Dating an undertaker

It wasn't love, but maybe I thought he would protect me from Death, since they shared an office.

By Augusten Burroughs
Published February 6, 2002 8:11PM (EST)

The most distracting thing about getting a blow job at a funeral home wasn't the fact that there were three fresh bodies downstairs in the cooler, or one body 20 feet away from me in a mahogany casket across the room. The most distracting thing was that I was getting this blowjob from an undertaker at a celebrated Manhattan funeral home known for serving society's highest echelon -- including certain Kennedys. We were in the exact same viewing room, in fact, where the wake for one of them had once taken place.

"Yup, right over there," he said, after I shot my wad.

We were naked, sitting on the plush Karastan carpet with our backs against the sofa. I was smoking a Marlboro Light, he was smoking a menthol. I reached for a tissue and didn't have to reach far -- there were boxes of tissues everywhere.

"Wow," I said. "Can you imagine what the Kennedy family would do if they knew what was going on in this room now?" I balled the tissue and tossed it at the small gold trashcan, but it bounced off the rim.

He chuckled and took a deep drag from his cigarette. "The Kennedys? Are you kidding? Shit, they wouldn't care. They'd probably want to join in."

I liked the undertaker, but it wasn't love.

Let me just get this out of the way right off the bat: I am not now, nor have I ever been, into dead bodies. So it wasn't like I actively went out looking for an undertaker.

We met the way a lot of people in modern Manhattan meet: online. He placed a funny ad and I answered it. We exchanged e-mails. One of them made me laugh and spit café mocha on my keyboard. He was also mysterious because he wouldn't tell me what he did for a living.

"I'm in packaging," he wrote, vaguely. I suspected he was a coy UPS driver, fully aware that UPS drivers are the pin-ups of the gay community.

We graduated to speaking on the phone. He was more contemplative than I had imagined. A little more serious. His mellow, masculine voice brought to mind images of a methodical patent attorney or perhaps an oceanographer. I knew that he was an Italian who lived in the Bronx and this had made me worry about gray suits with white socks, chest hair and pinkie rings. But his voice had not a trace of hair gel in it.

"I won't meet you unless you tell me what you do," I joked.

"OK," he said finally. "I'm an undertaker."

Well, at least he had a morbid sense of humor. I laughed. "No, I'm serious. What do you do?"

"I'm not kidding," he said pleasantly. "I manage a funeral home. I deal in pre-arrangements. I don't actually do the embalming anymore. Haven't for years."

Dead silence.

"So," he said. "Want to go to the zoo?"

I did sort of want to go to the zoo with an undertaker. But I had to clear the air first. "How do I know you're not some kind of freak? That you're not gonna stab my eyes out with an ice pick when I get in the car?"

"Hey, I'm a nice guy. We always leave the eyes in."

He picked me up the following Saturday in his frosted mocha Dodge minivan.

"Fifty-five cubic feet of storage," he said with a wink. A small placard sat in the window, facing out. It read: Funeral Director Attending Funeral -- Do Not Ticket. I appreciated the implied threat. Give me a ticket, officer, and I'll come looking for you.

As I sat, the power locks on the doors shut. I checked to make sure the knobs were still there, that the door could still be unlocked manually. One does not want to encounter customized car doors on a blind first date with an undertaker.

"The name Pogo mean anything to you?" I asked.

"Huh? Who?" He had a very nice smile.

Pogo the Killer Clown, aka John Wayne Gacy. Serial killers often admired each other's work. Though seldom did they wear Hawaiian shirts. "Never mind. Nice shirt," I commented.

He looked pleased. "Thanks. It'll look great on the boat."

"Boat?" I asked, as he pulled away from the curb.

"Uh huh," he mumbled as he made a right on Ninth Street. "I got a little mail-order business on the side. Small-space ads in the National Enquirer, that kind of thing. Last Christmas I sold 20,000 units of 'Trixie the Christmas Pixie.' She had illuminating wings and a glow wand."

I noticed he wore boat shoes and no socks.

"Yup. One more hit like Trixie and I'll be behind the wheel of a 30-foot Sea Ray with twin MerCruiser diesel inboards."

I fingered the red, green and white tassel that hung from his dashboard. He didn't need to see my face; the disdain emanated from my fingers. "I'm an Italian from da Bronx," he said in a Guido voice. "Gimme a friggin' break."

"No, I like it. I like that your people have such pride."

He stopped at the light and shot me a dirty look and a Hmpf. "Here, I brought you a present." He pulled a plastic bag out from under his seat and dropped it on my lap. He smiled like a cat with fresh chipmunk blood on his whiskers.

I reached into the bag and pulled out an ice pick from K-Mart. The price was still stuck on it: $2.99.

"Wow," I said. "This is cool."

"There's something else," he said.

I peered into the bag but it was empty.

"Oh, I forgot." He reached under his seat again and brought out two brochures. They were for Batesville Caskets -- "Committed to the Dignity of Life."

I flipped through the stiff, glossy pages. There were bronze caskets, wood caskets, caskets with glass tops like coffee tables. The former seemed ideal for the visiting dignitary who finds himself accidentally and fatally sideswiped by a cab.

He made a left on Second Avenue and headed uptown. "Hypothetically," he began, "which would you choose?"

I examined the models more closely. "The post-cornered Hanover in cherry."

This surprised him. "Really? I would have pegged you as a stainless steel sort of guy." He spoke this out of the corner of his mouth, leading-man style.

I was charmed.

When I was with him, he was an eccentric entrepreneur. But as soon as we parted he became an undertaker again. I couldn't help but dwell on the fact that I was dating somebody who had held somebody else's decapitated head in his hands. Who regularly tied string tight around the end of a dead man's penis so that fluids didn't leak out and stain the tuxedo pants. I was dating somebody who had stitched a suicide's wrists shut after the fact. All with the same two hands that rubbed my back between the shoulder blades, in exactly the right spot.

The only other people who have had similar experiences to this man were locked inside institutions for the criminally insane. The difference is, this guy gets business cards.

In honor of our 11th date, he gave me a Mexican death puppet. A little papier-maché skeleton that he sat on top of the television. Silly, not scary. Innocent. Or so I thought.

Within weeks, Princess Diana and Mother Theresa were both dead. I moved the death puppet off the television, afraid that in another week's time, Katie Couric, Jerry Seinfeld, Oprah -- whoever appeared on TV that week -- would be claimed by the sinister and alarmingly powerful puppet. I set it on the floor, in an area I figured to be just above my nasty downstairs neighbor's head.

In some ways, it was comforting to date an undertaker. He had this whole mortality thing out of his system. He didn't brood like a tortured artist with a subconscious death wish. He didn't taunt death by driving sports cars around sharp corners with his eyes closed. Death wasn't a mysterious notion that he romanticized. Death didn't rule his life; life ruled his life. He lived remarkably in the moment, laughed easily. Being with him was like putting your mouth on the lip of a juicer-dish while the oranges were being mashed.

As he would say, "This is real-time, baby." In a way, he seemed more alive than other people. Maybe this is why I dated him. Or maybe I thought he would protect me from Death, since they shared an office. Maybe I felt that if he liked me enough, he could talk his buddy the Reaper out of taking me, pull some strings. Or perhaps I was just testing my own limits, like when you're a kid and you stand in the dark in front of the bathroom mirror and shine a flashlight under your face to try and scare yourself: I'm dating an undertaker ... Ahhhhh! Then again, I might have just liked him for him, and this undertaker thing was just what he did for a living. That's simple enough, right?

Except why would somebody do this for a living? Why not run a coffee bar, design fabrics, program computers or install alarm systems? What kind of a person has, as a goal in life, the desire to delay the decomposition of human bodies, dress them in formal wear and display them in anti-corrosive boxes? Did he attend a funeral as a child and say longingly to himself, "Someday ..."

And, more important, why would I date this kind of person? At first, my friends reveled in the novelty of the concept. "Does he make you take cold showers before sex and tell you to lie very still?" Ha-ha-ha, all around. Eventually that became "Are you still seeing that undertaker?" As if I was still laughing uncontrollably at a joke to which the punch line had been delivered 20 minutes before. "But isn't it ... depressing?" I told them about the T-shirt with the garish Hula girl emblazoned across the front. I told them about his smile, one of his best features. I didn't tell them about his minivan. They nodded suspiciously.

The first night I ever visited him at the office, he answered the door wearing red boxer shorts. "Got the whole place to myself, all five floors."

I hesitated briefly before stepping inside. "Are you ... alone?"

He gave me a puzzled look, like What do you think, dickwad?

"No. I mean alone, alone."

He pulled me inside and closed the door behind me. "Oh, that. No, we've got a full house tonight."

I shivered involuntarily and took a peppermint from the bowl near the door. The idea that we were not alone was one thing. The idea that we were not alone, yet were the only ones alive was quite another.

We went at it on a sofa in a viewing room on the third floor. Afterwards he said, "Wanna go downstairs to the refrigerator?" he asked.

Normally, two boyfriends might "go downstairs to the refrigerator" and grab a beer after sex. This refrigerator was something altogether different.

"Ready?" he asked as we stood in front of the large steel door.

I nodded.

He opened the door and turned on the light. Four bodies lay on steel gurneys, covered by sheets. I stepped inside the room.

He walked to one of the gurneys and lifted the sheet to peer at the face. "This fella was in the prime of his life. Thirty-two. Drug overdose," he said sadly.

"I don't want to see him," I said, folding my arms across my chest. Instantly, the novelty of dating an undertaker vanished in the frigid air.

"You should," he said. The undertaker does not drink or do drugs and I have a long history of doing both. I approached the body.

"It's OK," he said as he pulled back the sheet.

He was a very handsome, athletic man. He looked to be sleeping. I followed the contours of his face with my eyes. It felt wrong for me to see him like that. It felt like theft.

"Maybe he thought he'd do just a line or two," the undertaker said. "Or maybe he did so much that it seemed normal. But see how his muscles are? This guy worked out. He was probably at the gym the day before yesterday."

I didn't realize there were tears running down my cheeks until the undertaker covered the man back up with the sheet, placed his arm around me and led me out of the room. We walked upstairs into one of the small, quiet rooms and sat side by side on the sofa.

"How can you do this for a living? How can you see that every day?"

He inhaled for a long time and then let it out slowly. "It makes you appreciate life," he said. "And I don't mean 'life' in some grand way. I mean life like filling the car with gas or eating a really excellent BLT, which, by the way, I could really go for at the moment. See, the thing is, dealing with the dead makes you appreciate being alive."

"Great," I said. "A profound undertaker."

"Who gives great head," he added.

"This is so twisted."

"Ain't it a pisser?" he said. And we kissed for a long, hungry time.

Augusten Burroughs

Augusten Burroughs' many books include "Runnning With Scissors," "Dry," "Sellevision," "Magical Thinking" and "Possible Side Effects." His latest book is "This Is How."

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