Grave Matters: Life and Death as a Mortician

Steve Schroeder parks in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Salt Lake City, Utah. As he climbs up the front steps, his pin-striped suit flows comfortably over him as though he were tailored to it. From polished shoes to teeth, his appearance is sharp, meticulous.

So it’s jarring when the first person who shakes his hand tells him she would have been happy never to have seen him again. “I’m sure you get that a lot,” the elderly woman says, smiling as she squeezes his forearm.

Steve pays a quick visit to the priest who is slipping on his cassock. He shakes Steve’s hand warmly but also comments on how much he hates seeing him.

“Sometimes I feel like the Grim Reaper,” Steve sighs back out in the hallway. “It’s giving me a complex.”

While he’s hardly death incarnate, he may be the closest living thing to it. If he’s temporarily visiting a church, a parishioner is permanently leaving it.

As a mortician, Steve spends his life dealing with death. That’s the nature of his business: He doesn’t work unless somebody dies. The families he knows the best and is closest to are the ones that have had the most members die, he says.

Most of his clients agree that if they have to see a mortician, it might as well be Steve. A handsome, middle-aged man with shaggy black hair and a voice soft enough to be mistaken for a woman’s over the phone, he expertly works a room with lots of comforting touches on arms and backs. He has been doing funerals for more than 20 years, so when Steve says, “I’m sorry for your loss,” people know he means it. From the families he serves to the church lunchroom women who lovingly serve him, everyone agrees he’s a pretty good guy…for a bad guy.

No Respect

The story of Steve’s life is full of endings, and to tell that story, Steve agreed to let me be his assistant for a month. I can’t honestly say I was excited by the prospect. Like most people, I fear death in all its various forms. But the story of a mortician can only be told from the inside. Anything else would be a counterfeit.

And so—despite my fear—I find myself one afternoon at the Catholic Cathedral in Salt Lake City. After the initial procession and positioning of the casket, Steve tries to retreat from the Mass until it’s time to close the casket and start the procession to the cemetery. We settle into chairs in the kitchen with Styrofoam cups of weak coffee and three-day-old newspapers. Steve keeps one eye on the proceedings over the church’s closed-circuit TV.

Once when he was working a funeral as an assistant, Steve accompanied the funeral director—against his better judgment—to a burger joint across the street. Time slipped away from them as they became sandwiched in the noon rush. They returned, stinking of burgers, only to find that the service had ended 15 minutes earlier.

Such a blunder is unthinkable now. When Steve directs a funeral, he’s a perfectionist. Nothing is ever left to chance. Families find out how meticulous he is from the beginning when he sits them down and goes over every possible detail. This attention always seems to comfort the bereaved. While death is rarely planned, Steve works tirelessly to prove that its aftermath can be.

The service winds down, and we return to the back of the church. As we process toward the altar, the click-clack of our shoes echoes through the silent cathedral. I’m shoulder to heels in black, but Steve is wearing light gray. In fact, he owns almost no black clothing and hates wearing the color.

We reach the deceased—so far so good. But not for long.

Somber and deliberate, we turn the casket feet first, and jointly lift the burial cloth in front of the body. But as we fold the cloth, I turn it one way and Steve turns it the other. It bunches in the middle like a wrung towel. Quickly Steve turns it back the way I had it, but I had already turned it his way. Again we bunch the cloth in the middle. Steve’s calm demeanor disappears.

As soon as we get the body to the back of the church, Steve frantically apologizes for the miscue to the son of the deceased. No one had even noticed.

A young lady with swollen eyes shakes Steve’s hand. “I don’t know how you do this for a living,” she says, mascara running down her cheeks. “I can’t stand it for 40 minutes.”

Steve shrugs. “I don’t know either,” he admits. “It’s a job, I guess.”

It’s not a job he wanted, though. His father was a funeral director, but Steve had always wanted to work in movies. He has even written his own screenplay, but financial needs drove him to work temporarily in the funeral business. Marriage and children soon followed, making the temporary permanent. A mortician’s job is a stable one, even in times of recession. There will always be clients.

While Steve’s a long way from Hollywood, here he gets to be both director and producer. In this way, his drive for perfection serves him well. Life is hopelessly messy, but death need not be. That’s why as a director, he hates any deviation from his script.

We bring the casket outside. As we approach the hearse, a loud rush of white takes off from the top of the car. Steve looks in horror as he realizes feathers are not all the pigeons left behind. Several hotcake-sized stains of white mar the perfect shine of the black hearse.

“Have you no respect?” he yells, shaking his fist in the air.

 The Business

I catch up again with Steve at O’Donnell and Sons mortuary a few days after the funeral. It’s been a slow week. “I don’t understand it. No one’s dying to see me,” he says.

Gallows humor is a hallmark of morticians—an unconscious defense mechanism for dealing with the job. But it’s not the only one.

When a man deals with death every day, euphemism is a necessary tool of the trade. The most frequent question morticians ask one another? “How’s business?”

“Every single time, that’s the first thing we ask each other,” Steve says, fully aware that small talk among morticians might sound cold to an outsider. Morticians commonly lose themselves in the details of a funeral using such words as “clients” and “business” to describe people and death. After all, a job has far less emotional attachment than a person does.

Morticians can actually put a price on life, and it’s steeper than people think. I ask Steve for average costs of a funeral. “It will cost you $5,000 for mortuary charges alone,” he says. “Then figure another $1,500 to $2,000 for a funeral plot. Plus you have the casket, headstone, flowers, and church fees. You’re looking at a minimum of $8,500.”

But he hates the idea that people might think funeral homes take advantage of their grief to make money “It’s a huge cost to run a mortuary with salaries, cars, taxes, and a mortgage,” he says. “Mortuaries see a lot of money, but they don’t keep a lot of it.”

Steve feels the real problem lies in our culture’s burial traditions. People demand mansions for mortuaries, limousine-like hearses, and elaborate ceremonies. He thinks that many of the people who spend extravagantly for the finest caskets and flower arrangements do so to atone for not being good to the deceased while he was alive.

The Science of Death

There is great public sympathy for doctors who are on call 24 hours a day. But, unknown to the public, it’s much worse for morticians and their families. Most people die in the wee hours of the morning. And unlike a doctor, a mortician cannot ask a patient to wait for office hours. By its very nature, every call is an emergency.

Once dead, the human body has a surprisingly short period before it deteriorates. How much time depends primarily on air temperature. In the summer heat, a body won’t last 24 hours without massive decomposition. After 48 hours, it’s hopelessly beyond preservation.

There’s a common perception that cremation is a neater, cleaner way of disposing of a body. Steve quickly dispels this notion as he takes me into the garage of the mortuary, which doubles as its crematory.

The incinerator resembles a long brick oven not unlike those found in gourmet pizza restaurants. The burn temperature of a body—its dead heat—has to be closely monitored during the cremation process. This is particularly true if the body is large, since fat burns extra hot.

Once a body has been reduced to ashes, it doesn’t get any neater. The human body doesn’t burn into the fine powder found in urns, but into large chunks of ash. These must be broken up, raked out, and transferred to a stainless steel drum called a pulverizer. Two long, dull blades crumble the remains by spinning at high speeds. Once crushed, almost any human body fits into an urn no larger than 200 cubic inches.

Although great care is taken to remove all the remains, there’s always the possibility that residual ash from different bodies will combine. The truth is, no matter how it is executed, death is a dirty business.

Embalming a body to preserve it for viewing takes an entirely different level of disassociation with the deceased. Similar to how a scientist deals with a cadaver, a mortician has to see what’s on the table simply as a body—a mere physical representation of a person no longer there. Steve has buried friends and acquaintances, but he has never been able to embalm one.

The mortuary’s embalming room looks and feels like an emergency room for the dead. The stink of formaldehyde and antiseptic clings from the cold metal operating table to the quarter-inch thick hose of the embalming machine. Surgical masks and incisors rest on an adjacent stand.

A body is preserved through a complicated surgical procedure for which the first step seems simple enough: The embalmer must get the body on the table. But this is harder than it sounds since a dead body is often limp and bends horribly in the middle.

Once positioned, the embalmer makes a two-inch incision along the collar bone and searches for the carotid artery and jugular vein. If the embalmer is skilled, the family will never see the mark.

The camula, a small stainless-steel nozzle at the end of the embalming hose, is inserted into the artery and tied off with string above and below the incision to prevent drainage. Three gallons of embalming fluid are then pumped through the heart using the body’s natural circulatory system. The fluid pushes the blood out of the body and through a drainage hole the embalmer cuts into the shoulder and holds open with forceps. Once all the blood is pumped out of the body—when the drainage fluid runs clear—the artery is tied off and the shoulder incision sewed back up. Now fully into the arteries and capillaries, the embalming fluid replaces the blood and slows down decomposition.

The chemicals the embalmer uses are dangerously acidic and carcinogenic. They would kill quickly, if the person weren’t already dead. After the body is embalmed, the next step is to dress it. This is also harder than it sounds but for a different reason. Embalming makes the body rigid and hard to bend (hence the term “stiff”).

The slumped weight of a human body is terribly heavy. If a body is large, it will take a team of several people to dress it. A mortician’s job is sometimes hard physically as well as mentally. Nothing is heavier than dead weight.

The Scars It Leaves

Walking through life with one foot in the grave takes its toll. A mortician surrenders forever his blissful ignorance about death. “People think about death only when they have to,” Steve explains. “But I’ve always known I was going to die.”

He’s never imagined his own end, but he has vividly dreamed of his funeral. “I don’t fear death, but I do fear pain,” he says. “I don’t want to die painfully. I have seen people who have died painfully.”

Being raised in a religious family with very conservative beliefs, Steve is also apprehensive about the afterlife. He has a great fear of the unknown and concern for what will happen when he dies. His job gives him ample opportunity to dwell on it.

But the mortician’s life isn’t all bad. Steve takes some satisfaction from the thought that he’s providing the deceased and his family with the last service anyone will ever give him.

And Steve’s mildly amused with the attention he’s been getting from the popular HBO series Six Feet Under, which is doing for morticians what The Sopranos did for the mob. He watches the show but has problems with it. “It’s 95 percent about this screwed-up family and only 5 percent about the business,” he complains.

But that’s not to say Steve doesn’t have his own colorful cast back at the mortuary. There’s Mike O’Donnell, the hands-off owner who runs the mortuary, but smartly lets Steve direct most of the day-to-day operations. And Jody Bacon, who started as a janitor but is now the assistant director. And then there’s Dianne Alcott, a middle-aged blond who serves as the sister figure to all the men. You can’t call her a secretary, because she can’t run a computer, but she does everything else.

Many viewers agree with Steve that the 5 percent of Six Feet Under dealing with the actual funeral business is the best part, even if hopelessly unrealistic. As ER portrays every hospital visit as a multiple shooting triple bypass, every funeral in Six Feet Under is an out-of-control event barely pulled back from the brink of disaster.

The reality is more mundane. Most funerals turn out exactly as Steve wants them: by-the-book dull. But every once in a while, something happens more true to Hollywood, and the director has to throw away the script.

So Much for the Plan

This was not good. The priest was supposed to be here more than 20 minutes ago.

Steve is pacing in one of the anterior rooms of the funeral parlor, glancing repeatedly at his watch. Like the rest of the public area of the parlor, the room is homey but luxurious with a faux fireplace, two padded couches, and an oil painting of the sun setting over a beach.

A member of the funeral party tells Steve that one of the grandchildren is also absent. He sees the worry in Steve’s face and in a funny role reversal tries to reassure him. Nodding toward the deceased, he says, “Don’t worry. She’s not going anywhere.”

In the long viewing hall, the guests are shifting in their seats. Steve is a firm believer in viewings. “They have a definite healing effect,” he says. “When a family sees a person in the casket, the reality of their death sets in, and they have to deal with their grief and accept that someday, they will also have to die.”

Steve’s crew of hair stylists and makeup artists has done an admirable job preparing the body; several relatives remark how good she looks. Getting a body to look just right is very important for what those in the funeral industry call the “memory picture.”

“It’s important for families to remember loved ones in their more natural state,” Steve explains. “You don’t want to remember someone in a hospital gown groaning for his last breath.”

But no matter how much you dress a body up, it still looks dead. Once that spark of life goes out of someone, no amount of makeup can give it back. Getting a body ready for viewing is not unlike positioning a statue; a good funeral home makes the dead look asleep.

A young priest with a black beard finally shows up, and Steve gives him instructions. “They want you to pause so the grandkids can come up to the podium and say some words,” Steve says. He pauses for a beat. “The service is going to be a little unorthodox.”

Back in the viewing hall, family and friends have taken advantage of the brief delay to visit the deceased’s open casket. With hands folded in prayer and eyes closed, she looks almost saintly, and the mourners kneel tentatively as if afraid they might disturb her.

In several testimonials throughout the service, the grandchildren laud their grandmother’s propensity to shock people—mostly by telling an array of dirty jokes. All such references bring knowing laughs from the crowd and a puzzled look from the priest.

A moment later, one of the young granddaughters steps to the podium. Steve plays Angels in Waiting—a favorite country song of the deceased—from a stereo embedded in the wall, and the girl begins to sing. She struggles bravely until, halfway through the song, her voice cracks and she returns to her seat sobbing and shaking. Steve rushes over to the console and turns the music up. Completely unplanned and quickly ad-libbed, the whole scene is strangely touching.

A grandparent’s passing is usually the first bitter taste of death a child gets, and it’s hard to see death fresh again in the girl’s eyes. As the last chord wafts from the stereo, there’s not a dry eye in the room. For being such a meticulous planner, Steve is at his best when the plan dissolves. Today, he would need all his ability to improvise.

The service closes and Steve puts the coup de grace in the stereo, Garth Brooks’s “The Dance.” Forty seconds into the somber song, the CD begins to skip. “Oooouur liiiiveeees rrrrrrr beeeeeteeeerm…” Tears turn to chuckles. Chuckles turn to laughter.

Steve runs over to the stereo and pushes the rewind button. The CD starts over and sure enough, at the 40-second mark it skips again. This time Steve nudges the fast forward and stays at the controls to maneuver through two other scratchy parts. The crowd files out of the service laughing as it goes.

After a short drive, the party reorganizes in Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery, beautifully situated on Salt Lake’s hillside. On most days it’s a perfect, peaceful setting. But as Steve climbs out of the hearse, he winces. Adjacent to the cemetery, also taking advantage of the hilltop view, is the University of Utah football stadium. “Oh, come on,” Steve laments. “Not a home game!”

Loudspeakers boom, marching bands drum, and tens of thousands scream and cheer. Steve gives a what-can-I-do shrug before directing the pallbearers. They lift the casket onto a metal brace suspended over a funeral plot freshly dug to the standard four-and-a-half feet deep. Since the deceased is a divorcée, she will be buried alone. Most people are buried “double deep,” on top of or beneath a spouse. This way the funeral plot can be used twice.

Everyone falls silent waiting for the priest to arrive and say the final remembrance. Fifteen minutes later, they’re still waiting.

Steve calls Dianne and has her try to get hold of the priest. She does, at his church 30 minutes away. Steve walks to the hearse and takes a small book from the glove compartment. Although he keeps it here for just such an emergency, he has never used it before.

At the grave site, Steve addresses the gathered: “Father is not coming there was a mix-up. I don’t normally do this…but I’ll perform the final ceremony. I understand she wasn’t that religious anyway.” The family nods its approval.

Steve opens the Catholic Burial Rites to page 31, which bears the heading, “At the Grave.” Halfway through the formal reading, Utah State scores a touchdown and cannons go off in the stadium. Steve finishes with, “I guess we can say the ‘Our Father’ now.”

The service is almost over when someone tries to open the door to the hearse and sets off the car alarm. A deafening series of honks and whirs follow. The noise is so painfully loud that it sets off another car’s alarm somewhere else in the cemetery. They “ha-honk” in unison. But even over the noise, you can hear the laughter of the funeral party.

Bud, Mount Calvary’s cemetery director, can’t help himself. “That’s loud enough to wake the dead,” he chuckles.

Steve is temporarily shocked. He didn’t know this hearse even had an alarm—so he also doesn’t know how to turn it off. He jabs in his pocket for the keys, but they aren’t there.

He races to the front door of the hearse and sees the keys lying on the front seat. Thank God! He left the front window down just enough. He awkwardly wedges himself torso-deep into the opening, reaches out, and grabs the keys. Not knowing what else to do, he turns the car on and then off. It works. The alarm stops. He takes a few minutes to recover his bearings and then returns to the proceedings.

The family members of the deceased collect themselves and go about their last order of business in a somber mood. Little notes of remembrance are written on small pieces of paper and attached to purple helium balloons. Everyone falls silent as the balloons are released.

With the service over, one of the sons graciously shakes Steve’s hand. Steve tries to apologize for the offbeat service, but the man cuts him off. “Mother always was a practical joker,” he says laughing. “You could tell her spirit was here today.”

Steve gets in the hearse and lets out a loud sigh. Sweat runs down the canyon creases in his forehead. If this is the face of death—the Grim Reaper himself—we have little to fear.

“It’s not too early to go out for some beers, is it?” he asks.

“What time is it?” I answer, confused.

“A few minutes after one.”

Steve slips the hearse into drive and the purple balloons continue their uneven climb. Their twisted white tails slowly dissolve into the gray-blue horizon of an approaching storm cloud. For now anyway, the sun is still shining.

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