I met three, well-dressed men at a bar one night. They were older, probably mid-fifties. I was still smoking at the time. It was a place where they seat people at long, cafeteria-like tables which means, often times, you’ll end up next to strangers who are part of another party.
“Light another one, little lady, we need the business!”
The man was greeted with a boom of laughter from his friends.
Realizing they were talking to me and slightly intrigued by what they said, I looked over at them.
“Do you work for the tobacco company?”
I asked politely, blowing my smoke upward into the air above their heads. They laughed and then their faces, in contrast, turned serious. The thin man across from me answered
“No. We’re coroners.”
More intrigued, I put out my cigarette. I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than being seated next to three, drunk coroners. I still can’t come up with anything more exciting. The questions began to charge the inside of my skull.
What courses were you told to take in college? Is it ever just too hard? Describe a bad day, because Tom over here is always bitching about ‘bad days’, and I’m sure a bad day for an art director doesn’t even compare, so what’s a bad day for you fellas? What is the grossest thing you’ve ever seen? Is there downtime? Do you have kids? Are you religious? Where does your job stand on the totem pole of a funeral process? Have you ever cleaned up someone you know? Why, in your opinion, are there more men in your profession than there are woman?
I asked them everything.
“Michele, leave them alone, you’re being rude!”
A member of my party put their hand on my shoulder in order to hush me. Rude? How am I being rude? I’m merely asking a group of coroners about the most taboo subject there is. How is that rude? If there’s anyone who’s willing to answer me about this sort of stuff, if there are any living folks willing to give me honest answers, it’s a group of drunk coroners. And I couldn’t stop now. I needed to know.
The man looked at my friend,
“It’s perfectly ok. She’s not being rude. We’re wondering if she needs to seek mental health or wants a job, but she’s not being rude.”
There was some more laughter. The same hands which earlier that week were entangled in human remains, raised a beer for a toast.
“To dead people and cigarettes.”
I realized something that evening about myself and those I enjoy being seated with. If you were to ask me what I thought the hardest feat for a surgeon, or the perils which lay behind a door at a meat packing plant, or even the sites, sounds, and fears one might experience as a logger or a miner, I could probably wager an accurate guess or, at the very least, make someone laugh with my ignorance. And, if I were to ask any of these same questions to my closest friends, they too would most likely come close or entertain with idea. Wonderment is a powerful thing and keeps the mind from becomming stagnant. And I like that most about people, their ability to empathize. But the day in the life of a coroner, I can’t even imagine about really, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a hundred questions to ask.
Last night, I thought about these men again. I was sitting on my couch thinking about death and funerals, how the body is laid, the plants are put, the tissues placed, the snap shots poked, and as my mind was scanning the memories of every funeral I’d ever been to, I realized that every body is placed with the head facing the left side of a mourner’s body. I haven’t ever been to a funeral, nor have I seen a movie, where the head faces the right arm. After my night with three drunk coroners and their gracious answers, I know that thought lies beneath this. I’m sure of it. And I want to know why.