A Coffin, A Casket

A Coffin, A Casket 

I had to kill my fish last Wednesday. I’ve been keeping betta fish for a couple of years, but I’ve had bad luck when it comes to keeping them alive past a year. In this case I feel less responsible- Lafayette was an adventurous and curious fish, and he took it upon himself to explore the underside of the heavy weight that holds the filter down. I got home from Petsmart with new plants for his tank, only to find him trapped beneath it. He emerged in pieces, his beautiful blue and red tail ripped off, and a wound over his head. 

He wasn’t swimming well, and was likely brain damaged. Betta fish can drown if they can’t swim around. He tried to eat, but couldn’t manage to stay at the surface long enough. This is generally the point in a pet’s decline when euthanasia begins to look like the most compassionate option. I could have attempted to rehabilitate him, but it would have taken months. Fish can and do feel pain. Thankfully, there is a humane way to help a fish swim on to the dark waters. 

The recommended method involves a clove oil, and a mason jar full of water. Clove has an anesthetic effect on fish, and once introduced into the oily water, Lafayette rapidly lost consciousness. Normally this step would be followed with a quick end in a bowl of water and ice, but I didn’t have any ice on hand, so I went for option two, which is to just leave the jar for an hour. The fish feels nothing. He leaves the world without feeling a thing. It’s not a bad way to go. Bettas leave betta sized grief when they depart, and a year is a pretty long life. 

I buried Lafayette in the back yard, and proceeded to clean the tank. I found pieces of fin floating around behind the décor, and reflected that yes, this was a necessary act. It wasn’t the first time I put a living creature down with my own hands, but this time, they didn’t shake. 

Death might be the most universal theme in human contemplation.  Much of our lives are dedicated to forestalling the inevitable, and for the most part, we’ve made some pretty good progress. My introduction to the larger discussion came sometime around 1999 or 2000. I would have been 11 or 12, just reaching the first shimmer of insight. Death made me uncomfortable in an abstract, slightly exciting way. But it was disconnected from reality- no funerals, no dead pets, a general ignorance of grief.

I can’t say that the family expedition to the West Pennsylvania Funeral Directors convention necessarily informed my views, but it definitely did something to me. It happened like this: my aunt (my uncle’s wife, no blood relation) had a brother who was a funeral director. During a visit to Erie, an invite was issued to us to attend the annual convention down at the amusement park. I don’t remember it, but I can clearly envision my mother warming immediately to the idea with morbid interest. It’s possible this decision was taken over a bottle of wine or maybe a spliff.  In any case, my cousin and I were roped into this excursion. 

This convention was at the time held at Waldamere amusement park, at a large venue called Rainbow Gardens. We arrived to find the parking lot mostly dominated by a fleet of spit shined black hearses, complete with solicitous car salesmen and strings of balloons. Up until this point I don’t think I’d really cottoned on, and it’s likely that I thought we were actually going to the amusement park. But then we went into the Rainbow Gardens. 

It was exactly like any convention- filled to the walls with exhibits, only the tables and stalls displayed items that defied the average person’s experience of commodification. The most central stalls were the most prominent, each vendor separated by a curtain. I don’t remember exactly how many casket models were on display, but I do remember the moment of drawing in breath and holding it for a little too long. 

Up close, a casket is an intimidating item. Now add to that the sheen of polish, the satin lining, and showroom lighting, and reflect that no amount of artful display can negate the intended utility. Every kid knows it’s a box you put dead people in.

I think I gave a nervous giggle, and observed how there were “so many coffins”. The funeral director relation, who was disappointingly humourless and stereotypical of what I thought funeral directors were like, corrected me. “It’s a casket,” he said. “Coffins are wide at the head, narrow at the foot.”

Coffins aren’t used much anymore, and I can’t help but think now that the reason is the way in which they remind us that they contain a human body. The shape implies a tailored economy, and there are so many black and white photos of the famous and/or recently executed propped up inside the wooden frame that evoke emaciated, limp necked vacuity.  A casket, squared off at the ends, glossy and togged out with chrome or brass fittings, looks like a really fancy cabinet. The casket trade is also, naturally, far more lucrative. Often the casket will go into a cement box, which will then go into the ground to await the day when the faithful occupant is called home.

Another item that falls into the category of death accessory is the “eternity wear”, a fashion line meant to cater exclusively to the deceased. I don’t know what’s on offer now, but seventeen years ago the preferred style for women seemed to be lacy, full night gowns in pastel colours. This colour scheme was similar to the casket linings, which were all satin and lace, and I wonder if they didn’t cut them from the same cloth. Men’s wear offered slightly less variation and tended towards tuxedos, the implication being those hoping for resurrection have assumed that heaven has a formal-only dress code.

The last of the aesthetic consideration was, of course, the headstone. These also had a prominent display, three hundred weight blocks of polished granite propped up in a nest of unconsecrated AstroTurf. Of the traditional artefacts of burial, these were the most familiar to me. Cemeteries made me nervous, and I always felt uncomfortable whenever we passed by one in a car. 

These days I find cemeteries deeply fascinating- the older, the better. The oldest one I’ve ever been in was at Sleepy Hollow, which contains occupants from as far back as the early 18th century. It’s also, of course, where Washington Irving is interred. I’ve walked around graveyards full of Oregon pioneers, and spent some time with the Dennys of Seattle, who share a cemetery with Bruce Lee and his son Brandon.  

Humans have always been obsessed with death, which is reflected in our anthropological continuity. Grave goods tell us a great deal of what we know about warfare, agriculture, religion and social hierarchy. I occasionally wonder what future archeologists will make of the flouncy pink tatters and the black cumberbuns, these final relics of  the pre-cremation age. You can tell a lot about a person by the quality of their shroud. 

The Western Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Convention holds this event annually, and every year they choose a theme. That year, they’d gone with “Mexican” which, in addition to populating the Rainbow Gardens with sublimely racist maraca-wielding cardboard cutouts, had the auditory of effect of making the convention feel like an Azteca.

To add to this, there were also a surprising amount of children in attendance, most of them the children of the funeral directors. Our host had brought his daughter along to the event, and she seemed to be rather bored by it. I remember asking her if she’d ever seen a dead body and she sighed the sigh of someone who has been asked the same question every day of their life, because of course she had. 

As a gesture to the family fun vibe they were aiming for, the convention included a kind of trick-or-treat for the kids, whereby we would visit each booth and receive candy. One table was actually passing out sample sizes of embalmer’s hand sanitizer, which I had for years afterwards. I think it was pretty much the same as the purel stuff we use now, but I respect the branding effort. 

It was on this little jaunt that I encountered the more industrial craft-oriented goods on offer. If the caskets, grave stones and burial clothes were recognizable trappings of the modern day funeral industry, the other wares were less so. I can’t claim now to have really understood what I was looking at, because embalmer’s chemicals are cheerfully packaged in neon oranges and pinks and don’t naturally imply their utility. I suppose I could have studied the labels a little more closely, but I was already suffused with a morbid, nervous excitement, and managed to ride the anxiety by not thinking too hard about any one thing. I’m quite proud of myself for not having freaked out then, and I have a feeling I probably would have if had comprehended the purpose of those brightly coloured chemicals.

In the interest of contextualization, I’m going to skip ahead seven years or so, to film school at Seattle Central, where members of our program made a short documentary about the death industry. I was not involved in this particular shoot, but the resulting film is highly instructive. This group of students sought out local funeral directors and funeral directors in training, and were able to put together a very tasteful, but also very intimate and disturbing narrative. It includes commentary by those professionals, the filming of a cremation of a fourteen year old girl, and most relevant to my story, a description of the process of embalming. 

If you’ve decided you want to be embalmed,  the first thing an embalmer does is referred to as “setting the features”. When you’re dead, a couple of things happen to your face that make it less aesthetic. Your mouth hangs open and your eyes start to dehydrate, so they sink back in your head. 

The embalmer will start by lifting your eyelids and slipping little plastic formed disks under them, which have tiny hooks that catch the inside skin of the eyelid and give them form. Then comes the closing of the mouth, which is done in one of two ways—the first is a needle and suture method, which is done by hand and runs along the muscles in the jaw and behind the nose; the second uses a needle injector, which injects wires into the jaw, which the embalmer then twists together like a twist tie, and trims. They also use what’s called a mouth-form, which is similar in principle to the eye cap. 

The body is hooked up to the embalming machine, and the embalmer uses the human vascular system to drain blood and replace it with embalming fluid, pulling and pushing with forceps to break up clots. After that, the final step is  the draining of the internal organs. The embalmer, using a tool called the trocar, pierces the lungs, the heart and the bowels to drain the rest of the human fluids.  They inject cavity fluid, which hardens the inside of the trunk. Then they wash the body, and make up the face.  

Unlike ancient times, the purpose of embalming is not to fulfill a religious desire to preserve the corpse for resurrection. The purpose, popularized during the mass-casualty waves of the American Civil War, is to slow the process of decay and make the deceased look temporarily lifelike for the benefit of the bereaved. 

This example, obviously, is an ideal circumstance. Death is messy, and often violent. Products like wound-filler and other repairing materials are purpose made for this reality. I don’t remember if I saw any of those on the tables at the convention, and I don’t know if I saw any of these other tools, but it seems to me that the scene is incomplete without them. One reason I’m choosing to add them to the displays is that it seems incongruous to me that an industry event would only hock the accessories, and neglect the latest in technology and products of the actual business in which they are engaged. 

I have never personally seen these methods employed. My father died in 2005, and my step mother chose to have a viewing. I stayed outside. There is supposedly a benefit to seeing the dead one last time, but I think that’s far from universal. The last time my father discussed death, he told me he wanted to be cremated. And he was— but they embalmed him first. I know as much as I know anything at all that this was a violation of his wishes. He didn’t buy it, and neither do I. 

The experience of this event—the consumerism, the carnival atmosphere, and the tradecraft— gave my preteen self a premonition of death’s artificial sanctity, the basis of an entire market determined to sell the illusion of cleanliness. I’m glad that this practice is in decline, because it’s driven in large part by capitalist cynicism. I don’t mean that people shouldn’t be able to view the intact remains of their loved ones, but the price tag attached has nothing whatever to do with mourning, with loss, with the living place in the world from which that person has now been omitted. And it is a highly profitable industry.  You can buy a house for what it costs to bury a person, and pay off your mortgage before you pay off the hole in the ground. 

I want them to burn me. In my ideal world, I’d get to go out on a pyre on some Olympic peninsula beach somewhere, but the legality of that is dubious, so I’m satisfied to be burnt in effigy and my ashes scattered out of a mason jar. I want to be a bonfire party. I don’t want a bunch of sad people in black to stand around and talk over my box, the whole complexity of my life reduced by four square walls.  Sure, I want people to be sad that I’m gone, but I can’t think of a better tribute than for people to think back on my funeral as one of the best nights of their lives. I want the hangovers to be worth it. 

And there isn’t a single booth in the Annual Western Pennsylvania Funeral Directors’ Convention that has that for sale.