A Writing Prompt #6
Who can tell me what a canoe means in mortuary lingo…?
Time’s up. Years back a young woman introduced herself to me as a mortician. She’d learned her trade locally at the Mt. Hood Community College, in a mortuary sciences program, among students who were almost all Mormons. It seems the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints regards working with the dead as among the most noble of professions. The equivalent of being, say, a doctor or a lawyer. She also told me that morticians dread doing a “canoe.”
This refers to a body that’s been autopsied. The organs have all been removed and the torso hollowed like a dug-out canoe. At completion the organs are simply stuffed back into the torso and the body is sewn shut. Normally the embalming fluid is pumped into the body through the venous system, reaching everywhere the way blood would. But after an autopsy the venous system is wrecked so every organ must be removed and soaked in preservative. Embalming a canoe takes forever, she said.
This is just normal party conversation for me. You’re a mortician? Come sit by me!
Conversation turned to a recent scandal in which a funeral home was found to be storing dozens of dead bodies. These had piled up in storage sheds long after people thought they’d been buried. Such scandals hit the news all the time. A struggling funeral home will go bankrupt, and dead, preserved bodies will be found stacked like cord wood. In attics. In outbuildings. Check it out.
To people outside of the funeral industry this looks crazy. But my new acquaintance explained that it’s inevitable. Such funeral homes serve poor communities, where people live such miserable lives that they inevitably want to mourn a loved-one’s death in a big way. The survivors splash out on a big ceremony and fancy casket. All the honors for someone whose life was grim and limited. But once the funeral is over, the next of kin stop making payments on the outstanding debt to the funeral director.
As my acquaintance saw it the funeral home had no recourse except to delay interring the body. In effect they had to hold it for ransom, keeping it in storage until the balance of the debt got paid. On lay-away, as it were.
In a side note, do you remember the actor Peter Lawford? When he died in 1984 his cremains were interred in a crypt near the final resting place of Marilyn Monroe. He’d been a friend of hers and among the last people she’d talked to the night she’d died. Four years after his interment the balance of the bill for his crypt was still unpaid so his remains were removed and scattered at sea. He was evicted.
The dollars-and-cents reality is that even funeral homes in poor communities need to pay their bills. Otherwise they go belly up. And once the business fails all those bodies held in escrow are found. With crowd funding that dynamic might change, but it’s still a perennial cycle. Unpaid bills, bodies held hostage, bankrupt funeral homes.
Before that long-ago party had even ended I was spinning a story. What if a strange someone called upon such a failing funeral home and offered to recoup their unpaid bills? This person, she’d promise to get the bills paid in full in exchange for five percent of the total monies paid. The funeral director would scoff—he’d been after these deadbeatsfor years with no success.
The stranger is allowed to remain in the business overnight. The next day, a frantic family arrives to pay their bill—plus interest and carrying charges. They’re terrified out of their wits. More families arrive, also frightened, and pay their debts. In short order the bodies are laid to rest.
However it’s revealed, the stranger is a witch or scientist. Whether they’re dead adults or babies, she can revive them and send them home where they ask why they’ve not been buried. Of course the families want this resolved. It’s a new twist on the zombie, but approaching the genre from a practical MBA angle. Part of selling the incredible is to make it seem mundane—business as usual. Create a system that creates magic on a plodding, regular basis. Make the “witch” not some warty hag, but a practical professional in sensible shoes, someone who’s seen funeral homes fail and has a degree in business and got some extra schooling in the occult and now applies that sorcery to a real-world dilemma.
It’s the classic stranger-rides-into-town-to-save-us story. Whether you make the stranger a man or woman, that’s your call. Give it some thought. Don’t make it a novel. It’s a short story. If nothing else, it might function as a plot point in a novel. A flashback. A scene. Give it a shot.
How will you run the little machine? How will you break it? How will you reinvent it?
See, I can do puns, too.
It’s so funny I was writing about how in the future New York even cemeteries would charge rent space for the dead as a gag at inflation￼￼
At the funeral home I worked at that's what they called the gurney for transporting the dearly departed.