December 29, 2006

When JB’s brother Joe was in high school, his class held a career-focused activity where each student had to shadow a local business for the day. Joe, wise-ass kid that he was, decided it would be amusing to hang out at the funeral home.

Funny how the smallest decisions can change your life’s trajectory. That summer he started working for them on a part time basis, washing hearses. Later, he was apprenticing with the owners. He eventually went to mortuary school, and has now been working as a funeral director for over ten years. He’s also picked up his bachelor’s degree, and spent some time teaching mortuary science.

Joe’s the only person I know who wears formal clothing every single workday: he dresses carefully in dark suits and ties. His job involves talking to grieving families, arranging services, driving out to pick up bodies, and preparing bodies for viewing.

I’ve always been curious about Joe’s job, and at family get-togethers I like to pester him with questions, mostly when his parents aren’t within earshot and I can ask awful things like, “Sooo…have you ever had to put a head back on?” (answer: yes, from a suicide who used piano wire to hang himself with, and Joe had to put a broomstick in the neck to re-attach the head).

On a recent weekend we were staying at Joe’s house, and as expected (he’s usually on call through the holidays) his phone rang. He told us he had to pick up an elderly woman’s body from her home and do an embalming, then he’d be done for the day.

I hesitate for a minute, then ask.

“Can I watch?”

I think Joe is pleased to have someone be interested in his work, because he agrees right away. I can’t come on the call itself, but he gets consent from the family for me to attend the embalming, and once the body is on the way to the funeral home Joe comes back and picks me me up.

I follow him to the driveway, where a van is parked. “Why no hearse?” I ask, vaguely disappointed.

It turns out the hearse is mostly used for funerals, not for picking up bodies. It seems people feel funny about seeing a hearse pull up to a house, so Joe drives a nondescript van. He calls it the Taliban Van. “Can’t you picture this thing filled with rocket launchers and guns?” he says.

It rattles and clatters, it’s metal and empty in the back (except for one gurney, holding an ominous shape covered in cloth). The van typically only contains a few gurneys and what Joe describes as hazard gear: materials used for cleaning up after a messy death.

I ask if cleaning is part of the job. Joe says no, but that he does what he can. “I think of Grady’s death,” he tells me. He’s talking about a friend in high school who shot himself while playing Russian Roulette one winter morning after a night of drinking. He had died in his bedroom, in his mother’s house, leaving heartbreaking evidence of the bullet’s fatal damage behind as his body was carried away.

I had never really imagined the grim emotional reality of death’s impact on someone’s carpet fibers. The unfathomable task of cleaning your child’s blood off the walls.

“I always clean after a suicide,” he says. “For most deaths I usually try and clean a little. Sometimes we take the linens the body was lying on and dispose of them for a family.”

I try not to think of these various linens and their various soils, and fail.

We arrive at the funeral home, the Taliban Van shuddering to a halt outside the double doors. Joe unlocks the building and we walk inside. A crematory sits directly in front of the entrance, and two walk-in coolers, used for storing bodies that have not yet been embalmed, are on either side. Joe swings open one of the cooler doors for a moment and I see a couple of draped bodies in the back. He also cranks open the crematory door to briefly show me its hellish innards; a blast of dry heat comes out and I see piles of ashes sitting back there.

We walk up a ramp and we’re in an employee area with a dry-erase board documenting the calls and funerals. Joe hands me a white medical-looking robe, which I nervously zip shut. He asks if I’m ready, opens a door and beckons me inside, and suddenly I’m standing next to five dead bodies.

Five. Dead. Bodies.

I’m in the prep room, the work area where the embalming is done. It’s narrow with bright lighting, there are six fluorescent rectangles in the ceiling. At one end of the room is a sink, some equipment, and a white table. On either side of the room are five gurneys, lined in rows. On each gurney lies a body, draped in a white sheet, head exposed.

They all appear to be elderly. Their hair is stringy and white and their faces are pointed towards the fluorescent ceiling and there is a thick, choking smell of sweetness and chemicals in the air. Their eyes are closed and their skin looks waxy and I cannot help thinking of horror movies and zombies and creaking limbs that move even after life is long gone.

I stare and stare and when Joe says he’ll be right back, I chase him out of the room, practically trampling on the back of his dress shoes. “I’ll just . . . come with you,” I say, and Joe laughs.

I follow him back to the Tali-Van and he rolls the body out, using a collapsible gurney. The body belongs to an old woman who died under hospice care at home, so picking her up was a straightforward process. Sometimes Joe has to go to hospitals or nursing homes, sometimes the police need to be involved when he takes a body.

He pushes the draped, rolling gurney back up the ramp and into the prep room. This time the bodies aren’t quite so startling, and I take the time to look more carefully at each of them. Each of their heads is carefully propped on a plastic block, their hands crisscrossed under the sheets on their chests.

Joe tells me he has a job for me, and I blanche before I see the iPod in his hand. “Pick out some music,” he says, amused. I choose Bob Seger. “Like a Rock” starts playing through some unseen stereo and Joe cracks his knuckles. “Ready?” he asks.

Truthfully, I’m not completely, 100% sure, but I nod and furtively zip my robe a little tighter.

Joe rolls the gurney containing — oh, let’s call her Lady X — close to the white prep table at the end of the room. He squirts a gel-like substance on the table, which he tells me makes it easier to slide the body, and cuts Lady X’s clothes off.

With practiced movements he slides Lady X from the gurney onto the table and she tumbles slightly, her limbs kind of collapsing around her, and my brain is helplessly stuttering DEAD, DEAD, that’s a DEAD PERSON, and now there she lies, her naked body white and sagging.

Joe makes note of her jewelry, scribbling in a book. “Yellow bracelet. Yellow watch. Yellow earrings.” I ask why he doesn’t list them as gold, because they clearly are, and he says that funeral directors have to be careful not to make assumptions about the value of a deceased’s jewelry. Otherwise they can be held liable for a “diamond ring” that was really cubic zirconium.

Lady X has a catheter, and Joe removes that (I decorously look away, for some reason) and puts it in a container labeled BIOHAZARD. He begins to “block” the body, arranging the body into a position that will be later viewed in a casket. The hands are placed on the body’s midsection, left over right so the wedding ring is visible. The head is balanced on a plastic block, and the feet are rested against another block.

I ask if they need to leave those blocks there forever, and Joe tells me no, the bodies become stiff and hold their position. He demonstrates by removing one of the blocks behind the head of a dead man in a nearby gurney: the head moves only slightly, somewhat gummily on the stem of his neck.

I find it profoundly disturbing to see the man’s head unsupported, and breathe a secret sigh of relief when Joe replaces the block.

Now Joe explains he’s going to cut into the neck and tie off the arteries. The embalming process involves moving chemicals throughout the body’s circulatory system, fluid typically runs through the carotid artery and drains from the jugular. Joe needs to locate these arteries, and isolate them. He does this now so he can focus on restoring the face before beginning the embalming.

He uses a scalpel to cut into Lady X’s neck, just below the clavicle on her right side. I wince as the blade enters her flesh, but it is surprisingly bloodless. White skin peels open and reddish layers of tissue lie underneath, which Joe digs into with two small metal tools until he finds the carotid artery, which looks like a thick white rubber band. “Can you see okay?” he asks. “Come over to this side.”

I try and shake off my squeamishness and walk around to the other side, closer to where Joe is working, and peer into the wound as Joe uses string to tie off the carotid, then does the same with the jugular, which is a large blueish-purple vein. Lady X is left with a hole in her neck, the skin peeled back and two veins protruding outward, tied with string.

“Now we set the features,” Joe says. He uses a shaving brush to sweep on soft white clouds of shaving cream, explaining that every face benefits from a shave, even women who only have peach fuzz, because the mortuary makeup that is later applied looks better on smooth skin.

He shaves Lady X in swift, efficient strokes, and there is something gentle about this, something almost ancient. Like the ritualistic washing of a body in some cultures. It looks tender, at least until Joe uses a small hose to aim a stream of water down Lady X’s face to remove the cream — this somehow reminds me of the rinse cycle in a carwash.

Joe uses something called stone oil on her face, smoothing it on her skin and under her eyelids. It moisturizes the face and helps keeps the eyes from drying out, he tells me. He arranges her head with the nose pointed slightly to the right, which will tilt her head towards the viewers when she’s in her casket.

“I like to clip the nose hairs,” Joe says while doing so. “It’s the little things that make a good embalming.”

To keep the eyes closed, he slips a plastic disk under each eyelid (once again, I look elsewhere, because I don’t want to see her actual eyeballs). The eye cap looks like an opaque contact lens with serrated edges on one side, which hook into the flesh of the eyelid and prevent them from rolling back and scaring the bejesus out of someone during the funeral. He massages the skin around the eyes and makes certain the inner corners aren’t gapped open, too.

Now he’s got to set her mouth in a position that looks rested and natural. He gets out a tool called a needle injector, and before I can brace myself he aims the tool against Lady X’s upper gum line and shoots a small metal stud into her jaw with a distressingly loud noise. The stud is connected to a wire, which is used to thread through the lips to sew the mouth shut. He triggers the needle tool a few more times — KA-CHUNK! KA-CHUNK! KA-CHUNK! — and sighs in frustration. “Her gums are no good,” he says, and he pulls out the studs with a fleshy tearing sound.

I shudder.

Next he gets out a long, curved needle with thread on the end of it, and he uses it to pierce Lady X’s jaw, lips, and winds the thread through her entire jaw and nose. The needle passes through her septum at one point, going in one nostril and out the other.

In an effort to distract myself slightly from the sight of the needle punching through her soft tissues, I ask how many people require this hand-sewing. Joe says about one in five, but some funeral directors actually prefer this method.

Joe fusses over Lady X’s mouth for a long time, lining her gums with a plastic piece called a mouth former. He packs in cotton webbing cut into small strips, which absorbs any seepage and provides form to the loose, collapsed mouth of the dead. “This is the hardest part,” he says. “You want a hunter’s bow shape here.”

I take a good look at Lady X. Her mouth is ever so slightly curved at the edges — not as though she were about to smile, but in a way that implies comfort. I’m amazed by the difference he’s already made. Joe makes a few more small adjustments, then he reluctantly decides he’s done.

“You’re a perfectionist,” I say. “Nah,” he replies, shrugging, but I can see him looking at her mouth, trying to figure if there’s any way he can improve the job.

Now it’s time to start the actual embalming. This particular process is called arterial embalming, which uses a mechanical pump to inject chemicals into the body via its circulatory system. Joe chooses from a set of bottles, pouring them one by one into the reservoir of the embalming machine. He uses something called an arterial conditioner, the traditional formaldehyde, a tinted humectant, and a dye. The combinations creates a disinfectant, preservative, and restorative solution that will be injected into Lady X.

It is bright pink and smells horribly sweet. It is familiar, as I realize that’s what the room smelled of before, but the odor gets cranked up now until it’s like a physical thing lining my nostrils and throat.

Joe sprays disinfectant on Lady X’s body, then uses a pair of small scissors to snip into her exposed jugular artery. He gets out a long metal pair of forceps, which he slides inside the hole in her vein. He pushes the forceps deep down into her chest, all the way inside of her heart, then opens them about an inch.

I ask over and over, “Really? It’s all the way in her heart?” because I can hardly believe it. But it’s true: the metal tool Joe is holding goes all the way in her heart.

He then snips a hole in the exposed carotid artery, and inserts the arterial cannula, which is a nozzle of sorts attached by tube to the embalming machine, and turns on the machine’s pressure.

Chemicals from the machine’s reservoir are now being pumped into Lady X’s carotid, circulating throughout her body, and coming back out the hole in her jugular. Along with her blood, of course. I watch dark blood and chemical water sluice down the white table and into the drain, and I guess I probably would have found this unbelievably gross before I walked in this room, but it’s not nearly as bad as the jaw-puncturing.

Joe massages her body to loosen blood and move clots through her system. He motions to the slowed-down trickle at her neck and tells me it’s because she’s got too many clots, it’s clogging up the circulation. He holds the forceps and saws them back and forth a bit while widening the opening in her vein, and a fierce gush of coagulated blood floods out. “She’s going great guns now!” he says happily.

The clots, now, those are pretty gross. I wrinkle my nose as lumps float down the table. “Where does this stuff all go?” I ask.

Answer: the sewage system. Oh.

Joe uses a pair of scissor handles to lightly crunch down on Lady X’s fingernails, which leaves them a softly glowing pink as a result of the embalming fluids. “Old funeral director trick,” he tells me. I raise my eyebrows in appreciation. “Nice,” I say, because I am a Salty, Been-There-Done-That Funeral Assistant now.

I ask when he knows to stop, and Joe says he can tell by looking at the body. “See how she’s looking better?” he asks, showing me her arms and legs. Her skin is filling out a little, turning a rosier color.

After ten minutes or so Joe decides Lady X is finished, so he stops the machine and cleans off the table with some running water. He sews shut the hole in her neck. “Just your basic baseball stitch,” he tells me as he quickly and carefully runs a needle in and out of her skin. He’ll cover this area with wax or with clothing, when she’s readied for viewing later.

He shampoos Lady X’s hair, using a bottle of what I think is Suave. His funeral home has a hairdresser on staff who will fix Lady X later, working from a photo. However, Joe will be the one to apply makeup, which he won’t do until right before the viewing. He shows me the cabinet of mortuary makeup, and my eyes helplessly fix on a small container labeled “INFANT TINT”. I think, not for the first time, that while it’s one thing to watch this process being done to an elderly person who died of natural causes, it would be quite different if the body belonged to an accident victim, someone younger, or — impossible, absolutely unthinkable — a baby.

Now Joe has to deal with the body’s cavities, which do get embalmed during the circulation method but require stronger saturation. He could wait a day or so until the organ walls harden a bit, which makes them easier to penetrate, but he decides to finish it now.

Joe takes a tool called a trocar, another wandlike device, and unceremoniously plunges it into Lady X’s midsection. He wields it like a plastic surgeon (it is, in fact, the same tool used during liposuction), pushing it into her heart, lungs, esophagus, bladder, liver, and intestines. The trocar vacuums out the contents of these cavities, through a clear plastic tube connected back to the drainage system. Stuff moves through the plastic tube with a wet sucking noise as he shoves the trocar around.

He attaches a bottle to one end of the tube, and uses the same wand to inject cavity fluid into the body, to preserve Lady X’s organs. His final task is to rub stone oil all over Lady X’s face, and screw a plastic “trocar button” into the hole in her midsection (to prevent leakage).

I muse over the fact that every single modern embalmed man and woman resting in caskets all over U.S. graveyards has one of these plastic buttons in their body. I wonder if future generations will find them in the strata someday, bones and flesh gone but the button still there.

Lady X is wheeled to the side of the room, joining all the other bodies whose faces are shining with oil. I’m surprised to see that their faces look rested to me now, fixed in calm dignity rather than being fiercely held by death’s grip.

When it comes time for their viewing, they will be dressed (sometimes with only the top half of their clothing), their faces will be made up, and their hair will be styled. They will lie in a gleaming wooden box, and their loved ones will gaze upon them.

“I’ve seen people get angry,” Joe tells me. “The loved ones left behind sometimes yell at the body, tell them off. It’s not always a Hallmark moment.” He pauses for a moment. “But they always, always feel better for having had the chance to see them one last time.”

I never understood why the dead were painted and made to look alive, but now I see that’s not really the purpose. Watching Joe at work, I see that he restores bodies to a restful state, rather than an unnatural one. They don’t look like they’re going to sit up in the casket and say howdy, they look dead.

They do, however, look readied for a journey; dressed up, cleaned, and arranged just so. He creates an environment that helps people say goodbye.

I picture the great web of people Joe has influenced, whose tears have soaked the shoulder of his suit jackets, whose loved ones’ bodies he prepared for their last reunion, and I am proud of what he does, every detail. I couldn’t do it. Most people couldn’t. But I’m glad that he can.

Comments

122 Responses to “Kicking buckets and whistling in the dark”

  1. Caitlin on December 29th, 2006 4:20 pm

    Write a book already. Damn that was good.

  2. DiWriter on December 29th, 2006 4:30 pm

    Wow – As I’m sitting here, pregnant and facing a birthday, this made me think about life in a whole new way.

    I’m with Caitlin, above.
    Write the book.

  3. Pete on December 29th, 2006 4:33 pm

    “I PUT THE FUN IN FUNERAL”, what a great post.

  4. Heather B. on December 29th, 2006 4:40 pm

    Excellent, Linda.

    I’d be curious to know what JB thinks of his brother’s career…? Has he ever sat and watched before? And did he find it odd that you wanted to go watch the process?

  5. Sundry on December 29th, 2006 4:43 pm

    JB started to watch once, but bailed as soon as the needle injector/gums action started.

    He’s really proud of Joe, just a little more squeamish than me. I don’t think he thought it was odd that I went, although he did say ‘that’s a hell of a mental picture to have on Christmas Eve’. : )

  6. Julia on December 29th, 2006 4:47 pm

    You don’t need to try to sound like a bad-ass journalist – you are a bad-ass journalist! When do you start at the Times or PI? :) I visited a funeral home in high school, kind of along the same lines of a career day. When I got creeped out by the idea that I was standing next to a freezer that had dead bodies in it, I decided it wasn’t for me. But I vaguely remember the smell of the embalming room. Vague because it took me .05 seconds to know that it was NOT for me. But reading your experiences was definitely, interesting. In fact, I had to turn off the Cooking channel because meat was starting to look too much like tissue! What a great read.

  7. Diana on December 29th, 2006 4:49 pm

    Absolutely fascinating!

  8. Kym on December 29th, 2006 5:01 pm

    You ARE badass. I never would have done that. I truly admire your ability to look at it clinically but also with compassion. I would have cried and thrown up. Your brother-in-law sounds like a wonderful man, too.

  9. JennB on December 29th, 2006 5:02 pm

    Fabulous, fabulous. I love it. What a great recreation you paint, and, while I like to consider myself somewhat badass, I could not absolutely not watch that.
    Kudos to you, though, for pushing that aside. If it were a baby. Forget. It.

  10. fifi on December 29th, 2006 5:14 pm

    Some years ago I read a book “The Undertaking” by Thomas Lynch, which I’m sure you’d appreciate.
    Your description was really interesting, I don’t think I could have been as sanguine as you.
    When my mother died a while back, I was so pleased that one of the undertakers who brought her to the crematorium was a young man whose love of life, and sense of humour, she would have enjoyed. As it happened, he was the son of a colleague of mine, and the nephew of one of my old school-fellows.

  11. Mary on December 29th, 2006 5:15 pm

    That a was fascinating read! Well done! Reminds me a bit of “Stiff” by Mary Roach, but better actually. It had a lot of heart [no pun intended :)] as well as a light touch of humor. I’ve always had a bit of a morbid interest in death and cemetaries (only the old ones). I feel a little odd for that, but after reading this I see why I have an interest. It’s comforting to know that there are people who are willing to devote their career to taking care of those who pass for those who are left behind. It gives a sense of comfort and serenity to a very scary part of life — death.

  12. Ashley on December 29th, 2006 5:20 pm

    That was awesome to read!
    So do you feel different after watching that?

  13. Dawn on December 29th, 2006 5:32 pm

    Man, there is no way I could have stood there and watched this without keeling over, as I’m feeling woozy just reading it. However, thank you for this – it was absolutely fascinating, and well-written as always.

  14. angela on December 29th, 2006 5:48 pm

    this entry rules! i wish i could have seen that.

    until recently, i was also immune and desensitized to violence or whatever on TV. but something clicked, and now when someone dies in a movie or when someone is hurt, or even if they’ve just had a bad hand dealt to them in life, i become emotional and misty eyed. i still watch these movies, but i feel more human now that i react to them like i do now. i think it’s good to be reminded that life is fragile, so that way we enjoy what we have and live for today.

    /cheese

  15. erica on December 29th, 2006 5:51 pm

    Fantastic post. I was so jealous that you got to see an embalming, but reading this made me feel like I was there, too.

    Joe seems awesome. When I die, I want someone to treat me with that kind of care and attention to detail. Only without the gum action.

  16. Liz in Australia on December 29th, 2006 5:59 pm

    Wow. What a fascinating post. I really admire your BIL for being able to stay focused and professional but still compassionate. I could never do it. (Infant Tint. Made me cry. A lot.)

    I laughed at the bit about Joe deciding that going to the funeral home for work experience would be funny, then staying. I never thought about how people get into the funeral business. Or at least, if I did, I figured that there was a reason for so many firms being “[Undertaker] & Sons”…

  17. lisa on December 29th, 2006 6:11 pm

    I remember the first time I walked into the cadaver room at college. Seeing a dead human being on a slab forever changes your view of life. You’ve captured that experience perfectly.

  18. Swistle on December 29th, 2006 6:28 pm

    This reaffirms my earlier decision to put cremation in my will. And it makes me wish my grandparents hadn’t wanted The Works, because now it freaks me out to know that they had their mouths sewn shut and their eyes clawed shut. That seems really…..creepy, even though I can see why it’s necessary, and why it would be creepier not to.

  19. Jenna on December 29th, 2006 6:31 pm

    This was a wonderful post. Two days before Christmas, a close friend of mine passed away. He was a very young guy, too young to die so soon, only 19. He was attending mortuary school in Texas, and his story was similar to Joe’s. He worked at the funeral home during high school and was working there when my grandfather passed away last Christmas. I enjoyed this because I always thought that it was strange that he wanted to work at the funeral home, but now I understand why he wanted to go into that field of work. Thank you.

  20. Liz on December 29th, 2006 6:35 pm

    What an incredible experience this must’ve been for you. Thanks for posting it!

  21. Colleen on December 29th, 2006 6:36 pm

    Wow. What an intriguing post. Thanks so much for sharing this interesting experience with us.

  22. Deanna on December 29th, 2006 7:05 pm

    I know you’ll get a lot of comments like this, but I’ve lost two in the past 5 years – my only brother and my best friend, both at the age of 32. I have obsessed over what was done with their bodies, a morbid curiosity I know. Thank you for this post. Thank you for being a witness for me, for letting me experience it for myself, through the safety of your words.

  23. Christine on December 29th, 2006 7:11 pm

    Wow. Just….wow. Thank you for that. Very touching.

  24. oregoncoastgirl on December 29th, 2006 7:22 pm

    It’s cool to know what actually happens, thanks.

    But you witnessed THAT and are were weirded out at the dressing of an elk? :)

  25. Marieke on December 29th, 2006 7:25 pm

    Wow… that was fascinating!

    We don’t really do embalming in The Netherlands, it’s only permitted for members of the Royal Family and for people who will buried after more than 5 days (e.g. because they have to be flown to their home country first). Virtually everyone will be “on display” in a frozen casket, either at home or in a funeral home, without “doing” anything to their body. Of course they’re washed and shaved and make-up will be put on if necessary, but that’s it usually.

    It’s very interesting to read about other ways of preserving bodies, especially since you wrote from a non-professional point of view. Before I forget: that paragraph about the “yellow” jewelery made me wonder how “gold” would be described over here, in a much less “see you in court” society.

    It’s a shame my brothers in law have such boring professions: can’t ask them. I love the way you write about your brother in law, he seems a really nice guy!

  26. PoeticaL on December 29th, 2006 7:28 pm

    I almost died reading that….but thankfully no need for a gut button yet. I’m glad for some reason that I read this.

  27. April on December 29th, 2006 7:30 pm

    That was a fantastic post! Thanks!

  28. jonniker on December 29th, 2006 7:34 pm

    I have such an enormous respect for people who work in funeral homes, I cannot even begin to express it. Just thinking about what they go through every day – how much they help people – makes me a little choked up.

    I’m fascinated by this, and so glad you went through it. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, odd as that sounds, because it’s such an important, rewarding job that is so underestimated. (I am sounding like I’m bringing The Crazy, but I have a neighbor who is a mortician, and I’ve attacked him with the same questions you do to Joe. I never got to go on an embalming, though! Damn!)

    Morticians rock.

  29. Erica on December 29th, 2006 7:52 pm

    That was fantastic to read. I felt like I was there – which is great because I NEVER really could be.

  30. Chiara on December 29th, 2006 8:04 pm

    I am jealous of your day with Joe! It sounds really weird and cool and sort of scary and sad, and, therefore, awesome. I like thinking about the art and craft of mortuary work; thinking about the ways Joe helps people say goodbye.

  31. Amanda on December 29th, 2006 8:04 pm

    Oh god! I so don’t want to be embalmed now! Yech!

    Really excellent writing, Linda. As usual.

  32. Mary O on December 29th, 2006 8:14 pm

    Oh my god… that was so good. What goes on at the mortuary is something that is so shrouded in mystery to most of us, so this was really interesting to hear what really goes on.

  33. girl in greenwood on December 29th, 2006 8:16 pm

    Thank you so much for this account! I’m a nursing student and we visited a funeral home as part of our “end of life” unit, but we were not allowed to actually see any embalming or even the room where they do the embalming. We just talked with the funeral director. So thank you for having the experience for me, and for describing it so well! I’m going to forward this post to some of my classmates so they can read it, too.

  34. babs on December 29th, 2006 8:43 pm

    OMG, you are such an excellent writer! I’ve been catching up on Six Feet Under on Bravo, and have become totally fascinated with funeral homes. You’re right… people like your BIL play such an important role in helping us cope with death. Thanks for capturing it all so wonderfully.

  35. Jeanette on December 29th, 2006 9:08 pm

    What? No pictures? Just kidding of course. Thanks for that excellent post to satisfy my morbid curiosity.

  36. Jennifer on December 29th, 2006 9:15 pm

    Wow. Absolutely fascinating. I hung on every word.

  37. Sundry on December 29th, 2006 9:20 pm

    Jeanette, I would have LOVED to take some photos — but obviously that wasn’t really an option. Nor would they be something anyone would want to see. But still! A cool black and white series of the process would have been awesome.

  38. Meg on December 29th, 2006 9:28 pm

    That was the most fascinating blog entry I’ve ever read. This is the kind of stuff you never expect to learn! I think it’s great that you went, and that you think of asking him stuff like if he had to put a head back on. I would have thought he’d laugh and say no – who would have thought it was yes??

    Joe sounds like a cool guy. Especially once you described that last part with the card- that’s just awesome!

    Dude, I cried when I read the words, “Infant Tint.” I could never be the person to actually use it. And I don’t think I could be strong for people who cry around me. I would always cry with them, and while that might even be okay, I don’t think I could take it for very long, you know? I’m not really as creeped out by Joe’s job, as I am intimidated by it because of the emotional factor. That’s what makes me know I could never do, even if I could manage to get used to the other parts. I am incredibly awed and impressed by him and others in this field, that they do this on a regular basis. I wonder if people ask Joe lots of questions about his work (like you do), or if most people don’t want to discuss it with him, because it’s, you know, DEATH and stuff.

    I’m totally going to send this to people. I’m sure lots of people I know will be equally as fascinated as I was. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Linda. I love the way you write, and this is incredible subject matter!

  39. stormy on December 29th, 2006 9:40 pm

    I’m so glad there are those “special” people in the world who make our lives easier. I would be proud to know him, too. Thanks J.B.’s brother.

  40. Stacey on December 29th, 2006 10:02 pm

    My best friend got married in her father in law’s funeral home last summer. They didn’t have caterers, so my husband and I were in charge of cleaning up the dishes and rinsing them out in the embalming sink. That was plenty for me. I can’t imgine the real deal that goes on in that room. (shudder)

  41. Bindie on December 29th, 2006 11:15 pm

    Hey Sundry.

    I’ve been reading your blog for a long time. . .and you’ve had some REALLY good posts before, but I really do think this is the best thing you’ve ever written. I was there with you every step of the way!!

    Well done!

  42. Josh on December 30th, 2006 12:58 am

    Wow, that must have been an awesome Christmas gift. Even though it probably wasn’t indended to be one. I would really enjoy the dead body part. I wouldn’t do so well with the greiving people. I already don’t care much for strangers, and compassion isn’t my forte.

    But to embalm bodies all the time! Man it would be so easy to make my own zombie movie. I would probably be fired. The prospect of playing jokes with the bodies might prove far too aluring for me. I once heard about this guy who made his wife quit her job as funeral director after she put a human ear in his lunch. It serves him right for not packing it himself. But you could string them up on those wheeling hospital thingies. You know, the ones for IV drips, and spray paint the carts black. Then throw some sheer white fabric on em and you’d have some pretty realistic ghosts.

    I don’t really get why so many people get freaked out by the macabre, but then I’ve been one of those people that poked roadkill with a stick since I was a little kid. Whether it’s weird or not, thanks for the details in your story. I learned a lot.

  43. Donna on December 30th, 2006 2:16 am

    As always, very well written, interesting, and not something I think about every day. I’d already decided not to be embalmed, you don’t have to be if you pay for refrigeration instead, and you are buried or cremated pretty soon, like within 3 days I think.
    What I’ve always hated the thoughts of (from when I worked ambulance) was being put into the wall refrigerators at OMI until an autopsy could be done, I used to hate dropping off bodies there.
    I once opened it up and there was a tray full of animal heads waiting to be tested for rabies. I was freaked out because everyone else in there was draped, but the heads were looking at me.
    It wouldn’t bother me to work at a funeral home though, it’s not the dead ones you’ve gotta worry about, it’s the live ones. Your bil is someone I think I would be proud to know, respectful, caring and considerate. There is something ancient in caring for a body, I changed my MIL before my hubby saw her, and I was so glad I did, when I turned her on her side, blood gushed from her mouth out onto the bed and then the floor. Had he been in there, he would have never believed that she died in her sleep, she had cancer, and it just finally ate her up. I got everything cleaned up, she looked presentable, he kissed her goodbye on her forehead, and they took her to the funeral home where she was cremated. She had her entire funeral planned and paid for, I highly recommend that too, and all we had to do was chose music and flowers.
    If there is a God, he surely blesses morticians.

  44. Fab on December 30th, 2006 4:21 am

    That was eye opening…….and another reminder why i want to be cremated…which I would hope they do without all this……

  45. zu on December 30th, 2006 5:45 am

    That was amazingly creepy. I always wondered but I had no idea that they are doing so much to those bodies. Thanks for the info.

    Is there anything that they do to the body (some procedure) if the person wants to be cremated only?

    Fascinating…

  46. Gertie on December 30th, 2006 6:47 am

    I am SO jealous! Thanks for writing about it as a personal viewpoint feels a lot more accurate than something I would watch on tv.

  47. squandra on December 30th, 2006 7:02 am

    You are just one hell of a writer.

  48. Dawn on December 30th, 2006 7:13 am

    That was really interesting. Thanks for sharing!! I always wondered what goes on “behind the scenes” at a funeral home, but I know that I would never have the guts to stand there and watch it like you did!!

  49. Keri on December 30th, 2006 7:25 am

    Umm…ew? I admire your bravery to witness the gore of your BIL’s job. As for the last line? I can see clearly that Joe is definitely JB’s brother, both with a similar sense of humor. =P

  50. SJ on December 30th, 2006 9:25 am

    Wow. I was sitting on the edge of my seat the entire time just waiting for what was going to come next. I admire your ability to sit through something like that. I’m not so sure I could do it myself. And I agree with many others, write a book already.

  51. Alley on December 30th, 2006 9:57 am

    That was really fantastic. Mildly disturbing, of course, but fascinating. I want to thank you, too: after my grandmother died a few years back, I’d lost the truth as to who she was. She’d suffered from Alzheimer’s for years and died in a nursing home far from where I live, so seeing her in the box was sort of disjointed, you know? But the people who’d worked on her finally made her look like my grandmom again, not just a sickly old woman in a hospital who was just a shell compared to the woman who’d taken care of me whenever I was sick growing up. Knowing how they made that happen is oddly calming and comforting, so thank you.

  52. Jeni on December 30th, 2006 9:58 am

    Huh. I think it’s interesting that so many of the commenters before me had this reaffirm their desire to be cremated, or at the very least, not embalmed–reading through this entry made me really appreciate all the care that someone will eventually have to go through to prep me and my loved ones, and now I am much more adament about it than I used to be. I’m glad I read the entire entry, even if I did have to walk away from it for a few hours after the line about the Five. Dead. Bodies.

    (Oh, hi, by the way. I’ve been reading your site for about a year now, but this is the first time that I’ve commented.)

  53. sundry on December 30th, 2006 10:05 am

    Re: the cremation questions, if there is to be no viewing (no open casket service) then yes, a body could be cremated without being embalmed. In that case a body would be kept in a cooler until the cremation.

  54. jenn on December 30th, 2006 10:12 am

    Whoa. Girl, you are brave. And I agree… write a book already. Maybe not strictly about this subject, because it’s been done, but whatever you write I will buy and read. (I’m going on my public library’s website to see if they have “The Undertaking” too… also going to do some serious thinking about whether I want the embalming or just cremation.)

  55. Sonia on December 30th, 2006 11:29 am

    I just love your writing Linda. Truly, you are talented. Enough so that I am nauseous right now. The scrambled eggs my husband just made to share with our son are NOT helping. :-) Your brother-in-law is someone I admire. I couldn’t do any part of his job.

  56. Mychal on December 30th, 2006 12:01 pm

    I just wanted to say thanks for this post. A friend of mine died earlier this year, and though I know she was prepared differently, it was still comforting to read this with her in mind. I always wonder about those last details of her “life”.

  57. paige on December 30th, 2006 12:15 pm

    Just another comment telling you what a compelling read this post was! I was on my lunch break about half an hour ago, and decided to see what my favorite bloggers were up to today. Right after the first few paragraphs of your post (and the first few bites of my lunch) I knew this one would have to wait until after I finished eating! But I came right back after lunch and read it in its entirety. Very interesting! Although the thought of ripping the gum studs out kinda made me queasy. Ugh.

  58. jen on December 30th, 2006 1:33 pm

    amazingly brave of you. i had to cut down three times to see if i was almost done because i was getting a bit squeemish. completely badass.

  59. Danielle on December 30th, 2006 2:25 pm

    Wow – amazing visuals, thanks for such detail! I actually am now re-thinking my wanting to be cremated, piles of dust, eh? That may have been enough for me to want to be buried instead.
    You are such a talented writer!!!!! Happy New Year :)

  60. mandy on December 30th, 2006 4:06 pm

    What a cool read. I used to work at a flower shop that was (convienently) across the street form a funeral home. It was run by two handsome, 30-something brothers who always dressed so smartly. I totally had a crush on one of them. Anyway…we used to have to make flower deliveries all the time and sometimes had to be there hours before a viewing to set everything up. Usually it was just the flower people there setting up around an open (creepy) casket, but sometimes we’d get there earlier when the brothers were setting their stuff up. They liked setting up to music. In fact every time we were there at the same time, they’d be listeing to the soothing sounds of the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack…especially the theme song. I guess it just set the mood. Funeral directors are cool.

  61. lisa-marie on December 30th, 2006 4:22 pm

    That was fascinating! You’re a great storyteller!

  62. Lauren on December 30th, 2006 4:59 pm

    First, let me reiterate what so many have already said…write a book! Your ability to give us such a factual telling in such an emotional and sometimes humorous way is truly a gift and I thank you for sharing this with us. I also agree with something in a comment above – you were truly a witness for us all to a process that is so common, so “universal,” yet so unknown, but is now so much more real (and not so frightening) thanks to you. You have given us all hope and comfort that our loved ones have been taken care of in such a kind way…what an amazing post, Linda! And give my thanks to your brother-in-law for being so awesome!

  63. Pickles & Dimes on December 30th, 2006 9:43 pm

    What a wonderful entry; just beautiful.

    That would’ve been so interesting to experience. I have to be content getting weird looks from the librarians when I check out my stacks of forensic science books at the library.

    One of my high school friend’s parents owned a funeral home, which was in the lower level of their two-story house. When I would visit, I would have to routinely pass one or two caskets on the first floor.

  64. Melis on December 30th, 2006 9:56 pm

    I hope to God Josh was being facetious because if he wasn’t, I am appauled at the disrespect he just displayed. Makes me sick.

    Linda-as always, I love your writing. I was reminded of “Stiff”, and I envy your strong stomach. Being awake during a procedure where I saw only the used instruments being placed on the table next to me as the doctor cut into my jugular and rammed a catheter into it was enough for me.

  65. Thremma on December 30th, 2006 10:02 pm

    This was interesting. I am a (fairly new) chaplain, and am often with families and their recently deceased loved ones as they adjust to the loss. I was interested to find out what happens after the funeral home recieves the person to assume care for them.

    And ‘infant tint’ makes sense. (stop now if you are apt to be squeamish). Dead babies are (so far as I’ve seen them; fortunately only a few times so far – its a small hospital) a unique shade of purple that I’ve not seen yet in dead adults. And it does hurt quite a lot to see them.

  66. Kizz on December 30th, 2006 10:15 pm

    I don’t even like open casket funerals. I’m glad and grateful that you went and that you wrote about this. It explains a bunch of stuff about a fairly horrific incident when we viewed my grandmother. Your bro-in-law is a good man. Thanks for sharing.

  67. honeybecke on December 30th, 2006 11:37 pm

    Holy shit that was hard to read.
    I wanted to stop reading because it was just too much information for me, but I couldn’t stop.
    You are a wonderful writer. We were in that embalming room with you, whether we wanted to be or not!

  68. Frema on December 31st, 2006 9:54 am

    My aunt passed away from brain cancer in September, and while reading this, I couldn’t help but think of her and the process her body had to endure to be prepared for the viewing. I don’t know that I could ever witness this personally without having nightmares every night for the rest of my life, but it is interesting to know what happens behind closed doors, so to speak. Also, I guess I always thought a funeral director was around more for meet-and-greet purposes; I didn’t realize the extent of their involvement with the actual corpse. I may have to rent Six Feet Under!

    Thanks for a fascinating and well-written read.

  69. Rebecca on December 31st, 2006 10:35 am

    That was fantasitc!

  70. Gwen on December 31st, 2006 11:09 am

    I just found out a few days ago that my stepfather grew up in a funeral home, in a real-life Six Feet Under (which he says is very accurate), so this was particularly timely for me. Your post was fascinating (and very well-written), and after reading it, I can’t believe my 13-year-old stepsister watched an embalming without freaking out. Damn.

  71. Lisa on December 31st, 2006 12:07 pm

    I just kept scrolling and scrolling to see how much longer it was because I didnt want it to end!!! You really should write a book because you kept me very intrigued and thats saying a lot since I havent read too many books in my life because I get to bored. Having lost my father to suicide I have always wondered about the final process.

  72. Lisa on December 31st, 2006 12:12 pm

    Also my family was told that my father had to be embalmed even though he would cremated without a open casket service.

  73. Allie on December 31st, 2006 12:38 pm

    You truly are a bad ass, I so would have fainted.

  74. Daily Tragedies on December 31st, 2006 12:40 pm

    Wow. Incredible. Thanks to you (and Joe) for letting us have this peek into his world.

  75. Roz on December 31st, 2006 3:07 pm

    delurking once again to say “Thank You”. You wrote beautifully about a process that my father spent most of his life doing as a profession, and a very often thankless one. Joe sounds just like the type of mortician that my father would approve heartily of and he had VERY high standards. Offering as much dignity as possible to the remains and comfort to the family was his highest priority. He was a great man and I miss him a lot. But he also knew how to have a good time and could tell a great story or joke. He always said that death of a family member either brings out the best or the worst in people and he usually saw it all! You really are a GREAT writer and I look forward to reading your blog and would look forword to reading more than that! Write girl, write!

  76. velocibadgergirl on December 31st, 2006 3:12 pm

    Wow, this was a cool entry! Like 1% creepy and 99% awesome :)

  77. Rosebudpeas on December 31st, 2006 5:08 pm

    If people are interested in this topic, there’s a book called “The American Way of Death” by Jessica Mitford that breaks everything down quite nicely. It was written years ago and updated recently. The update needs some editing but it’s still a fascinating read.

  78. Jamie :) on January 1st, 2007 3:16 pm

    Please sell this to a magazine or something–it’s really fascinating!

  79. dani on January 2nd, 2007 12:23 pm

    joe told me one time that he could do my make-up real good, but i’d have to lie down.

  80. Junniper on January 2nd, 2007 4:24 pm

    Fascinating.

  81. Kaire on January 3rd, 2007 7:12 am

    I’ve been away from my computer since Dec. 20. Tonight I’m going to my uncle’s visitation & his funeral tomorrow. I don’t know if this was a good thing to read or not. Oddly I think I’m going to be staring at his nose and mouth.

  82. Vanessa on January 3rd, 2007 10:22 am

    I’m also with Caitlin, above. Amazing experience. And you’re an amazing writer for sharing it with us. And yes, write the book already!

  83. Melanie on January 3rd, 2007 6:52 pm

    That was just awesome – what a great story. You are such a good writer – I have to agree, write a book! I’d read it. I’d buy copies to share with all my friends and relations! :)

  84. Kelli on January 4th, 2007 11:01 am

    I 2nd the sentiments of many of those who commented earlier — this is one of the most interesting things I’ve read. And go you for staying and not balking when things got squeemy…I, on the other hand would have bolted the minute he took out the first scalpel.

    Thanks so much for writing.

  85. Cassie on January 9th, 2007 7:36 pm

    I read this post the day after you posted it, and was very interested. I have always wondered about the process of embalming, but it seems like something you don’t just come out and ask someone if they know anything about.

    Today in English, we read a story in which a man dies in his bed and is left there for several years. We began to discuss the process of the decay of a human body. The questions of the practice of embalming came from several of my classmates. My teacher’s friend was a mortician (sp) so she could anwser a lot of the questions, though she never watched him at work. The ones she couldn’t anwser (How do they keep their eyes closed? How do they get that smile on their face?) I was able to anwser from this post of yours.

    My cousin’s ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend is a mortician, and we still talk to her from time to time. Part of me wants to have her ask him if I could come along to watch some of, or all of, this process and I have wanted to for a while. After hearing you descibe it I am more curious and just might ask the next time I see him.

    Thank you for posting this experience, and for answering most of the questions I have had and making me more curious. Who knows, if I tag along maybe I’ll be like Joe. Spend some time at the funeral home, and put my future career plans (elementary teacher) aside to embalm bodies.

    -Cassie

  86. John Bardott on January 14th, 2007 2:18 am

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  87. kate on January 30th, 2007 5:39 pm

    Somebody very close to me passed recently and I had to go to the viewing (as a Jew, we don’t do viewings so this was a big deal). Anyway, I marveled at how peaceful and natural his expression was. And have thought about how this could have been achieved for days — now I know. Thanks very much.

  88. Nicole on February 3rd, 2007 6:47 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this. My boyfriend of 5 years passed away recently and I too (along with Deanna) have had a new-founded, weird interest in what happens to the body afterwards. Thankfully, I am certain with where his soul went :) But I just wasn’t sure what procedures took place in order to restore a dead body back to a “natural” looking state. You went into great detail and thoroughly explained every process. I can’t really explain it, but this brought a little bit of closure in a way. Thank you for taking the time to write this. You are quite the journalist. God Bless you.

  89. David on February 10th, 2007 7:08 pm

    I have yet to fully read a blog of any kind, but found yours such an enticing read.

    You have a talent, I know, I am one of a family of published writers and avid readers of a wide range of writings.

    I hope the feedback here from myself and all these others gives you the inspiration to continue.

    Your writing is informative and pleasing to read. Not bad when you consider the subject matter.

    Your skills could easily be used for education and/or entertainment.

    Keep up the excellent work.

  90. CPA Mom on March 8th, 2007 1:23 pm

    Fairly soon after my husband died, I “dated” a funeral director like your brother and he let me watch him work on a body just like your brother did. I found it fascinating and your post reminded me of what I forgot. I think I needed, at the time, to see what happened, to help me make peace with my own loss.

    You are an exceptional writer.

    (here from Frema)

  91. Ruben Ridge on June 14th, 2007 2:09 am

    This one makes sence “One’s first step in wisdom is to kuesstion everything – and one’s last is to come to terms with everything.”

  92. Lisafitz on February 5th, 2008 4:01 pm

    Don’t know how I came across this site, I was searching for something and up this came, but I couldn’t stop reading. It’s very good, really drew me in! While I want to be cremated upon death, no “viewing” for me (and this article illustrates why!) It helped me realize why so many find the need for it. Thanks.

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  95. Edward on June 15th, 2008 5:58 pm

    I am a VERY latecomer to your blog, but had to comment. I have been a funeral service professional for nearly 35 years, and your description of the embalming process was accurate without being macabre. Your BIL sounds to me like a first class funeral director, as most really are. Your article was excellently written, and I commend you for sharing your experience from a non professional point of view.

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  97. Kendra on October 9th, 2008 6:53 am

    Wow. I couldn’t have watched — I’m a notoriously queasy wimp. But it’s fascinating all the same. And it reminds me very much of the book “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” Did you read it?

  98. Leticia on October 9th, 2008 7:08 am

    You are a master story teller. Thanks for sharing this.

  99. Jennie C. on October 9th, 2008 7:44 am

    This is a seriously beautiful post. I’m tearing up. Respectful. Honest. A real person’s perspective.

  100. Shelly on October 9th, 2008 8:15 am

    Wow. I have always wondered the details of what goes on in a mortuary. Its a fascinating career I definately wouldn’t be able to do. Good for him!

  101. Amy on October 9th, 2008 8:32 am

    Ditto all of the above. Impressive writing, not gross or morbid at all…very informative. It makes me wonder if I would really want all this “behind-the-scenes” stuff done to my dead body, or if I’d rather just be cremated and left to blow in the wind. Hmmm.

  102. lydia on October 9th, 2008 1:08 pm

    I’ll just quote Jennie because she said it best. “This is a seriously beautiful post. I’m tearing up. Respectful. Honest. A real person’s perspective.”

    I have a infinite amount of respect for your brother in law.

  103. lydia on October 9th, 2008 1:08 pm

    *an infinite amount. DOH.

  104. Wendy on October 12th, 2008 5:17 pm

    Makes me reconsider the idea of cremation.

  105. Rachel on January 1st, 2009 12:20 pm

    The words infant tint my stomach sink.

    Great post thought – very detailed.

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  111. sheila conkle on August 1st, 2009 12:10 pm

    Thanks for so much infro,is it legal for a family member to be present during the embalming of a loved one? I regret that I wasn’t present for my husbands. This article made me feel better.Also whats your brother-in laws take on RCI.Is it a better method.

    Sheila

  112. sheila conkle on August 2nd, 2009 11:50 am

    please respond. to previous comment

  113. sheila connkle on November 7th, 2009 9:44 pm

    I”m still waiting for an answer to my question.

    Please,

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  114. Sundry on November 7th, 2009 11:20 pm

    Sheila: I don’t know the answers to your questions.

  115. Dermot on March 28th, 2010 1:28 am

    This is a very well written and informative account of an embalming,congratulations for this sensitive post

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