Ask a Necromancer, by Amanda Downum

Stories on Skin

Honey and several other people have asked me about the sort of tattoos I see at work. It may seem like a non sequitur, but I have plenty of ink of my own. Sometimes tattoos have practical applications in a mortuary—such as identifying a decedent—but moreso they’re microcosms of art, culture, and personality, and my coworkers and I are always interested in the ones we encounter here.

For whatever reason someone chooses a tattoo, they are making a statement about themselves for the world to interpret. I once embalmed a woman just a few years older than me with multiple band tattoos—Led Zeppelin, A Perfect Circle, etc. I immediately wondered what other sorts of things we might have in common. Quite a bit, it turned out—the next day her name appeared on my social media feeds. We had never met, but many of my local friends knew and mourned her. I made sure her eyeliner was immaculate.

Other statements people make leave me less graciously inclined. One night, as I was preparing someone for cremation, I pulled back a sheet to see a “white power” tattoo on his chest. I’ve never cursed so much at a dead person. Circumstances may lead a person into choices that they later regret or grow past; I certainly hope that was the case for this young man. All the same, I did not send him to the fire with kind words.

Sometimes we laugh at things because the alternatives are too sad. Like the person who came across my table with the molecular structure of methamphetamine tattooed on the side of their face. They had died of a terrible staph infection, the kind so often caused by not seeking medical help until it’s too late. I levy no judgment whatsoever against recreational drug use, but too often people anesthetize when they have no other outlet, with tragic outcomes.

My own tattoos were chosen for a number of reasons: I got a skull to celebrate the sale of The Necromancer Chronicles; an octopus because they’re beautiful and intelligent; a death goddess for finishing mortuary school. Soon I’m going to start a sort of Rappaccini’s garden, to chronicle some of the things that have left marks on me that might not otherwise be visible. And just because I love art, and love the happiness that decorating my own skin gives me.

Not every tattoo is profound or symbolic. Sometimes they’re just pretty, or silly, or fun. But they all have a story somewhere. As an embalmer, I don’t often sit with families and hear them talk about their loved ones. I only get snippets and slivers of who people might have been before they ended up on my table. Tattoos are a way for people to wear stories on their skin, and share them without speaking a word.

The dead grow restless! Distract them with questions. If you have questions for the necromancer, use our submission form at, 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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