The day started innocently enough. “Caitlin!” Mike hollered from the preparation room, “Hey, come in here and help me get this big guy on the table.”
Juan Santos died from an overdose of cocaine. His body went undiscovered for two days in his apartment in the East Bay. He was autopsied by the medical examiner and his chest sewn back up leaving a dramatic Y-shaped stitch stretching from his clavicle to his stomach. “Did you catch this guy’s bag of viscera in the back of the reefer?” Mike asked.
“Yeah, the medical examiner takes the organs out and piles them in those red hazmat bags. Comes in to the funeral home with the body.”
“Just, like, tucked up next to ’em or something?” I asked.
Mike grinned. “No, Chris carries them slung over his shoulder like Santa Claus.”
“No, man, no. What the hell—that’s gross,” Mike said.
Ah, Mike in a jovial mood. I tried to play along with his yuletide-themed organ humor. “So that’s where the legend of ‘Chris’ Kringle comes from? Is it the good or bad kids that get internal organs for Christmas?”
“Eventually. When Bruce comes in this afternoon to embalm him. There’s a service tomorrow, so he’ll soak them in embalming sludge and stick them back in,” he explained.
After hoisting Juan onto the table with a theatrical heave, Mike brought out a tape measure. “The family bought a casket, too. I’m going to measure him. I hope he fits because I really don’t want to call this family back and tell them they need the oversized casket. Maybe I’ll make you do it,” Mike said, smiling at the thought.
The World Health Organization (along with any of the forty-five extreme-weight-loss television programs) tells us that the United States has more overweight adults than any other country in the world. It’s no surprise that the market for oversized caskets is booming.
The website for Goliath Casket, Inc. features this charming origin story:
Back in the 70’s and 80’s oversize caskets were hard to get and poorly made. In 1985, Keith’s father, Forrest Davis (Pee Wee), quit his job as a welder in a casket factory and said, “Boys, I’m gonna go home and build oversize caskets that you would be proud to put your mother in.” . . . The company started in an old converted hog barn on their farm, by offering just two sizes and one color.
We could have used Pee Wee’s ingenuity, because there was no way Juan was going to fit into a regular-sized casket. The man, bless his departed soul, was almost as wide as he was tall. “Go ahead, cross his arms, like he’s in the casket,” Mike instructed.
I stretched myself across Juan’s body to access both appendages. “No, cross them harder, harder, harder,” Mike insisted, extending the tape measure across his shoulders. By now I was fully spread out over the body. “Keep going, keep—there we are! Boom. He will totally fit.”
“Oh, c’mon, he will not!” I said.
“We’ll make him fit. The family is already paying more than they can afford for this service. I’m not going to tack on the extra $300 for an oversized casket if I can help it. Just telling them their son needs an oversized casket is hard enough.”
Later that day, as the Cremulator whirred through the backlog of bones, Bruce arrived to embalm Juan. After seeing him laid out, Bruce, always one for tact, yelled into the crematory: “Caitlin! Caitlin, this is a lot of Mexican. It’s gonna stink. Bigger people always stink.”
“Why does everyone keep calling him Mexican?” I yelled back over the rumble of the cremation machines.
Bruce was wrong about Juan’s country of origin, and surely he was also wrong about fat people stinking. Yet emanating from the preparation room was the most ferocious smell my nostrils e’er had smell’d. You would think such an odor would have repelled me, but for some reason it aroused a desire in me to find the pot of gold at the end of the olfactory rainbow.
I had seen Bruce embalm bodies, but I was in no way intellectually or emotionally prepared to see 450 pounds laid out before me. Autopsied bodies require the embalmer to cut open the stiches from the Y-shaped incision and, as Mike had said, to chemically treat the deceased’s internal organs from Santa Chris’s red hazmat bag. Bruce had just begun that portion of the preparation when I walked in.
To describe the scene as a “swampy mire” simply would not do it justice. It was more guts and blood and organs and fat I could ever have imagined a single human body containing. Bruce, who was pulling the organs out of the bag, launched into a narrative immediately: “I told you it would stink, Caitlin. Bigger people just decompose faster. That’s science, girl. It’s the fat; the bacteria love the fat. By the time they get here after going in for an autopsy, phew.”
To Bruce’s credit, this turned out to be true. His “bigger people always stink” comment wasn’t based on prejudice, it was a fact.
“All that stuff is bubblating in that body. I call it bubblating. At least this guy didn’t die in the tub. Tubs are the worst. The worst. You go to take a body out of the tub and the skin just pulls right off. The tissue gas bubbles up, all oily, and the smell.” Bruce whistled for dramatic effect. “Psychologically, you’ll be smelling that for the rest of the day, rest of your life sometimes.”
He kept on talking. “Look at this guy. Cocaine overdose? More likely he had a heart attack. Look at this,” Bruce said as he reached into Juan’s chest cavity, picked up his heart, and presented it to me. “Look at his heart! All this fat around it. You know he was sittin’ there with his friends at the bar eating a hamburger and doin’ his lines of coke. All this stuff”—he pulled his gloved hands apart to reveal the yellowed deposits—“this is why you can’t be fat!”
I must have looked insulted at this accusation, because he quickly added, “Naw, I don’t mean you specifically can’t be fat, girl, you got a good figure. But I know you must have fat friends. Tell your fat friends.”
I had no reply.
For Bruce, the former instructor, this demonstration was not done for shock value, but for the benefit of my education. Obese people smell particularly bad after an autopsy due to their faster rate of decomposition. Fact. Not that we would ever share this fact with a decedent’s family. You couldn’t have paid me any sum of money to explain to Juan’s mother the truth about why her son smelled the way he did. These facts were only for the ears of the deathmongers, the initiated behind the scenes.
Much of our negative reaction to a decomposing corpse like Juan’s is raw instinct. We’ve evolved to be disgusted by things that would hurt us to eat, rotting meat being one of the top contenders in that category. Some animals, like vultures, can safely consume rotting flesh because of their highly corrosive stomach acid. But humans would prefer to avoid spoiled food altogether rather than having to fight off the ill effects after the meat has entered our bodies. Recall the Wari’, consuming their decomposing brethren and being forced to leave the ritual, have a bit of a vomit, and return to eat again.
“Bruce, seriously Bruce,” I said. “This might be the worst thing I have ever smelled.”
For those of you who have not had the privilege of smelling Eau de Decomposition, the first note of a putrefying human body is of licorice with a strong citrus undertone. Not a fresh, summer citrus, mind you—more like a can of orange-scented industrial bathroom spray shot directly up your nose. Add to that a day-old glass of white wine that has begun to attract flies. Top it off with a bucket of fish left in the sun. That, my friends, is what human decomposition smells like.
Bruce was apologetic. “Yeah, I’d tell you not to smell it, but that would be like tellin’ a little kid, ‘Son, don’t you dare push the big red button!’”
Except for the rare decedent like Juan Santos who slips past the system, decomposition and decay have all but disappeared from our way of death. The modern corpse has two options: burial with preservative embalming, which grinds decomposition to a halt into perpetuity (or at least until the body starts to harden and shrivel like a mummy); and cremation, which turns the body into ash and dust. Either way, you will never see a human being decaying.
Because we’ve never encountered a decomposing body, we can only assume they are out to get us. It is no wonder there is a cultural fascination with zombies. They are public enemy number one, taboo extraordinaire, the most gruesome thing there is—a reanimated decomposing corpse.
There is a misconception that “burial” involves placing a body directly into the earth, leaving us vulnerable should the zombie apocalypse come about. Like in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, a decayed hand shoots up through the dirt and the body hops easily out of its grave. Burial in that fashion used to be the case, but in the developed world the paradigm no longer fits. Instead, a body is chemically embalmed, then laid in a sealed casket, which is then placed in a heavy concrete or metal vault beneath the earth, surrounding the body in several layers of artificial embrace, separating it from the world above. The headstone is placed on top of the whole affair, like the cherry on a death-denial sundae.
Vaults and caskets are not the law; they are the policy of individual cemeteries. Vaults prevent the settling of the dirt around the body, thus making landscaping more uniform and cost effective. As an added bonus, vaults can be customized and sold at a markup. Faux marble? Bronze? Take your pick, family.
Rather than let author and environmentalist Edward Abbey be buried in a traditional cemetery, his friends stole his body, wrapped it in a sleeping bag, and hauled it in the back of his pickup truck to the Cabeza Prieta Desert in Arizona. They drove down a long dirt road and dug a hole when they reached the end of it, marking Abbey’s name on a nearby stone and pouring whiskey onto the grave. Fitting tribute for Abbey, who spent his career warning humanity of the harm in separating ourselves from nature. “If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves,” he once said.
Left to their own devices, human bodies rot, decompose, come apart, and sink gloriously back into the earth from whence they came. Using embalming and heavy protective caskets to stop this process is a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable, and demonstrates our clear terror of decomposition. The death industry markets caskets and embalming under the rubric of helping bodies look “natural,” but our current death customs are as natural as training majestic creatures like bears and elephants to dance in cute little outfits, or erecting replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Venetian canals in the middle of the harsh American desert.
Western culture didn’t always have this aversion to decomposition. In fact, our relationship to rot used to be altogether intimate. In the early days of Christianity, when the religion was still a small Jewish sect fighting for its survival, those who worshipped the new messiah faced harsh persecution, sometimes dying for their faith. These martyrs came to grisly ends. You had your beheadings, your stonings, your flayings, your crucifixions, your hangings, your boilings in oil, your eatings by lion, and so forth. As a reward, the martyrs went straight to heaven. No purgatory, no Judgment Day: just a direct shot into the kingdom of God.
For medieval Christians, these martyrs-cum-saints were celebrities. When the emperor Constantine declared Christianity legal in 324 CE, the bodies of martyred saints became major attractions. Having the dead body of a famous martyr in your church—or even just a heart, bone, or vial of blood—brought hordes of worshippers. It was believed that the souls of the saints lurked around their corpses, dispensing miracles and general holiness to those who came to pay tribute.
Diseases were cured! Droughts were ended! Enemies were defeated! But why stop at just paying a visit to a dead saint when you could be buried in the same church? It stood to reason that being buried for all eternity ad sanctos (literally “at the saints”) would ingratiate you to the saint in the afterlife, ensuring protection for your immortal soul.
As the Christian faith grew, more and more members of the congregation insisted on being buried in and around the church to reap the benefits of saint proximity. This burial practice spread throughout the empire, from Rome to Byzantium and to what is now present-day England and France. Entire towns grew up around these corpse churches.
Demand rose and the churches supplied it—for a fee, of course. The wealthiest church patrons wanted the best spots, nearest the saints. If there was a nook in the church big enough for a corpse, you were sure to find a body in it. There were, without hyperbole, dead bodies everywhere. The preferred locations were the half circle around the apse and the vestibule at the entrance. Beyond those key positions, it was a free-for-all: corpses were placed under the slabs on the floor, in the roof, under the eaves, even piled into the walls themselves. Going to church meant the corpses in the walls outnumbered the living parishioners.
Without refrigeration, in the heat of the summer months, the noxious smell of human decomposition in these churches must have been unimaginable. Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini complained that “there are so many tombs in the church, and they are so often opened that this abominable smell is too often unmistakable. However much they fumigate the sacred edifices with incense, myrrh, and other aromatic odors, it is obviously very injurious to those present.”
If you weren’t rich or influential enough to score a spot inside the church, you would go into one of many graves in the church’s courtyard, some pits thirty feet deep, containing up to 1,500 corpses. This practice reflected a seismic shift from the pre-medieval Roman and Jewish belief that dead bodies were impure, and best kept on the far outskirts of town. The medieval church courtyard turned cemetery was the place to see and be seen. It was the center of town life, a place of socialization and commerce. Vendors sold beer and wine to the crowds and installed communal ovens to bake fresh bread. Young lovers took nightly strolls; speeches were made to gathered crowds. The Council of Rouen in 1231 banned dancing in the cemetery or in the church, under pain of excommunication. To require such a forceful ban, it must have been a popular pastime. The cemetery was the venue where the living and the dead mingled in social harmony.
Historian Philippe Ariès, author of a brilliant, sweeping study of a millennium of Western death entitled “L’Homme devant la mort,” declared that “henceforth and for a long time to come, the dead completely ceased to inspire fear.” Ariès may have been exaggerating, but even if the Europeans of the Middle Ages were afraid of death, they got over it, because the sublime benefits of being near the saints outweighed the drawbacks of living with unseemly sights and smells.
Medieval death was my first true (academic) love. I was captivated by the dancing skeletons, the maggot tomb décor, the charnel houses, the putrefying bodies in the church walls. The brazen acceptance of human decomposition in the late Middle Ages was so different from what I grew up with. The only two funerals I had been to as a child were Papa Aquino’s, with his heavily embalmed and made-up face sneering up from his casket, and the memorial service for a mother of a childhood friend. Her body was absent from the service altogether, and instead of speaking directly of her death, the pastor running the memorial spoke only in euphemisms: “Her soul was a tent, and the cruel winds of life came through the palm trees and blew our sister’s tent down!”
Decomposition was rare even behind the scenes at Westwind. At ye olde warehouse of modern secular death, the majority of our clients died in contained medical environments like nursing homes or hospitals before being swiftly whisked away to our cold-storage fridge, which, while not freezing, maintained a steady temperature below 40 degrees. Even if the bodies had to hang out there for a few days while the proper state permits were filed, most corpses were cremated long before they ever made it to the smellier phases of decomposition. One morning I came in, opened the freezer door, pushed aside the plastic strips, and was blasted by the unmistakable, unforgettable smell of human decomposition.
“Chris, dear God man, why? Who is it that smells like that?” I asked.
“His name is Royce, I think. Picked him up yesterday. It’s not good in there, Cat,” Chris answered, shaking his head with a seriousness I appreciated. This vile, corrosive smell was indeed no laughing matter.
So it is you, Royce, source of the horrible, infernal stench emanating from the fridge. I worked my little fingers to the quick to file his death certificate with the city so I could then cremate him as quickly as possible. When I opened his cremation container, I found a man who could best be described as “boggy.” Royce was vivid green, like the color of a 1950s Cadillac. He was a “floater,” the unfortunate funeral-industry term for bodies found dead in the water— in Royce’s case, the San Francisco Bay. I sent him to the flames, satisfied that my day of decay had come to an end.
But the smell did not go away. Royce was gone—and yet—the smell persisted. This matter required investigation. Investigation of the worst possible kind. Sifting through the cardboard boxes of bodies sniffing away until . . . You!— Ellen! The woman from the Medical Examiner’s Office. ’Tis, in fact, you who stinks more putridly than the worst smelling thing ever to smell. You, with your skin flaking away. What happened to you? You were fifty-six and your death certficate says you worked in “fashion sales.”
Unlike Royce, who had floated in the SF Bay for several days, I never found out what had happened to Ellen. When at last I was able to send the poor woman to the pyre, I sat down and read a chapter of Octave Mirbeau’s “The Torture Garden,” a book I first encountered during my decadent French literature phase. Not three lines into the chapter a character was described as “a lusty dilettante who reveled in the stench of decomposition.” My first reaction was, “Lovely, just like me!” But really? No. Not just like me, not like anyone who worked at Westwind. It may have been an academic interest, but that didn’t mean I took some perverse, maniacal delight in decomposition. I didn’t walk into the fridge every day, inhale deeply, and cackle with delight, dancing around naked in the cold miasma, transgressing with obscene pleasure. Instead, I wrinkled my nose, shuddered, and washed my hands for the twelfth time that day. Decomposition was just another reality of death, a necessary visual (and aromatic) reminder that our bodies are fallible, mere blips on the radar of the vast universe.
That reminder of our fallibility is beneficial, and there is much to be gained by bringing back responsible exposure to decomposition. Historically, Buddhist monks hoping to detach themselves from lust and curb their desire for permanence would meditate on the form of a rotting corpse. Known as the nine cemetery contemplations, the meditation would focus the different stages of decomposition: “(1) distension (choso); (2) rupture (kaiso); (3) exudation of blood (ketsuzuso); (4) putrefaction (noranso); (5) discoloration and desiccation (seioso); (6) consumption by animals and birds (lanso); (7) dismemberment (sanso); (8) bones (kosso); and (9) parched to dust (shoso).”
The meditation could be internal, but often the monks employed images of the stages of decay or took trips to the charnel grounds to meditate over a real decomposing corpse. There is nothing like consistent exposure to dead bodies to remove the trepidation attached to dead bodies.
If decomposing bodies have disappeared from culture (which they have), but those same decomposing bodies are needed to alleviate the fear of death (which they are), what happens to a culture where all decomposition is removed? We don’t need to hypothesize: we live in just such a culture. A culture of death denial.
This denial takes many forms. Our obsession with youth, the creams and chemicals and detoxifying diets pushed by those who would sell the idea that the natural aging of our bodies is grotesque. Spending over $100 billion a year on anti-aging products as 3.1 million children under five starve to death. The denial manifests in our technology and buildings, which create the illusion that we have less in common with road kill than with the sleek lines of a MacBook.
The way to break the cycle and avoid embalming, the casket, the heavy vault, is something called green, or natural, burial. It is only available in certain cemeteries, but its popularity is growing as society continues to demand it. Natural burial is what transpired with Edward Abbey’s remains, minus the whole stealing-the-corpse and hightailing -itinto- the-desert thing. The body goes straight into the ground, in a simple biodegradable shroud, with a rock to mark the location. It zips merrily through decomposition, shooting its atoms back into the universe to create new life.
Not only is natural burial by far the most ecologically sound way to perish, it doubles down on the fear of fragmentation and loss of control. Making the choice to be naturally buried says, “Not only am I aware that I’m a helpless, fragmented mass of organic matter, I celebrate it. Vive la decay!”
By this stage of my time at Westwind, I had already decided on a green burial for my own body. I understood that I had been given my atoms, the ones that made up my heart and toenails and kidneys and brain, on a kind of universal loan program. The time would come when I would have to give the atoms back, and I didn’t want to attempt to hold on to them through the chemical preservation of my future corpse. There was one such natural burial cemetery in Marin, right across the bridge from Westwind. There, I could sit among the cemetery’s rolling hills, looking down over the mounded graves and contemplate my date with decay. The monks found liberation through their discomfort, and in a way I was doing the same. Staring directly into the heart of my fear, something I could never do as a child, and ever so gradually, starting to break clear of it.
Excerpted from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright © 2014 by Caitlin Doughty. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.