For What Dignity Remains
by Michelle Muenzler
Edited by Julia Rios
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
When it comes to funerals, it’s always best a dead man’s hands be peeled. That’s what I’ve been taught, that’s what I believe. Something about that sheath of skin lends weight to a dead man’s grievances. Allows a man to cling when all else has sloughed away. There’s no good in that, of course, as nobody enjoys being berated by their dead husband at the graveside for a handful of dinners burned or a stove left on once overlong.
Dead women do not have this issue. You can peel their hands or not, as the client prefers, and it mostly makes no difference. They tend to go quiet either way, with rare exception.
Those exceptions are noted quickly, though, as they generally begin their verbal assaults as soon as they touch the preparation table. That’s how my mother was when she passed on. And her mother as well.
There’s a lesson in this, I’m sure, but I prefer not to think on it.
Thinking helps so little, in the end.
I’ve always hated my father. So much you’d think I’d be pleased at his passing. His face would turn purplescent when enraged, like a boiled plum. He’d strike without meaning, without purpose, his fists beating out the rhythm of his frustration into whatever object was nearest.
My sister and I, however, remained untouched.
He was so proud of that fact. So, so proud.
“Well,” he slurs, fat tongue warring for control in his slack mouth, “this is where you ended up.” His body is laid out atop the preparation table, waiting on me to begin the process of degloving his hands — standard procedure for most male corpses, unless the clients specify otherwise.
A thin sheet covers the rest of his immobile form. To protect the dignity of the dead, they say. Dignity is important for the dead, so we are taught.
I count my breaths. Focus on the slow in and out of them, the scalpel in my hand near forgotten.
I knew better than to unfurl the sheeting over my assignment’s head. It is strongly recommended against, but I couldn’t help myself once I saw the too-familiar scars of those hands.
He can’t turn his head, of course — the only thing the dead have are their tongues, their barely responsive lips — but it is enough.
“It’s your fault,” he says, tongue working its way into speech. “Me. Your sister. If you hadn’t left us, hadn’t thrown away your life by running off and—”
Before he can finish, I’m out of the room, my chest clamped tight and the scalpel’s handle digging into my palm.
Even with the door between us, though, I can still hear his voice.
A part of me always will.
It’s a respectable career, tending to the dead. Respectable and solitary. Few wish to hear the details of how delicately I peeled the skin from their loved one’s hands. And if they do, they are likely not the sort I wish to share such details with. It’s a blessing, really.
When I encounter an assignment’s family at the grocery store, they don’t crowd me with greetings or frivolous questions about the weather. Our eyes meet is all, for a brief moment, and then, quietly, they move on. It’s like existing underwater, everyone in their own bubble. Some entire families may occupy a single bubble, filling it with their constant need to touch each other, to talk, but mine is empty.
It’s precisely what I wanted when I chose this life. Which makes dealing with my father’s death that much more difficult.
When I re-enter the processing room, my father is silent. I know better than to take it as a sign he has worn himself out in my absence, though.
He waits for me to approach. To take his limp hand into mine and expose the inner wrist to my scalpel.
“I killed your mother,” he says.
My arm freezes.
“I don’t care what they say, I killed her. I killed her, dammit, and I’m proud of it.”
My mother died of cancer. Pancreatic. My father had nothing to do with her death, only with making her life a misery.
“She’d just never shut up. Hell, even at her funeral, she couldn’t keep her mouth shut for one minute. I should’ve had her peeled, but I wanted everyone to see. I wanted all those sniffling fakers pretending they knew her, pretending she was a good woman, to hear.” He pauses. Burbles up what is close to a laugh. “And they did. They heard her, all right!”
He could stop there. He could stop there and I would still hate him, but no more or less than I’ve always hated him. But of course he doesn’t stop. He’s never been one for self-control.
I left to get away.
I left because one more day under my father’s rule would have driven me to madness. Possibly to murder.
I left because not leaving was akin to saying everything was acceptable. That he was acceptable. That his actions were within the limits of what could be borne.
But I could not bear it. Not a single minute more.
My only regret was that my sister had to stay behind. One of us might escape, but he’d never let us both go. And so I made the choice for us. I chose myself.
I wonder, sometimes, if she hates me. If she hates me as much as I hate him.
“Your sister became just like her,” he says. The waxen corners of his mouth twinge. “Nothing but talk, talk, talk. Yappity yap, day and night. I’d tell her to shut it, and she’d just up the volume.”
My sister never spoke. Not after mom’s funeral. She was the silent observer of the household, like her lips had been sewn shut.
“I don’t regret smacking her. Somebody had to.”
My hand shakes. He wouldn’t have touched her. He never touched us, either of us.
“All she had to do,” he continues, “was keep her mouth shut. I told her that. And then I told her again, after. Every time, I told her, and still she kept running her mouth like a goddamned freight train.” His tongue wiggles, like it’s straining to get to the juicy part. “I think she enjoyed it. Just like her mother, that one. Friggin’ carbon copy.”
He pauses, like the memory of what he clings to is stronger than what’s right before him.
I should begin my cuts now. I should slice away his memories. Let him fade into that gentle death, a peaceful look at last on his face so he can be lowered — with dignity — into his grave.
But, as ever, he just can’t help himself. He can’t stop.
“You want to know what I did to her, don’t you? How I finally got her to shut her mouth?”
I don’t. I don’t want to know anything.
But he tells me anyway.
I don’t go to funerals. I have no need to see the results of my labor. No need to see the dead strangers that cross my table laid to rest. But my father’s funeral….
That I cannot miss.
I stand in the back, as far away from the casket and the crowds as possible. I watch as mourners — and yes, to my surprise, there are a number of mourners — lay their hands on his chest to pay their final respects.
Each of them pauses at the casket, startles just a bit. Then awkwardly places their hand inside as though any moment something might bite back. Relief fills their faces when nothing happens, and then they move on, their duty to the dead done.
My sister is last.
I barely recognize her. She looks older than me. Much older.
Her face is stone as she approaches the casket. She stops beside it. Looks down with her drawn eyes, the gray gathered beneath them like soot. And like everyone else, she startles.
Because I did not complete my assigned task. I left my father’s hands intact, to carry all the memories of what he’s done straight into the grave. All the hate and hurt and rage bubbling up inside him.
My sister stares. Her hand shakes.
And then … and then she smiles. Leans in and whispers something to my father’s corpse. Something only between the two of them.
He, of course, can say nothing in return. Not with his severed tongue still wriggling uselessly in the plastic bag in my pocket. Not with his lips threaded shut.
When my sister leaves the casket behind, her step is lighter, and even though I’ll lose my license for this, it is worth it. For not all the dead are deserving of dignity.
Not all have earned their quiet rest.