Living among the dead: life in a mortuary
Imagine living in one of the quietest places possible, a place where you can hear a pin drop. A place where no one else is living but you. A mortuary.
You may be familiar with the HBO Series Six Feet Under, in which a family called the Fishers runs a funeral home. Every episode starts with a death, and in the very first episode, death comes knocking for the husband of main character Ruth Fisher.
While millions of viewers watched the fictional Fisher family deal with the business of death, a real-life Fisher did the same right here in the Bay Area. Rebecca Fisher has written a book about her life among the deceased in a Daly City mortuary, and she joined KALW’s Hana Baba in the studio.
* * *
REBECCA FISHER (reading from All the Wrong Places): “It was my first dream about a friend. The woman from the pink pearly casket was in my apartment. She sat in the chair across from my sofa and said nothing, waiting for me to acknowledge who she was. When I realized where I knew her from, she smiled, stood and held out her hand. She didn’t look like the waxy, pale, and soulless version of herself that rested in the chapel below. She was beautiful, with her silvery hair and pale blue eyes. Her cheeks even had a healthy blush to them. I was confused, but trusted her implicitly. She waited patiently while I deliberated.
“Finally I took her hand. She led me into the kitchen and reached for a drawer. I watched as she rifled through the papers and used two fingers to pick something up. I leaned in to see what it was her smile turned to serious concern. She held up a gold key and looked at me waiting for recognition. I didn’t understand. She held it closer to me and her brows furrowed with deep distress.
“‘What is it?,’ I asked, wishing I could understand what she wanted but she said nothing. I reached out to take the key, but it vanished from her hands. She held out her two empty hands and the look of concern only deepened.”
HANA BABA: So that’s a story about one of the friends, AKA the bodies that you work on. How often did you think about them as people, and imagine their stories and what happened to them and how they got to the mortuary?
REBECCA FISHER: All the time. I think we all want to know how they got there. You wanted to know who they were and you just wondered if they had some unfinished business, and how that plays out.
BABA: What brought you to live and work in a mortuary? Tell me what led up to that, what happened before that?
FISHER: Okay, well I was 19 and found myself pregnant, and shortly thereafter, got married. So at 20 I was married and we were young and foolish and kind of desperate for a place to live. And my husband at that time decided to study mortuary science. And I thought, “That’s really, really odd. I’m not sure how I feel about that but, okay, a job’s a job.” And I think he was actually offered a job up here. And with the job came this apartment, this free apartment. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, a free apartment, that’s going to help so much.” But I didn’t know at the time that the apartment was attached to the mortuary. You would literally open the front door and be in the mortuary, in the hallway.
BABA: What led to him wanting to study mortuary science, like what was the process?
FISHER: I don’t really know, I think that side of him was always there, that intrigue with death. He worked with special effects makeup, which he actually used and to this day, still uses in the mortuary when he works with the bodies. He was able to use that in this job and I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a funeral, but they look much different, the bodies look much different than the person you knew in life.
BABA: So describe that to me. When you first came and saw this new place where you’re going to be living, what went through your head?
FISHER: I was scared. I was really scared because I knew what was outside of that door. I knew there were dead bodies and I had a right to be. I remember the first time I want into that hallway, and it was after hours … I didn’t work there, I was just living there, but I did end up helping after hours, I would help with all of these after-hour duties. I eventually ended up helping with the bodies, putting makeup on and dressing them. But that first step outside of that door. There’s such an eerie silence to the building.
BABA: So, you’d wake up in your apartment and do what? You’d have your coffee and your breakfast, and life would be normal and then you’d walk into this mortuary.
FISHER: Right, so my day was just filled with me and my daughter and I just tried to make it my regular life. My doctors appointments, my walk to the grocery store – that was my daily life. And then after hours, when the business closed, I would go out and venture out into the mortuary and help, because there was a lot to get done. And I wanted him home, frankly, so the faster we got that done, the faster he could be done.
BABA: On average, in a day, what was the workload like? I don’t know how to put this. How many people would come in?
FISHER: It was different all the time. I’d say two or three on average was a busy week.
BABA: And how long does it take to ... from the moment they come in to when they’re done?
FISHER: Hours. Hours and hours. But I did notice, and it was kind of a thing they would talk about around the mortuary, the people who worked there, when the fog would roll in, which was a lot...
BABA: ...in San Francisco…
FISHER: Yeah, when the fog would roll in they would get a higher number of bodies. From the convalescent homes, mostly. And so they would call the fog “The Hand of Death” coming into bring them, bring them home.
BABA: So when that fog comes in, you would know, it was going to be a long night.
FISHER: A lot more calls, right. It was fascinating.
BABA: So then you have your child, while living there.
FISHER: While living there, yes.
BABA: When you brought her home … well first of all let’s go back a little bit, you know, you’re pregnant, you’re going to have a child – did it ever occur to you in your mind that “I don’t want to have my child here?”
FISHER: Yeah, it did. It did. But we pretty desperate at that time, just getting by, just surviving. So you just live one day at a time. And what really started to get me was he was getting really into this and he would say things like, “I think instead of a crib, we should get her a baby casket and let her sleep in that.” And that was the first red flag for me. I was like, “No, no baby caskets. That’s asking for trouble.” He thought it was cool, wanted to name her Wednesday after the little girl in the Addams Family. “No, I don’t think we’re going to go with Wednesday. No.” It was starting to go that way. And I really wanted to keep her from that.
BABA: How do you think being face to face with death everyday has changed you? I know how it’s changed your husband, now. But what about you? Do you feel you’re a changed person?
FISHER: Well, I hadn’t really thought much about my faith and my beliefs and I remember the first time I saw one of those bodies, and like I said, touched them, I got that sense that something’s missing here. What is it? And them your mind just goes from there. If it’s their soul, it it’s who they are and it’s gone, where did it go? And that really started a line of questioning in my mind over a period of years that had me searching for an answer for that and that really lead me back to my faith. So in that sense, it did change me. It was kind of this little spark saying this isn’t it. It can’t be because look it’s gone, something’s gone. So for me, that really did change the way I saw life and death.
Rebecca Fisher is the author of All the Wrong Places, a novel based on her time living in a mortuary.