Madeline Job, “Undeniable Slice (Your Unrecognized Creations)” Grade 12, Age 18. Art Portfolio Silver Medal with Distinction, Mixed Media.

August’s Writing of the Month, Career Counseling for the Young and Morbid, comes from 2011 high school senior Megan Gallagher. Meghan is a 2011 Writing Portfolio Silver Medalist.

When I was thirteen, I wanted to be a mortician. I’m not sure of the factors leading up to this certain fixation. I’m not even sure that I put all that much conscious thought into it—it just seemed like the right thing to do. But there had to be a starting point. It wasn’t as though I woke up one morning, thinking I want to put makeup on dead people. Or was it? True, one of my favorite toys was a do-it-yourself plastic mummy that could be assembled and wrapped in gauze, its rubbery organs trapped inside miniature Canopic jars. And true, it was looking more and more like I was demon spawn. Someone or something died on every one of my birthdays. At eleven, it was my mother’s favorite goldfish. At twelve, my uncle Frank. And at thirteen—that cursed, unlucky number—well, that birthday happened to fall on 6/6/06.

Also, I sometimes tried to touch my own eyeballs.

But these elements do not necessarily create a burgeoning funeral director. I am faced with a sort of chicken-or-egg dilemma: was I morbid because it was my fate, or did I think it was my fate because I was morbid?

I really wanted to go to the Body Worlds exhibit. It was put together by a German scientist named Gunther von Hagens, who used a method called plastination to preserve cut-open dead bodies so you could see (and not smell) the insides. It was a public thing, which seems a lot weirder now than it did when I was twelve. (Mostly because I had a great-aunt who “donated herself to science,” that vague phrase that means you have a memorial service instead of a funeral, and the possibility that I could have seen her corpse on display weirds me out). But at the time, Body Worlds seemed wicked cool. My friend Becca had gone to see it in Birmingham, Alabama, and I was intensely jealous. And curious, because the only part she would tell me about was the sliced-open pregnant woman that caused her to run and be sick in the McWane Center’s bathroom.

But my mom wouldn’t take me. She’d been weepy lately and said that Body Worlds would make her “too emotional.” I thought it was lame, but now the mere fact that I asked her to go with me (to what was, basically, a corpse museum) makes me cringe. My grandmother Emily—my mom’s mom—had died recently, and ever since her funeral, there had been death after family death. It was like all the old relatives had made a pact to depart together. My mom was distraught, spending too much time in bed or at the cemetery. When Emily was alive, she acted as the glue of the family, reconciling arguments and making sure everyone loved each other. Without her, we kind of fell apart.

The practice of embalming our dead has been around for ages. Everybody knows about the Egyptians, their stomach-turning practice of pulling the brain out through the nose, the god Anubis weighing hearts and directing souls. But there were mummies before the pyramids, too—the Chinchorro bodies of South America date as far back as 6,000 B.C. These mummies were stuffed with feathers and plant matter, their skin replaced with clay. More often than not, corpses were taken apart, treated one piece at a time, and put back together with the utmost care. Unlike the Egyptians, who mummified only royalty and those of high ranking, all Chinchorros received these rites after death. But the intent was the same. Those left on earth worked feverishly to preserve the physical body, worked against time. Because without it, the soul was said to wander forever.

This explanation was accepted and persists today, despite the fact that it’s more of an extreme case of humans making themselves feel better than an absolute truth. Like, this mole probably isn’t skin cancer I didn’t want the last piece of cake anyway. But at thirteen, I wasn’t aware of any latent existential questioning on my part. I was simply fascinated.

Around 2002 my parents really got into that HBO show Six Feet Under, and I used to sneak into the living room late at night and watch the reruns. I think that must have influenced me more than I initially realized, kind of like the way you watch Scrubs thinking it might not be so bad to work in a hospital, and then the credits roll without a single medical occurrence in the entire episode. I could be a mortician and yeah, there would be faces to reconstruct and bodies to fill with chemicals. But the more important issues would be the romance and high drama: who I was sleeping with, whose crazy brother I had to avoid. (It was really an inappropriate series for a preteen.)

So it makes sense that later, when I got weird, memories of the televised Fisher & Sons Funeral Home infiltrated my mind and made a mortuary seem like a cozy place to work. And, young as I was, Six Feet Under made me think some pretty heavy thoughts. I hadn’t been able to go to my grandmother Emily’s funeral. I hadn’t been able to see her when she was sick, let alone dead, and some part of me had wanted to. (I guess it was the part that didn’t yet know the word “closure.”) But there were people who dealt with the dead as a career. Who were, on a daily basis, the last human beings to be in the presence of your loved ones. In a way, it seemed sacred. Maybe a mortician was a modern day Anubis, standing between two worlds. Consoling the living and preparing the dead. After all, funerals are just a really elaborate way of convincing yourself that someone who was once alive isn’t anymore.

Pretty intense, right? But like I said, at this point all the deep emotional stuff was buried (har har) beneath the murky idea that fixing up corpses could be pretty nifty. Of course, my future plans were misunderstood by all. One night at the dinner table I asked my father how embalming fluid worked, and ended up storming to my room in anger when he asked, “What, are you Goth now?”

I wasn’t. Just confused. And my relatives kept dying. If I wasn’t being told in the present day that someone else had passed (Aunt Florence, Great-Grandma Mary) I was learning about a death from years ago (Cousin Trek was run over, Great-great Uncle Max committed suicide). I was scared to get too attached to anyone. I started having nightmares that both of my parents died in a horrible accident and I had to go live with the lady down the street who smelled like pee and had too many schnauzers. It seemed altogether possible. Death loomed from every corner. I didn’t like being obsessed with it, but I was.

There used to be these Buddhist monks in Japan who would mummify themselves. The way it worked was, they would eat only seeds and nuts for a thousand days. Then for another thousand days, they would drink tea made from the sap of Urushi trees, which was normally used as a furniture lacquer. I can only imagine the foulness of that drink, which was apparently so poisonous that it rendered the flesh of the body inedible to maggots. When they started to die, the monks—the Sokushinbutsu—would assume the meditative lotus position and let themselves be walled up in a body-sized stone tomb. The tomb was opened after yet another thousand-day cycle, and if the monk had been successfully mummified, he was revered as a Buddha.

It doesn’t happen anymore. But I wonder: there are almost always witnesses. Someone had to carry the newly declared Buddha to his rightfully earned spot in the temple. Did that someone feel awed? Frightened? Were these witnesses intimidated at the slightest thought of death, like I was?

At certain point during my mortician phase, my mother told me, in detail, about my grandmother Emily and how she died. She was pretty young, for a grandma, and her chronic disease wasn’t the type normally reserved for doing in the elderly. It was simply a bad cold that turned into pneumonia that turned into an endless hospital stay. She could have gotten better. There were so many choices that could just as easily have gone the other way—call the hospital a few days sooner, take a different medicine. She could have, in the common parlance of the ill, “fought.” But she just…didn’t.

Upon learning this, I went kind of numb. My grandmother, the thread weaving through the family, had allowed herself to be snapped off, like an afterthought. I swayed a little, standing on the edge of everything I couldn’t understand.

As one might guess, my desire to attend mortuary school didn’t last long. Partly because my answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was drastically altered every month, and partly because I read a newspaper article about a body in some backwoods funeral home that filled with too much sulphureous gas and actually exploded. I didn’t want to deal with that. I was weird, but not that weird.

But there was another incident that helped me change my mind. My parents wanted to do that depressing pre-need thing when you decide on your funeral arrangements before you’re anywhere close to kicking the bucket—something to do with a will, I didn’t know. They brought me along, I guess so I could sit and eat peppermints and watch people grieve. And of course, the person who greeted us at the door of the funeral home was a real, live undertaker.

His name was Archibald, I kid you not, and he looked exactly the way you expect an undertaker to look—that is, pretty deathly himself. He was wearing a crumpled black suit that smelled like mothballs. His voice was quiet, scarcely more than a whisper, so that when we came inside the sounds of people weeping in the next room were painfully obvious.

“Right this way,” Archibald said to my parents, motioning them into his office. He looked at me with a watery, mournful gaze before shutting the door. I sat down on a creaky wooden chair and realized: Archibald the Mortician was, without a doubt, the saddest person I had ever seen. I would rather do anything in the world than have his job. Make bricks. Clean the teeth of killer whales.

And that, I think, was the true test of my creepiness as a kid. Had I really been a candidate for the death-care industry, I would have scampered around the Oakwood Funeral Home like it was a carnival and asked Archibald if he would adopt me. Instead, I kept my eyes fixed on the floor the whole time my parents were negotiated casket costs and service fees. When the three of us walked outside into the sunshine, I hurried to the car and asked my mom how long it might take to become a professional cake decorator.

So in all probability, the reason I don’t have an answer to the chicken-or-egg question is because the question itself is the wrong one. Maybe I was forcing myself to learn about death because otherwise I would be too scared to keep living. Maybe I wasn’t morbid at all, just sad in a very strange way. Because when I drove away from Oakwood in the backseat of my parents’ car, tapping my fingers against the seat and pressing my face to the window, all I could feel was the bigness of everything. The importance of staying put.

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