Dawn was streaking between the towering buildings of downtown Denver as I drove under them on 17th Street on my way to work. The music in my car was loud and I sang along. I’d be directing a funeral in Boulder that morning and I was dressed for the part. Amanda, my favorite barista at St. Marks, a blue-haired girl with a big smile and a pierced face would be handing me my morning Americano while asking for the gory details of my job. Sometimes I obliged her, and although unprofessional, I didn’t really care because Amanda was my de-facto therapist.
I was operating on three hours sleep. In the early morning, I was called to do a removal as the guys that usually did so could not be aroused. All the funeral homes in the Denver metro area took turns dealing with unclaimed remains of the homeless and that morning was our turn and I worked alone. The hospital morgue held the body of a man whose family basically said he wasn’t their problem and that morning he was mine. He weighed close to four hundred pounds. A couple of security guards instead of orderlies were summoned to help me slide the body on my gurney, but I had no help on the other end of town where the gurney gave way, spilling the bodybag onto the ramp of our mortuaries back entrance. I tried, but there was no way I alone could lift the body. I made several telephone calls for help. Again, no-one could be woken up to help me. I resorted using a cherry picker to get the man off the ground before I could wheel him into the icy atmosphere of our cooler with the other bodies awaiting cremation. But before I did all that, I had to franticly build a makeshift barrier using cardboard from the recycle bin to shield the body from view of passengers aboard an oncoming Amtrak train. That’s the last thing tourists and commuters needed to see on their way into Denver was a body bag laying on the ground outside a mortuary. Sleep wouldn’t come until around 2:00 A.M. Amanda would have a story that morning, that was for sure.
Once in Boulder, I was alone; found a note that said I would be working alone because my young boss decided to go skiing. I didn’t know much about the family I would be counseling so I did a little research on them, reading their file before I would meet with them later that morning. It was all typical.
Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, as I will name them, were surprisingly well composed. Earlier, before they arrived, I had set all the floral arrangements sent by family and friends out where I thought they looked best and placed the cremains of the decedent near the alter of the the church at the rear. Mrs. Bradford said everything looked beautiful. I was pleased with myself. I thought the funeral would be simple and smooth. Then a group of the decedents’ class mates entered the room with their teacher. They were all special needs kids wailing like teething toddlers. They were around the sixth grade level. Several were downs syndrome children. They could not be consoled. I wanted to hug each and every one of them but that was considered unprofessional and not allowed.
Later, a little downs syndrome girl took to the podium. I lowered the mic so she could reach it. She started speaking with her impaired, downs syndrome voice, “Joey was a friend of mine. He helped teach me to ride a bike. He good guy…good friend. He’s my best friend…” Then I heard a little boy ask his teacher a little too loud, “When’s Joey coming back?” I lost it in front of everyone in the church audience. I was balling. The little girl was quivering, saturated in despondency. Her voice was shaking. I grabbed her hand and lead her to her teacher. After a moment, I walked back to the podium and asked the crowd if there was anyone else who wanted to speak.
Back at the funeral home, I gathered my thoughts in the office. Why oh why am I doing this? I asked myself. It was clear the children could have no concept of death, or the afterlife if there was one. After all, how could a God do this to the children, much less a very innocent child and his friends? I decided if there was a God, he must have a very sick sense of humor. The little boys’ question haunted me the entire day, “When is Joey coming home?”
My boss came in drunk just then. I had scolded him over the phone earlier and he left the ski slopes to get back to business. I yelled at him for the lack of support lately and the omission of facts I needed to mentally prepare myself for the services that took place that morning. I had gotten used to scolding my boss. He was a young idiot. I sent him home. His own employee told him to take a taxi home, and to get out that instant. He was only 23, the child of a mogul who owned a drug store chain in the Midwest whose Daddy bought him several funeral homes in Colorado and Wyoming. I managed his Boulder location. I was hired with no experience or schooling in mortuary sciences. In Colorado at the time, one needed no license to be a mortician. I had been a Walgreens manager prior to be hired at Boulder mortuary and was pretty much hired on the basis that the owner thought I looked good in a suit. Days after I left Walgreens, I was embalming and cremating bodies. It’s unconscionable that he thought this was a good idea. This was an example of his professionalism and how seriously he took his work. He was a morbid little male bimbo. But it was also crazy on my part to take the job.
That day just kept getting better. A man entered my office without notice. I apparently left the outside entrance unlocked. He was visibly upset.
“This is not my mother. She was taken away in a nightgown.”, he said, red-faced with a tinge of anger. He then unscrewed the top of the urn and pulled out an ashy, destroyed mans watch. He laid it down in front of me on my desk. And then, from his pocket, he produced a ziplock bag with a couple of buttons in it. “There were also Levi 501 buttons in there.”
I didn’t know what to say for the longest time. I just stared at him. It was all I could do. I had nearly cremated my boss over not labeling people before. I really didn’t think it could ever come to that level of horror. I thought my boss had gotten it together. I seriously did not think that would ever happen. No human being could have let that happen.
It took me about ten minutes to come to a deliberation. I decided to take this incident and other complaints to the district attorney. I also went to O.S.H.A over the fact that we were breathing in formalin during the embalming process without being provided masks, and the eyewash station blocked with books, and showers were being used as storage.
“I’m sorry Mr. Barry. In the state of Colorado, the consumer has no recourse. According to the law, Mr. Stevens has done nothing wrong other than violate some consumer protection ordinances, a misdemeanor. However, there is a woman on the state legislature who wants to talk to you. She’s been trying to get the funeral industry regulated for years.” the district attorney stated.
I worked with representative Debbie Stafford, testifying on the floor of the Colorado State Legislature for two years before the governor finally signed the act to enact regulation for the funeral industry.
I was inundated with phone calls from the press. News stations were outside my house for days on end. I did several interviews on television, and the newspapers were full of headlines about the story.
But with all that drama, the most haunting part of that whole experience were the people, soaked in inconsolable sadness -peaces of their wholeness dead – over the loss of their loved ones. That would get at me most. And then there was the mentally retarded little boy, “When is Joey coming home?” The bewildered wife whose husband was killed days before in a car accident. The list goes on. I was saturated in despondency myself.
I remember sitting out on the patio of a Denver ice cream parlor the day after the bill was signed into law, staring out into the air thinking about the whole experience of being a mortician. These memories would soon be formidable ones in my psyche. They would be key players in the start of a future drinking career. One that would last a long time.