A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves. It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity. The hands of time will never move quite so slowly as when you are standing over the dead body of an elderly man with a pink plastic razor in your hand. Under the glare of fluorescent lights, I looked down at poor, motionless Byron for what seemed like a solid ten minutes. That was his name, or so the toe tag hung around his foot informed me. I wasn't sure if Byron was a "he" (a person) or an "it" (a body), but it seemed like I should at least know his name for this most intimate of procedures. Byron was (or, had been) a man in his seventies with thick white hair sprouting from his face and head. He was naked, except for the sheet I kept wrapped around his lower half to protect I'm not sure what. Postmortem decency, I suppose. His eyes, staring up into the abyss, had gone flat like deflated balloons. If a lover's eyes are a clear mountain lake, Byron's were a stagnant pond. His mouth twisted open in asilent scream.
"Um, hey, uh, Mike?" I called out to my new boss from the body-preparation room. "So, I guess I should use, like, shaving cream or . . . ?"
Mike walked in, pulled a can of Barbasol from a metal cabinet, and told me to watch out for nicks. "We can't really do anything if you slice open his face, so be careful, huh?"
Yes, be careful. Just as I'd been careful all those other times I had "given someone a shave." Which was never.
I put on my rubber gloves and poked at Byron's cold, stiff cheeks, running my hand over several days' worth of stubble. I didn't feel anywhere near important enough to be doing this. I had grown up believing that morticians were professionals, trained experts who took care of our dead so the public didn't have to. Did Byron's family know a twenty three yearold with zero experience was holding a razor to their loved one's face?
I attempted to close Byron's eyes, but his wrinkled eyelids popped back up like window shades, as if he wanted to watch me perform this task. I tried again. Same result. "Hey, I don't need your judgment here, Byron," I said, to no response.
It was the same with his mouth. I could push it shut, but it would stay closed only a few seconds before falling open again. No matter what I did, Byron refused to act in a manner befitting a gentleman about to get his afternoon shave. I gave up and spurted some cream on his face, clumsily spreading it around like a creepy toddler fingerpainting in the TwilightZone.
This is just a dead person, I told myself. Rotting meat, Caitlin. An animal carcass.
This was not an effective motivational technique. Byron was far more than rotting meat. He was also a noble, magical creature, like a unicorn or a griffin. He was a hybrid of something sacred and profane, stuck with me at this way station between life and eternity.
By the time I concluded this was not the job for me, it was too late. Refusing to shave Byron was no longer an option. I picked up my pink weapon, the tool of a dark trade. Screwing up my face and emitting a high-pitched sound only dogs could hear, I pressed blade to cheek and began my career as barber to the dead.
When I woke up that morning, I hadn't expected to shave any corpses. Don't get me wrong, I expected the corpses, just not the shaving. It was my first day as a crematory operator at Westwind Cremation & Burial, a familyowned mortuary. (Or a familyowned funeralhome, depending on which side of the United States you live on. Mortuary, funeral home, potayto, potahto. Places for the dead.)
I leapt out of bed early, which I never did, and put on pants, which I never wore, along with steeltoed boots. The pants were too short and the boots too big. I looked ridiculous, but in my defense, I did not have a cultural reference point for proper deadhumanburning attire.
The sun rose as I walked out of my apartment on Rondel Place, shimmering over discarded needles and evaporating puddles of urine. A homeless man wearing a tutu dragged an old car tire down the alley, presumably to repurpose it as a makeshift toilet.
When I first moved to San Francisco, it had taken me three months to find an apartment. Finally, I met Zoe, a lesbian criminaljustice student offering a room. The two of us now shared her brightpink duplex on Rondel Place in the Mission District. Our home sweet alley was flanked on one side by a popular taqueria and on the other by Esta Noche, a bar known for its Latino drag queens and deafening rachera music.
Making my way down Rondel to the BART station, a man across the alley opened his coat to show me his penis. "Whatcha think of this, honey?" he said, waving it triumphantly at me.
"Well, man, I think you're going to have to do better," I replied. His face fell. I'd lived on Rondel Place for a year by now. He really would have to do better.
From the Mission Street stop, the BART train carried me under the Bay to Oakland and spat me out a few blocks from Westwind. The sight of my new workplace, after a tenminute trudge from the BART station, was underwhelming. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting the mortuary to look like—probably my grandmother's living room, equipped with a few fog machines—but from outside the black metal gate, the building seemed hopelessly normal. Eggshellwhite, only a single story, it could have doubled as an insurance office.
Near the gate, there was a small sign: please ring bell. So, summoning my courage, I complied. After a moment, the door creaked open, and Mike, the crematory manager and my new boss, emerged. I had met him only once before and had been tricked into thinking he was totally harmless — a balding white man in his forties of normal height and weight, wearing a pair of khaki pants. Somehow, in spite of his affable khakis, Mike managed to beterrifying, assessing me sharply from behind his glasses, taking inventory on just how big a mistake he had made in hiring me.
"Hey, morning," he said. "Hey" and "morning" were flat, indistinguishable, under his breath, as if they were meant for only him to hear. He opened the door and walked away.
After a few awkward moments I decided he intended me to follow, and I stepped through the entryway and turned several corners. A dull roar echoed through the hallways, growing louder.
The building's nondescript exterior gave way in back to a massive warehouse. The roaring was coming from inside this cavernous room —specifically from two large, squat machines sitting proudly in the center like the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of death. They were made of matching corrugated metal with chimneys that stretched upward and out of the roof. Each machine had a metal door that slid up and down, the chomping mouths of an industrial children's fable.
These are the cremation machines, I thought. There are people in there right now—dead people. I couldn't actually see any of these dead people yet, but just knowing they were nearby was exhilarating.
"So these are the cremation machines?" I asked Mike.
"They take up the whole room. You'd be pretty surprised if these weren't the machines, wouldn't you?" he replied, ducking through a nearby doorway, abandoning me once again.
What was a nice girl like me doing in a bodydisposal warehouse like this? No one in her right mind would choose a day job as a corpse incinerator over, say, bank teller or kindergarten teacher. And it might have been easier to be hired as a bank teller or kindergarten teacher, so suspicious was the death industry of the twenty-three-yearold woman desperate to join its ranks.
I had applied for jobs concealed by the glow of my laptop screen, guided by the search terms "cremation," "crematory," "mortuary," and "funeral." The reply to my job inquiries—if I received any reply at all—was, "Well, do you have any cremation experience?" Funeral homes seemed to insist on experience, as if corpseburning skills were available to all, taught in your average high school shop class. It took six months and buckets of résumés and "Sorry, we found someone better qualified" before I was hired at Westwind Cremation & Burial.
Excerpted from Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. Copyright 2014 by Caitlin Doughty. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.