Tonight I’m piecing a man’s skull back together. He came from the medical examiner, a full autopsy, his calvarium not only sawed open but shattered by a bullet. This will be a project.
At the end of 2018, I was not feeling my best. My writing career was in a slump, and the combination of anxiety and still-undiagnosed ADHD had turned all my efforts to crawl out of it into exercises in self-loathing. The political climate was not salubrious, my best friends were mostly hundreds of miles away, and my marriage, while not yet in its death spiral, was closer than I realized. My retail job of the past ten years had become increasingly soul-crushing, but health insurance kept me there. I was depressed, and everything I tried to fix it seemed futile.
Tonight I’m putting someone back together.
He’s not being embalmed. I don’t have the sinister alchemy of formaldehyde at my disposal. I can’t massage color back into his hands, plump and firm sunken tissue, slow the intricate, inexorable onset of decay. All I have are soap and water, needle and thread, clamps and putty. There won’t be an open casket, no traditional service, but his family will see him, so I’m going to fix him.
If you had told me, at any age, that I would end up a night-shift embalmer, I don’t know what my reaction would have been. Eight-year-old me, in love with The Tombs of Atuan, fascinated by the word necromancer in The Lord of the Rings; awkward teenage me, haunting the horror section of the nearest video store; college goth me, spending my weekends dressed like a vampire playing Rock, Paper, Scissors—I don’t know if any of them would have believed in that future.
Death didn’t frighten me as a child, but I also never saw it up close. I had no spectator trauma, no family tragedies, no traditions. My grandparents died, one by one, but I was never present. I never attended a funeral. Death was natural and certain, but we never shook hands.
“You always were a morbid child,” my mother said when I told her why I was going back to school. In most things I favor nurture over nature, but in this case I agree completely. It wasn’t a phase.
Until 2018, I had no idea how one became a mortician. Neither university I’d attended offered Mortuary Science classes. Maybe it required a medical degree, or a master’s, or you had to be born into a family-owned business, or come through a portal like the Tall Man. It might as well have been a mystery cult.
Then I read Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. Then I met someone who had attended mortuary school, though since left the field. Then I watched the Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Hill House. Was this an option?
A little Googling revealed that Austin didn’t have a Mortuary Science program, but there was one within commuting distance. It was only a two-year degree. The idea sank its claws into my brain and wouldn’t let go. I was thirty-nine years old, and very used to the chorus of brain weasels telling me that I was trapped—this new voice was louder. I emailed the head of the program. A week later, while I sat outside his office waiting for my interview, still convinced I was going to be rejected for any reason at all, a stranger wandered in to talk to the receptionist, glanced at me and said, “Welcome to the department.”
That was November. My classes started in January.
Tonight I’m stitching someone back together.
I start with the Y-incision, replacing the ME’s hasty whipstitch with a neater, tighter baseball stitch. The dead man’s organs are tied up in a plastic bag inside his now-combined thoracic and abdominal cavity—I’m very careful not to puncture the bag with a clumsy needle. It would be bad, as Egon Spengler says. The Y is familiar by now, rhythmic—easy, in this case, though certainly not always so. The skull will be much trickier. I’m thankful that this person wasn’t at the ME long enough for decomp to set in.
Once upon a time I wanted more than anything to be a Valkyrie. I’m a different sort of psychopomp now. My underworld is quiet, chilly, and very full of paperwork, more Niflheim than Valhalla or Fólkvangr. (I have a tattoo of Laufey’s granddaughter on my right arm—still a work in progress—to celebrate my graduation.) Night shift doesn’t make trips to the medical examiner’s office, so these days I rarely transport those who die in battle, whether with others or themselves. But I do put them back together.
The skull is tricky, as predicted. “Only” a .22. A small entry wound in the right temple—the left temple fractured, but the scalp intact. Until the autopsy, at least. He has glass in his hair, I find out the sharp way.
If he were embalmed, I would have cauterants at hand, and hardening compounds. As it is, I wipe up the blood as best I can and start fitting bone in place. A few bits and pieces are missing, but I have enough. At least the worst of the damage is on the non-viewing side. Four calvarium clamps hold the important parts in place, with putty to smooth over the cracks.
Filling in cracks with putty is a little too on-the-nose a metaphor for the past few years.
For over a year I commuted three hours round trip two or three days a week while working full time, and carving out chunks of time for internship. My home life was increasingly stressful. Sleep was a distant memory. School was more than worth it, though. The Mortuary Science wing was my sanctuary. There were no shifting goalposts there, no secret numbers by which to succeed or fail. Only amazing things to learn, in a place filled with people who were to greater or lesser degrees like me.
Then came 2020. In January I left the bookstore where I’d worked for over a decade and started my first mortuary job. I was halfway done with school, starting my embalming lab! The department was taking a field trip to New Orleans for spring break! The world was beautiful through death-tinted glasses.
That went as well as you might imagine.
The field trip was cancelled, and spring break was extended as the college scrambled to make classes virtual. I used that extra time off to move in with my parents, just before the first shelter in place orders came down. The rest of the year was, in many regards, an unpleasant blur. Students and teachers alike struggled with new platforms, struggled to stay engaged, struggled with everything. In September, at the start of my final semester, my favorite instructor died. Not COVID—the other Capital C. His was the first funeral I attended as a mourner.
Through all the miseries of 2020, it was my new job that kept me sane. I worked nights, had class in the mornings, and sacrificed sleep for the cases I needed for my license. I picked up the overtime you might expect of a psychopomp during a plague. My job title was “removal technician,” a bland and clinical term that encompasses nearly everything that happens back of house in a funeral home. Mostly, though, I went on calls. I was the quiet shadow slipping in and out of hospitals, drifting through the halls of nursing homes, waiting on the threshold of houses. Explaining to families what happens next, promising them that someone would look after their loved ones. Talking with the living was the most frightening part of the job when I started, but it turns out to not be so bad. There is no right thing to say, of course, but most people are content with the little answers when no one can give them the big ones, and that promise of care.
Now I’m here, a licensed embalmer, sewing a man’s scalp back in place. When that’s finished, I’ll wash away the last of the blood, comb his hair, close his eyes and mouth. We do this for the families. Agnostic that I am, however, I can’t help but hope that someone somewhere on the other side takes some comfort in that care.
I’m not particularly sentimental about the dead, but sometimes they catch me off guard. Several weeks ago I held a woman’s hand and cried while I embalmed her. A few years younger than me, beautiful, dead by suicide. I cried, and stitched her back together, and wished that I could do something more, something better. But the necromancy I have isn’t that kind of magic.
Peaceful is a word we use for the desired outcome of an embalming. We will never make someone look alive again; they don’t look like they’re sleeping. Natural is another often-used word, but death itself is the natural part, with its own rainbow of decay. I like peaceful. Sometimes I hope the dead find peace; sometimes I wish it for the families. Some nights, it’s enough if I find a little.
Funeral rites are for the living. Sometimes, necromancy lets you resurrect yourself.
Do you have a question about death, the dead, and what happens when we’re finished with this existence? Ask A Necromancer is a monthly feature in The Deadlands, where readers send in questions about the end of all things and Amanda chooses one (or more, depending on length!) to answer. Submit your questions here.
Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.