Sleeping Beauty

A beautiful work of fiction for you this week from Angie McLachlan. Capturing the essences of a myriad of deaths, feelings and experiences, plucked from her 25 years serving families & caring for the dead through the sacred art and science of Embalming. Making clear this is more than just a job, Angie delves into the heart of her life’s calling to bring you a very different kind of fairy tale.

john-maler-collier-the-sleeping-beauty-1921


– Angie McLachlan –

Angie

As someone who has had 25 years experience of caring for the dead, Angie shares her knowledge with students from the whole spectrum of death care. Her ‘Care of the Body’ classes with Ichabod Smith can be mortuary based with trainee Funeral Directors, or home based, with courses catering for a range of Home Funeral and Death Companion organisations.

Angie is also called in to work with the hospice and hospital sector to advise on policy and care plans for End–of-Life and in an advisory capacity by Funeral Directors who are faced with complex cases. In addition to this work, she have been invited to speak at several conferences, and honoured to have given papers regularly at the ICCM (Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management) Learning Convention. In September 2015 Angie was nominated for the Good Funeral Awards and was proud to be among the five finalists in the category ‘Major Contribution to the Understanding of Death.’

With few people working within the funeral and death care sector having had the opportunity to bridge gaps between the Traditional and Home Funeral sectors Angie takes great pride in being able to provide bespoke training, knowledge and much needed support to people on the ‘front line’, wherever they encounter death.

Proud member of the Dying Matters Coalition

Further Information may be found at Red Plait Interpretation


 

1.

From the bustle and business of the Public Mortuary, where time-worn attendants nodded knowingly while saying “you won’t be able to do anything with that one…” I drove back. Concentrating on windy roads, cornering carefully knowing the stretcher in the back might tip. I wondered what the next hours would bring.

Arriving, unloading, I left the covered stretcher in the Embalming Theatre, while I checked back into the office; I met the quizzical look from my boss with a raised eyebrow and slight shrug. How would I know?

I went to the kitchen and forced myself to eat something and have a couple of mugs of tea, difficult with my mind racing; really difficult anticipating what lay ahead…it was going to be a long night.

2.

Back to the embalming theatre, changed into scrubs, gown and wellingtons, gloves and apron on. The stretcher before me – an unknown unseen shape contained within. A moment of quiet reflection, a deep breath then I start. Unwrapping several bagged and blooded layers, then gently winching the youngster onto the embalming table. Watching, observing every inch of the body – reading signs, looking at the broken surface. My senses on overload. Seeing, smelling, feeling all part of my initial assessment. Making lists in my head – a plan of action. What did the mortician say?  “you won’t be able to do anything with that one…”

“…that one…” ?

This one – the form in front of me, lifeless, bruised, crushed, battered, and investigated, bloody, very – very dead. This one, whose parents, a few days ago were sobbing in horror at the loss of their child as they sat in the front room with my boss… This one, who the Coroner said they could probably never see, due to the injuries. This one, who they formally identified only from her treasured charm bracelet.

This one, who was, last week, full of life, energy and essence, full of joy and dreams. This one, who I am just meeting – at a point of abjection; in hopeless, desperate need. Who was she? And what can you, or I say to parents like hers, who have lost their very heart?

3.

I had been there, when they first visited, in the corridor sitting on the floor, back against the cold radiator with my head in my hands – their wailing had reached deep into the back of the premises. The sounds of their grief penetrated deep into my gut.

I started to wash her body, looking at every accidental crevice and corner assessing and planning. Spurred on by what? The unimaginable yet palpable grief of other’s – her parents?  Having a skill-set that few people shared? Sheer bloody mindedness? – No one tells me it’s impossible without my putting up a fight!

I serve in the way I can, I serve the living by caring for their dead.

My instruments, shining steel, lay out on the side in ranks – bottles gleaming empty under the harsh light. Fluids in pastel shades reminiscent of the liqueur shots she might once have liked, chosen specifically for her now, during my assessment.
Don’t for one minute think that this is just a job. There is something deeply sacramental going on here. Science and art will meet in a transformative manner, just you wait. There will be things done with “that one…” brave things, skilful things. Over the quiet hours of the night –  while we are left alone; left alone together, to perform a work of alchemy, together – in suturing, injecting, sculpting and just being – being dead, a thing none of us get practice in.

4.

You might think you know – but you don’t. Not unless you were there. Life is not the same when you have held the heart or severed limb of another human being in your hands. You might think it isn’t good to preserve a body, to buy time for a family. But I suspect you haven’t been there. Not the times that we have been there. Some people do not need to see a body. Some bodies can be seen – natural, slightly covered perhaps…

But the ones…the bodies where the mortuary men say: “you won’t be able to do anything with that one…” are probably just the ones whose families need the alchemy, the alchemy that I know of. Alchemy performed in the crucible of inner landscapes, with anatomical shapes and textures, for most an unexplored map seen only in books and films.

Don’t tell me it’s just a job; when I have stood by this table for 7 hours and in another three, I will be wheeling a sleeping beauty into the Chapel of Rest. She is dead…yes…but she is stable and the bits of her that were not together at the start; are attached, so now she is dead whole.

As the birds wake outside, she is stable, present, dressed in her best – in the very clothes that her parents wept over as they chose them in her bedroom and brought them in to the funeral home for her to wear –  clothes for her last – very last dance; her dance with death.
Don’t tell me it’s just a job, that it’s expensive and unnecessary. You weren’t there to help me dress her. You weren’t there as I placed her in her coffin; put the tall sweet lily in her hands.

5.

They came next day – her family, silent with tears flowing. Scared at what they might see. They cried – of course they cried, but they came; four generations of them came. They came every day for a week. Several times a day the family came – just popping in, singly and together, to sit silently, or to say that thing that needed to be said. School friends came too, in supportive groups, some staying only a minute – before popping out for a ciggie and a cuddle through their tears, sitting on the wall opposite, processing and growing up too fast because of it.

They came because they could. They came because they felt a deep need to say goodbye.

They came because they could – in spite of the fact that they had been told that they probably couldn’t – that they probably shouldn’t. Their overwhelming grief transposed and gentled slightly over the week before the funeral, sitting with the body – it is part of this alchemy. Her coffin, once strange becomes strangely familiar, less stark than that first time…and her body, dear and dead, is being re-learned in its new state. Quietly, reverentially, she is washed again and again with the tears of love and loss. Washed by family and friends alike, with waves of their deepest emotion.

I am the embalmer. Don’t tell me it’s just a job, that it’s expensive and unnecessary. You weren’t there for this tsunami of loss.

6.

I am the embalmer.

I cry too.

I cry because it often seems impossible at the beginning; improbable even. I cry sometimes because of the reactions of the visitors to chapel – I have seen how much difference our work can do, it makes me grateful for the gift of life – for my live hands as they care for the dead, my dead as well as yours and theirs…if asked. I cry for and with the living and the dead.

I am a fellow human. I am the embalmer.

I cry because people who don’t know, who weren’t there, now decide that there is no value in Embalming, in what I can do. What can those people say to parents who have lost their very heart, suddenly and drastically, who are told that it’s best not to see the body of their dead child – can the detractors match what we embalmers can do?

“you won’t be able to do anything with that one…” they may say at the mortuary, and for some, families, faced by  a situation like that –  it could mean  no viewing, and a closed coffin – albeit followed by a beautiful funeral…because we, the embalmers and our skills and knowledge aren’t made available.

But, as always, we are the Embalmers – Ours may be, as history with its Anubis implies, a priestly role. There is indeed something transformational, sacramental, in our performing the story of Sleeping Beauty; and something magical has happened when we emerge from our theatres having achieved the impossible, no matter how grim the fairy tale has been.

We are the Embalmers.

So, please, don’t go thinking for one minute, that it’s just our job…

john-maler-collier-the-sleeping-beauty-1921
The Sleeping Beauty by John Maler Collier [1921]

This fictional story – almost a prose poem, encompasses how I personally feel about my calling. It does not speak of a single death, or a single family, but captures the essences of a myriad of deaths, feelings and experiences, plucked from a 25 year period of serving families and caring for the dead through partaking in the sacred art and science of Embalming. Any apparent familiarity with real people places or experiences lie, probably, with the commonality of the death experience that you may be acquainted with. It is, of course, a fictional story that speaks directly from my own opinion and does not dictate what should or could happen in the playing out of every grim fairy tale… Don’t for one minute think I was writing about my job!

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