I’m on a coffee date with a mortician and I just don’t want him to touch me. He’s spent all day replacing blood with embalming fluid, and I keep inching my hand away from his because that seems so unnatural. I don’t want him to suck the life out of me too. Which I know is ridiculous, but I can’t get the idea that he works for the enemy camp out of my head. I’m life and he’s death and opposites don’t attract.
“So, when’s the article coming out?” he asks.
I hesitate because I don’t know.
“When I get around to finishing it,” I say, and then take too large a gulp of coffee, allowing the hot liquid to scald my throat rather than speak.
I don’t know because no one wants the story anymore. They don’t have enough room to include it for the next two weeks and after that no one will want to read another trend story about how the world is too small for our dead. They’ve read too many already from major news outlets and burial isn’t sexy. The death rate, currently at 8.1 per thousand people is steadily rising. By the year 2030 that rate is expected to be 8.9 people per thousand. By 2040, it is expected to swell to 9.6 people per thousand. These numbers astound me and force the article into my folder of pet projects.
“I don’t see it as morbid,” Lenow says. “It’s a celebration of eternal life.”
In Fredericksburg burial plots in church yards are completely full, especially downtown. But with an upward trend in churchyard burials, they are finding creative ways to cope. Fredericksburg United Methodist Church understood this need and installed columbaria for their parishioner’s exclusive use. The proverbial little sibling of the mausoleum, the columbarium is a resting space for ashes instead of bodies. With 360 niches, each of which is able to hold two urns, the church expects the columbarium to take several generations to fill.
The Senior Pastor at Fredericksburg United Methodist Larry Lenow looks like a normal, healthy, if somewhat superfluously bearded, man. He starts talking about the columbaria and then gets up and tells me to follow. I do, and when we get to the wall where the homeless dead now reside, Lenow points to one specific box. He personally plans for he and his wife purchase a niche and be interred in the columbarium at the church, and this is it.
“I don’t see it as morbid,” Lenow says. “It’s a celebration of eternal life.”
I nod. I feel like I’ve been invited to a housewarming party, only instead of commenting on the square footage and vaulted ceilings, I need to find words to express how nice and cozy their two urns will fit together. There is no anxiety about resale value; it’s all eternal life from here on out.
I’ve been surrounded by death my whole life. The house I grew up in has its own family cemetery, a slave cemetery and a Civil War burial ground. All of them have ample space for the bodies to decompose into.
Even my family has a series of plots in the town’s official cemetery. The headstones placed far enough so you have to walk a little bit to get to the next. It’s the same cemetery where my elderly next door neighbor Malcolm was buried. I wasn’t able to attend the graveside service because he died during my sophomore college exams. It shouldn’t have been more important, but it was. Malcolm was my grandfather when I ran out of them. A friend in middle school when I didn’t have any of those.
I got home a few days later and visited him, guilty that I hadn’t already. The red earth heaped in front of the headstone rose just slightly above the rest of the surrounding ground. I wondered what they did with the dirt that was displaced. Surely it much be around there somewhere. Every grave has the small topographical discontinuity. They are all slightly higher than the path I walk between them. We’re just building ourselves closer to the sun on dead bodies, I thought. How many dead bodies have I walked over during my lifetime? Where did the ground start out? What is that sinister measurement of body width between that ancient earth and my feet?
Not everyone I talk to is as optimistic as Larry Lenow. After talking to multiple cemeteries and funeral homes, I find my way out to one in Spotsylvania County. It is your one-stop-shop for all funereal proceedings. They have an onsite mortuary, funeral home, chapel and cemetery.
Like Lenow, the director of the funeral home seems an odd choice for the business. He’s in his late twenties and has pictures of his young family around his desk. I notice that his arms are a different color than his hands and when he sees me looking, pulls back what I first assumed to be his skin.
“Tattoo sleeves,” he explains. Underneath the flesh colored cloth is a web of intricate designs etched in black ink. “Families planning a funeral don’t always want to deal with someone covered in tattoos. It’s my job to make them feel as comfortable as possible.
When the interview starts, I ask how much a cremation costs in relation to a traditional burial. The figure that sticks out the most is the cost of cemetery space, which doubles every 10 years.
“A space that cost $400 in 1985 now costs around $1,875. That’s why it’s so important to preplan,” says the director. He calls preplanning the bread and butter of the cemetery business. Preplanning allows for small payments that fit one’s budget, taking away the financial burden of the bereaved and making their time of loss less stressful. It also allows the company to better plan their cemeteries.
He pulls out a folder and shows me the different payment plans. I realize at once that I’m being pitched my eternal resting place and a box big enough for two urns doesn’t seem to cut it even if it’s trendy.
At the end of the interview, we shake hands and he tells me to think about reserving space now. “You’ll be glad you did a few years down the road,” he says. “I reserved mine seven years ago and I’m already seeing savings.”
He leads me to their mortician’s office, so I can get a his view on the subject. Once again he’s not what I expected from the funeral business, but he is long and lean and I can see how in thirty years he will begin to resemble the classic idea of a mortician: all sunken eyes and angles that cast long shadows.
“It really is the best investment you can make,” he says, echoing his boss. “And a completely unselfish one. Having these arrangements taken care of is a huge burden taken off the shoulders of your family.”
He asks for my number in case he thinks of something that might be useful. I pretty sure that’s not why he’s asking.
I really don’t want to buy my final resting place. I’ve just settled into my first one and I’m not content to read the end of the saga of my independent habitation so soon. The pictures aren’t even up on the wall when I start writing the article. They’re still not up when I stop.
The apartment is two stories, connected to a series of townhouses in a u-shape. We have a courtyard in the front that consists of a tree and some scrubby plants. It’s about as natural as the funeral home I had just visited. About as cozy as a columbarium.
For all of its emptiness, it seems full when ambulances from the nearby rescue squad reel screaming down the street. It reminds me of the times I’ve ridden in them. When I passed out and no one realized that I’m prone to fainting because of low blood pressure. It reminds me of the times I haven’t ridden in them. When my lungs were so full of water that I had to rely on the person responsible for nearly killing me to save my life. They’ll come for me when I need it, I say to myself even though I know that my roommate isn’t normally around and I basically live alone. There would be no one to call. Still, I think I’ll remain selfish a little longer and hold on to my living space with dear life.
A few days later, I get a text message from my new friend the mortician asking if I want to meet up. I say yes because I don’t have anything better to do and because the entire buying a grave idea scares me and I want to see him outside of his den of death. I would rather have an image of a normal person rather than the key keeper of my fate. But I go mostly because I don’t know how to say no.
He brings up preplanning at the coffee shop, though. It’s odd conversation to have over warm, liquid stimulants, so I brush it off. But he doesn’t get the hint and asks again.
“So what do you think about it?”
“I think that I don’t want to think about it,” I say and place my hands firmly in my lap so he will stop trying to touch them. He’ll never see me naked unless absolutely necessary. Not unless I’m dead and I end up on his mortuary table.
Illustration by Seth Casana