I'm Dead, Now What?

by Michael Fedo

Janice Hummer, veteran infomercial co-host, and long-time spokesperson for Soup-O-Matic, was warming up an audience that had been attracted to the studio by $50 worth of discount coupons, redeemable at any Martin Mortuary, located in 29 states and Happy Valley, Labrador. "You're making television history today," she told the crowd. "We're taking mortuary science to a new level, and all of us are excited.

"The public is pretty ignorant about this topic, and people are uneasy discussing it. But that's going to change. Mort Martin, of Martin Mortuaries, is the kind of guy who wants to take the mystery out of his business, and have a little fun with it."

Ms. Hummer briefly touched her hands to her hair and stepped back. The set was lighted, revealing a 60-something-male cadaver clad in briefs lying on a stainless steel embalming table. Mort Martin gave a thumbs-up signal to the crew and watched the director reposition cameras.

Ms. Hummer's jaws clenched. She stood behind the cadaver, and on cue from a camera operator, assumed a toothsome smile. Reading from a teleprompter, she informed viewers she was here to introduce a new, innovative service. "With me today is Mort Martin of Martin Mortuaries, Inc.," she said. "You've seen their new billboards and other print ads, announcing the concept of `beauty in death,' which nicely sums up what our friends at Martin Mortuaries are all about.

"We have a fascinating program for you today, so without further ado, let's welcome the man everyone knows as Mortician Mort--Mort Martin, ladies and gentlemen."

Acknowledging applause, Mort Martin grinned, and wiped a thick shock of brown hair from his forehead. "Thanks folks, and thank you, Jan, for that delightful introduction. I've been a fan of Jan's for a long time now, and hey, she's about the best there is in this business, don't you agree?" He led the audience in applauding the winsome Ms. Hummer.

She smiled, nodded, then asked Mort what today's show would be about.

"Jan, I've titled our program, `I'm Dead, Now What?'" He smiled. "We at Martin Mortuaries find that people are honestly curious about what happens after death, but they haven't felt comfortable asking.

"Throughout this 30-minute program, you'll see an 800 number on the bottom of your screen. I urge you to jot it down and give us a call. There are telephone counselors on duty throughout this show to talk to you about your needs."

Mort stepped to the table and folded the cadaver's hands over his stomach. "I once read a comment that reveals an ultimate truth. `We commonly act as if we and those we love were going to live forever. But we are wrong, for all must die.' Hey, that's life." He shrugged. "Let me put this another way--all of us think everyone except ourselves is mortal."

"How true that is, Mort," Jan said, eyeing the cadaver. "But we're all in for a reality check today, aren't we?"

"That's correct, Jan. The more you know about my business, the more intelligent decision you'll be making before the bell tolls at your house.

"Now, let's get on with our program, and remember the 800 number--we're just a phone call away from wherever you're watching this show. And remember, that call is absolutely free."

"I'm sure our viewers are wondering about the body you have here today, Mort," Jan said.

"You see before you the earthly remains of a homeless derelict, whose name is unknown but to God. Martin Mortuaries would never employ the remains of a loved one. Fortunately, we are able to purchase bodies such as belonged to this gentleman, from the very facility that supplies cadavers to our finest medical schools.

"For now, let's call this fellow, Harold. I'm calling him that because he rather looks like my cousin Harold, who is, I might add, very much with us."

As Mort began turning the body, Jan Hummer stepped forward. "One of the things Mortician Mort talked to me about before the show was the respect accorded each Martin Mortuaries' client. Rest assured of their highest professional treatment of remains, be they yours or those closest to you."

"That's right, Jan," Mort said, signaling the camera to get a close-up of the corpse. "Most people retain a sort of dark and grisly humor about death from childhood. Remember that old song?" He cleared his throat, and beckoned Jan who joined him singing, "The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the ants play pinochle on your snout."

The two laughed with their audience. "That was, of course, an anthem of the British soldiers during the Crimean War of 1854. The boys had a lot of fun with that one, and hey--we want to have a little fun today too. Think of it this way--one is hard-put to stop being dead. For those left behind, your death--or God forbid--even my own, is final. And everyone likes to make terrific first and last impressions.

"At Martin Mortuaries we absolutely guarantee a memorable last impression."

"Mort, are you going to tell us how you achieve this with your clients?" Jan produced another wide grin.

"You bet, Jan. That and a whole lot more. For instance, there aren't many of you who have much awareness of the history of how bodies of the deceased are handled. How many of you know, for instance, that the morgue was first called the Chatelet? Why is that, you may wonder? That was originally the name of a vacant butcher shop in Paris where authorities displayed bodies to the public for identification. This was back in the 18th century, when undertakers didn't understand the need for compassion and sensitivity.

"But today we're going to detail the `now what?' aspect of our program theme. And when the time comes for you or someone close to you to make a final decision, we hope you'll choose a Martin Mortuary." He paused and winked. "Because we'll be the last to let you down." He smiled broadly as a scattering of chuckles and groans rose from the audience.

Jan chortled. "Oh, Mort, you're such a kidder, isn't he, folks? Don't you just love his sense of humor?"

"Listen, if you can't have fun in this life, what's the point? Life's too mysterious; don't take it serious, right? But hey, let me get serious for a moment to tell you why you should choose the fine folks at Martin Mortuaries." He moved his hands along Harold's neck and located the large artery.

"Here's where it all starts. Embalming fluid is injected here, and bodily fluids are flushed through a vein located in the groin. Simple process, and any run-of-the-mill mortician can do that. But here's where you're never sure of what you're getting. To do a proper job, it's imperative to empty and dry the abdominal cavity. Without going into all the details, let's just say that there's a special filler for this purpose, but a lot of other mortuaries in attempting to cut costs, will use sawdust."

"What's the difference, Mort?" Jan said. "Who would ever know?"

"Most of the time, no one. However, the problem with sawdust is that it gives off a sour odor when wet. Think about it--let's say Harold here is your father, and your last impression of him is he's in the casket and we detect this olfactory intrusion."

Jan screwed up her face. "And that never happens at a Martin Mortuary. Appropriate filler is always used at Martin, right?"

"Absolutely, Jan. Without question. I'd like to move our discussion into a rather delicate area--one we deal with quite often in our business. While they aren't visible to our studio audience, you can see that this gentleman has a few bruises on his face and neck. Assuming `Harold' was our relative, we wouldn't want those bruises present at the reviewal."

"Certainly not, Mort," Jan said.

"Harold, due to his questionable, perhaps even unseemly lifestyle, probably engaged in a few altercations during his life, and retained some battle scars right to the end. What do we do with them?" He emptied fluid from a plastic container into a small stainless steel bowl.

"What I have here is known as Bruise Bleach," Mort said. "We apply a dab to bruises and other discolorations, and voila! Those abrasions disappear. We also arrange to have anything unsightly removed from the body. For that service, Martin Mortuaries have retained professional hairdressers and beauticians. I know most men can only be caught dead going to a hairdresser or a beautician, but in this case, they're necessary, and they perform exquisite work.

"This is what we in the trade call the restoration process. Restoration is an art that combines the elements and principles of design--an artist's vision. That's right. These people are artists, and quite frankly, folks, not all morticians possess these skills. We've all gone to visitations where the corpse may have a pasty or bluish appearance." He shook his head. "That never happens at a Martin Mortuary. I guarantee it.

"We've arranged a little demonstration here now with Olivia, one of our senior beauticians." Mort stepped aside, and a thin, middle-aged, white-haired woman appeared to a scattering of applause. She smiled briefly, and put on a pair of glasses. "Olivia has been with Martin Mortuaries for, how long now, Olivia?"

"16 years," she said, and started applying make-up to Harold's face. As she worked, the camera zoomed in for several close-ups, drawing audible reactions and applause from the audience. While Olivia applied finishing touches on Harold, Mort and Jan maintained patter about the advantages of choosing a Martin Mortuary.

"What our viewers are really interested in are the many options available at Martin Mortuaries. Tell us about a few of them, Mort," Jan said.

Mort stated that even at the low end, clients received many basic services, and would be guaranteed quality that far exceeds industry standards. "As a matter of fact, we can do for you in death, what you'd struggle to accomplish in life--the removal of a double chin, for instance." He stroked his own and smiled. "When I go, this goes too. I know I'll look like a million bucks."

Viewers were advised to call their local Martin Mortuary for specific costs, which varied slightly from city to city. In fact, Mort said, people who contacted a Martin Mortuary and mentioned seeing this program, could receive up to $100 off on a funeral once the contract was signed. "You don't want to miss out on this," he said.

"And Mort, I understand there's a huge discount for families who sign up four or more members." Jan leaned toward Mort and whispered. "You can literally save more than a thousand dollars. Imagine, a hundred dollars off by just mentioning you've watched this program, and maybe a thousand dollars or more, when you sign up the entire family. Golly, if there are a dozen in your family, you could save a much as five thousand dollars off the regularly priced package."

"That's right, Jan," Mort said, beaming, draping his arms on the shoulders of Jan and Olivia. "But you've got to act now. This offer won't last forever, and may be withdrawn without notice."

"The 800 number is on your screen now," Jan said, nodding toward the camera. "Don't delay. Pick up that phone. Remember folks, for bereavement at its best, for beauty in death, call your friends at a Martin Mortuary."

"One final word, Jan." Mort leaned into the embalming table. "I'd like to leave you with this thought I found in Shakespeare's play, Cymbeline: `Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers come to dust.'" After wiping his hands on his apron as the camera moved for a close up, Mort waved to the audience. "So long until next time," he said, smiling.

Copyright 2003 by Michael Fedo. All rights reserved.