Meaghan O'Neill [email@example.com] lives in Newport, Rhode Island, just feet from her husband’s funeral home. She is the editor of Treehugger.com.
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.
MY HUSBAND, KURT, IS A FUNERAL DIRECTOR.
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.”
THERE ARE PLENTY OF PERKS THAT PACIFY A MORTICIAN’S WIFE.
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.
I HAVE TO SAY: I EXPECT TO SEE DEAD BODIES IN A FUNERAL HOME, BUT I DON’T EXPECT I’LL EVER GET USED TO IT.
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.