Ask a Necromancer, by Amanda Downum

One From the Vaults

Genevieve asks: Have you ever dug anyone up?

Surprisingly enough, yes. Or at least, I’ve witnessed a disentombment—removing someone from a mausoleum niche—and bits and pieces of several disinterments, or exhumations—opening a grave. Working at a funeral home attached to a cemetery has its advantages.

All the corpse relocations that I’ve been privy to happened at the request of the families, because they wanted to transfer the remains to a different resting place. In one instance, the remains were cremated after being entombed. In another, the deceased was transferred to a new casket—and a body bag, which was generously filled with powdered formaldehyde and odor neutralizers—and taken to the airport.

I was present for the entirety of the disentombment, and of course I took notes.

The decedent was embalmed, and stayed in a mausoleum niche in a wooden casket for six years before being removed. The casket was wrapped in something like a Tyvek envelope. The niche was dry when opened, but moisture had accumulated in the casket and wrapping. The casket had deteriorated, with the head and foot panels coming loose, but was solid enough to lift. Lots of little spiders had made their home in the wrapping.

When we opened the casket, the most noticeable smell was the mustiness of the damp wood. The corpse was shriveled to the bone, skin black, with hair and mustache still attached. He was wearing sunglasses. (The funeral directors tell me that a surprising number of decedents they’ve exhumed are wearing sunglasses.)

The original casket was deemed unsuitable for cremation, so we transferred the deceased into a new container. His flesh was soft and sloughed at the touch; his suit likewise disintegrated when touched. The corpse remained intact when we lifted him, but the cartilage of his nose collapsed when I touched it. I apologized many times.

The most fascinating detail–besides the sunglasses–was the stain his head had left on the pillow, in which the sutures of his skull were discernible.

Marissa writes: Dear Necromancer, would it be weird for me to write to the mortician who handled a relative’s body to thank them for their work? The backstory is: I was intimately involved in her care, and I know how much she suffered. Believe me, it was A LOT. I know people in your profession often get “but it didn’t look like her” and “but she NEVER wore a scarf like THAT” and frankly I want to thank the mortician for making the available choices with scarf, makeup, etc. They gave the family members who weren’t involved in her care the chance to not know what I know about how she suffered. She was a dignified and gracious lady, but the end of her life visited A LOT of indignities on her…and the mortician who worked on her body made sure that the relatives who weren’t there at the end didn’t have to wrestle with that information while they were saying goodbye. Would it be weird to say thank you for that? I mean, would it be the bad kind of weird?

I am the last person in the world to decide what is and isn’t weird, but I can safely say that thanking a mortician is absolutely not bad. In smaller funeral homes, the funeral director who helps the family with services may also perform embalmings, and thus have more opportunities for feedback, be it direct or unspoken. Larger chains, however, often utilize a centralized embalming center, and the embalmer will never meet the family. If something is wrong with the presentation, we’re likely to hear about it, but otherwise we may never know what the family thought. One is unlikely to become a mortician out of a desire for praise, but many of us do in fact want to help families by making a painful event less terrible than it has to be. It means a lot to receive feedback, especially the positive kind. So, yes, if you ever think a mortician did a good job arranging a loved one for a viewing, by all means let them know.

The nights again grow long and cold. As you lie awake in the darkness, turn your thoughts to the grave, and think of questions for the necromancer.

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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