But the schedule is nothing new. His mother spent her first Christmas as a Pray without Tyler’s father, who was busy preparing three funerals.

Tyler’s day often begins with a 2 a.m. phone call. He rolls out from under the covers and suits up in a small walk-in closet he calls the “Bat Cave.” Here, he selects a suit from a row of 12 (two are his and the rest are his father’s hand-me-downs), then grabs a shirt from the color-coded array, a belt, and either funeral or cemetery shoes, depending on the occasion. He says he’d “totally love” to be in a Charlotte Most Eligible Bachelor contest one day.

“Funeral directors who always wear black give us a weird name,” Tyler says.

From the tacky “On Eagle’s Wings” muzak playing throughout the funeral home to the wall colors and decor in his own bachelor pad, Tyler cares about details and presentation. But his boyish looks fool many who make arrangements. “You don’t look like a funeral director,” they often remark. Despite his professional appearance and calm phone voice, Tyler is still young. The “cools,” “awesomes,” and six empty Labatt Blue Lights in his kitchen sink prove it. But inside a small diner at lunch, he explains why he’s as cautious as a local politician or celebrity when he’s out in Charlotte, for the sake of the family name. One drunken escapade or slip of the tongue could send families who’ve trusted Pray on Seminary Street for years to the rival funeral home only two blocks away.

Tyler runs everything with his dad, Joe — a slender 49-year-old with swooping hair, tan skin and looks that could land him a modeling gig in a department store catalog. Tyler and his father share the same radiant blue eyes, obsession with details and passion as caregivers — for both the living and the dead.

Standing outside a preparation room, Tyler reaches for a golden door handle. This staging area feels like a junky garage, contrasting the serene, homey visitation room nearby. It’s where they store the tools, keys to the limo, the hearse, the vans, and freshly delivered flowers. It’s the green room of the afterlife business. Wooden cupboards line the ceiling and two brown doors are marked with “Do not enter” placards. A bleach stench permeates everything. The last body had a contagious infection that was resistant to antibiotics, so Tyler scrubbed down everything – even more than usual – to avoid anything spreading to employees and guests.

This is the embalming room. Its entrance isn’t as jarring as expected; no bodies, just equipment. Two gurneys sit pushed against a wall — one is wrapped in a red, white and blue quilt and the other in a plush, forest green blanket with “Pray” stitched in gold on the side. Tyler prefers the quilt. The other one, he says, is too “territorial.”

He walks into the back room. It’s a spacious, surgical-like area, dimly lit by natural light peering through small windows. Light-blue hospital gowns hang behind the door and a cabinet stocked with rubber gloves and goggles stands near the entrance. A sink station hugs the back wall next to a long, porcelain table. A fluorescent light dangles above the white slab where two thick tubes — one orange, the other clear — slither to the table’s end and into a regular household toilet. They connect to the body’s main vein and artery in the neck, sending blood out one tube and a light-pink embalming fluid in its place. Fans above swap air every minute to reduce the formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen.

“It’s really pretty unremarkable, wouldn’t you say?” Tyler says, looking around. “I don’t know what people think is in the embalming room, like saws and who knows. People get some wild ideas.”

Preserving the dead goes back to ancient Egypt, when bodies were covered with salt from the desert to absorb moisture, essentially creating a dehydrated cadaver, says Jason Meyers, curator of the Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Ill.

Embalming was introduced to the United States in 1840 and became commonplace during the Civil War, when bodies were prepared for the long trip home. Before the procedure, burials were so quick that no one even bothered with cosmetics. Abraham Lincoln’s funeral is the first documented case in the country that involved makeup. Attendants touched up his skin with paint to hide bruises that surfaced as he stopped at several cities on the way to Springfield. Today, restorative art is especially important after accidents or diseases that damage recognizable facial features.

So far, Tyler hasn’t had a friend or family member staring up from the table. He hasn’t painted their colorless skin, sewed their mouth shut, dressed them in their favorite outfit or played their favorite rock song. He’s been fortunate enough not to lose anyone close except his great-grandfather years ago. He is remarkably caring toward others for someone who has not experienced a similar loss himself.

Maybe growing up with the business helped. His grandparents live next door to the funeral home and Tyler spent his childhood in a white house across the street. Tyler’s great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather originally bought a furniture and undertaking business in downtown Charlotte nearly 90 years ago. They sold furniture in the front and embalmed bodies in the back, transporting them for services to a rearranged living room at home for ten years. Then, the family purchased a house that doubled as quarters for both the living and the dead until 1949, when the current funeral home went up next door, blending perfectly into the historic neighborhood. It’s been expanded and remodeled throughout the years, in keeping with tradition and new health and safety standards.

Grandpa comes out of retirement almost every day to help with embalmings, arrangements, lifting, driving, etc. Fresh pipe smoke lingers in his office, decked in retro olives, oranges and browns. Visitors usually see only the renovated rooms in the home, sandwiched between this old apartment-turned-office space above and the basement that serve as family time capsules. Mementos stacked to the rafters also form a funeral business timeline. Dark, gothic-inspired furniture, dusty antique bibles, a worn podium, an old-fashioned gurney, and several generations of computers are stashed tightly in the basement, pushed down by modern d©cor in clean beiges and mauves.

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About The Author

Claire Cummings is a former newspaper reporter from Michigan who now teaches in Las Vegas. Follow her story at deathfears.tumblr.com.

3 Responses

  1. Mike

    I’ve never been so interested in something I knew so little about. Excellent writing and a wry writer’s eye unveil a coolly inviting story that hums around in my head and clasps hands around my heart. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Nina K.

    There is a name for someone that does dead peoples hair.

    What is it it’s driving me crazy!!!!!

    Reply
  3. Kayla Rae

    This story was amazing! Really interesting. I love how the end ties the funeral business into other art forms. Not many people would view funeral preparation as a form of art.

    Reply

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