The subject of death has proven inexhaustible, from the Greeks to Hamlet to E.B. White’s pig. In “The End,” Ben Ehrenreich examines The Inevitable from an unexpected postmortem angle, and with a clever bit of a wink. The story explores death within the context of a particular place – Los Angeles, a city built upon an industry that twists and resists and parlays reality. The story may remind one of Morris Markey’s great New Yorker piece (Oct. 17, 1931), “Drift,” which opens this way:
Detective Sergeant O’Keefe was on the assignment at the Morgue, and he was checking over the morning’s instructions from Headquarters. He leaned over his desk in a pleasant room with a high ceiling, on the second floor of the old red building at Twenty-ninth Street and First Avenue, and thumbed the slips of paper. One of these slips, on pale-green paper, read “Release for Burial.” The detective carried it to the head of the Mortuary Department.
“I’ve got a release on this one,” he said. “Number 48,227.”
“O.K.,” said the superintendent. “We’ll send him up on this afternoon’s boat. But I thought that woman from Indianapolis was going to identify him.”
“She kept coming back and looking,” said the detective. “Finally made up her mind it wasn’t her Willie. Willie had a scar on his arm where he fell out of a tree one time.”
Ehrenreich approached the story with an effective straight-chronology structure and tracked the dead procedurally, as an explanatory narrative. The protagonist is death itself – or, rather, you, Reader. (Sorry.) The idea worked beautifully for its publishing home, Los Angeles magazine, a longtime hunter-gatherer of distinguished long-form journalism. The magazine has published some of the country’s top nonfiction writers and has a history of strong editing; Kit Rachlis led the magazine to a fleet of National Magazine Awards and now Mary Melton is doing the same. (“The End” won for feature writing.)
In the annotation, you’ll find Ehrenreich’s comments in red, Storyboard’s in blue. A few questions, to start:
Storyboard: How did this story come about and how long did you work on it?
Ehrenreich: The short answer is that I’ve always been somewhat death obsessed. My original idea was to write a story about the distribution of death in L.A.: who dies and how. I had seen some intriguing statistics from the county: It’s almost a statistical anomaly if a white woman gets murdered in L.A., while death by homicide is a constant possibility for African-American men. Some of that information made it into the final piece, but as I began researching more, I became more interested in what happens after you die, and less interested in causes of death. I worked on the reporting on and off, while working on other projects, for about six months.
Death in the abstract can be a tricky topic –how could you be sure it wouldn’t repulse people?
I couldn’t. But I did everything I could to draw the reader in. And I tried to be restrained with the icky stuff.
You’re a nonfiction writer and a novelist. You’ve written about the death of the book and the death of a young immigrant. Where do you find your ideas? What appeals to you?
I don’t think death is a favorite topic, but it is all over the place. It’s lurking somewhere in every story. (The skull grinning at the banquet, to paraphrase William James.) If you don’t take pains to shut it out, it strolls right in. I always find myself saying that my next big story is going to be about puppies, but it never works out that way. I wouldn’t say that I’m attracted to the darker stuff, but the stories that I find urgent don’t tend to be very jolly ones. If everything’s fine, why take the trouble to write about it?
I have to ask if, as the son of Barbara Ehrenreich, you grew up with pencil and paper in hand, and whether you felt some a certain responsibility to writing and/or activism. Do you feel compelled to write about social issues because of your mother’s work? Is your sister also a writer?
When I was younger, if anything, I tried not to be a writer. But we don’t get choices in these matters, and my mother certainly provides a model for me – of integrity, commitment, courage, independence, sheer stubbornness. I don’t know that I feel compelled to write about social issues because of her work. It’s more that I grew up in a household in which politics was ever-present, lived, and very real. It was and is inseparable from other arenas of life. And yes, my sister, Rosa Brooks, is also a writer. She had a weekly [op-ed] column in the Los Angeles Times for several years. (Ed. note: Rosa Brooks is, among other things, a human rights/national security expert, a Georgetown law professor and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who founded a Pentagon office on humanitarian policy.)
Students always want to know about writers’ overarching process, so how do you work? Where do you work? When? Are you a rituals person and if so how so?
No real rituals. I write in the morning because that’s when my head is clearest and I have the most energy. I rent a small office, and write there and at my desk at home.
By Ben Ehrenreich
Los Angeles magazine
You’ve made some bargains. Right away, you address the reader. Why tell the story in second person? I like the way the second person jars the reader, pushes them out and then pulls them back into the work. It breaks down the fourth wall, to borrow a metaphor from theater, forcing the reader to acknowledge their relationship to the text, explicitly involving them in its creation through the act of reading. We all have. Maybe you allow yourself a single Tommy’s burger every six months. Maybe you’ve given up meat altogether, or red meat anyway, most of the time. Maybe you’re serious about this and you’ve given up all refined grains and any processed anything; the extra buck a pound to buy organic seems a reasonable sacrifice. You’ve given up booze, cigarettes, pills, cocaine, sex with strangers. You tell yourself you don’t miss them. You wear sunscreen and eat flaxseeds. You go to the gym on breezy Sundays when you’d rather lie around. You go to yoga classes even though the chanting makes you want the world to end. You sold your motorcycle years ago. You cross at the light and look both ways.
No matter how many sacrifices you make to Lady Death, no matter how rich the offerings you lay before her altar, she will know where to find you. When she comes, she will hold you tight, and she will never let you go. Don’t be frightened. She takes us all.
Even here in Los Angeles, in the glow of so much newness, she takes 60,000 of us each year.1 That’s 164 each day. Imagine them all lying side by side, napping forever without a snore. The sun goes down and rises again, and 164 more are sleeping beside them, resting cheeks on shoulders, ears on arms. Very cinematic. That come from drinking the water in L.A.? Our water is very pure. We steal it from faraway counties. One day you will join their still parade. Chances are good—about one in four in L.A. County—that death will grab you by the heart. “Death will grab you by the heart” is good because it extends the personification of death and also gives us a slightly new way of thinking about heart attack. The Lady Death idea could have turned on you if you’d taken it too far, but didn’t. This was quite literal. I was at various points thinking about La Santa Muerte, the cult of Holy Death that has become increasingly popular in Mexico over the last few years, in which death is personified as a saint and worshiped in rituals that mix Catholic and indigenous sources. There are temples to Santa Muerte all over the immigrant neighborhoods of L.A. I explicitly mentioned her in earlier drafts – that dropped out, but the personification remained. Coronary disease is by far our Narrative students and I are always talking about authorial presence and how much of oneself to include/reveal. Why the “us” and “our” and “we” for this story? To maintain the idea of universality/inevitability? Or because it’s gentler, given the topic? It seemed crucial to this story to involve the reader, to bring it home that this story was about them, that they had something at stake in it. leading cause of mortality, as it is in the rest of the country. L.A.’s specific inequities, though, travel as deeply through death as they do through life. In this and other ways, death maps life. If you’re an African American or a Latino male and you die before 75, you’re more likely to die of homicide than any other cause. The same goes if you’re of any race or either gender and you live in South L.A. If you’re white or live west of La Cienega and it’s not your ticker that gets you, it will most likely be an overdose, or a car crash, or lung cancer,2 or your own hand—murder is not even in the running. Walk us through the reporting, if you would. How did you begin? How did you proceed? What public records and other sources did you use? I used some public records – the facts above are from a report commissioned by the county. I dug around, called a dozen or so offices until I found the researcher who had written the report (which at the time was unpublished). I started with the county coroner, who was less than media-friendly. So mainly I called funeral homes, interviewed at least a half-dozen funeral directors until I found a few who were open enough to put me in touch with the people they worked with in other sectors of the industry (the embalmer, the transporter, etc.). Most people don’t call back, so you have to be a (polite, persistent) pest.
Whoever you are and wherever you live, you will go. The repetition is kind of Dickensian. This, of course, being classic Dickens repetition: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.” Why use repetition here and in the sentences that follow? I mainly understand prose through rhythm. It has rhythms whether we’re aware of them or not. Better to be aware and in control. Repetition is one way of establishing a beat. You will not be you anymore. Not exactly. You will be a corpse, a cadaver, a decedent, a “loved one.” You will be remains. The death industry employs more euphemisms than politicians do.3 Someone will find what’s left of you. A child, spouse, or parent. A nurse or passerby. Whoever it is will call for help. At home, at work, or in the street, he or she will dial 911. In a hospital, hospice, or nursing home, someone will call your doctor, who will check one last time for vital signs, declare you dead, and fill out the proper forms. A nurse will remove your clothes and close your eyes. (Not just for modesty’s sake: Rigor mortis hits the eyelids fast.) He or she will tie a tag bearing your name, which you can no longer speak, This detail – “which you can no longer speak” – is the hardest to bear, for some reason. Did that one just jump into your boat or did it come in revisions? I think that was there from the first draft. onto one of your toes, cover you with a plastic shroud, and wheel you to an elevator and thence to the morgue. In most hospitals it is in the basement. You will be rolled from the gurney into a refrigerated drawer. The door will close behind you. It will be dark and cold, but you won’t care.
So here you are, dead and alone. More repetition. Did it depress you, reporting/writing this piece? No, not at all, actually. It was much cheerier than most of the stories I work on. There’s no human cruelty here, no horrific injustices. All of that is upsetting, depressing. Death is just death. No getting around it. Chances are you didn’t want this, but your wishes were ignored. You now build some distance and take to another plane – it’s the same point of view yet it’s shifted. Whatever happens to the part of you that you recognize as somehow quintessentially you (call it soul, self, spirit, spark), the other part isn’t finished yet—the fleshly part, the limbs and guts that ached and pleased you in so many ways, the meaty bits that you vainly or grudgingly dragged around for all those years. That piece is still of interest to the bureaucrats. It is still a potential source of profit. In your absence its journey is just beginning. Ah, now this seems to be the point of the story or at least a parallel narrative. Yep. Here we go.
The path forks before it. Which way it goes will be determined by the cause of your demise. All the state wants is a death certificate: Think of it as a letter from your doctor excusing you from paying income tax forever. The county, though, wants to know why you died and if there might be a reason to push the cops and the courts and the jails into motion. The coroner holds the key to all that machinery. The key itself is what you once called you. If you have not been under the care of a physician for six months, if you die during surgery or as a result of injuries sustained in an accident or an assault (self-inflicted or otherwise), or if there’s any suspicion that your death might be something other than “natural,” your next stop will be the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner—which is, assistant chief coroner Ed Winter 4 tells me more than once, the busiest such department in the country.
It investigates 18,000 deaths a year, dispatching 36 investigators5 to the far edges of its jurisdiction—from Lancaster to Long Beach and West Covina to Catalina Island, from oil tankers and cruise ships anchored off the coast to jets on the runway at LAX. This story is such an interesting way of looking at L.A. life and culture. (Yes, I meant to say “life.”) It’s an unexpected perspective. How did you come to the idea? We live in a highly death-denying culture, and more so in L.A. than probably anywhere else in the country. This made actually talking about death seem particularly intriguing here. One of those investigators will come to you. He or she (let’s go with she, because more often these days the investigators are women) will search your pockets for ID. If you are at home, she will nose around for medical records. She will interview relatives, witnesses to your final moments, and the police at the scene. She will photograph and examine you. You’ve seen this part on TV. When she has finished, she and a driver will load you into the rear of a white county van and take you on one last drive down one last freeway, through one last Sig-Alert, off that final off-ramp onto Mission Road. At the corner of Marengo Nice specificity juxtaposed with … they will pull into a driveway at the side of an elegant old brick building. [annotation-group][annotate color="blue"]… a half-detail – “an elegant old brick building” as opposed to its name or purpose. This gives me, the reader, a bit of relief and also latitude to do my own imagining. Good! They will open the back of the van, roll you out, and take you inside, where you will wait quietly in the coroner’s fridge until one of 25 overburdened pathologists is ready to examine you.
Winter, a 61-year-old goateed ex-cop with a cranky sort of charm, squints and counts the day’s cases on his computer monitor. It’s 9:30 in the morning. “Since eight o’clock, I’ve gotten one, two, three, four, five more,” he says. “Got an undetermined, a child. Got an accident, 63-year-old male. Another accident: unknown male Caucasian, 30 to 40, found unresponsive by passerby at a construction site. And an unknown male found floating in the ocean dressed in T-shirt and jeans, Pacific Coast Highway.” He stops reading and looks up. “We’re frigging always busy.” This is, technically, our first scene, and introduces us to a distinctive character. I like that you handed him the mike; quoting him gives us our first voice other than your own. What were the challenges of populating a story about dead people? The challenge was of the abundance-of-riches variety: The living characters were all sufficiently interesting that it was more of a question of what to leave out.
It’s not just the dead. The telephone rings, and it’s a reporter. He has questions about Brittany Murphy’s husband.6 Winter puts the call on speakerphone Love that you didn’t use the call or further allude to it; was it uninteresting? What mattered most here was that he has to deal with so much celebrity death, his attitude towards it, so the fact of the call and his reaction to it were more interesting to me than anything the reporter said. and rolls his eyes. When Winter and I first met a few weeks earlier, he pushed a sheet of paper across his desk. It was an inventory of celebrity deaths the coroner’s office had investigated during the previous year. Michael Jackson’s name was listed twice.
In the lobby Winter introduces me to Lieutenant David Smith, a genial, dapper man of 46 with a white handlebar mustache, who supervises the department’s identification and notification division. Right now Smith’s mind is on other things. “Part of the issue I’m dealing with here,” he tells me in the elevator, Nice, using the elevator – continues the motion. Ideally, a single vehicle will get you around a story. That rarely happens, but in the end, it’s the motion that matters. “is extremely overweight bodies that have to be cremated.” By state law, if nobody picks you up after 30 days, you will be incinerated.7 In bureaucratese this is called “county disposition,” or “county dispo” for short. Smith located a private crematorium willing to kindle his uncollected dead, but it wouldn’t take bodies over 350 pounds. He found a mortuary in Orange County that wanted seven bucks for every pound over 350, but even it topped off at 400 pounds. “I had one the other day who was 710 pounds,” Smith says. The problem seems to have been solved: Odd Fellows Cemetery in Boyle Heights specializes in the incineration of the truly obese and charges a flat rate of one dollar a pound. Just, wow. Never knew this issue/cottage industry existed, or that L.A. even had enough morbidly obese people to make disposal a problem. What were the biggest surprises when reporting this story? Yeah, we’re a pretty skinny bunch compared to most Americans, but not all of us, apparently. The biggest surprises tended to be things like this, the discovery of worlds you wouldn’t have imagined exist. Like, say, the challenges of applying makeup to a child’s corpse. (Kids don’t wear makeup, so it’s that much harder to avoid making them look ghoulish…)
Again, death maps life. County budgets are tight, and more families can’t afford funerals. L.A. County will charge your next of kin $352 to pick up your ashes (cremains, if you prefer), which is about what Forest Lawn wants just to chauffeur you from your deathbed to its oven door. Arresting phrase, “chauffer you from your deathbed to its oven door,” for its syncopation/juxtaposition of ideas. “Chauffeur” charges the sentence whereas “drive” or “take” would’ve wasted an opportunity for a memorable image. Verbs matter! Nouns too, but sentences hang on the verbs. So more families than ever have to settle for the grim anonymity of “county dispo.”
Smith’s main responsibility is to identify you and notify your family that you have died. If the investigator sent out to the scene was unable to make a positive ID, you are for the moment a John or Jane Doe. These categories, Smith says, are further subdivided into “soft Does” and “hard Does.” You are a soft Doe if you were found locked in your own apartment, for instance, and the investigator is pretty sure you are you—but you are too decomposed for anyone to be certain. Your fingers are too far gone to yield prints, but Smith’s people8 should be able to confirm your identity through dental records or X rays. You are a hard Doe if you were discovered in an alley or in the trunk of a car and you didn’t have your wallet and there was no one around who knew that you were you. Then the only real options are fingerprint databases and DNA, and the latter is likely to be on record only if you’ve been convicted of a felony.
Once they’ve pinned a name on you, Smith and two other investigators will start looking for your family. If they turn up an address, they’ll send a letter out. If they find a phone number, they’ll call. “We notified somebody through MySpace one time,” Smith says. The phone calls can be tricky. Some people laugh on hearing the news. Some are apathetic. Some start screaming. “If the phone just drops, we call 911,” Smith says. “We don’t want another case.” Sometimes the next of kin are in denial. “You have to use the power words: ‘They’re dead.’ ” What elicited this interesting litany of responses? Did you ask how people react upon being contacted? Yes. I wanted to know what it’s like to spend your days delivering the worst news people will ever get.
Your family might demand to come in and see you one last time. This generally means they can’t afford a funeral and want a chance to say good-bye. County rules forbid them from viewing you in the flesh, so the best Smith can do is show them a photo. “I’m good with Photoshop,” he says, “so if the face looks really bad, I’ll try to remove as much blood as possible, take the bullet out of the head. Decomposed bodies I can’t do much with.”
If your family members really miss you, Smith says, they will talk to your photo as if you could hear them. Sometimes they will pet it, as if you could still feel their fingers on your face. You’ve brought the POV back down to the personal, moved from general to specific, which returns us to the overall idea that death is singular. The detail about relatives who talk to photos is haunting – did that, and the petting detail, come organically or did you have to push for it? I admire that you took the petting detail one step further, back to the personal, with “as if you could still feel their fingers on your face.” I don’t remember having to push for it. If they were willing to speak to me at all, most of the people in these industries talked and talked and talked. They rarely get to talk about their work – most people are too creeped out to listen – so they were eager for the chance to unload, to tell all the stories that they keep bottled up.
All the King’s Horses
If you become a coroner’s case, you have a decent shot at being eviscerated within a few days of your death: Pathologists employed by the coroner perform about 7,800 autopsies a year, though many of those are partial autopsies, in which the examiner inspects only the specific organs that catch his or her interest. In the 1960s, autopsies were performed on more than half the patients who exited the hospital through the morgue. That number has since fallen to less than 10 percent. Insurance companies loathe spending money on the living and are even stingier with the dead. This has opened up a market niche large enough for Vidal Herrera to park his Hummer in. Fantastic. So much cleverer than the usual expository “He drives a Hummer” or “He pulls up in his Hummer.” Perhaps you’ve seen it. It’s white and emblazoned on both sides with the name of his company: 1-800-AUTOPSY.
Herrera is 58 and stocky, with a trim white beard and a round, lively face. The guys in the neighborhood call him “Muerto.” Today, standing in the courtyard of his Valley Boulevard compound in El Sereno, he is wearing a T-shirt that says What happens in the morgue stays in the morgue. In addition to performing complete autopsies for $3,000 a pop and harvesting and transporting donated organs, Herrera rents mortuary equipment to the studios for film and TV shoots and has a side business producing custom “coffin couches”—cut-down caskets transformed into sofas. He shows me one in silver and black with a Raiders logo embroidered on a cushion.
Despite his nickname, Herrera’s vivacity is uncontainable. He takes me to his office and tells me about his years with the coroner’s department, where he worked as a morgue attendant, a photographer, an autopsy assistant, and finally for five years as an investigator. So he’s not a pathologist? Wow. Nope. But there must be one present at each autopsy. See Dr. Gray, below. He talks about a woman in Compton eaten by her cats, about the time he retrieved a “floater” from a drainage canal in Lomita and his clothes filled with maggots, and about his last day on the job in 1984, when he ruptured three disks in his spine trying to lift an obese pastry chef who had shot herself. “She reminded me of a gorilla,” he says, and recounts his subsequent struggles with depression and the revelation that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Until a psychiatrist told him otherwise, he says, he had thought that his recurring nightmares of mutilated corpses were normal. On one wall of his office, among Halloween props and Grateful Dead posters, is a framed caricature of Herrera grinning in black surgical scrubs. A speech bubble above his head reads “A chance to slash is a chance for cash.” Wow, “bring out your dead” indeed. These guys would have to be unsentimental, though, or else go mad. Did you get the urge to either explore or defend the survival mechanism of clinical coldness? As a journalist who frequently goes to some pretty awful places, I wasn’t put off or surprised by the self-protective dark humor. Herrera was particularly mercenary , but he was extremely open and honest about it all. Compared with the professionally sentimental but no-less mercenary corporate types that I met at, for instance, Forest Lawn, I found him quite refreshing.
If your survivors have suspicions about the cause of your death and can afford to put their minds at ease, they can call Herrera or one of his eager competitors. If they do, you will end up like the 60-year-old woman now lying naked on Herrera’s stainless-steel autopsy table. She is short and overweight and hasn’t breathed in five days. “Hasn’t breathed in five days” is so much more artful – and relatable to the reader; personal – than the expected “died five days ago” or “has been dead for five days.” Her arms and lower legs are tanned a yellowish brown, but her belly, breasts, and thighs are a startling white because all of her blood has drained to her back. Her toenails are still crimson with polish. Herrera dons blue latex gloves and a long, black rubber butcher’s apron for the occasion, but he’s there only to watch. His autopsy assistant, Sean Sadler, will do the honors, along with a pathologist who asks me not to use his name. I will call him Dr. Gray.
Sadler begins with a Y-incision. Had you ever observed an autopsy before? How’d you do? This was my first. I was a little nervous about it, mainly afraid of humiliating myself by needing to vomit or run from the room, but I did fine. One learns to disassociate extremely quickly. But I did find that for a few days I had a hard time looking at people in the street without imagining their viscera. Using a scalpel, he slices down from each shoulder to the sternum and from there to just above the black snare of hair beneath her navel. The patient does not flinch, not even when Sadler peels back the skin of her chest with a retractor, causing her breasts to loll on her biceps. Sounds gross to say this but very nice. Thanks! He cuts through her ribs with pruning shears, pausing to observe the softness of her bones—osteoporosis, he suggests—and the fractures left by whoever had attempted CPR. He trims away the heavy yellow fat around her heart, slices through the arteries and veins, and hands the once vital organ to Dr. Gray, who weighs and dissects it on a plastic cutting board. The lungs come out next. Sadler works the scalpel under the patient’s chin to loosen the organs of her neck: the thyroid and parathyroid glands, the esophagus and trachea. He goes organ by organ, handing each to Dr. Gray, who slices and studies them, then drops a sliver of each into a jar of diluted formaldehyde. He traps another sliver in a plastic cassette for the toxicologist and tosses what is left into the “gut bucket”—a small, wheeled trash can at his feet. Wow. Almost primitive. Yeah, in the end, despite all the scientific and bureaucratic trappings, they are in the business of cutting people up.
In the end, when her torso has been reduced to what is called a “canoe,” and her skullcap rocks on the table beside her right shoulder, Great precision of detail. How were you reporting in the autopsy room – notebook + tape recorder? Or notebook only? Or …? Notebook only. and a single drop of blood-brown water hangs like a tear beneath her eye, Dr. Gray decides it was her heart that killed her, although she also had pneumonia and a terrible back injury—four inches of spine swollen and saturated with blood—that must have kept her in constant and excruciating pain. He shows me her butterflied heart. The two halves of her mitral valve don’t quite match, which means more to him than it does to me. In this case I kinda wanted to know what the mismatched mitral valve did mean… I believe that in an earlier draft, those secrets were revealed. She died of a heart attack. Though it wasn’t just the mitral valve that revealed that.
If it were you instead of her, you would not recognize yourself. The yellowy red mess inside of you would seem to have little to do with even your most intimate understanding of yourself. You would be startled by the pleasant purplish hue of your liver, the graceful drape of your small intestines, the stubborn white ball of your skull. The smells you release would surprise you, I admire that you didn’t attempt to describe the smells – the absence of description and the “would surprise you” work toward the idea almost as powerfully. Thanks. Often, saying less accomplishes a lot more. as would the awful groaning crack your spine makes when Sadler pries the vertebrae apart to get at the tender cord. But since the worst indignity—your death—has already occurred, do you think you’d really mind?
A Happy Life
If your death is sufficiently unremarkable that the coroner has no designs on your remains, you will likely avoid the invasive curiosity of the county and go straight to the funeral parlor that will handle what are politely called “the arrangements.” If the funeral director has the staff on hand, he will send a man with a van to fetch you, but chances are good that he will subcontract the task to someone like Angelo Patrick.
Patrick runs Patco Transportation Services. When I meet him at a Denny’s in Hollywood, he is wearing a black suit and tie and a flawlessly white shirt with two golden pens protruding from the pocket. There is a somber intensity to him that is barely disguised by the softness of his voice or the formality of his speech and bearing. Patrick grew up in South Carolina and earned a degree in biology, but in 1971, there were not many jobs in the sciences for a black man in the South. Two years later he moved to L.A. and enrolled in mortuary school.
In the decades since Patrick graduated, the “death care” business, once known as the “dismal trade,” has changed sharply. Beginning in the late 1980s, the industry underwent a massive consolidation. Racing to corner the market before baby boomers started dying off, a few giant firms—the largest of them being Houston-based Services Corporation International—began buying up hundreds of independent mortuaries and cemeteries. Usually the conglomerate kept the individual locations’ original names but combined their operations—and jacked up prices.9 The traditionally American send-off—a viewing at the funeral home, followed by services at the church and a motorcade to the cemetery—gave way to the corporate all-in-one. The big cemeteries now have mortuaries, chapels, and even florists on-site, which cuts out the old side industries. So-called first-call services like Patco are among the few subsidiary contractors that have survived the shift. Graceful compression of time/industry history, getting us back to the characters. Thanks. That’s often the hardest trick – weaving in and out of larger narratives, specific scenes.
Technically, Patrick’s job is fairly simple. The mortuary calls him and tells him where you are. And back to the personal, so much more compelling than “tells him where the body is.” He drives to the address, knocks on the door, rolls you into a sheet, ties off the ends, hoists you onto a gurney, wheels you to the van, drops you at the mortuary, and waits for his next call. “There’s never any funny stuff,” he says. “The dead, they don’t say anything.”
His work, however, does have its complications. First, there is “decomp.” Patrick can tell it will be an issue before he even parks, when he sees the police officers standing at the far end of the sidewalk smoking cigars to cover the smell. Great detail, about the cigars. Did Patrick volunteer this or did you ask a specific question that yielded it? He was another one who needed very little prompting. A thoughtful, introspective man who, I’m pretty sure, had never been asked to speak in any depth about his work before, or about his thoughts about mortality. Aside from the odors, there are fluids to deal with and parts of you that stain his clothes. Stairs can be a problem. You don’t get any lighter when you die. If you’re a pack rat or a hoarder, you will make Patrick’s task still more difficult. You might have too much junk around for him to wheel you out, which means he’ll have to carry you. Sometimes he can’t find the dead for all the trash that crowds their homes. Oh my God I imagine people all over L.A. County started looking around their rooms. How did this piece change the way you work, or live? I’m not sure that it did. On some subconscious level, it may have helped me to deal with my own anxiety about dying. And it made it very clear to me that I don’t wish to be embalmed.
Then there are the living. Patrick remembers one large tattooed fellow who did not want to part with his mother’s remains. “He had just come out of prison. He didn’t want Mom to be dead yet. It took six guys, his uncles, to hold him down on the floor while I took the body and ran—literally ran.” Another man threatened Patrick with a hammer after Patrick had covered his wife’s face. “She’s going to suffocate,” the man said. Patrick uncovered it.
“You get them in the bathtub, on the toilet, in the bed, in the backyard. Everywhere people go, we pick them up,” says Patrick, leaning over his eggs and grits, which he does not touch. “From the littlest person to the most important person. Musicians, Indian chiefs, whoever. I pick them up.”
Patrick was raised a Baptist. When he was 12, he watched his father die of a heart attack and found he could no longer believe in the God who had taken his father from him. He married an observant Jehovah’s Witness and became one, too. Religion, he says, “offered the possibility that I might one day see my father again.” His work has eroded that faith. Patrick is 60 now and no longer married, and he doesn’t bother himself with God. “When people die, I don’t know where they go, just like I don’t know where we come from,” he says. “I see a lady die at 115. I see babies die at three months—I can hold the baby in my hand. I see kids die at 3, 4 years old. I see teenagers, rich people, poor people, white people, black people. Everybody dies.”
The only ones that disturb him, he says, are the lonely ones, the ones he finds decomposing in their living rooms, surrounded by empty bottles with the television still on. He remembers a woman he found lying on her kitchen floor. She had been there for two weeks even though her daughter lived just four doors down.10
Patrick smiles a tight, sad smile. “It’s like the Epicurean philosophers Wow, he really said “It’s like the Epicurean philosophers say”? Yep. He was a fascinating guy. say, ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ There’s a lot of truth to that. How much of your life are you willing to be unhappy? How much of your life are you willing to give up? What is a happy life?” So this is also a cautionary tale.
Los Angeles holds a special place in the history of death. Interesting way to set up this section, considering we don’t connect the dots until about L.A.’s specialness until later. A placeholder for now – just to promise that we’ll return to this. Until relatively recently, Europeans “were as familiar with the dead as they were familiarized with the idea of their own death,” writes the French historian Philippe Ariès. They painted decomposing cadavers in manuscripts and carved them on church walls. Starting in the high Middle Ages, though, Ariès argues, Western attitudes began to change: “Death, so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced…would become shameful and forbidden.” By the middle of the 20th century, the British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer was writing about “the pornography of death,” observing that “natural processes of corruption and decay have become disgusting”—just as sex had been rendered obscene by the Victorians. The dead had become an affront to the living.11
Neither Gorer nor Ariès knew quite what to make of the United States, which in many ways followed the general Western trend, banishing decay from polite conversation. At the same time, Americans ritualize death in a manner extraordinary to Europeans. Until a few years ago, even a basic working-class American funeral—from the open-casket display of the chemically preserved and cosmetically improved decedent to the long, slow procession of cars to the graveside—matched a level of pomp reserved across the Atlantic only for the most celebrated dead.
Southern California, home to the theme-park necropolis Forest Lawn, came to represent the apotheosis of America’s disturbingly “euphoric” approach to mortality, to borrow Ariès’s term. Angelenos not only failed to tastefully ignore death, they did everything they could to render it sunny, cheerful, lifelike. To Evelyn Waugh, who parodied Forest Lawn in his 1948 novel The Loved One, such vulgarity was symptomatic of the “endless infancy” of West Coast culture. To the journalist Jessica Mitford, the “American way of death” was a crude product of capitalist manipulation: We had elaborate funerals because the funeral industry was able to charge us more for them; Forest Lawn’s kitsch was just a sophisticated strategy for lubricating the checkbooks of the grieved. All so interesting – Forest Lawn has no doubt been profiled, excuse me, to death and could have had its own section here, but I’m glad it doesn’t. Any conversations about that? Probably because it has been covered so much, and because so many celebrities are buried there, the management was extremely wary of press. They gave me a very stiff (forgive me) VP to interview, otherwise politely blocked access. I had enough strong material from elsewhere that it didn’t seem worth chasing them.
No aspect of American funereal ritual has been more consistently alarming to foreign observers than embalming, Wow, I did not know that. Did this piece lead you to make any decisions about your own future “arrangements”? No, but it did give me a lot more reasons to want to be cremated. Oh right, you said that. See? Obsessed. which is practiced nowhere else in the world with the near universality that it achieved in North America. Mitford characterized embalming as expensive quackery, a recently revived pagan practice without roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The funeral industry’s insistence on its hygienic necessity, she argued, lacked any scientific or medical foundation. Waugh was better humored about the practice, if no less horrified at the notion of being, as he put it, “pickled in formaldehyde and painted like a whore, / Shrimp-pink incorruptible, not lost or gone before.” Clearly you read broadly on the subject. Will you name a few of the relevant books that kept you company throughout the research? Also, whom, if anyone, did you read, in terms of lyricism and/or tone, in order to prepare for the writing? Or do you usually go in cold? Philippe Ariès’ Western Attitudes Towards Death and The Hour of Our Death particularly shaped my thinking while I was writing the piece. Jim Crace’s novel, Being Dead, which I read several years ago, was certainly an influence as well. I don’t think there was any one text or writer who influenced me in terms of tone or voice.
To Kenneth Schenk, however, embalming is an art, perhaps soon to be lost. Schenk could not be more different from Mr. Joyboy, Waugh’s priggish, pink-eyed chief embalmer. “Through the whole sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll era I was known as the rebel embalmer,” he says with more than a hint of pride. Schenk is a trade embalmer, which means he freelances for the few remaining independent mortuaries. He is 70, and his hair stops well short of his collar, but back before it turned its current lustrous white, he wore it to the middle of his back. He came to L.A. from Florida in 1960 and did his apprenticeship with the legendary Jack Lowry, who famously embalmed Jean Harlow and who, Schenk says, “mixed his own fluids at Pierce Bros. down in the basement.”
In those days L.A. still had a “Mortuary Row”—a string of grand funeral homes with high-ceilinged lobbies and marble staircases stretching along Washington Boulevard. Fantastic bit of local history to include –we back up and see/experience the city. Yeah, this was an unexpected delight, mortuary-L.A.’s lost glory… Sitting in a booth at the Pantry downtown, Schenk waxes nostalgic about that now invisible geography, long since sliced in half by the Harbor Freeway and transformed into a jumble of repair shops and warehouses. Spearing a bite of coleslaw with Russian dressing, he tells me exactly what he will do to you if you fall into his able, practiced hands. Curious about why you give us the restaurant scene and have him explain himself over coleslaw. There were a few ways you might’ve rendered this, in other words: Having him walk us through an actual embalmment or talk about his work from some more relevant place. Did you intend contrast or …? Yeah, for contrast. Coleslaw has never seemed so unappetizing.
You will be there waiting for him when he arrives in the mortuary’s prep room.12 He will put on a paper gown and latex gloves. He will wash you and position your limbs. He’ll insert small, nubbed plastic disks beneath your eyelids to make sure that they stay shut. He will suture your lips closed, and if they don’t stay shut, he will Superglue them.
When he’s ready, Schenk will select his fluids, taking into account the time that has passed since your death (the longer it has been, the stronger the chemicals), the cause of your death (some medications interact poorly with embalming fluid), and the color of your skin (“Formaldehyde,” he says, “will turn a white person a nice shade of green”). He will choose a spot for his incision, usually the carotid or femoral artery. He will lift the artery with a steel hook and insert a plastic injection tube attached to an embalming machine. Another tube will go into the corresponding vein. Schenk will turn on the machine, adjusting for pressure and flow, and it will pump preservative fluid in through your arteries, pushing your blood out through your veins, into the sink, and down the drain.
The process lasts about an hour, depending on your size and the condition of your circulatory system.13 Then Schenk will poke a pointed, hollow instrument called a trocar through your abdominal wall. It will act as a sort of siphon, sucking gases and liquids from your intestines, stomach, bladder, heart, and lungs. “It’s not for the weak of heart,” Schenk says. Once you’ve been sufficiently cleaned out, he will inject more embalming fluid directly into your organs.
If you’ve been autopsied, all this will take a little longer and cost a little more. “Basically the arterial system is gone,” Schenk says, so he will have to inject fluid directly into each of your limbs and both sides of your brain. Then he will sew you up “nice and tight.” All that’s left is makeup, hairstyling, perhaps a touch of the “restorative arts” if disease or injuries have damaged your features. An eyelid, a nose, even an ear can be sculpted out of beeswax. Beeswax. Wow. Who knew.
Not long ago Schenk got a call from a mortuary offering him a job everyone else had refused. “It was a gal that had been murdered and put in the trunk of a car and not found for 12 days, and it was the heat of the summer.” Schenk demurred, but the funeral director persisted. “Miracles can be done,” Schenk says. “We preserved this gal and made her viewable. The family was almost ecstatic.”
Once, he says, “during the hippie era,” he embalmed a fallen rock climber whose long hair, matted with blood, had been shaved and stuffed into a bag. Schenk washed out the blood and painstakingly laid the hair out to dry. One at a time, he matched the strands by length, texture, and curl and, as patient as his silent client, reconstructed the climber’s coiffure. “It takes a guy that has an artist’s eye,” says Schenk, beaming. “Not everyone can do it.” Could you talk a little bit about why you chose to end this section this way, or to go into detail about Schenk’s skills? It seems we’re moving toward various states of accompaniment for the dead but perhaps that’s wishful thinking. I was intrigued by these men’s pride in their work, in the existence of these crafts that most of us would rather not think about, but that people pour their whole lives into. Also that men like Schenk are able to find an opportunity for artistry, something to boast of over coleslaw, in situations that most of us would merely find tragic.
Maybe you’re not fond of worms or maybe you’re claustrophobic. Perhaps you’ve read Jim Crace’s novel Being Dead, which lovingly chronicles the decomposition of a murdered couple, or the chapter in Mary Roach’s Stiff about the stages of decay, from elementary autolysis to full-blown putrefaction (when you become “soup”). Maybe your imagination suffices to make you prefer quick, purifying flame. Or perhaps you’d just rather be portable: No one stays put for long these days, and urns pack more easily than caskets. Maybe you’re Buddhist and believe the flames will help you cast aside the now useless shell of this life so that you can move unencumbered to the next. Or perhaps the thought of being scattered to the breeze feels more like freedom than any other image of eternal rest you can conjure.
Whatever your reasons, you wouldn’t be alone. According to a funeral industry data tracker, inaptly named Vital Statistic Analyses, more than half of Californians were cremated in 2009. Wow that’s high. Was curious about whether Californians cremate more than any other state or whether such a detail would’ve even been meaningful considering the population. I don’t remember if California was significantly higher, but everywhere in the U.S., increased cremation rates are the trend. In Greater Los Angeles cremations have gone up 40 percent over the past five years. The trend is recent: In 1970, fewer than 5 percent of Americans met that final flame.14 Philippe Ariès calls incineration “a manifestation of enlightenment, of modernity” and suggests that, as “the most radical means of getting rid of the body and of forgetting it, of nullifying it,” cremation is the method best suited to the abstraction and uprootedness of modern life.
It is also a lot cheaper. A bare-bones cremation at downtown’s Armstrong Family Malloy-Mitten mortuary will set your survivors back $665, less than a third of the cost of the lowest-end burial plot at Forest Lawn (not counting casket, vault, memorial plaque, embalming fees, burial charges, and carnation boutonnieres). If you’re not afraid of fire and you choose to go that way—or someone chooses for you—your mortuary will likely dispatch you to a crematorium. Few mortuaries cremate their own, and few crematoriums deal directly with consumers. An employee of a transport service like Angelo Patrick’s will drop you off at the crematory door, fill out the requisite paperwork, and depart confident that you will be much easier to carry when he returns to pick you up. You use humor here and there, and it works. How much did you play with humor in this piece, considering the subject matter, and where did you dial it in? Can you give us some examples of lines/ideas you ultimately cut for the sake of message/tone? I don’t remember specifics, but I did cut a few lines. I knew the piece had to be funny if it was going to work, but also that it would require a very light touch, that anything too heavy would destroy it. Specifically, you will fit in a five-by-seven-by-ten-inch box, and you will weigh between three and ten pounds. “I call that radical weight reduction,” says Aida Bobadilla, who manages Odd Fellows Cemetery in Boyle Heights, the same Odd Fellows that David Smith at the coroner’s office contracts with for the fiery disposal of the morbidly obese. And was there any discussion on lines like this one, from Bobadilla? It seems somehow crass for a person who specializes in caring for the remains of the morbidly obese to make fun of them. Or am I misreading? I suspect that few of her clients have complained. Good point.
The process is simple. “It’s very much like you’re cooking,” Bobadilla says. A pale, slender woman with dark eyes and a sudden, flashing laugh, she is 63 but easily could pass for 50. Sitting on the couch in the lobby, she looks me up and down. “You, three hours,” she says. “Me, three hours.” This quote helps me understand something about how people like her see the world. Perspective. Heavier folks take longer. Lieutenant Smith’s 710-pounder took six hours. They are also more complicated to burn. Fat produces a great deal of heat,15 which means that someone has to be there standing by to regulate the chamber’s temperature.
State law requires that you be combusted in a container, which might be a cardboard box or a hand-buffed walnut casket with mattress springs and quilted velvet lining. Once it has burned away, you will, too. “We direct the flame toward the torso,” Bobadilla says, “and the flames feather out to the extremities.” If for any reason you roll to one side or otherwise attempt to flee the flames, a technician may open the door to the retort, as the cremation chamber is called, and nudge you into place with a pole. The retort will rise to 1,550 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to turn most of you to vapor. “The skin melts, the skin bubbles, and then it’s gone.”
And the smell? I ask Bobadilla if her neighbors complain about the scent of singed hair and roasting meat. Back to primitive ideas. Animal. Calculated wording choice? Sure. We are meat. She assures me that the temperature is too high for anyone to notice anything. At most, “you may smell like paper burning,” she says, and that’s probably just the casket going up. Here’s a question: Instead of relying on others to describe the smell, why not observe (if possible) a cremation and describe for yourself? Not possible? I tried. They don’t even let the families watch. Cremation chambers are designed to capture any unseemly emissions. The only way to tell that someone’s cooking, she says, is to search the sky above the smokestacks for wavy lines of heat.
When all of you has burned that can be burned, the technician will turn off the gas and rake out what little is left: charred and brittle fragments of bone—sometimes a femur or a piece of skull will be recognizable. He or she will collect these shards of you in a metal pan, allow them to cool, then pass a magnet over them to catch any metal intermingled with you: eyeglass frames, fillings, buttons, zippers, the cotter pins, springs, and hinges from your casket.16 Bobadilla once found a gold fingernail.
You are at this point officially cremains. In a large industrial blender you will be processed into powder. Your relatives will not want to find chunks. You will then be poured into a gusseted plastic pouch, which will be sealed and placed inside a “temporary plastic urn”—i.e., a box—wrapped in brown paper, and meticulously labeled inside and out. The mortuary will send someone to get you, and you, more portable than ever, will have a lot of options.
You can stay in your plastic urn and go straight to the back of the closet. You can express your personality until the end of time in an urn shaped like a golf bag, or an angel, or a duck. You can doze Back to the opening image of the dead napping forever without a snore. in a locket on a loved one’s neck. You can rest eternally in the Buddhist Columbarium atop the highest peak in Rose Hills Cemetery, commanding a view (if only you still had eyes!) of the entire L.A. basin, from Catalina to Mount Baldy and beyond. You can be scattered at sea to commune with the fish. You can be packed in fireworks and rocketed into the heavens. But you cannot be scattered on the infield at Dodger Stadium, or the outfield, or anywhere in Disneyland at all—do not even ask. Ha. What led you to the no-nos? I had been asking funeral directors about unusual requests. These, it turned out, were pretty common. I have a vague recollection of a story of someone running out into the outfield in Dodger’s stadium, emptying an urn and dashing back to the stands.
Odd Fellows is also a cemetery, so Bobadilla walks me outside to show me the Civil War graves It’s weird to think about Civil War graves in L.A. or even in California. We do have history here, we just, you know, bury it. and tell me about the ghosts—not just the ones that she sometimes spots flitting around the office but the one she’s only heard about: the Phantom Lowrider. People arriving for funerals have told her they’ve seen it in their rearview mirrors. Some say it’s white, others black. No one can describe the driver’s face. When they turn to look, Bobadilla says, “there’s nothing there.”
I walk around and don’t see any ghosts. There’s a funeral going on to my right, a family gathered around a grave. They’ve hired mariachis. Right now they’re singing “Amor Eterno,” and the tune is so perfectly sad that the air above the graveyard seems to expand a little. I circle past the mourners and back to the gates until I see it—a low chimney of beige brick just behind the lobby where Bobadilla and I had been sitting. She was right. There is no smoke, but the palm trees and the eucalyptus on the far side of the smokestack are shivering and slipping, as if the sky itself has lost all confidence and allowed the atmosphere to sag. Plenty of sobering notes/moments in this piece but to the great credit of your restrained and almost (appropriately) clinical tone, this is the first time I feel a little bit sad. Good. I don’t mean that cruelly, only that that was the idea, that the sadness that hovers over this story should be allowed to leak through in places. Like this one.
The Moment You’ve Been Waiting For
Then there are the holes. If you feel sometimes that the surface streets are just that, surface, that the concrete and asphalt crust of the city is hiding something big beneath our feet, you are right. In 2003, construction workers digging a drainage canal for the Playa Vista condo complex unearthed the bones of 396 Gabrieliño-Tongva Indians at the edge of the Ballona wetlands. The site is now a soccer field. Two years later on the other side of town, crews working on the Eastside extension of the Metro Gold Line found the remains of 174 people, most of them Chinese laborers, just south of Evergreen Cemetery. Some of the graves dated to the 1880s. At that time, and for decades to come, Chinese could not be buried alongside white Angelenos and were consigned to a potter’s field outside the cemetery grounds. They have since been moved into the cemetery proper and rest on the other side of a low chain-link fence from the current potter’s field. This information serves the idea that death is happening, has happened, all around us. In class we often talk about theme, and the thru-lines of theme. This information beautifully serves theme.
If no one else will, you can count on the county to put you in a hole. Once officials have given up finding someone to take you off their hands, you will be cremated, says Estella Inouye of the county’s Decedent Affairs Division. You will be stored for three years and then buried, along with everyone else who died that year, in a mass grave behind the county crematorium. This December, Inouye expects to inter the unclaimed remnants of at least 1,700 people who died in 2007. It will be crowded down there, but everyone will have at least a little privacy: The ashes stay in their urns. “I don’t have the staff to be scattering,” Inouye says.
If you are lucky, you will be neither so poor nor so alone in death that you will end up in the county’s care, which means that you might find a plot on the other side of the fence at Evergreen, beneath the brown grass with the dead elite of yesteryear: the Lankershims and the Van Nuyses, the Rimpaus, Hollenbecks, and Breeds. It is peaceful there. Birds glide from tree to tree. Families sit in the shade on folding chairs, sharing a meal six feet above someone dear. Traffic is a distant oceanic hum. Lovely, birds to hum. You’ve kept most of your sentences simple, modest. How would you describe your voice? How would you hope others would classify/describe it? I would have a very hard time describing it. It’s a bit like trying to describe your own face. A writer friend once referred to the “muscular lyricism” of my prose. Which, I think, was nice of him.
Cemeteries are quieter and most of them are greener than the cities of the living that surround them, but these cities of the dead are not so different otherwise. They are, for instance, just as segregated. At Evergreen you’ll find an outlying Armenian neighborhood, sprawling Mexican sections (someone has spelled out the words “te amo” in small stones at the foot of a new grave), an inner circle of shiny headstones engraved in Japanese, and an early stratum of dead whites with streets named after them.
Evergreen is unusual in that it never banned the burial of African Americans. The same cannot be said of the original Forest Lawn in Glendale, where the giant wrought-iron gates for decades refused entrance to blacks, Jews, and Chinese—even after they had been reduced to permanent passivity. Today all paying guests are welcome. At Forest Lawn, though, the apparent democracy imposed by the lack of headstones—everyone gets the same bronze marker flush with the grass, which makes mowing that much easier—hides a rigid real estate hierarchy that reflects L.A.’s own, from lumpen, lowland subdivisions to gated hilltop mansions. Anyone can stroll through the Courts of Remembrance or the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather (satirized by Waugh as the “Wee Kirk o’Auld Lang Syne”) or meditate beneath the stained-glass replica of Da Vinci’sThe Last Supper, but if you want to visit the elect who rest in the Garden of Honor,17 a sign on the locked gate says you will need a “golden key of memory, given to each [plot] owner at time of purchase.” Jim Wilke, park vice president of Glendale Forest Lawn, will not tell me how much such a plot might cost, except that it reaches “into the six figures.” Ugh. What reporting challenges did you face with this piece? What did you hope to do or learn that you were unable to do/learn? There is a considerable code of silence among people who work with the dead. Since Jessica Mitford, they have rarely received any good press, and they pretty universally (and correctly, I suspect) figure that their success relies on their silence, i.e. that people don’t want to know what they do, that we’d rather just have them make grandma disappear in some dignified manner. This mainly meant that I had to talk to three or four people before I could find one who was willing to speak openly with me, or even to return my calls. And it meant that I was able to do a lot less than I wanted to. I wanted to witness a cremation, an embalming, a make-up artist at work on a cadaver. (State law forbids the presence of unlicensed personnel in mortuary prep rooms.) I wanted to ride along with the coroner’s inspectors, but post-CSI the coroner is less open to that sort of thing, and stopped answering calls when I started to press.
It was not Forest Lawn’s ill-concealed class structure that Waugh and Mitford found so distasteful but the cemetery’s brash modernity and autocratic cheer.18 Forest Lawn was designed to be “as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness,” declared founder Hubert Eaton (“The Builder”) in his “Builder’s Creed,” which begins with his assertion that “I believe in a happy eternal life” and goes on to banish every symbol of judgment or even grief from its architecture.
The mantle of necrological innovation, however, has been passed. When Tyler Cassity bought Hollywood Forever cemetery in 1998, one of the goals, says longtime friend and executive vice president Jay Boileau, “was to revolutionize memorialization.” Technology, Boileau and Cassity believed, could transform funeral practices that hadn’t changed significantly in millennia. Ultimately they hoped to do away with the material side of death, preserving just a shred of DNA and a digitally archived memorial to the departed: uploaded interviews, documents, photos, music. “We pretty quickly realized that rituals have meaning to people,” says the 40-year-old Boileau, who with his shaggy hair, jeans, and untucked shirt looks more like a graphic designer than a cemetery executive. “People want to come to the cemetery, they want a headstone, they want to have a funeral.”
Boileau now keeps busy curating Hollywood Forever’s cultural programs, bringing concerts and screenings to the mausoleum lawns, letting the living party where the esteemed dead—Cecil B. De Mille, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Dee Dee Ramone—sleep. His ambitions, though, have not shrunk. When I ask what he wants done with his own remains, Boileau hesitates, then answers that he has hoped for a while to establish an ossuary at Hollywood Forever. “I’ve offered my skull to adorn the door,” he says. “Why not, right?”
Cassity, in the meantime, has been pushing innovation in a different direction, toward “green burial”—no embalming, no casket, no headstone, native grasses instead of fertilized fields of sod. In 2004, he bought Fernwood Cemetery in Marin County as a pastoral, live-oak-and-eucalyptus yin to Hollywood Forever’s glamorous urban yang. The trend is spreading. Joshua Tree Memorial Park, the only cemetery offering green burial in Southern California, boasts hand-dug graves. So far it has only done two green burials—one in a wicker coffin, the other in a shroud.
Chances are that you will spend eternity in something more substantial, a repository somewhere between a $195 fiberboard #1650 Alternative Container and the $25,000 polished bronze Promethean.19 Chances are also good that your burial will be more corporate and industrial than breezily bucolic. Dave Worker takes me through the routine at Whittier’s Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary, the largest cemetery in North America and possibly the world, where he is the park superintendent. “We average 30 a day, six days a week,” Worker says. Much of his job is logistical: dispatching crews and plotting traffic, making sure that processions do not collide, that tractors don’t block the lanes for hearses. Wearing black jeans and a striped shirt, his gray hair slicked neatly back, Worker, who is 46, looks more casual-Friday than Quasimodo-Gothic. He sends his grave diggers to Dale Carnegie seminars to sharpen their communication skills. Wow. Yep.
Two days before your funeral one of Worker’s workers will locate your plot and paint a perfect 40-by-96-inch rectangle around your hole-to-be. Another will come by later with a sod-peeling machine and roll the rectangle of grass into three tidy cylinders. Next comes the dig team. No unnecessary back pain here: Worker’s crew will use a backhoe to scoop out six and a half feet of earth. It won’t take more than 20 minutes. On the day of the event a setup crew will install a “vault-lowering device,” into which they will place the bottom half of your vault.20 They will then cloak the border of the hole with artificial turf, unfold a few chairs, and erect a canopy to shelter your guests from sun or rain. Did you observe burials here? I observed several pre- and post- stages, but I didn’t want to disturb anyone’s actual funeral (in the best of circumstances, a stranger with a notepad makes people nervous), so except at a considerable distance, I didn’t impose myself during an actual burial.
Now it’s your cue, the moment you’ve been waiting for. You make your entrance. Your pallbearers roll your casket from the hearse and shoulder you up and over to the grave. They set you down in the vault so that your casket creates “a sort of visual focal piece” for the ceremony, as Worker puts it. Somebody says something. Somebody cries. Probably they pray. You can’t hear anything. Your lid is closed, and you’re dead. Back to the opening’s repetition. Somebody turns a crank and lowers you slowly into the ground. Somebody removes the straps and the lowering device. The show is over. Your mourners embrace. They exchange tissues and comforting words. They leave you there in your box at the bottom of your hole. The staccato delivery here does two things: moves us almost breathlessly through the process and structurally suggests simple finality. You’ve got some lovely varying language in here, from the collision of “Somebody cries. Probably they pray,” to, “in your box at the bottom of your hole.” I wanted these short, quick sentences to build momentum, to give a sense that we are racing towards something (the end), and also to echo the sentences in the lede, to let that structural symmetry act as another cue that we’re coming to the end.
Don’t despair. Worker’s crew has not forgotten you. With a special dolly they lower the lid of the vault over your casket. They seal you in with tape. The backhoe returns. Somebody shovels the dirt on top of you while someone else tamps it down around the edges of the vault. They roll out the sod. They water it. They collect the flowers, the canopy, the chairs. They work steadily. They have other graves to dig and other graves to fill. They leave you there. You’re done. I love this two-word kicker. What others did you consider? That was it. It came out on a first draft and was clearly the one.
Ben Ehrenreich is a contributing writer for Los Angeles magazine and author of the novels Ether and The Suitors, which Booklist described as a “richly imagined novel loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey and inspirited by a dazzling display of verbal gifts.”
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