I have been incredibly overwhelmed. I hope I haven’t lost any of my eight subscribers.
One day in mortuary school, I cried myself to sleep with a bottle of Mad Dog, because it just never stopped. The deaths, endlessly, one after the other, until I no longer knew what day it was. My resolve to know the name of every person I embalmed crumbled well into my second year on the job.
And today, minus the crying and alcohol, it still never stops. The cooler is never empty. It gets full, and overfilled, and we start keeping people in the garage when it’s cold enough and transporting them to other funeral homes when it gets too warm until we have space in our cooler again, but then more people die and soon we are full. I need to go shopping for things for the prep room, but I have to wait for a slow day, and it’s never slow. I work sometimes 12, 14 hours a day. My poor dog… I fall asleep in my car. I live on protein bars. I’m back up to two Rockstar and one ephedra per day. I’ve been buying furniture and leaving it in a corner unused. I’ve been buying new suits and sheets because I just don’t have time to go to the cleaners or do my own laundry. My IKEA closet actually broke because…I have too many clothes now. I’m sure those long, heavily beaded abayas aren’t helping. Then, when I was going to post this, I realized I needed to buy a new computer, so I did…and it sat in the box for a month.
I had a child in a long-term psych ward, or one that was supposed to be long-term, but after being on a waitlist for a month and staying in the unit for two weeks, decided it “wasn’t really [her] kind of place.” And at her age she is old enough to let herself out.
I am expected to follow suit with the other local Muslim women and be continuously involved in some form of Islamic education. Arabic instruction, Quran recitation and the study of meanings of various chapters, interpretation and memorization and everything else related to learning a religion that can be – go figure – very hard to follow. There are wrong ways to drink water, wrong ways to turn pages of the Quran, and preferred ways to eat, and I am expected to learn these. I can barely manage one class at a time. I remember finishing my psychology degree while working full time as a funeral director with two toddlers, and I can’t figure out how.
I remember always wanting to work in a place that was “so busy I didn’t have time to sit down.” I now work at that place. I spent my second Ramadan working 16- and 18-hour shifts. I remember the manager asking me if I could embalm three bodies after-hours and telling me he’d give me some cash for dinner if I could.
“Sure, but I can’t eat until 8:46 this evening, so I could maybe get two done, take a break and then come back for the third…”
Then I find out he didn’t even know what Ramadan was. He was shocked when I told him I had been working the past couple of weeks on no food and water. “I thought it was just a special day of prayer; not a whole month of starvation! I bet you lose a lot of weight…”
You really don’t. Most people lose around five pounds and gain it back right away. Ramadan is an act of worship, not a diet, and this year it was particularly hard. Not so much the fasting and dehydration, but the lack of sleep. I don’t think I slept more than two hours most nights, and I’m one who needs her sleep. If I can’t get it, it will find me. I learned spots on my commute home where I could pull over and sleep. I completed the thirty days of fasting and all the prayers, and I also didn’t listen to music the entire month. I did not complete my goal of reciting the entire Quran in Arabic; once I got started I realized it was taking me two hours to recite a chapter so I instead recited only the first page of each chapter in Arabic and the rest in English. I’ve continued with my lessons over the summer and now can recite a chapter in less than an hour.
What was also hard were the sheer number of people in the mosques this year. Last year, I remember staying after the evening meal and getting to know women from all over the world. This year, we were crammed in, shoulder to shoulder, no room to walk around or even move at all. In Islam you give up a lot of your personal space, but this was too much. Toward the end, I started avoiding the mosques and taking the evening meal in an Indian restaurant where I could enjoy a nice booth all to myself.
Most funeral homes are extremely crowded, cramped workplaces too. I haven’t met anyone who has the same sensory aversions as I do, but normally when someone asks what it’s really like to work in a funeral home, they are expecting to hear of the long hours and all the grief and death. But here’s something else: no funeral home ever throws anything away. You will do your job navigating around stacks of old register books that haven’t been sold for decades “because maybe [we] could use one for a needy family.” If something breaks, it doesn’t get thrown out, it gets sent to the basement or attic forever. The basement will be full of decedents’ old clothes, in case someone decides later that he wants his mother’s socks from 1997. There are cabinets upon cabinets of unclaimed cremated remains dating back to the 1950s, in case someone wants to claim them.
Many funeral homes will avoid stacking bodies two to a shelf or table, but many others will not. If the cooler gets full, rather than paying another funeral home to hold bodies, they start stacking them. And when they are stacked to capacity in the cooler, they pull out the embalmed bodies and leave them in the prep room. Sometimes every table the funeral home has will be occupied, meaning if you have a body to embalm, you will use your own gurney, or you will set that body on top of another and do your work there.
The prep rooms tend to be small, and this is one of those situations where being a small person comes in handy. You will barely squeeze through the maze of tables and caskets in the room. You might resort to crawling under a table, if you can fit. For people who like to have a bubble of space around them where they are not in some way touching something else, the work environment can really get to you.
A year after my injury, I am finally back in the gym. I found a women’s-only gym with 24 hour access, and it’s been great to get into a routine again. There’s a world of difference in having access to a gym and just lifting weights at home, like I was. It’s nice being in a place where no one recognizes me as a former competitor. I wear baggy clothes (and my Nike sports hijab!) and do nothing to make myself stand out. It’s already making a difference. One of the coolers I use has four shelves and a few months ago I told the managers I could only get a body out of that cooler if it was a small body from a waist-level shelf, and now I’m able to get larger bodies off the floor-level shelf again. It’s all coming back to me.
I’ve had a few interesting reconstruction cases and other funeral-home drama, but I’ll save that for another time. I want to remind everyone that if you have an urgent question for me, please contact me my email rather than leaving a comment. I answer everyone personally, and if a death has occurred, I’ll even talk to you on the phone.