Archive for August, 2005

So, I Married a Mortician

Friday, August 26th, 2005

Meaghan O'Neill [] lives in Newport, Rhode Island, just feet from her husband’s funeral home. She is the editor of

The pains and perks when life’s a lot like Six Feet Under

It’s no coincidence, I suspect, that this story was due the day after Six Feet Under took its last breath. But in the same way that most spiritual conceits — from tensegrity to the tarot to the Taliban—believe that death serves as a catalyst for transformation rather than the End of It All, society’s obsession with death won’t be buried forever with the show’s extinction. It may be channeled into a different vessel (sort of like how Six Feet will morph into a DVD), but death’s 15 minutes are hardly up. Just look at the New York Times Bestseller list: Nearly a dozen of its denizens hover around the subject; four even have the word “dead” or “die” right in their titles.

The funerary business, in particular, enjoyed an unusual high during the Six Feet era. In a flattering display of imitation, the show even inspired a reality series, A&E’s Family Plots, now delighting in a second season. Family Plots is very disturbing to me in a number of ways; nonetheless, pop culture’s fixation on the mortuary business couldn’t have had better timing as far as my personal life is concerned.


Though we’ve been friends since childhood, we didn’t start dating until right around the time that Six Feet, with its well-costumed characters and plucky dialog, began to peak. The show made the funerary industry cool — or at least mainstream — just when I needed it most. (”Your boyfriend is a funeral director? That is so Six-Feet-Under!”) It made our life appear socially acceptable at worst, hip at best.

When people find out that you’re married to a funeral director, their reactions fall into one of two categories. The first plays out something like this: “Oh.” Change subject. Walk away. The second one used to go something like this: “Ew! That must be gross!” Eyes wide-open, jaw slack, these types unflaggingly follow up with a barrage of detail-oriented, borderline inappropriate questions involving the lifeless human body. Thankfully, the latter reaction has recently been supplanted by, “Do you watch Six Feet Under?” Then, “Is it really like that?” Except for the specters and Claire’s lime green hearse, the answer is, generally, yes.

But what’s it really like to be married to a funeral director? In some ways, it’s just like being married to a doctor or a banker. My husband works long hours, makes more money than his wife, and likes a scotch (or three) at the end of the day. He reads business books and newspapers, not novels. He has a sailboat, a snowboard, a dog. The term “hair product” is not in his vocabulary. He does yard work for his mother, but hires someone else to his own.

On the other hand, there are some things about being married to a mortician that the wife of an architect or an accountant will never encounter. Sometimes Kurt’s suits smell like embalming fluid, which is not so much gross as it is subtly toxic. And when he brings home flowers, it’s not really romantic, though I have become quite skilled at reviving three-day-old roses.

The friends of people married to lawyers ask for advice about lawsuits and the friends of people married to interior designers ask about remodeling their homes. A friend of mine recently asked me could I by any chance send him some photos of an embalming room? He’s making a slasher film and is concerned that his “frame of reference has been too heavily infected with Six Feet Under.”


We have two limos at our disposal, which are handy in getting as many as 16 people to parties with a minimum number of designated drivers. There’s plenty of parking by our house (located across the street from the business). We’ve got a pretty good leg up on the competition as to knowing when great real estate is about to hit the market. And then there’s my personal Holy Grail: front-loading washer.

Front-loading washers, as anyone who’s ever stuffed three weeks worth of laundry into one can attest, are a superior form of laundering technology. One night, I was in dire need of putting this technology to use. Typically, I’d leave any activity that involves walking through the funeral home at night in Kurt’s hands. But because on this occasion I needed to wash my Flokati rug, my jitters were superseded by one of the cardinal rules of relationships: Never leave your delicates to be laundered by a man.

As I tiptoed with chicken skin behind Kurt through the basement of the funeral home, I realized he must have had a busy day because there they were — five or six dead people, laying around on gurneys, naked under the white sheets that covered them.

The way the gurneys were arranged haphazardly in the room distressed me. There was something uncomfortably contradictory about the order and ceremony of the public spaces of the funeral home and the lack of geometry down below. It’s not that the room wasn’t hygienic — the floor tiles were scrubbed clean, the stainless steel tools sterile. There was barely even a sense of decay. I just couldn’t take the wabi-sabi placement of the bodies; I wanted them lined up like horizontal soldiers in formation. I wanted not just order but perfection in this strange universe.

It reminds me of a photograph that hung in the bathroom of our old apartment. Every time someone shut the door, the photo would go askew. No doubt that alone would have bothered me, but what made it worse is that the photograph, a close-up of a tidy boat deck, was titled “Ship Shape.” Eventually, the irony, coupled with my self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder, required that the picture be moved to a more stable area. “Ship Shape’s” incessant crookedness didn’t bother Kurt at all. And to him, the bodies were like the papers on my desk: they may appear aflutter, but I know exactly where everything is. He knew the names of each person, how they’d died, and what was to be done with them. What did it matter if they weren’t lined up like the squares in a chocolate bar?

The body of an older woman lay on one of the gurneys, a white sheet pulled up to her neck. One pale, saggy breast was exposed, like that scene in The Great Gatsby when Myrtle gets hit by the car. Kurt silently pulled the sheet to order as we walked by, but the boob wasn’t the reason I gasped in shock.


And at that moment I certainly wasn’t expecting to learn about a horrifying reality of the funerary business as it laid face-up beside me. Framed by a soft gray bob, the woman’s face, devoid of emotion but not of color, was covered with Saran Wrap. Obviously, there were no holes cut out for the mouth or nostrils.

That’s not how she died — it was probably some normal, old aneurism or a heart attack — but that Saran Wrap was worse than the randomly displayed bodies. Saran Wrap, it turns out, is the mortician’s equivalent of Créme de la Mer — it’s how they keep the human complexion dewy and fresh, like the unused half of a cucumber being returned to the refrigerator for tomorrow night’s salad.

I like to ask Kurt what he might do if he decided to sell his business, though it’s a game he doesn’t like to play. I say things like, “With your experience, you’re practically a doctor.” Yet when I cut my finger with the Cuisinart last Thanksgiving, he’s the one that nearly fainted. And when our dog sliced her head open so deep you could practically see her thoughts, I’m the one that sat in the back seat with her on the way to the animal hospital. There are exactly zero scary movies on our Netflix queue.

I often wonder how a person who hates blood and guts spend his days picking up dead bodies, jabbing their jugulars, draining their blood, and pumping them with embalming fluid ends up doing what Kurt does all day. And even after a two-decade friendship and two-year marriage I still have no idea. Kurt says it’s just different when a person’s dead. I can’t argue with that. Still, it surprised me that when I asked him to stitch up my hand last Thanksgiving, he said, in no uncertain terms: no fucking way. I suppose his other change-of-career choice could be to become makeup artist. For the record though, he’s never done my eye shadow.

Beautiful Pregnant Women

Tuesday, August 16th, 2005

Part I: The Photos of Jennifer Maya Luz Pliego
Part II: My photos: It’s Not a Preggers Fetish, I Swear
Contest: Do you have a memorable pregnancy story? SMITH and the delicious pickle maker Rick’s Picks invite you to share your tale of this time in your life in 100 words or less. You don’t need a bun in the oven at this moment, just at some point in your life (and a photo to prove it). Three grand prize winners will be featured on a nationally distributed line of pickles, the aptly named Slices of Life—“the pickle of pregnancy.” Seven runners-up will win a Rick’s Picks Pregnancy Pack and a copy of our new book, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure. Enter here!

Jennifer Maya Luz Pliego is a half Mexican, half Jewish, fully lovely New York City-based photographer. She is a contributor to Heyoka magazine.

For seven years, Jennifer Maya Luz Pliego has been photographing women in various stages of pregnancy. As both a mid-wife and massage therapist, Jennifer’s view of the female body is intimate, unique and engaged. Here she presents her photos and her own subjects’ words from a series she calls “Dar a Luz,” or “Bring to Light.”

Aline and Sergio, 2004
This time has been about me, but also about my family. In so many ways it is about them: my parents and Ricardo’s parents. They are overwhelmingly happy, so it makes whatever discomforts I feel, whatever fears that I harbor or whatever insecurities I have, fade.

Of course, we are happy too, but for us it is more complicated — for our parents it is just this big party and that helps us to stay strong as we step up and into our new role as parents.

Birgit and Maxine, 2001
Every time I think about motherhood I have a different thought. There are so many levels. It is so simple and so complex. It is both the hardest, most underpaid job I’ve ever had and the most wonderful job I’ve ever had.

Pregnancy is just the beginning of the experience. In a sense, it is the closest I will ever be with my child and yet I can’t wait to meet her and watch her be an individual. I await all the changes that come with that: her needing me and not needing me and letting that be a part of the job.

Diana, Canyon and Skylar, 2001
I am having problems with my husband. He has not been present at all during the pregnancy. He had strong feelings about it and so did I. I don’t know what will happen with him, but I am determined to have a good life — with or without him.

I am in school and will continue part time even after the baby is born. I am lucky, Skylar has been great. She is so grown up for her age. I sometimes feel badly for this; she has so much responsibility for such a young person. I try to be there for her and will continue to after Canyon is born, but there is only so much a child can handle, so I hope things stabilize soon.

Delphin, Tom and Daniel, 2003
I can’t believe I am carrying a child. The events that have happened since I came to the US from France have happened so quickly. I was working as a nanny in Westchester and I met Danny at a party there. He wasn’t looking for love and neither was I, but when we met….

I feel so fortunate. Sometimes, I think it is a dream; this can’t be my life. I have such a wonderful husband and we are both so happy to have this child. I’ve been lucky, we’ve been lucky, to find each other and to begin this life together. It is a new life for both of us. A life that neither one of us ever thought that we would have.

Hilde and Paris, 2003
The feeling of life kicking inside of me put so many things into perspective. I learned about a new kind of love; it is a love and a bond with something that is not fully formed.

As my body changed, I was surprised how good I felt about those changes. I had anticipated feeling restrained, heavy and confined — in a state of inertia. I had prepared myself for that space, so when it wasn’t like that, it was so easy — pure gravy!

I am able to listen to my body in a new way and accept the changes that occurred as a natural part of the process. I get new cues from my baby every day. You have to be flexible; the process can’t be changed. It is happening in my body. It is a mind-boggling miracle.

Kate and Gareth, 2004
Pregnancy is fascinating, but it is almost impossible to describe. I can explain it through sensation—like the memory of the skin over my belly stretching in the third trimester or how good and how strange it feels when Matt touches my belly, especially now that I’m so close to term. When he touches me and the baby, several things come to mind: it is like through his touch, I can be more aware of our child, too, and I love that feeling of closeness, and then that it is a transition that will be finished soon. We will move into another kind of life together.

I love my belly now—I never thought I would feel this way. It has always been a source of anxiety, a measure of my beauty, a reference to my weight, etc…. Now, as I gaze at my navel, it is not about me any more. There is a whole other presence developing inside. I’ve learned to love my stomach. It is a source of joy.

Rachel and Henry, 2003
Whatever job I had before, even though I enjoyed what I was doing, I could never really commit to it because I knew that I wanted to be a mother. Now that I am a mother, I feel complete. I am totally fulfilled. I am even happier that I get to share parenthood with a partner that I love.

Pregnancy for me is an incredibly personal experience. I don’t share that with my husband even though he is every involved. I am aware that this is happening inside of my body and that gives me a unique experience. This part is insular. I feel that it is private. I have always taken good care of myself and felt like I was important, but in pregnancy this is vital. I am important in a different way. I am the vessel for this child.

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