Thursday, April 29, 2010

Near Death Experiences

by Ashley Lister

I’ll hold my hand up and admit that, wherever I work, it usually affects my writing. When I worked in an office, I found a lot of my fiction was orienting around an office environment. When I was working from home, my characters seemed to spend more time away from work, or they had the good fortune to work from the place where they lived.

I could blame this on personal laziness; or maybe some sort of Mary-Sue complex. If I was the introspective type I’m sure I would have worked out which of those options it was by now. But it’s curious to reflect on the fact that there’s one workplace I’ve never written about.

As a writer, I can proudly admit to having had a chequered career. Maybe even paisley. Not including novelist and article writer, I can admit that I’ve worked as an IT manager, and admin assistant. I’ve worked as a lecturer and performance poet. I’ve also worked as a bingo caller and spent one ignoble afternoon as a door-to-door salesman. Oh! And I’ve worked in a hospital as a trainee nurse. That didn’t last long. I don’t play well with bedpans.

A good number of those professions have found their way into some element or another of my writing. Perhaps it’s not laziness. Perhaps I’m just good at recycling.
But there’s one profession that’s never made it into my fiction. That’s the time I spent working as an undertaker’s assistant: a funeral director.

I’d been working as a junior reporter (I forgot to mention that one above). The job at the funeral director’s was mentioned by a grave-digger friend. And he added that it came with accommodation. Considering the piss-poor money I was on as a junior reporter, and taking into account the desperate need I had for accommodation, I jumped at the opportunity.

I was provided with a free suit: I discovered that charcoal grey looks good on me. I was given accommodation. And I also had access to a fleet of the fastest stretched limousines imaginable. The acceleration on a Ford Lincoln is phenomenal. The pickup on an un-laden hearse is obscenely fast. Even when they’re loaded with a standard (occupied) casket, most hearses can reach a formidable top speed with surprising ease.

But it wasn’t all glamour, fast cars and fancy clothes.

Living on the premises I was also on-call one week out of every three. This meant, if someone was unfortunate enough to suffer a bereavement out of office hours, I was expected to give the deceased a ride to the onsite mortuary. It was a time of midnight phone-calls, body-bags, transit vans, and the smell of carbolic soap, coffee and cigarettes.

Sometimes it could be sad.

Sometimes it could be a pain in the backside.

And sometimes it could be disconcerting.

I remember once making a journey on my own, through unlit countryside, with a corpse in the back of my transit van. You don’t often hear someone make that honest admission unless they’ve been in the same job as me, or worked as a freelance serial killer. Anyway, I was half an hour out of town and my imagination could hear fingernails scratching at the zipper on the body-bag. I have never been so genuinely frightened. The terror was so absolute I could taste the acid fear a week later. My fingernails left imprints on the steering wheel.

But this work has never occurred in my writing.

I could be glib and blame it on my preferred genre. I doubt there is one publisher reading this thinking, “Sex at the Funeral! What a great title for a story!” But I’ve written in other genres and never alluded to my insider knowledge of this profession. I don’t think I ever will.

I could, however, point out that I took the work very seriously. I wasn’t just dealing with the disposal of people’s remains: I was trying to lend dignity to the cruelty of grief. I could also point out that I rarely write about those things I take seriously.

I don’t write stories about people who teach.

None of my central characters have ever been writers.

And I never write stories about funeral directors.

Fiction, certainly the fiction that I write, is there to entertain. Yes, there are serious elements in my stories. And I’m not beyond exploiting any situation I know to make a fiction appear more realistic. But I’m happier transforming the dull irrelevance of my experiences in office life into something intriguing and exciting, rather than using material that is already more compelling than any fiction I could create.


  1. Hello, Ashley,

    Have you ever read my story "Stiff"? The main character is the assistant to an undertaker. It is, however, not a serious story (to say the least) featuring as it does a horny widow and a tumescent corpse...

    On a more serious note, I highly recommend the recent Japanese film "Departures", about a young unemployed cellist who gets a job performing the rituals that prepare a body for burial in Japanese society. He is ostracized by everyone--even his wife treats him as a pariah. But he finds in this work a peculiar grace.

    Very good post!


  2. Oh Ash - you can make me crack up, make my hair stand on end, and then make me reflective all in one post. Nice.

  3. What a delightful/fascinating post, Ashley! As Kathleen alluded to, I found it moving swiftly from hilarious to compelling to illuminating. I've had the similar experience of much of my previous professional experience making its way, even if subtly, into the fiction I write.

    Very lovely, and thank you for sharing!

  4. Ash,

    Once again, you surprise me. I knew you'd had several jobs in your life, but I had no idea you'd been in the funeral business. About your imagination and the nails scraping along the zipper of the body-bag, if that'd been me, there'd have been a wet spot on the seat. OMG!

    You write what feels good to write about, I suppose. You write what you know, in some far off kinky kind of way and you do it well. Who am I to tell you to do it any other way?

    Great post!


  5. Hi Ashley!

    While I was reading your post I was thinking about the HBO series "Six Feet Under". Have you ever seen it? It was about a family owned funeral home, complete with ghosts. It was written by Alan Ball, who wrote the HBO series "Carnivale" and "Trueblood" and the movie "American Beauty". It was a about death, grief, stupid ways of getting killed (one man fell in a giant pasta kneading vat in a factory) it ran for five years and was one of the most beloved TV series in America. I love it and still snack on it. My favorite episode was the one about the washed up porno star who died in her bathtub and her funeral was attended by about a hundred grief crazed porn movie stars.

    I think you would have liked it.

    Good writing.


  6. This was a fascinating essay, truly deep (and I intend no Shakespearian gravediggerly wordplay there). And the idiom-repurposing title is a crowning glory!

  7. Lisabet,

    Of course I've read Stiff. It was in Dying For It alongisde my story The Good Place.

    I'll certainly look out for Departures.


  8. Kathleen,

    Thank you. I enjoyed writing this one.


  9. Em,

    Thank you. I'm looking forward to reading your take on this post on Saturday.


  10. Jude,

    It was genuinely one of the most terrifying moments of my life.

    And, of course, you're right. I try to write what I feel good about: because I feel the reader wants to experience something good.


  11. Garce,

    We've got Six Feet Under on DVD. I've still got to watch the end of season five but it is an outstanding series. The pathos, humour and intelligence in those scrits is outstanding.

    I'm also amazed in that show by Michael C Hall's acting ability. He's the same actor who plays Dexter and the difference between his character (David) in Six Feet Under, and the title role in Dexter is bewildering.


  12. Jeremy,

    Thank you. It was a rewarding job: satisfying to know I was making a small contribution to the dignity of someone's bereavement.



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