Corpses should be better-behaved.
Mr. Lyle Kourtis, aged ninety-three years, has been resting on my embalming table for less than an hour, but he’s already belched four times. I wouldn’t mind so much—the dead do burp and even shift occasionally—but the hour is late, darkness is pressing at the windows, and I’m alone in the chilly prep room.
Gerald has run to the drugstore for cotton, so I’ve been left to bathe Mr. Kourtis. The job won’t be difficult—the old man is as thin as a bird, and rigor is not so pronounced that he’s resisting my efforts. The arterial embalming is well underway, the Portiboy rhythmically clicking as it sends embalming fluid through a plastic tube and into our client’s carotid artery. A bath will help the solution move through the arteries in the gentleman’s limbs.
I pick up the hose, turn on the water, and test the temperature by spraying a stream over my wrist, the same place I used to test bottles of formula when Clay and Bugs were babies. The water doesn’t have to be warm, of course—Mr. Kourtis certainly won’t care if it’s cool—but Gerald has ingrained in me such a respect for the dead that I can no more imagine giving my client a cold shower than I can consider doing an embalming without a hand towel draped over the body’s most private organs.
My professors in the mortuary program thought my methods quaint, but they are Gerald’s methods, born out of love for others.
As the Portiboy clicks and hums, I spray the few strands of white hair on Mr. K’s head and smooth the deeply scored lines from his forehead. This man came to us from the Pleasant Valley Nursing Home, where he had been a resident for nine years. According to the file we found waiting on the zippered body bag, he outlived two of his sons. A daughter, Felicia, lives in Winter Haven while a granddaughter lives here in Mt. Dora.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to consult Felicia before beginning our work. Mr. Kourtis was wise enough to preplan his funeral, so Gerald and I have proceeded according to his wishes. The administrator at Pleasant Valley informed Felicia Kourtis Josten of her father’s death, so I followed up with a call and left a message asking if she had any preference as to the time of the funeral service.
I suspect that Mr. K may be attended by few family members. The daughter may be in her seventies, and though Winter Haven is only an hour’s drive away, miles of teeming tourist traffic lie between our funeral home and Felicia Josten. I don’t know many older folks who like driving at breakneck highway speeds . . . which is probably how they survived to be older folks.
I squirt a dime-sized glob of shampoo into my wet palm and then work it into Mr. Kourtis’s thin hair. “I hope your daughter can make it,” I tell him. “But if she doesn’t, don’t you worry about having a crowd. People in Mt. Dora love a good funeral.”
The back door opens, followed by Gerald’s laugh and a rush of cool April air. “Congratulations,” he says, stamping mud from his shoes. “Though you won’t find it written in any book, one of the surest ways to know you’re ready to be a full-time funeral director is when you start talking to the clients.”
I grin as I pick up the spray nozzle. “They don’t seem to mind a little conversation.”
“They don’t. But do let me know if they start talking back.” Gerald tosses a bag of cotton balls onto the counter and lumbers to the sink where body fluids and clotted blood are draining from the trough in the side of the prep table. “Everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” I say, rinsing Mr. K’s hair and sending a stream of soapy water into the trough as well. “No plumbing problems tonight.”
“Good.” He reaches for a pair of latex gloves. “You want me to shave him?”
“Already finished. His cheeks are clean and prickle-free.”
“I wish everything about this case was prickle-free.”
I glance up. “Is there a problem I don’t know about?”
“Maybe not . . . but at the time Mr. Kourtis signed his pre-need papers, his daughter and his second wife had a falling out. They flew out of here like a pair of hornets, buzzing at each other the entire way.”
“There’s no mention of a wife in the file. The daughter is listed as next of kin.”
“That’s because the woman divorced him right after she put him in the home. If the ex-wife and the daughter meet at the funeral, we might see a few fireworks.”
I smile as I spray Mr. K’s shoulders with an antibacterial solution. “That contract was signed a long time ago. Surely you don’t think those women are still feuding.”
“Women have an awful long memory about such things.”
“So do some men.”
“Point taken. But I’m wondering if we shouldn’t do something to keep those gals apart in the chapel.”
I rub soap into Mr. Kourtis’s skin, massaging his upper arm and working the pink arterial fluid through his capillaries. “I don’t think you need to worry. If both women show up, surely they’ll come together in their grief. They’ll have to realize that they both loved this man.”
Gerald gives me a narrowed glinting glance. “Funerals don’t always bring out the best in people, Missy.”
“Just leave it to me.” I pick up the spray nozzle again. “If they both show up, I’ll have a talk with them before the service. If they still have hard feelings toward one another, I’ll do what I can to bring them together . . . or seat them on opposite sides of the room.”
“Sounds good.” Gerald leans one hand on the table and surveys the room. “Okay . . . what else do you need?”
I glance at him, noticing that his voice sounds more gravelly than usual. Dark circles lie under his eyes, and his color seems . . . off.
“You look exhausted,” I tell him, shutting off the water. “Why don’t you go on up to bed?”
He gestures to the man on the table. “I oughta help you.”
“It’s okay; I don’t think I’m going to have any problems. In a couple of hours I’ll be finished and headed upstairs to tuck the boys into bed.”
Gerald looks around as if searching for something to do, but I side step and catch his eye. “Thanks for the cotton balls. You go on up and I’ll call you if I run into a problem. We’ll get Mr. K casketed tomorrow.”
He sighs and turns toward the door that leads to the staircase. I watch him go and shake my head when the door finally clicks behind him.
I don’t know why he’s so worried about Mr. Kourtis’s survivors. In all Gerald’s years at Fairlawn, I know he has noticed how funerals often bring people together. The power of a meaningful, reverent memorial service is one of the reasons I’m proud to say I’m an apprentice funeral director.
Morticians fix things. We repair broken bodies and restore ruptured relationships. When death comes, we step in to minister to the deceased and help the living continue with their lives. We act as the hands of Jesus in caring for the dead and ministering to the grief-stricken family.
Gerald stepped into my life and helped me put its frayed elements back together. If not for him . . . I don’t know where my boys and I would be.
I startle when another soft burp escapes Mr. K’s lips. “Don’t you worry,” I tell my client, reaching for a towel. “I’m going to make sure your family members enjoy a dignified funeral service. You’ll be proud of them.”
I smile as I wipe glistening water droplets from my client’s face. After two years of living in Mt. Dora, I’m beginning to understand why God brought my boys and me to the Fairlawn Funeral Home.