Ask a Necromancer, by Amanda Downum

Crime & Putrefaction

I was recently asked by an employee at a local bar, “How could you hide a body in here?” This was in regards to an urban legend, I hasten to add, not anyone’s plans for the weekend. It’s an interesting scenario, but I’m probably not the best person to ask. I am a Murderino, but when it comes to true crime I’m woefully undereducated. The more thought I’ve given this, the more my answer reduces to one simple piece of advice: Just don’t.

The death itself might go unnoticed; loud music covers a multitude of sins. Considering that people slumped unconscious in corners (possibly purging) aren’t unheard of in bars, and neither is someone being carried to a friend’s car, you could probably Weekend at Bernie’s this situation, especially if you had an accomplice assistant.

But when it comes to long-term corpse storage: Don’t. The smell, my friends, the smell. The smell is real. It is pervasive. It will be noticed. And as bodies deliquesce, they eventually reach a state my coworkers and I have affectionately called “maggot soup.” I’m sure many readers are coming up with counterarguments and solutions right now, and I wish them all the best in their future criminal enterprises. I, however, ascribe to Claudia’s golden rule: Never in the house.

Not in your hall. Not in your walls.
Not behind a door. Not under the floor.
I would not shove it in a crawlspace.
I would not tuck it in the fireplace.
You cannot hide it in a casement.
You ought not dig beneath your basement.
It simply will not work, my dear.
Do not stash that corpse in here.

Scott asks, “Have you seen The Godfather?” Specifically referring to the opening exchange between the undertaker Bonasera and Vito Corleone which contains the line, “Some day, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me.” Of course Chekhov’s favor is eventually cashed in, when Don Corleone arrives at the funeral home with every embalmer’s favorite surprise, a fresh corpse. “I want you to use all your powers and all your skills. I don’t want his mother to see him this way. Look how they massacred my boy…”

What do you, an undertaker in the 1940s, do when a body is brought to you after being mowed down by tommy guns?

I’m going to leave out the temporal element for my answer. I don’t know how techniques and materials have changed in the past eighty years, but I suspect the principles are much the same: dental floss, wax, and patience.

From the neck down, it’s simple. All that matters is that the holes don’t leak. If you’re lucky, the bullet wounds will be small enough that you can seal them with trocar buttons–plastic plugs that screw into punctures. If a hole is too big for that, then you stitch it up.

The head is trickier. That’s the money shot.

When I embalm a gunshot victim, it’s very likely that they’ve come from the medical examiner and have been autopsied. This has its own ups and downs, but in the case of skull fractures, it’s handy to be able to fold the scalp back and use clamps, glue, and putty to fit the cranial pieces together. In the case of skull fractures sans autopsy, you just have to be very careful with the alarmingly squishy head. Sonny Corleone was not taken to the authorities for a postmortem examination.

Bonasera likely prayed as I would pray in such a case, that by some miracle circulation to the head isn’t too disrupted, and injecting the carotids will get fluid into the face. If that doesn’t work, then it’s a hypodermic needle, carefully angled so you don’t leave lumps.

Once you’ve finished injecting, then you get to stitch. For facial injuries, I use dental floss (mint is fine, but I wouldn’t recommend green thread) and the smallest needle I can find.* Then I pull up a stool next to the embalming table and get ready to sigh and curse. The goal here is to use an intradermal stitch to close the edges of the wound without excess puckering. The more ragged the edges, the more you will curse.

Bonasera’s hands were cramping for days.

After the sewing project is finished, make sure nothing is leaking, then cover the lacerations with wax and apply cosmetics. Your work will be graded by a grieving and homicidal crime lord. No pressure.

* I’m thankful at times like these that PPE is required, and I’m used to wearing a mask at work. If my face were uncovered, I can guarantee I would put that thread in my mouth at least once before I remembered why I shouldn’t.

We in the underworld wish all the living a festive holiday season. Please take care of yourselves. We especially implore you not to drink and drive, stab any relatives with a pie server during a heated political debate, or otherwise do things that will increase the workload of your local mortuary. Do, however, feel free to bring up the topic of death with your relatives, even if you’re not a goth teenager who would prefer to be left alone. Death acceptance is something our culture needs more of, and being able to discuss it with loved ones is important. If you or your family members have questions for the necromancer, submit them through the website or ask @stillsostrange on Twitter.

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.

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