Memories Of A Mortuary

by Ross Manus

"Put some light lipstick on Mr. Wilson and some eyeshadow on Mrs. Carter!" said Mr. P. in his departing words.

Does this sound like the job of a highly-paid beautician working in a Hollywood salon? No. This was one of my nightshift responsibilities - touching up the dead. My place of work was at a mortuary and every day from four till nine I was responsible for minding the dead and handling visitations. A lonely ghoulish job? On the face of it, yes, but in truth there was much that kept me amused and edified.

The lead had come from the Beverly Hills High School bulletin board. It read, "Office boy wanted. Must be reliable and courteous. Call Mr. P."

It was hard to tell what kind of a job it was from the way the place looked. From the warm, low lighting, silk drapes, lush carpets and fresh cut flowers, it could have been entrance hall to a cozy hotel. I soon began to realize that something was odd about the job. My prospective employer wore a mournful expression as if he were about to join the dead himself. My feelings were reinforced when I met his helper, whose bald skull, sharp features and beady eyes reminded me of a vulture. To shake his hand was like taking hold of a two-day old pancake.

Both were dressed in black and spoke in such low tones they would have done someone with laryngitis proud. "What kind of place is this?" I asked my dad who had accompanied me. "It's a mortuary," he whispered. The job involved looking after the place by myself, receiving families paying respect to the recent dead, and answering the phone.

My first night was one I'll long remember. When I nervously entered the mortuary and fumbled for the light switch, I bumped into a dead body which had just been brought into the parlor. After staring at the corpse for several minutes, I realized it could do me no harm.

As I turned away and walked a little bit jumpily towards the office, I heard a gutteral groan behind me. Petrified, I shot a look over my shoulder and saw the late Mrs. Magohon sitting up and staring me right in the face! It wasn't until the next day that the undertaker told me that the just-dead often have compressed gas or air in their stomach which can cause the body to contract and raise itself, emitting an unearthly sound.

A week later (as part of my job training) I was taken to the central morgue in Los Angeles. There I met some off-beat characters, both living and dead. One of the boys who had been a hearse-driver was now demoted to flower boy for drag-racing the hearse down Melrose Boulevard. His buddy was a tubby fellow, overflowing with fat, and was eating burritos with both hands. They spent their time telling dirty jokes.

Then the undertaker took me downstairs to the embalming room which was lined with dozens of dead bodies lying under sheets. I watched a body being embalmed - formaldehyde was pumped into the body through a spigot inserted in the chest while blood gushed out of the same opening. I also saw a corpse of a man who had blown his head off with a shotgun.

My job at the branch mortuary was nowhere as bloody or varied. Most of the time I was alone in the office so I was able to read and study and listen to the radio. With no-one but the dead, I could listen to rock and roll at peak volume. Sometimes a friend would come over and we'd have a game of soccer on the mortuary lawn. That's one nice thing about working with the dead - no matter what you do, nobody complains.