Damp sand shifts beneath my bare feet. Overhead, the sun strains to
reclaim the sky from the clouds that linger after last night’s summer storm.
The beach is silent this time of day, disturbed only by lapping waves and the
occasional cry of a gull. I take a deep breath, savoring the salty ocean air.
This solitary moment is my daily reminder that despite my profession,
there’s more to life than death.
When I reach the wooden bench that marks my turn-around, I raise
my arms and stretch toward the sky. Normally I’d take a seat and watch the
sunrise, but today I don’t have time. Instead, I retrace my steps and think
about what to say to the high school student who asked to shadow me for
the day. Unlike some local business owners, I don’t have a canned talk I give
every year to the student who elects to observe a day in my life. In three
generations, the family business has never had a shadow on Career Day.
I guess no one wants to see what the town’s lady mortician does when
she goes to work. Not that I blame them.
“Did you always want to be a mortician?” Hailee Ryan eyes me
Ahh, the directness of youth. She lacks the uneasiness adults often
exhibit when discussing my occupation.
I pause outside the embalming room door and consider how to
respond. The openness of her expression pushes me toward honesty.
“No.” I smile ruefully. “I actually wanted to be a wedding planner.”
Hailee’s charcoal grey eyes grow round in her pale face. “That’s a big
difference. Why did you change your mind?”
“My dad owned the funeral home when I was a kid. His dad owned it
before him. My older brothers went different directions; one’s a cop, the
other’s an insurance adjuster. I was Dad’s last hope.” I shrug. “I caved.
Family legacy, and all that.”
She tilts her head and studies me. “Do you regret it? Not becoming a
wedding planner, I mean?”
This time, I lie. Not because I want to mislead Hailee, but because the
truth opens up a huge can of worms I’m not prepared to deal with today.
“Of course not. Who wants to deal with bridezillas and their overly
opinionated mothers anyway? I still help people with one of the most
important events in their lives. I coordinate the flowers, and services, and--”
I open the door a little more dramatically than is necessary, and we’re
hit will the smell of formaldehyde. Hailee’s gasp at the sight of the
embalming equipment spares me from continuing with the fib, or worse,
confessing the truth: That I’m sick to death of, well, death. That I’ve received
an offer from someone who wants to buy the business, and I’m considering
selling out now that both of my parents are gone.
I answer Hailee’s rapid-fire questions about the embalming process
and glance at my watch.
“C’mon. We have an appointment.” I close the door and turn back
toward the office. If only I could turn back the last twenty years as easily.
Late that afternoon, I sit behind the heavy walnut desk in my office at
the funeral home. Hailee sits across from me, jotting notes with a glittery
pink pen that looks out of place in the somber surroundings.
When she called to ask about shadowing me, I was a little concerned
the bereaved wouldn’t be enthusiastic about a high schooler observing their
grief. Instead, most have been accepting of the idea. Her presence even
seems to provide them a much needed distraction. I’m impressed to see she
has an ease with the grieving that many people never achieve.
Hailee points her pink pen at me. “Can we talk about those burial
clothes in the Display Room? It smells like lemon furniture polish in there,
by the way. Anyway, does anyone really buy those clothes? On TV they put
people in fancy clothes, like a wedding dress, or a suit and tie. Sometimes
they even go buy something new to be buried in, but I’ve never heard of
shopping for clothes at the funeral home.”
“It depends on the circumstances. If someone’s house blew away in a
hurricane, for example, they might not have anything. But you’re right, most
families provide something for the deceased to wear.”
“You know, Hailee, you’ve really taken to this today. If you’re
considering applying to a mortuary science program when you graduate, I’d
be happy to write a recommendation letter for you.”
An expression I can’t identify crosses her features, and she avoids eyecontact when she replies, “Maybe. I don’t know. It just…depends.”
“I don’t know. Just stuff.”
“Fair enough. You’re what? Fifteen?”
“You’ve got time to decide.”
She bobs her head again, but she still doesn’t look at me.
She’s quiet for the next half-hour, but when her mom arrives to pick
her up, she thanks me politely and asks if she can stop by again sometime. I
tell her sure and wave as they drive away.
Edna, my receptionist, glances up from her computer as I walk back
to my office. “What do you think is going on with her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe all the talk about death got her unsettled? But
she handled it better than a lot of people twice her age.” People like Blake,
my last boyfriend. He called it quits because he couldn’t handle being with a
woman who dealt with death all day. He wasn’t the first. Only the latest in a
string of men who found my occupation creepy. Blake was the one who had
me seriously considering the offer to sell the funeral home. I could start a
wedding-planning business with the proceeds, he’d said.
Five weeks later, I take my morning walk along the beach. Late
summer has given way to fall, and it’s too cool to go barefoot. I wear a hat
and scarf to ward off the chill in the dawn air and walk briskly to stay warm.
I make the turn in my usual spot, but instead of using the return trip
to think about the day ahead, I think about what Hailee’s parents told me
when they came to drop off her clothes yesterday.
“Hailee had an aggressive, inoperable form of brain cancer.” Mrs.
Ryan’s eyes had filled with tears.
“We found out right before Career Day.” Mr. Ryan had stroked his
wife’s back. “That’s why she wanted to shadow you. She knew she was
dying. She wanted to know what would happen to her body when her time
“She didn’t tell me.” I shook my head. Hailee had stopped by the
funeral home regularly the first three weeks after Career Day. When she
didn’t show up last week, I was surprised how much I missed hearing her
chatter. I’d been busy, though, and just assumed she was, too.
“She said she didn’t want to be treated like a cancer patient. She
wanted to live her life as normally as possible for as long as she could.” Mr.
Ryan had shrugged.
“She left a note for you.” Mrs. Ryan had reached into her purse and
retrieved a folded piece of paper. I gave her a brief hug, and she left the room
stifling a sob.
I arrive at the car and slide into the driver’s seat. Before I stick my key
into the ignition, I open my purse and pull out a piece of paper. I’ve read
Hailee’s note at least a dozen times, but I take in her round script written in
pink glittery ink again.
Lenora - Thanks for letting me shadow you on Career Day. By now you
know it wasn’t because I wanted to be a mortician. Sorry about that. I want
you to know that what I learned shadowing you gave me peace about what
would happen to me after I died, especially after I saw how much you cared
for everyone who came to you. Also, I know you’ll say what my parents need
to hear to bring them comfort now that I’m gone. For what it’s worth, if it
weren’t for having to die and everything, I’d have taken you up on that offer
for a recommendation letter. I know you kinda got guilted into being an
undertaker, but I think it’s what you were meant to do. And, like you said,
who wants to deal with bridezillas and their crazy mamas anyway?
When I get to work, I call the funeral director the next town over.
“Max? It’s Lenora. Listen, I’ve considered your offer to buy the
business. It’s quite generous. You know what, though? I’ve decided not to
sell. I think this is where I’m supposed to be after all.”
(c) Jenni Cook