It’s late at night and I’m exhausted from a long day of teaching. It’s after 10:00 pm, and I have been called to the funeral home to embalm two more people who have died from Covid. I push open the heavy metal door labeled, “DANGER, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY” and experience that unsettling wave of nervousness that has become increasingly familiar to me during this crazy pandemic.
I’m exhausted from all the late nights and the flood of dead bodies. My back hurts and my knees feel weak. There is a wave of nausea that rushes over me, so I reach for the door handle to steady myself. For whatever reason the creepy bedtime prayer I was taught to say when I was a little girl keeps playing over and over in my head. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
I tell myself to push through and get busy caring for the bodies that await next to the embalming table. I walk past eight freshly prepared bodies. In an effort to understand the magnitude of this very real visual in front of me, I touch each body on the leg as I pass by them. I whisper, “Rest in Peace” under my breath as if this makes everything all right. Each freshly bathed, embalmed body is swaddled in a clean white sheet with their arms folded across their chest. Their hair has been washed and combed, and a protective layer of moisturizer has been smoothed onto their faces to prevent further dehydration of their facial tissue.
I know these people have died alone in isolation with no one who loves them by their side. Now they lie here swaddled in crisp white sheets, still alone until someone dresses them and places them in their caskets in the morning. My heart is sad for them. I’m sad more and more lately, feeling inundated with all the heartache and death we are experiencing.
The prep room is at full capacity tonight, and by the incessant ringing of the phone lines, I know there are more bodies to come. Three black body bags are lined up on removal cots next to the embalming table, each zipped shut and secured with a zip tie. Attached to the bag is a label marked with the deceased person’s name, age, the hospital or morgue they came from, and their date of death. On the other side of the tag COVID POSITIVE is written in bold red letters.
I scratch my head and wonder where to begin. I draw in a deep breath, but as I inhale, my mask chokes me as it is sucked into my mouth and nose. I cough and my glasses and protective goggles immediately fog up, obstructing my pathetic view. “Damn it,” I mutter under my breath. I’d rather not see this at all, but this is what I do, so I take another filtered breath and resign myself to my task.
It has been a constant flood of dead bodies over the last several months. The death toll is steadily rising everywhere, resulting in exploding caseloads for all the local funeral homes. Day and night their phones ring, a deluge of calls, one right after another with no end in sight. Many locations are bringing in refrigeration trucks to house the bodies until they can determine their disposition or until family members can meet with the funeral director. These poor souls have suffered unmercifully only to die in isolation with no one by their side. For many of these individual in this room their comfort came from the nurses in full protective moon suits holding phone screens in front of their faces so families could try to say their final good-byes. They lie on a cot or a slab in a morgue encased in thick black body bags until someone can retrieve their earthly remains.
Inside each body bag, a person - a mother or father, son or daughter, husband or wife. I cannot completely detach myself from their humanity. It feels so personal. I carefully pull the first decedent off the cot and onto the cold white porcelain table. I cut the zip tie and unzip the bag. Body fluid has pooled in the bottom of the bag, so I take extra care not to let it spill over the side of the embalming table. Again, the innumerable lines, tubes, and drains left in you by the health care professional’s angers me. I look at you, a person who was, and no longer is and know you deserved better. I close my eyes in frustration. “You,” I say softly, “you deserved better and please know I care.” The ventilator tube shoved down your throat in an effort to facilitate your breathing is still in place. Did it not dawn on anyone to remove it after you died? Your body should have been brought to a state of rest after you fought so hard to stay alive. A bloody piece of tape is stuck to your cheek holding the nasty tube securely in place. Intravenous tubes are hanging from your arms, your groin, and your neck; and blood is seeping out of every orifice of your body. I check my anger. The hell you went through…the hell they went through trying to save your life makes me shiver. I recognize the efforts they went through trying to save your life, but I can’t help but feel empathy for you as I know that their efforts only resulted in them easing you into death.
I carefully roll you from side to side working the blood-filled black body bag out from under your battered frame. This is always a challenge since the weight of your body coupled with all the medical paraphernalia hanging from your limbs makes it hard for me to get the bag out from underneath you. I lean over you and gently scoop your legs up, balancing them slightly above the table in the crook of my arm. I roll the exposed portions of the bag up and out from under your lower half, spilling the content of the bag over the side of the table down onto my shoes. “Damn it,” I scream in my head, angry that I let this happen. Once again, I’m baptized in the blood, your blood and it gives me a renewed sense of just how precious life is.
While holding the half-rolled bag in my right hand and slowly lowering your legs that I have cradled in my left, I assess my options. No one to call, no one to bring me the mop! “F***,” I say under my breath so you can’t hear me. You might have not minded when you were alive, but out of respect for your death, I stifle my urge. I spot a sheet lying on the floor a couple feet away. I finish rolling up the remainder of the bag on the table, slide my freshly saturated, bloodied foot toward the soiled sheet, and drag it up close under the table to soak up the overflow.
Your lifeless body demands my attention, so I quickly dispose of the body bag and the blood-soaked sheets. I remove your intubation tube and carefully peel off the bloody tape that is stuck to your cheek that held it in place. One-by-one I remove and dispose of the PICC lines and IV catheters that were your life-source over the past couple of weeks. I free you of the urinary catheter and the bag taped to your inner thigh. I find relief in knowing that you are comfortable now, free of the fetters that bound you throughout your illness.
I reach for the water hose and the soap and begin bathing your body. As I grab the hose and run the warm water over your face and hair, I watch your blood drip from my hands. “Soon you will be fresh and clean,” I whisper in your ear. As the dried blood that surrounds your nose and mouth softens and washes away, it turns the water running down the table dark red. When you are all clean, it will run clear. “This will be a good thing,” I say to you as much as I say to myself. I wash away the gummy sleep that has matted your eyelashes and your eyes shut; the warm water refreshes your tired face, and your lashes release from their matted position to smile back up at me as the natural curl returns.
The unpleasant odor of your death lingers around me, and the scent of your putrefying flesh enhances the hostile aroma of your blood. I try not to breathe too deeply; I find myself feeling comforted by the fact that I will soon exchange the foul smell of your death with the familiar scent of formaldehyde as I have done countless times before. I know you can’t help how you look or how you smell, but I promise you I will restore your unrecognizable body to a recognizable state. I value your existence and I draw on my empathy for you to find the significance in your death.
I have prepared your body well and I am confident that I have served you to the best of my abilities. I murmur over your right shoulder, “Rest in peace from here on in, my friend.” I slide your swaddled body off the embalming table and onto the dressing table that will serve as a temporary resting place for your lifeless body. I put you in line with the eight others and chuckle as I hear myself think, “You are among friends now, sweet one.” I comb your hair and moisturize your face taking special care in smoothing the stone oil around your eyes and on your eyelids to prevent dehydration.
I put away all my supplies and walk around to the foot end of the table to assess my completed work. My embalming is an art a ministry of love; I see it as a gift, a gift full of unmeasurable value. I take a quick look around the room at all the death and tell myself that it will be all right. I have learned over the past six months that we are at war with a virus that has arrived in our lives like an alien invader ready to take hostages. I lie to myself and say it will all end soon. I’m not happy that I can’t do more but I’m satisfied that I do what I can to mend the broken bodies, confront our human failures, and move forward.
I gently touch your leg in acknowledgement of your passing and pause as I bow my head. Under my breath, I whisper that creepy nighttime prayer. “Now I lay you down to sleep, I pray the Lord your soul to keep.”
As I drive home along highway 80, I see no signs of life. It’s late and the street lights are flashing caution at me as I drive through the intersection of Veteran’s Parkway. I wonder if any of the bodies in the prep room were veterans, so I say a silent prayer covering them if they were. The streets are empty and it seems to take me forever to make my way into the garage. All I can think about is getting out of these dirty clothes and stepping out of these bloody shoes. I take my clothes off in the garage and drop them into a bag along with my bloodied shoes. I just want to take a hot shower and crawl into bed.
I want to feel the warm water run over my face and watch the water run clear as it swirls down into the drain. I want to wash away the smell of death that lingers in my hair and in my sinuses and replace the stench with the scent of a fragrant soap. I stand back as I comb my hair and assess the freshly bathed body in the mirror; the image I see frightens me. The dark circles under my eyes tells the story of the last couple of months. My aching back speaks to the lifting and moving of dead weight night after night.
I fumble around in the makeup drawer for my moisturizer and open the cap. I dip my little finger in the sweet smelling cream and and gently spread it on my face paying special attention to the areas around my eyes. I slip on my nightgown and crawl into bed. I close my eyes and draw in a deep breath. The bed is soft and welcoming, not like the cold white porcelain tables in the funeral home. I sink into the sweet lavender sheets and tightly pull them up under my chin. Curling onto my side into a fetal position, I clasp my hands and try to push away the memories of the day. Before drifting off to sleep, I fold my hands and silently pray. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”