary…with dead people?”  Yes, I did.  And their next question is always the same…“why?”

I was newly married at twenty years old, six months pregnant and without many options for work and a home.  This particular mortuary offered both and it was an offer impossible to pass up despite its obvious flaws.  Needing a home and a way to provide for my new baby trumped the trepidation I had about whom, exactly, we would be living with.

The only mortuary experience I could remember before moving into that Northern California, family-owned funeral home was the service for my 92-year-old great grandma.  I was barely into the double-digits of life and trembling while my grandpa firmly held my hand and walked me to the casket to pay my respects to one of my favourite people.  When I got close, I was stunned by the lack of resemblance between the pasty, soulless body in front of me and the grandma who so often leaned over to peek at my cards while smiling as if she had a secret before asking, “Do you have any 4’s?”  He made me kiss her cheek and I remember the smell, of what I now know to be formaldehyde, making me sick to my stomach and the cold, stiff feel of her cheek giving me the chills.

With this my only home-of-the-dead experience and the memories still haunting, I was a tad more than terrified to walk through my new front door. But as is the case with much of the unpleasant in life, I adapted.  I began venturing out into the red-carpeted hallway, long and narrow, which led into the business office, casket show-room, chapels and, of course, the embalming room.

I helped after hours since I wasn’t technically an employee, only to find that it’s after hours that the place really comes to life.  I ran the vacuum over every inch of carpet, at one point hugely pregnant and later with a baby dangling from a papoose slung over my shoulders.  I cleaned the bathrooms, replaced the tissue boxes, collected and documented flower cards and gradually worked my way closer and closer to that room.  Once inside, I came face to face with the morbid, matter-of-fact realities of death, and eventually, I painted those faces.    

The first lesson I learned is one that has helped me through many uncomfortable situations.  Human beings are surprisingly superb at adapting to our environments.  At first mention, the idea of living with the dead was unfathomable, and I did spend many terrified moments curled up on the couch anticipating the next haunting footstep, shadow or looming light.  But with time, I actually found myself unaffected by their presence, applying their make-up with the same matter-of-fact mindset I had while filing paperwork at a law firm months before, only with more cooperative clientele.  I found a way to survive circumstances that had once seemed untenable, and I reminded myself of this when later faced with some of my darkest hours.  I would repeat over and over the mantra, “no matter what, I’ll survive.”  This mindset helped get me through a violent and at times life-threatening marriage, divorce and custody battle.  It helped get me through single-motherhood.  It still helps me with the uncomfortable uncertainty of life.

Life is fleeting.  This is another lesson I learned from my time with death.  The ironic contrast between the death that continually passed through the mortuary doors and the new life I held in my arms was unmistakable.  It was terrifying, too, as I was quickly made aware that no one is immune to this certainty.  Shortly after I brought my beautiful baby home from the hospital, another mother was bringing her still-born baby to our home for a service.  With empathetic grief, I clung tightly to the life I would die to protect and grappled with the inevitability we must all face.  I saw many ages, races and faces come through those doors.  I saw natural causes and violent tragedies.  Many who work in the business find themselves so consumed by death they can’t live life.  Many turn to drugs and alcohol.  I can’t really blame them.  If death is the end of the road, life can seem futile and cruel. Luckily, before I was overwhelmed by the unforgiving and unrelenting reality of death, I caught a glimpse of what would become the most valuable lesson of all.

Any of us can play dead.  It is, in fact, recommended as a useful tool while being mauled by bears.  Hollywood goes to great lengths to recreate its likeness.  But, the truth is, we can’t recreate it.  It is undeniable that something is missing when you look at and touch a body that once was a living, breathing person.  No matter how much make-up, glue or formaldehyde you use, you will often hear the family say that the body before them is not their loved one.  They are most certainly gone…but where to?  What is missing that made them who they were?  These questions were ever present, and as haunting as the whispers in the hallway.  It had been a long time since I had considered the Christian faith I was raised with.  But the questions were demanding my attention.  I began seeking answers and ironically, that place of death would become the beginning of a new faith and as a result, a radically new life.

Despite the many hair-raising events I suffered while living in that mortuary, I gained a lot from my time there.  It was life-changing.

So if you are planning on taking up residence in your local funeral home, I have some advice:  brace yourself for what might pass you in the hallways.  And be respectful of the dead and their loved ones – for it will, most definitely, be you one day.  

Rebecca Fisher graduated with a B.A. in English and an M.S. in Education, and teaches high school English. Her own experiences living in a mortuary in Northern California and raising her daughter on her own serve as the inspiration for the many macabre and eccentric encounters in her novel. She lives in California with her husband and two daughters.

All the Wrong Places is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble online, and the Rebecca’s website in both paperback and e-book format.


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