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The following are a few stories that didn't make the final cut for the published books Over Our Dead Bodies and Mortuary Confidential. To see a slide show displaying some original art work for Mortuary Confidential, click here

Title: The Fat Lady Has Sung
Originally from: Over Our Dead Bodies

Funerals and weddings are essentially the same animal, different breed. Weddings are happy occasions, funerals sad ones. They both mark an event in someone's life; they are, to be technical, rites. The big difference is in the planning and execution stage. My wife planned and agonized over the details of our wedding for months and months. When asked for my input I gave it, but generally I tried to stay out of it. Being a funeral director, I like the quick turnaround. There was, however, one interesting detail of our wedding, and now that I think about it, all the weddings I've ever been to, and it has to do with when the fat lady sings.

My wife and I had our wedding reception at a country club. We booked the room until ten o'clock. At 9:55 the wedding coordinator called our guest to the lobby and handed out paper rose petals. My wife and I walked down the grand staircase and everyone threw the paper petals at us, the photographer snapped photos, and it was all very nice, but really it was a diversionary tactic.

As soon as my animal friends chucked their paper petals at the blushing bride and groom they stampeded back to the open bar to freshen their drinks only to find the bar closed and locked, all the flowers gathered up, and the lights in the reception hall turned off. Ten o'clock, meant ten o'clock. While that may be the case for weddings, it somehow doesn't fly for wakes. A wake that is scheduled to end at nine o'clock may not really end until ten or ten-thirty; it's simply the nature of the funeral breed.

A woman by the name of Mabel Merola owned a funeral parlor in my town eons ago. She ran it on a widow's license, meaning her husband had been a mortician and when he died she inherited the business. Mrs. Merola ran Merola & Sons (though there were no sons) out of her townhouse. The viewing parlor was her living room. She would sit in the parlor, greeting guests until the prescribed time when the wake was supposed to end and then Mrs. Merola would get up and tell the family, "I'm going to bed. Please lock up when you leave." And upstairs she'd go to bed.

Obviously, that isn't something I can do. Not only do I not live in the funeral home, but times have changed and these days the world has gotten to be such a big place that people don't leave strangers in their living room to lock up while they go to bed, and thus we, the funeral director, stay until the bitter end, however long that may be.

But, sometimes the family decides they've had enough, and the wake ends right on time. I've seen a few interesting ways during my tenure that don't involve paper rose petals but are just as effective.

On one such occasion I was standing the lobby, greeting guests, when the son of the deceased whistled. It was one of those loud, ear-piercing whistles that seem impossible to do. The viewing room got real quiet, and he yelled, "Okay, wake's over. Time to go!" I stood there kind of bewildered as people streamed out, and as the son passed me, the last person out, he said to me, "Sorry," while glancing at his watch.

I looked at mine. It was three minutes past nine. "You didn't have to do that," I said. "I'm happy to stay as long as you need me."

"I was ready to go," he admitted, "and I know you aren't going to throw them out so I did. I'm sure you're ready to get home. See you tomorrow." He patted me on the shoulder and out the door he went.

That's one way to do it, I thought, watching him go. Simple. Effective. But, 'the whistler,' as I like to call him, had real tact compared the way my buddy in the shiny suit dismissed his mother's wake.

I was in the lobby, greeting guests, as is my usual position, when one the sons of the deceased pranced out of the viewing room. I had noticed earlier that his suit was unusually shiny. I couldn't tell if it was really expensive or really cheap.

"Hey Sport, it's eight o'clock," he said.

I didn't know this man other than to say hello to him; I had made arrangements with his brother, Brent. I smiled my neutral funereal smile and looked at my watch. It was three minutes to eight. "I know," I said non-committally.

"So what do we do Sport?"
"We wait."
"For?"
"Your guests to leave."

He smoothed a lock hair back into his perfectly pomaded mane and looked at me like I was stupid. "Don't you flick the lights or something?"

Though being called "Sport," didn't sit real well with me, or his glib tone, I laughed anyway, thinking he was joking. "No. My time is your time. Stay as long as you'd like." Straining my head toward the viewing room, I said, "Looks like you still have a few guests lingering around."

He curled his lip up like Elvis and made a sound of disgust.
I decided it was a cheap suit.
"I know there's still people in there," he said. "It's time for them to go. The wake is over."
"I'm sure if you are tired you could just leave," I suggested.

"Nah," he said brushing some lint from his shiny lapel, "I have to stay until the end." He consulted his watch. "Which is right about now."

I sighed. "Let me go talk with Brent and if he feels the same way then I'll make an announcement." I was trying to be as diplomatic as possible, and I had the sinking suspicion Brent didn't share his shiny suited brother's enthusiasm for ending the wake.

He smirked, and rubbed his hand across the fashionable two-day's growth on his face. "Nah Sport. Don't worry about it. I'll take care of it," he mused and headed back into the viewing room.

Glad to be rid of him, I quickly turned my attention to something else. I figured he'd make a few discreet comments and the guests would peter out accordingly.

I figured wrong.

Next thing I knew the lights were flashing on and off and he was yelling, yes, I'm not kidding, yelling, "It's eight! Time for everyone to go! Party's over!"

He certainly had everyone's attention. You could've heard a pin drop in that room. I'd be dying with embarrassment if I had been this man, but he either had no social graces or just didn't give a shit, because he took the opportunity of everyone's undivided attention to walk over to the casket where his mother lay to close the lid.

Brent, who was standing in the receiving line stepped forward. "What the hell are you-"

Shiny suit held up a hand in his face and cut him off. "Stiff in the lobby said it was time to go and I had to get rid of everyone."

I was standing at the doorway waving my hands frantically and mouthing to Brent, No! No!

Brent was either scared of his thug brother, or mesmerized, like the other guests as to the scene unfolding before him. He took the hand in the face and shut up, standing there with a shocked look on his face.

Shiny suit waded his way through some floral tributes, batting some out of the way, until he was at the head of the casket. He tugged at the lid. Nothing happened.

First of all, to close a casket lid you have to pull off the overlay, the piece of fabric that drapes like an apron over the bottom half of the lid and hangs on the legs of the decedent, and fold in the extendover, or piece of fabric that basically transitions the interior of the casket to the outside wood or metal- which this casket happened to be. If you don't fold all this material in the lid can't close, which he didn't. Nor did he know the hinge locked. Some caskets have a locking cap bracket (a.k.a. hinge) to prevent a weak hinge joint from causing a casket lid to slam down at in inopportune time. This one had one of those locking brackets. One has to push a certain spot on the bracket to release it before the bracket will release and allow the lid to close. Shiny suit obviously didn't know about this hinge release. He gave the lid a second tug, and then another, harder tug. The lid didn't budge.

I began to run across the viewing room shouting, "Wait! Wait!"

It was too late. I watched in horror, as did the rest of his guests, as he gave the lid a final mighty tug and the hinge screeched in protest, bent in half and the lid slowly came down as far as it could. There was a lot of fabric in the way.

The pomade prince thumped his fist on the partially closed lid. "Okay, folks, Fat Lady has sung. Time to go." He turned heel and was the first one out of the funeral home, saying to me as he passed, "See you tomorrow Sport."

The guests streamed out of the viewing room like someone had shot off a gun in the middle of the room. I heard one woman with big hair and a fancy hat utter the word, "animal," to another woman as they left.

I approached Brent timidly and said, "I'm sorry- I didn't tell your brother-"

He cut me off with his hand much in the same way that had been done to him minutes before, but with a less nasty denotation. "I know. That's why he didn't come to make arrangements. It's not your fault. He's just like that. An asshole." "Is there anything I can do?" I asked weakly.

"No," he replied, defeated. He looked around at the fleeing people. "The wake is definitely over at this point. I might as well go."

I watched Brent collect his wife and leave. I looked at my watch as they walked through the door. It was five minutes after eight.

Not too bad.

I think the country club should forget the paper rose petals and hire my friend, Shiny suit, to get rid of wedding guests.


Title: Lost Keys
Originally from: Over Our Dead Bodies

I had ransacked the room. I had looked under every table, lamp, the bed, over every surface, and even went so far as to crawl about on the shag carpeting running my hands through the high pile, but to no avail. I stopped short of rooting about in drawers, it would've taken a grassy-knoll-Kennedy-type bullet for my keys to have ended up in the bureau drawers, but still I was tempted. I was frantic. Finally, I accepted my fate, opening the bedroom door, a look of defeat painted on my face, I said, "Mr. Porter, could I use your phone?"

Bill Porter, a bespectacled, diminutive sort, kindly acquiesced, as I knew he would. He had no choice. I had his father. And I had lost the keys to my station wagon. And as long as I didn't have the keys the station wagon, his dead father, nor me were going anywhere.

"Hun," I said when the line picked up. "Yes, I know it's late- No, no, nothing's wrong per se, but I do need you to do me a tiny favor." I outlined my favor, having her get a piece of paper to write down Bill Porter's address.

When I hung up the phone, I turned to Mr. Porter, and trying to salvage what was left of my dignity, I said, "She'll be over shortly."

"Would you and your man like to wait inside?" Mr. Porter asked, the considerate person he was.
"That would be nice," I replied, and went outside to serve myself a piece of humble pie.

The night had started all right. I received a death call for John Porter in the wee hours of the morning. In turn, I called Daniel, my new apprentice, and told him to meet me at the funeral home. Daniel lived closer to the funeral home than I, and when I arrived his car was already idling in the parking lot. When Daniel saw me pull in he hopped out of his car. I noticed he was wearing only a thin black raincoat, not a heavy topcoat like winter in northwestern Pennsylvania requires.

"Okay, what do we do?" he asked into the driver's side window, stamping his feet and blowing into his hands. "Hop in," I said. I already had the cot and necessary supplies in the station wagon.

He hopped in, grateful for the warmth, and sat rubbing his hands in combination of warming them and nerves. I knew what he was feeling, the anticipation of his first time-the unknown. This was an occasion of firsts. This was Daniel's first day, his first removal, and Daniel was my first apprentice.

Daniel completed mortuary school, working as a driver for UPS. He had had some experience embalming in the school's embalming lab, but he had never stepped foot in funeral home before (which slayed me that he'd invest the time and money without knowing if he even liked the vocation) he came knocking on my door looking for an apprenticeship.

In order to become licensed one has to complete a year's apprenticeship under an already licensed funeral director. In some states you do your apprenticeship before you go to school, in others you do it after, and in some states you can do it concurrently. It can be called an 'internship' depending on what state you're in, but that's all semantics. It's all the same thing. As an apprentice, you learn the business from the ground up.

It wasn't too long ago that I was an apprentice myself. I was subjected to all the usual shit, the hazing, if you will, that most apprentices suffer. In addition to taking night call, learning how to make funeral arrangements, embalm bodies, apply makeup, figuring out the nuances of different religious funeral services (and churches), and running a small business, I also cut the grass, waxed the cars, did all the janitorial work, seal coated the lot, shoveled tons of snow in the winter, did the grocery shopping for the owner's family, cleaned up dog shit, and drove their two sons to and from school. I was basically an indentured servant. They treated me so bad that as soon as I finished my apprenticeship I left (I later found out they were something of an apprentice mill) and went to work for a different firm. That was six years ago. I bought him out two years ago. Because of the way I was treated I promised myself if I ever had an apprentice I would teach him the profession, and not treat him like a piece of equipment.

Then Dennis came knocking on my door.

I hired him and three nights later Bill Porter called me to say his father had died.

As I went out to the station wagon the words kept echoing in my head, Just watch, I'm going to show you how it's done. Those were the words I had said to Daniel when we pulled into Mr. Porter's driveway, and I had conducted a little pep talk to go over everything I had explained in the past few days before we went in.

Just watch, I'm going to show you how it's done.
And here I am, like some Rube, having lost my car keys.

It was January. Christmas had come and gone, and all that was left were just to doldrums of winter, the seemingly perpetual darkness and omnipresent cold. Up where I am, the cold is biting, though I'm a good ways from the Erie, I swear I can sometimes feel the wind. It cuts like a blade, and holds onto the remnants of snowfalls, collecting them and never allowing them thaw. Tonight was no exception. It was cold and dark. Daniel stood by the rear of the station wagon, hands buried deep into his too thin coat. I had said to him ten minutes ago, "Wait here. I'm going to run in and get my keys." I had said it with such authority, like I knew exactly where I had placed them and was just going to grab them.

"C'mon," I said, "Let's get Mr. Porter out and go back inside. I can't seem to find my keys anywhere." As I spoke I opened the driver's door. The interior was already cold soaked. I checked the ignition, floor, visor, and center console for the second time. No avail. The keys hadn't materialized. I could't imagine what I had done with them.

"Get him out?" Daniel asked, and I could tell by the tone in his voice he wanted to ask, Why? He's already dead. I answered the unasked question, "It'll look better this way."

We navigated back up the icy walk with the cot, and up the three steps to John Porter's house. Like most older folks, John had found an style thirty years ago he liked and just kept it that way. There were a lot of orange and browns, dark paneling, and shag carpeting, but at least it was warm. Bill's wife popped her head out of her father-in-law's kitchen and offered us something to drink. We both declined and stood in silence in the living room.

Just watch, I'm going to show you how it's done. I knew Daniel thought I was some sort of blow-hard. Here I was supposed to be showing him the ropes and instead I come off looking like a buffoon. There was nothing I could do but wait, and wait we did. My wife is a cautious driver, and on dark, icy, back roads she fairly crawled out to the Porter house.

Finally we saw the headlights of her Jeep coming down the drive, and we bade goodbye to Bill and his wife for a second time, me offering an apology, though not too profuse for the inconvenience.

"I lose my glasses all the time," Bill offered as consolation.
His wife nodded as if to verify.

On the ride back to the funeral home, I decided to keep my big mouth shut and not offer any pre-advice on the embalming we were about to perform. My pep talks had thus far turned out to be some sort of bad Karma.

Once we were gowned and transferred Mr. Porter to the embalming table, I instructed Daniel on how to roll him so we could remove the bedclothes when there was a tinkling sound of my car keys falling onto the table.

Daniel picked them up and peered at them through this goggles like he was looking at an artifact from Mars and stated the obvious, "Here they are."

"Yes," I repeated, slowly, realizing my stupidity, "there they are."

When I go to a house, I always make a point to sit on the edge of the bed where the deceased is while I talk with the family. I think it shows the family that I am not afraid to join them in the place where they have sat and prayed in the weeks or days leading up to the death. It allays their fears to a degree. I've been doing it for six years without issue, and for some reason on that particular night my keys fell out. When Daniel and I went to move the body, we wrapped him in his sheets, and wrapped my keys right with him.

In the ensuing weeks as I thought about it I came to the realization that I was so hard on myself because I thought as the teacher, I had to appear infallible. I'm by no means a great teacher, but I have taken the first step and now realize that as teachers, we can always learn something.


Title: Johnny's Great Pumpkin
Originally from: Mortuary Confidential

I was born and raised on a small family farm in San Joaquin Valley in California. I cut my teeth on early mornings of milking cattle, mucking equine stalls, plowing fields, digging in the dirt and all the stuff a young boy does on a working farm. So after I moved to the north eastern section of Oklahoma-near Owasso-to pursue a career in the funeral industry it was just natural for me to plant a giant garden on the back of our five-acre property. It's in my blood to scratch sustenance from the earth. My wife is a city girl, raised in Chicago, so she doesn't understand my obsession with my garden. She does enjoy the pumpkin pie, zucchini bread, real pickles, pickled beets, corn in the summer, and all the other fresh vegetables she could ever want, but she doesn't understand why I talk about the garden like I do one of the kids.

The garden has become a joke between us; so much so that she had a sign made that I have tacked to a pole out in my garden. It reads: Johnny's Garden. My name isn't-or wasn't-Johnny until my wife, Anna, had that sign made for me shortly after we were married. My favorite band is Manassas and Steve Stills wrote a fantastic song called Johnny's Garden, that was playing the first night my wife and I met at Cal State U. After we got married and I planted my first garden in our home near Fresno she started calling me Johnny. The name stuck. It spread to my neighbors, co-workers and extended family. Now, everyone calls me Johnny or Green Thumb Johnny.

Every year during autumn I decorate the lobby of the funeral home I co-own with all sorts of fall things I've grown in my garden to give it a festive look. Squash, gourds, pumpkins, corn stalks, along with hay, apples, and any other number of things I can think of get arranged around the lobby to give it a festive and inviting appeal. My customers love it; it seems to make them feel comfortable, and my wife likes it too. She has an eye for interior decorating so this is one task that brings both of our hobbies together. We usually make a weekend day of it in late September.

One year, about five years ago if memory serves me correct, I noticed a pumpkin I was growing was abnormally large. I began coaxing this giant pumpkin along with the help of extra water and fertilizer. It grew and grew, and continued growing. My kids dubbed it the "Charlie Brown Pumpkin" after the Peanuts movie. Finally, I could put off my lobby decorating no more and I had to sever the great pumpkin's stalk even though I knew I could grow it bigger. As it was when I cut it off the vine it was thirty inches wide eighteen inches high and weighed sixty pounds. It was monstrosity. My kids begged me to let them carve it for Halloween. I wanted it for the centerpiece for my lobby. In the end I relented and told them they could carve it a couple of days before Halloween but it had to stay in the lobby. The great pumpkin couldn't come home.

It was about one week before Halloween and that year's fall decoration display had been the best ever, and the giant pumpkin was the reason. People were coming in just to see it. It's a somewhat small town with not much to do so the pumpkin was a minor celebrity with a write up in the local paper and everything. I was conducting a funeral in our chapel and the minister had just asked for a moment of silence when the pumpkin decided to make its move.

Everyone in the chapel's head was bowed and you could've heard a pin drop when a loud muffled explosion sounded in the lobby. It reminded me of a champagne bottle being popped but with more resonance. I was standing near the rear doors of the chapel waiting to give further instructions when everyone's head swiveled around to see what the noise was. I shrugged embarrassed and quickly slipped out the door to see what had caused such a noise. The scene in the lobby was not pretty.

I looked in horror at my once beautiful lobby now covered in slimy pumpkin seeds and orange gunk. It was everywhere, the walls, the ceiling, the other decorations, the wall hangings, and had even managed to turn the corner into the casket display room. The epicenter of the blast: the great pumpkin. Ground zero. The culprit. I surveyed the damage with my mouth hanging open and stepped back into the chapel. There was nothing I could do about the mess. The service had ended. My patrons would have to pick their way through the detritus as they exited the chapel. I marched briskly up to the podium, and, with my heart jack hammering in my chest announced, "Friends, the noise you just heard was the great pumpkin in the lobby exploding." Several folks in the audience snickered. I ignored them and continued with my announcement.

Later, as people left I heard one man say to his wife, "Jesus! Looks like some punk lit a cherry bomb in that thing." And indeed, it did look like that, but I had seen pumpkins split open naturally before because some bacterium had gotten in and as it metabolizes the pumpkin's flesh the gas it gives off builds up inside the pumpkin. This particular pumpkin, due to its prodigious size and strength must've had an enormous gas buildup inside it before it blew. I'm just thankful nobody was standing around to get slimed by the orange goo.

Anna and I had one hell of a time cleaning that lobby up. It was almost like the seeds had been concreted to the ceiling and walls. I had to use a putty knife to chisel them off and then skim coat the entire lobby and repaint it. It was an absolute mess.

I've done the display since then, but only use small pumpkins and gourds. If I grow something big in Johnny's Garden I listen to my kid's advice and let them carve it.