In my life, I have rarely been on the cutting edge. Be it fashion, literary trends, or cell phones, I tend to run a bit behind the times. Little did I realize, when I began my first mortuary job in January of 2020, what a fascinating opportunity I was about to have.
When the Mortuary Science department canceled its spring break field trips that March and the college planned a temporary switch to remote classes, I admit that I grumbled and assumed they were overreacting. It wasn’t going to be that bad. Sweet summer children, so many of us.
Lockdown as an “essential worker” was surreal. Highways were clear during rush hour. Streets were empty at night. Deer wandered through the city. At work, we sorted through dozens of new protocols. We waited.
Our very first COVID case was a house call on the third floor. The logistics necessitated calling the fire department for help. The firefighters took the situation incredibly seriously, to their great credit. This led to the surreal experience of my partner and me standing in a parking lot on a cold spring night being sprayed down with bleach by the glare of a fire truck’s floodlight. Before the decon, though, I talked to the dead man’s family—the usual things we tell families, but painfully rushed. I was sweating in my suit and unfamiliar PPE, acutely aware of my breath under a shield and KN95 mask. When family members have questions we can’t answer, we explain that a funeral director will talk to them the next day and go over the details. This time, though, the question was “Will we be able to get tested now?” I had no answer for that at all.
Another sharp-etched memory of the early days of lockdown was a nursing home call. The facility was still COVID-free, but closed to all visitors. I stood outside in the cold, giving a woman the chance to say goodbye to her father before we loaded him into the van. After that, cases increased, and everything began to blur.
I received my provisional embalming license in March. Due to the logistics of sealing the prep room, embalming COVID cases became the purview of night shift. The first time my mentor and I asked our boss if I could assist, he said no. The second time, he said yes. I got to see the aftermath of COVID very closely then: disfiguring edema, cheeks and mouths scarred by ventilators, lungs full of froth and pus. The worst, for me, was their hair–tangled and filthy after weeks in isolation. We embalmed in Tyvek bunny suits, double-gloved, masked and shielded, drenching everything and everyone in disinfectant.
The year wore on. I watched exhausted ICU nurses wipe down PPE meant for single use. Sometimes they would offer some to me—an extra mask or face shield. I rarely accepted them; I already knew I was in much less danger from the dead than the living. Nursing homes, rarely cheerful places to begin with, became nightmare fuel. We picked up the dead while the barely-living wheezed into respirators one bed over. We filled all the ancillary coolers in our funeral homes with corpses, and brought in refrigerated trucks. Services were delayed while whole families were sick or quarantined.
Austin did not suffer as badly as some other cities. My classmates working in San Antonio were overwhelmed, beyond exhausted. My mentor traveled to El Paso to help, and Dallas, and eventually L.A., and brought back stories. Three of my coworkers tested positive, and I spent two weeks working alone.
In March of 2020, I had moved in with my parents. As the pandemic wore on I was exhausted, frightened, and so profoundly angry. Had I been living alone, I might have accepted more risk, let my guard down. But that wasn’t an option. Except it was, for so many people. I spent every day wanting to scream. I have always been perilously close to misanthropy, but I have never been so disappointed in humanity as I was that year.
We eventually relaxed our precautions in the prep room, as evidence mounted and supplies grew thin. The dead were safe enough. Never trust the living.
Despite the stress and misery, my job kept me sane. Unlike so many of my friends, I wasn’t trapped at home. I talked to people face to face—even if I only saw their eyes. In many ways I thrived. I have the sort of ADHD in which adrenaline lends itself to hyperfocus; some nights I felt like a goddamned laser. On my days off I was scattered, scraped raw, barely able to read fiction, let alone write it. But at work I ran as long as I had to—thirteen- or fourteen-hour shifts, sometimes. My mental health is a work in progress, but my time as plague doctor had a profound impact on my baseline anxiety, for the better. I suffered for years from a chorus of doubt and self-loathing, telling me I wasn’t, I shouldn’t, I couldn’t. By the end of 2020, I was pretty sure I damned well could.
But that doesn’t mean I need to do that again anytime soon. So for the love of the living and the dead, be careful and sensible, and think about how your life intersects the lives of those around you.
The nights once again grow longer. Ponder, in the darkness, what questions you have for the necromancer. Submit them through our portal, or to @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.