Baltimore Writer

                                         How the Dead Are Buried

                                                            by Gerard Marconi

In the summer following their freshman year of high school Tommy and Iggy were lying out at the Patterson Park pool on their stomachs to hide the boners they got from watching the girls go by. Tommy closed his eyes and felt the hot sun beating down on his back. He listened to the shouts of children splashing in the water until he heard a funny noise and opened his eyes. Iggy was making armpit farts at a thin blond girl with circles under her eyes. She stopped to stare at him, wide eyed, then gave him the finger and moved on.

“Who was that?” Tommy asked.

 “Rose Gorelski, otherwise known as Rosie the Rosebud. She’s a real slut.”

“A what?”

“A girl who’s easy, who puts out all the time and can’t get enough. Like a nympho. You know what I mean?” Tommy nodded, pretending to know what his friend was talking about. He hated it when Iggy had to explain things to him and wondered where he learned about them.

Rosie Gorelski walked by again after Iggy went to the snack bar. Tommy couldn’t help staring at her bleached blond hair and brightly painted red toenails. She turned and glared at him. “What are you looking at, you little dick?”

Tommy was mortified and looked away until she left. Then he saw Barbara Orlinsky coming out of the bath house in her bikini. He shut his eyes, pretending to be asleep, until she got closer. Then he opened one eye and saw a mole on the inside of her thigh. As she passed closer, he opened both eyes and watched her hips swaying rhythmically above the narrow slit in the crotch of her pink bikini. The hot sun burned right through his body to the boner throbbing beneath him. Suddenly, unable to control what was happening, he shot his wad right there at the pool.

“Oh, shit,” he moaned, and buried his head in the towel.

“What’s wrong?” Iggy asked when he came back.

Without raising his head Tommy said, “I lost it, Igg. I got a boner watching Barbara Orlinsky go by and shot my wad into the towel. What am I going to do?”

Iggy looked at him. “Don’t move. Whatever you do, don’t move. Just lie there until I get back.” Then he ran to the other side of the pool.

Tommy watched Iggy disappear into the bath house. He was so embarrassed that he couldn’t think straight, but he did what his friend said because he didn’t dare to move. When he heard bare feet slapping the wet concrete, he looked up to see Iggy standing over him with a bucket full of water. Instinctively, he rolled over to avoid being doused. As he did, Iggy dumped the cold water onto his crotch. Tommy howled. His trunks were soaking wet but his problem was solved.

            They had grown up together in East Baltimore, riding their bikes down to the waterfront in Canton and along Boston Street to Fells Point. They played basketball at the Rec Center and baseball in Patterson Park. In the eighth grade Tommy was an altar boy at Saint Elizabeth’s while Iggy sang in the church choir. To everyone's surprise, Iggy sang with a clear soprano voice that sounded like an angel. Old ladies cried and young girls swooned when he opened his mouth to sing. They forgot his foul language, his snickering laugh, and his crooked teeth. The choir director always picked him to sing the Ave Maria at funerals and the Panis Angelicus at First Holy Communion. But the boys teased Iggy about it, saying, “You better watch out. One day your voice will change and they’ll cut your balls off just to keep you in the choir.”

Iggy’s father was an undertaker and the Zeiler family lived on the second floor of a corner row house above the funeral home. The neighbors said that Mr. Zeiler embalmed corpses down in the basement and Tommy once asked Iggy if he had ever watched his father work. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “My dad’s stuck his hands into all kinds of things.” Then, with a loud staccato laugh, he added, “Don’t ever go rummaging around in our garbage cans.”

Iggy often got into fights with the other guys who ragged him about his father’s business. Eddie Rybcynski liked to tease him by asking, “Hey Iggy, your old man ever do it with a corpse?” One day Chuck Lancelotta said, “What’s that stink coming from your chimney? Did your old man cremate someone last night?”

Iggy yelled back at him. “It’s no worse than the smell from your sister’s snatch.” Then he went after Chuck with fists flying until they both ended up on the ground with bloody noses.

Tommy celebrated his sixteenth birthday with Iggy in the alley behind the funeral parlor. On a sweltering July afternoon they sat on the warm concrete with their backs against a chain link fence and drank a six-pack from Mr. Zeiler’s walk-in refrigerator down in the basement. Tommy was afraid to ask what else was stored there. After his second beer he confessed to Iggy that he had a crush on Barbara Orlinsky.

“No shit.” Iggy rolled his eyes and took a swig of beer.

Tommy looked at the sealed trash cans in the Zeiler’s back yard. “Does your old man really embalm corpses?”

Iggy nodded. “Absolutely. When I saw him do it the first time, I ran into the john and puked. But by the time we were in eighth grade I was helping out.”

Tommy had suspected as much but was still surprised. “What do you do?”

 “Simple stuff, like stripping the body and moving the stretcher into place. Then I hand him the tools when he’s ready to start. I could probably do it by myself now, except that would be illegal.” He glanced at Tommy. “Sure you want to hear this, sport?”


“First thing we do is slide the naked corpse from the stretcher onto a stainless steel table.”

Tommy raised his hand. “The first time you did it, was it a man or a woman?”

Iggy blinked. “The first time was a woman.”

“So you got to see her naked body?”

“She was dead,  for Chris’ sake. It ain’t the same as what you see in Playboy. Besides, they’re mostly old and shriveled up. Especially when we’re done with them.” Iggy let out his loud staccato laugh.

Tommy took another swig of beer. “What next?” He was dying to know but afraid to hear the gory details.

“We drain all the blood out from an artery. We do that at the same time we inject chemicals into another artery.” Iggy took a swig of beer.  “My old man does all the injection stuff. Sometimes I have to hold an arm or a leg down so the blood drains out properly.” He looked at Tommy. “You all right, sport?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. Then what?”

“Then we do the cavity. That’s the fun part. My old man cuts a hole in the stomach and inserts this long metal tube with a suction hose attached to it. That sucks out all the gas and fluids and stuff from the organs so we can pump the chemicals in.”

Tommy was starting to feel queasy. “What do you do with all the stuff that comes out?”

“If it’s liquid, it goes down the drain into the sewer. If it’s solid, it goes into a special tank that gets emptied once a month. ” He paused. “You ready for the last part?”

Tommy finished his beer. Everything was looking green. “Sure, why not?”

“My old man sews up the holes he made in the body while I massage the face and hands with a special cream to make them soft. Then he puts cotton in the nose and mouth and eyelids. Sometimes up the ass and in the vagina, too. For some really bad cases, he has to stuff cotton down the throat and then wire the mouth shut.”

Tommy eyes grew wide and his stomach was churning. “Does the body, like, move at all while you’re doing this?”

“Nah. The rigor mortis has taken over by then and they’re usually stiff as a board.” He paused. “Sometimes, if they had arthritis really bad, my old man has to cut through a muscle or tendon so the hands and arms look natural in the casket.”

Memories of his grandmother’s viewing ran through Tommy’s head. He had been afraid to look at her face, so he stared at the white satin lining inside the coffin and then at the gnarled fingers with a rosary wrapped around them.

“The last thing we do is put the clothes on and apply make-up. That’s my favorite part. It’s what my old man let me do first and it’s really cool, except when you have to glue the fingers together. Everything has to look perfect, you know, like the person is just sleeping and not really dead. Like they’re still alive in the same room with you.”

Tommy was starting to feel woozy. He wanted to ask something else but had trouble remembering what. “How do you…?”

Iggy smiled, as if he knew what Tommy was thinking. “I pretend they’re mummies, that’s all. Just friggin’ mummies. That’s how I get through it.”

“Thanks, Igg’. I really ’ppreciate your tellin’ me this.”

But Iggy wasn’t finished. “My old man explained to me once how embalming started with the Egyptians. Before they could be mummified all the internal organs had to be removed, just like we do. Except for one big difference.” He glanced at Tommy. “You okay, sport? You gonna pass out on me?”

Bleary eyed, Tommy shook his head and waited for Iggy to continue.

“The Egyptians also removed the dead person’s brain. Know how they did that?”

Tommy didn’t answer. His head was spinning and he suddenly felt faint.

“They pulled it out with a long hook through the nose.”

Tommy heard his friend’s loud staccato laugh as the chain link fence pressed sharply into his back. He struggled to stay upright, to keep from getting sick, but his mouth filled up with bile and he puked down the front of his shirt. Then he keeled over into Iggy’s lap.

Two weeks later they were walking behind a short blond girl in flip flops on their way to Matthew’s Pizza parlor. Tommy stared at her tan legs and the back of her tight denim skirt moving rhythmically as she walked. Flip flop. Flip flop. Then he imagined what the golden palace between her thighs looked like and felt himself getting hard. Flip flop. Flip flop.

 “Iggy looked at him and smiled. “You got a boner yet, sport? You gonna cream in your jeans?”

“Shut up, Iggy.” Ever since he claimed to have gone all the way with a girl, Iggy annoyed Tommy with his constant teasing about sex.

“Are you still hung up on Barbara Orlinsky?”

Tommy winced. Sometimes Iggy could see right into his soul. He still dreamt about seeing Barbara naked and feeling her up, but the most he ever managed to do was kiss her with his tongue. Once, at a party.

 “You need to stop jerking off so much and get laid, pal. Want me to fix you up with someone?”

 “You’re sick, Iggy. Did I ever tell you that? All you think about is sex and corpses.”

 Iggy smirked. “What else is there?

Tommy stopped dead in his tracks, startled by what his friend said and by the thought of what he might have done. Iggy kept on walking. At the corner he glanced back and yelled. “Come on, asshole.” When he cocked his head and held his middle finger in the air, Tommy turned around and headed home.

They both went to Calvert Hall, a Catholic high school in the suburbs, but in the fall of their sophomore year Iggy flunked out. He was poor at math and science and had been in danger of flunking ever since they started. After Iggy transferred to public high school they slowly drifted apart. Tommy graduated with a scholarship to a college in Philadelphia while Iggy enlisted and went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for basic training.

Tommy finally got laid during his freshman year of college. He started dating a girl named Rose who invited him to drink beer with her friends one night in the woods behind campus. After consuming too many six-packs, Rose rested her head on Tommy’s lap while they listened to a rambling discussion about the word horny and whether or not it applied to girls. “Horny refers to satyrs,” someone said. “Those funny creatures with horns and tails and the legs of a goat. They represent the male sex drive, so how can it apply to girls?” Tommy thought that maybe having horns was like having a boner and wondered if Rose could feel his throbbing beneath her lovely blond hair. After the others left, she looked up at him and smiled.

“Girls get horny, too, and I can prove it.”

The next morning Tommy wondered what Iggy would say if he knew he finally had sex with a girl named Rose. By then Iggy was part of Operation Desert Shield in Kuwait and they had lost touch with each other.

Tommy’s mother called him one night before Christmas break with the news about Iggy’s death. “I’m sorry you missed the funeral,” she said. “But I just read about it in the church bulletin.”

Tommy was so shaken that all he could do was mumble into the phone. “I wonder who embalmed him.” There was a brief silence on the other end before his mother answered.

“I think they’re sent home in a sealed coffin already embalmed.”

Tommy was relieved despite the numbing sadness he felt. There was a time when he thought he and Iggy would be friends forever.

That night, after drowning his grief with Rose and her friends, he walked back to the dorm alone. In the darkness he heard a loud staccato laugh and whirled around but no one was there. Gazing up at the black sky filled with stars, he imagined Iggy’s flag draped casket at his family’s funeral parlor, heard his angelic voice singing Ave Maria at the Requiem Mass, and recalled the last words uttered by the priest at the cemetery. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. His heart surged and he suppressed a sob. Then, shrugging off the cold and tears, he turned back toward the dorm. He wished he had kept in touch. He wished that Iggy had never enlisted. Most of all he wished his friend had been cremated. Iggy would have liked it that way.

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