Undertaking Research

November 19, 2014 § 5 Comments


Belinda Shoemaker

A guest post from Belinda Shoemaker:

The sun sets around 5 pm, burning red and gold above the Pacific Ocean in a cloud-drawn sky. I am in my Big Sur home, hosting a writer’s retreat, and over dinner we talk writing, and how exciting it can be when, in doing research for one story or essay, we discover other subjects to write about in the future.

I tell about a day some years earlier when I decided to go to a mortuary and learn how to embalm a body. I was working on a short story about a mortician. The only time the undertaker had available to meet me was 3 pm. I checked when sunset was due, to be certain I could conduct my interview, learn about embalming, and be out before dark. “Why out before dark?” my writer buddies asked. I had to admit that I am a wee bit scared of the dark, or death, and I was going to a place of death and darkness and emptiness. (Note to writer-self: explore your relationship with death, etc. in a future essay.)

I rang the bell on the mortuary door. A little old man greeted me. His smile was warm and I exhaled. He took my hand to shake it and as soon as I felt his touch thoughts careened through my mind at a zillion miles an hour. Soft hands equal moisturized hands equal hands that have greased a thousand bodies. DEAD BODIES. I want to go home. Ridiculous, right?

The old man invited me into the “living room.” There was a fire burning — think cremation. I wondered if they did that here.  (Second note to writer-self: how do you feel about cremation, about burning flesh and bones?) The old man apologized that the mortician I was due to meet was running late.

How late? I asked, as I glanced at my watch and then looked out of the window at the descending sun. About half an hour, he said. I reworked my calculations and scoured my interview checklist and cut out some questions so I could be sure to make it out by dark.

Can you imagine my relief when the younger man returned, handsome, mid-forties-ish, calm and with gardener’s hands? I learned that morticians wear gloves these days when handling the deceased. We started at the beginning, talking about “the death call,” the phone call alerting the undertaker to pick up a corpse. (Word choice writer-self? Corpse is so clinical. What are you hiding from?) The younger man, John, apologized that there weren’t any dead bodies to show me that afternoon, but he could still take me through the embalming process. Relief, right? John led me down a narrow, dark, corridor and into the embalming room.

Formaldehyde stinks. It has burned a place in my olfactory memory. The embalming process is crude. I decided I would never have anyone I loved embalmed. (Another note to writer-self: when does a person cease to be a person? Explore.) We looked at the make-up used on bodies prepped for viewing. John taught me about packing sockets and how to stitch mouths and eyes closed. I coped. Fifteen minutes before five, I decided I had enough information for my story, so John led me back towards the front door. I stopped. I was curious to know why this man had chosen this line of work.

“I used to be a respiratory therapist in a hospital,” John said. “But I had a little nervous breakdown, and so when I was ready to go back to work, I decided to do something less stressful.”

“But why this? I would have thought this is very stressful.”

“This is something I’ve really always wanted to do.”

“How come? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“I have a little sister,” John continued, “and she had a stack of Barbie’s growing up. My favorite game was to strip them naked and bury them in the garden.”

“Hmm, interesting” I said, heart racing, measuring the distance between me and the door.  It’s after five.

I say thanks and goodbye. Safely in my car, I drive, and think no one will believe what just happened, but I have the information I need, and more than that, I have new issues to explore in my essays, and perhaps, even, a new character for a short story.


Belinda Shoemaker earned her MFA in Creative Writing – Fiction and Creative Nonfiction – and a Post MFA Certificate in Teaching Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Literary Magazine Review, Damselfly Press, and Wellness and Writing Connections. Belinda is working on her first book-length project, The Same Size Shoes, a memoir. She loves to cook, eat chocolate, drink wine, and snuggle with her cats.

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