Act 3, Scene 1: Skin and Bones and a Handful of Hair
Stepping back in time to the early 1970s. JOE MEAD is a fresh-faced mortuary student in his early 20s, back from a stint in the military. He's looking for an apprenticeship at Coleman Funeral Home and is waiting in the lobby to meet MR. GRISWOLD, the owner of the establishment. He's confident, but a bit nervous -- this would be his first mortuary job if he gets it.
SADIE, Mr. Griswold's secretary enters. She is professional, but gives Joe a warm smile. SADIE Joe Mead, Mr. Griswold will see you now.
JOE Thank you.
SADIE Follow me.
(Joe follows her into nearby area where Griswold is working at a desk, snipping obituaries out of the newspaper.) Mr. Griswold? Joe Mead is here to see you.
GRISWOLD (Looks up, wry grin comes across his face. Stands and extends hand to Joe.) Hello! Come on in, have a seat.
JOE (Shakes hand, still nervous, but starting to relax.) Hello, sir. Um, Mr. Griswold. Good to meet you… Thanks for seeing me…
GRISWOLD Oh hell, it's good to have you here! How are they treating you over there at Harvard?
GRISWOLD Just pulling your leg, son! That's what we called Bonner when I was in school there. A’course it’s far from Harvard…
(Pause, sits back in chair.) How’d you hear about us?
JOE Well, I just finished my first year and now I'm looking to get some experience, you know… real world. I heard you all get pretty busy here and might need some help.
GRISWOLD Yeah. We do get busy. Did 549 cases last year - just me and 2 embalmers. And Sadie. She runs the office and does hair, makeup... paints the ladies' nails. We could definitely use some help.
(Pause.) So, tell me, Joe… what got you interested in this noble profession of ours?
JOE Well, I was a cop, um, police officer, in the service. I worked accidents, casualties… They'd send me out 'cause I wouldn’t puke like the other guys. When we needed to scrape someone off the pavement, I did ok.
(Searches jacket pocket.)
I brought some photos of the accidents I worked… (Places photos on Griswold’s desk.)
GRISWOLD (Quietly flips through the pictures.) Well that's quite a contortion you captured there!
JOE I don't have no CV… I grew up farming... and then I went to the service. Overseas… GRISWOLD And now you need a job.
JOE Yes, sir. And a place to live.
GRISWOLD Well, thank you, Joe.
(Hands pictures across the desk.) I don't think I need a CV from you - you have communicated to me that you want to be here. And, you're in luck - we do have an apartment upstairs… it's small - just a one bedroom. But it's got a bed and a bathroom and a kitchen… all a man needs.
(Pause.) You're not married?
JOE No, sir.
JOE Well, nothing steady.
GRISWOLD Good. (Long, awkward pause.)
JOE So… can I come to work here? With you?
JOE (Pleased, but cautious.) Really? That's great.
(Pause.) So, um, when can I start?
GRISWOLD (Open-ended, reading Joe.) You can start whenever you want.
(Sorts through papers on desk.) I got a body in the prep room… needs embalming today for a viewing and wake tomorrow night and a funeral at church on Thursday. Woman, age 24. Tried to end a pregnancy. Was not successful. Beautiful girl. Nice family. She was in college, too - studying history. Wanted to travel the world, join the Peace Corps. Parents were traveling for their anniversary, on their way to the theater after a big, fancy dinner when they got the call. Mom wants her hair ironed and parted down the center. Light make-up. (Shuffles papers.) And on the table right next to her I have an old man in his 70s. Cancer of some sort, family thought they had more time with him, but no. He died unexpectedly, as they say. Not sure how much more expected it could have been… humans are funny. Wife brought in a suit and tie for him, but no underwear, socks or shoes - said he liked to go barefoot.
And next to him is Ms. Maria Springer… the Mayor's wife. He actually told me this was the first experience he'd ever had burying his wife... Poor man. She's been sick a while, not much left of her… Skin and bones and a handful of hair. A'course he wants her hair colored and done up in a Gibson like when they met. We'll do the best we can...
(Pause, looks at Joe.) So? What do you think?
JOE (Doesn’t speak. Sifts through the pictures in his hands.) I… Well, sir, I think…
GRISWOLD (Kind and knowing.) As you will learn, whether it's here or somewhere else… There's a lot more to this business than not puking when you're scraping some poor, nameless soul off the pavement. It's much harder not to puke when you're sewing up a young girl who's been beaten to a pulp so her parents can see her one more time.
(Pauses, firm.) You get me? There's not a whole lot of scraping around here - it's a lot of painstaking, careful work. And that includes working with the living! Never mind the dead! The dead are easy. They're up for anything. Gibson Girl hairdo... part down the middle... don't matter to them. But the living - they’re a finicky bunch. And you can't make a mistake with the living. You know that, right?
JOE Well… I think so.
GRISWOLD (Firm.) Joe. Before you take one more step in your education, your apprenticeship, anything at all, you need to know this and accept it: You cannot make a mistake in this business. I know what's going through your head right now - you're thinking, "how is that possible?" And you are absolutely right! It is impossible not to make mistakes. Every human being who breathes on this earth makes mistakes at one time or another. Distractions, ignorance, working fast… there are a million things that'll cause you to make a mistake on a case.
JOE (Curious.) Have you ever made a mistake on a case?
GRISWOLD Of course!
JOE Like what?
GRISWOLD One of the things you do when you're just starting out - you don't set the pressure right on your embalming machine. The eyes puff up like a frog from all that pressure on the blood vessels. It's a common mistake, everyone does it, and it's going to give you a near heart-attack the first time you see your case's eyes start to bug out.
JOE (Engrossed.) So… what do you do? GRISWOLD You put weights on the eyes, sometimes big wads of wet cotton work, and you hope for the best!
(Both men laugh, though Griswold's is a laugh that is more “been there, done that.”)
JOE (Smiling now, more comfortable.) What are some-a the other mistakes?
GRISWOLD (Pauses, looks out into space.) Well, this isn't really a mistake, but it's something you go through - let's just call it a challenge with the potential to really blow up in your face. I had a jaundiced guy - family insisted on embalming him and putting him out for all the world to see. I explained to them that given his condition and current complexion that embalming would be possible, but I didn't recommend a viewing.
Think about it: The skin is yellow. The embalming fluid pushing through the veins is red. What do yellow and red make?
JOE (Thinking.) Green?
GRISWOLD Yep! Green!
(Laughs.) Not exactly one for the family album!
JOE So... what do you do?
GRISWOLD Well first, you do everything in your power to discourage a viewing. If they insist, and of course they will, you set aside two, three hours for cosmetizing. Make sure you got plenty of pancake makeup and a real good brush, boy!
JOE Or maybe a spackel.
GRISWOLD Now you’re getting it! You have to set aside enough time - he's gonna look like a Martian if you don't do a really good job of cosmetizing.
(Lighthearted mood.) But you know the dumbest mistake of all?
GRISWOLD Not filling up the coach with gas before you take a procession out to the cemetery.
JOE Oh man.
GRISWOLD Yeah. I had a guy here, a few years ago, led the procession right into a gas station 'cause he ran out of gas! Had another guy get a flat tire on his way to the cemetery! Not his fault, but he was out in the middle of nowhere while the family was out twiddling their thumbs at the graveside!
JOE What's the hardest case you ever had?
GRISWOLD Well, that depends. Arrangement or embalming?