Transcript

60:

Business of Death
Transcript

Originally aired 04.18.1997

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Prologue. Kaddish.

Allen Ginsberg

Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg, 1894-1956.

Ira Glass

This is the way we usually think about death. We stare at it, trying to comprehend. Here's Allen Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets and eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.

downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I've been up all night, talking, reading Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles--

Ira Glass

When we think about death, we stare at the two images in our head over and over. The person we knew alive, breathing and talking, and the thought of them dead. And we take these two pictures and we turn them around and around, shuffle one on top of the other, trying to understand. How did this living person become that dead one?

The early part of Allen Ginsberg's poem, "Kaddish," mourning his dead mother, is a series of these images.

Allen Ginsberg

--with the YPSL's hitch-hiking thru Pennsylvania, in black baggy gym skirt pants, a photograph of 4 girls holding each other round the waste, laughing eye, too coy, virginal solitude of 1920

all girls grown old, now, and that long hair in the grave--

Ira Glass

This is the way we usually think about death. But there's another way. Death isn't just a mystery, a tragedy. It's also a business. Somebody has to sell embalming supplies, somebody has to drive a hearse, somebody has to kill cows for beef, and kill cockroaches in people's houses.

Welcome to WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, The Business of Death, people who work with the dead, people who see death every day. Do they know anything about it that we don't?

Act One of our program, The Undertaking. Funeral director Thomas lynch conducts his own father's funeral. Act Two, The Forbidden Zone. Writer Michael Lesy tells us about his own journey to figure out what autopsy pathologists, homicide detectives, slaughterhouse workers, and others who deal with death know about death. Act Three, Fireman Larry Brown. Act Four, writer David Sedaris explains how to sneak a corpse into a four star hotel, and why you might want to, and how his friends actually have. And Act Five, The Happiest Death Worker, proving that it's all not doom and gloom in the death biz. Stay with us.

Act One. The Undertaking.

Ira Glass

Act One, The Undertaking. When researching today's show, one of our producers talked with a funeral director who said at one point, well, you know, all funeral directors are either alcoholics or born-agains. Which seems like an exaggeration, but clearly this is a job with some pressure and stress to it that takes its toll on many people.

Well, Thomas Lynch is an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. He says that it is not the sort of job where you get rich, usually. He says you can afford an orthodontist for your kids but not boarding school. And so, he says, you do not stay in this job unless you get some sort of satisfaction from it.

Most people, he says, could not be paid enough to embalm a neighbor on Christmas, stand with a widower at his wife's open casket, talk with a leukemic mother about her fears for her children about to be motherless. He says that the ones who stay with this work believe that they actually are helping the living in some way by burying their dead.

Thomas Lynch

The undertakers are over on the other island. They are there for what is called their Midwinter Conference. The name they give to the week in February every year when funeral directors from Michigan find some warm place in the Lesser Antilles to discuss the pressing issues of their trade. The names for the workshops and seminars are borderline. "The Future of Funeral Service," "What Folks Want in a Casket," "Coping with the Cremation Crowd," things like that. The resorts must have room service, hot tubs, good beaches and shopping on site or nearby. No doubt, it is the same for orthodontists and trial lawyers.

And I'm here on the neighboring island, a smaller place, with a harbor too shallow for cruise ships and no airport. I'm a ferry boat ride from the undertakers from my home state. But I've timed my relief from the Michigan winter with theirs in case I want to register for a meeting and write-off my travel.

My father was a funeral director, and three of my five brothers are funeral directors, and two of my three sisters work pre-need and bookkeeping in one of the four funeral homes around the metro area that bear our name, our father's name. It is an odd arithmetic, a kind of family farm working the back 40 of the emotional register. Our livelihoods depending on the deaths of others in the way that medicos depend on sickness, lawyers on crime, the clergy on the fear of God.

My father died three years ago on an island off the Gulf Coast of Florida. He wasn't exactly on a Midwinter Conference. He'd quit going to those years before, after my mother had died. But he was sharing a condo with a woman friend, who always overestimated the remedial powers of sexual aerobics. Or maybe she only underestimated the progress of his heart disease. We all knew it was coming.

In the first year of his widowhood, he sat in this chair, heartsore, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then he started going out with women. The brothers were glad for him. The sisters rolled their eyes a lot. In the two years of consortium that followed, he'd had a major-- which is to say, a chest-ripping, down for the count-- heart attack every six months, like clockwork. He survived all but one. Three out of four, I can hear him saying. You're still dead when it's over. He'd had enough.

When we got the call from his woman friend, we knew what to do. My brother and I had done the drill in our heads before. We had a traveling kit of embalming supplies, gloves, fluids, needles, odds and ends. We had to explain to the security people at the airlines who scrutinized the contents of the bag, wondering how we might make a bomb out of Dodge Permaglow or overtake the cabin crew with a box marked "Slaughter Surgical Supplies," full of stainless steel oddities they'd never seen before.

When we got to the funeral home they had taken him to, taken his body to, the undertaker there asked if we were sure we wanted to do this, our own father, after all. He'd be happy to call in one of his own embalmers. We assured him it would be OK. It was something we had always promised him. Though I can't now, for the life of me, remember the context in which it was made. The promise that when he died his sons would embalm him, dress him, pick out a casket, lay him out, prepare the obits, contact the priest, manage the flowers, the casseroles, the wake and procession, the Mass and burial. Maybe it was just understood.

His was a funeral he would not have to direct. It was ours to do. And though he directed thousands of them, he had never made mention of his own preferences. Whenever he was pressed on the matter, he would only say, you'll know what to do. We did.

I had seen my father horizontal before. At the end, it had been intensive care units, mostly, after his coronaries and bypass. He'd been helpless, done unto. But seeing him outstretched on the embalming table of the Andersen Mortuary in Fort Myers, with the cardiac blue in his ears and fingertips, and along his distal regions, shoulders, and lower ribs, and buttocks, and heels, I thought, this is what my father will look like when he's dead. And then, like a door slammed shut behind you, the tense of it all shifted into the inescapable present of, this is my father, dead. Then we went to work in the way our father had trained us.

He was a cooperative body. Despite the arterial sclerosis, his circulatory system made the embalming easy. And having just stepped from the shower into his doom, he was clean and cleanly shaven. He hadn't been sick in the hospice or intensive care sense of the word, so there were none of the bruises on him or tubes in him that medical science can inflict and install.

He'd gotten the death he wanted, caught in full stride, quick and cleanly, after a day strolling the beach picking sea shells for the grandchildren and, maybe, after a little bone bouncing with his condo mate. Though she never said, and we never asked and can only hope. And massaging his legs, his hands, his arms, to affect the proper distribution of fluid and drainage, watching the blue clear from his fingertips and heels, as the fluid that would preserve him long enough for us to take our leave of him worked its way around his body, I had the sense that I was doing something for him, even though, now dead, he was beyond my kindnesses or anyone's.

Likewise, his body bore a kind of history. The tattoo, with my mother's name on it, he'd had done as an 18-year-old Marine during World War II, the perfectly trimmed mustache I used to watch him darken with my mother's mascara, when he was younger than I am and I was younger than my children are. There were the graying chest hairs, the hairless ankles, the male pattern baldness I see on the heads of men in the first-class section of airplanes and in the double mirrors in the barber shop. Embalming my father I was reminded of how we bury our dead and then become them. In the end, I had to say that, maybe, this is what I'm going to look like dead.

Maybe it was at a Midwinter Conference my father first thought about what he did and why he did it. He always told us that embalming got to be, forgive me, de rigueur during the Civil War when, for the first time in our history, lots of people, mostly men, mostly soldiers, were dying far from home and the families that grieved them. Dismal traders worked in the tents on the edges of the battlefields, charging to disinfect, preserve, and restore dead bodies. Which is to say, they closed mouths, sutured bullet holes, stitched limbs or parts of limbs back on, and sent the dead back home to wives and mothers, fathers and sons.

All of this bother and expense was predicated on the notion that the dead need to be at their obsequies, or, more correctly, that the living need the dead to be there, so that the living can consign them to the field or fire after commending them to God, or the gods, or whatever is out there. The presence and participation of the dead human body at its funeral is, as my father told it, every bit as important as the bride's being at her wedding, the baby at its baptism.

A man that I work with, named Wesley Rice, once spent all of one day and all night carefully piecing together the parts of a girl's cranium. She'd been murdered by a madman with a baseball bat after he'd abducted and raped her. The morning of the day it all happened, she'd left for school dressed for picture day. A school girl, dressed to the nines, waving at her mother, ready for the photographer.

The picture was never taken. She was abducted from the bus stop and found a day later in a stand of trees just off the road, a township south of here. The details were reported dispassionately in the local media, along with the speculations as to which of the wounds was the fatal one, the choking, the knife, or the baseball bat. No doubt, these speculations were the focus of the double postmortem the medical examiner performed on her body before signing the death certificate, multiple injuries.

Most embalmers, faced with what Wesley Rice was faced with after we'd opened the pouch from the morgue, would have simply said, closed casket, treated the remains enough to control the odor, zipped the pouch, and gone home for cocktails. It would've been easier. The pay was the same. Instead, he started working. 18 hours later, the girl's mother, who had pleaded to see her, saw her.

She was dead, to be sure, and damaged. But her face was hers again, not the madman's version. The hair was hers, not his. The body was hers, not his. Wesley Rice had not raised her from the dead nor hidden the hard facts, but he had retrieved her death from the one who had killed her. He had closed her eyes, her mouth. He'd washed her wounds, sutured her lacerations, pieced her beaten skull together, stitched the incisions from the autopsy, cleaned the dirt from under her fingernails, scrubbed the fingerprint ink from her fingertips, washed her hair, dressed her in jeans and a blue turtleneck, and laid her in a casket beside which her mother stood for two days and sobbed as if something had been pulled from her by force.

It was then, and always will be, awful, horrible, unappeasably sad. But the outrage, the horror, the heartbreak belonged not to the murderer, or the media, or the morgue, each of whom had staked their claims to it. It belonged to the girl and to her mother. Wesley had given them the body back. What Wesley Rice did was a kindness. It served the living by caring for the dead.

Over on the other island, they are trying to reinvent the funeral as a vehicle for the healthy expression of grief, which, of course, it is. Or as a brief therapy for the acutely bereaved, which, of course, it is. There will be talk of stages, steps, recovery. Maybe I'll take the boat over tomorrow. Maybe some of the old timers are there, men of my father's generation, men you could call in the middle of the night if there was trouble. They remind me of my father. Maybe they'll say I remind them of him.

Ira Glass

Thomas Lynch, reading from his memoir, The Undertaking, which will be published in July by Norton.

Act Two. The Forbidden Zone.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Forbidden Zone. In a certain sense, writer Michael Lesy is in the business of death himself. He's the author of, Wisconsin Death Trip, The Forbidden Zone, and other writings which either touch on or obsess over the subject. In his book, The Forbidden Zone, he heads out to talk with all sorts of people in the business of death-- autopsy pathologists, executioners on death row, mercenaries, undertakers, homicide detectives-- on a quest of understanding.

Michael Lesy

I wanted to find out how people bear the facts of death. My father, who I loved very dearly, was very, very old. And he was going to die, and very soon, I thought. And I thought that I could bear it more easily if I went out and talked to people who dealt with death professionally. Because I thought, maybe, they knew things that I didn't.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you to read from a scene where you go to an autopsy. Let me ask you to turn to page 33 in the book. Because this is a fairly typical kind of a scene of the sort of things that you would encounter when you would go out.

Michael Lesy

The radio was on to a rock station. There was a bearded man sitting hunched over the second autopsy table, finishing a post.

Ira Glass

Post, meaning a?

Michael Lesy

A postmortem. --On a 20 week old fetus that had been spontaneously aborted the night before. The bearded man looked up.

"Who are you?" he wanted to know. I said I was a writer.

"What are you writing?" he asked.

"A book about people who deal with death."

"Death?" he said. "We don't deal with death. Go upstairs and talk to the oncologists. They deal with death. Their patients die all the time. Down here, we get them when they're dead. We never knew them, never talked to them, never had them as patients."

As he spoke, he delicately unwound the child's small intestine, holding one end with the forceps, while gently pulling it between the blunt blades of another. Stripping it of its outer mucous membrane by opening and closing the forceps so rapidly that its pinchers behaved like the beak of a little bird nibbling at its feathers.

I thought, if you don't deal with death, what are you doing now? Isn't the kid dead? Aren't you taking him apart? What if I went upstairs and talked to the oncologists? Death? they'd say. We don't deal with death. We deal with the disease process. None of them would admit it.

Ira Glass

Do you think that the pathologists, who you visited, do you think that they actually did understand something about death that you didn't walking into it?

Michael Lesy

I think they understood the body. But what they didn't understand, and what I don't think anyone can understand, is the difference between being alive and being dead. And how the spirit leaves the body, or how that thing that animates the body, evacuates it.

Ira Glass

Right, and that's at the center of our fascination with death, as lay people.

Michael Lesy

Oh, absolutely.

Ira Glass

It's interesting that both the pathologist and the homicide detective, they basically, in your description, you talk about how they're both looking at the body. They don't look at death. What they do is that they look at the body for clues, for what happened, for clues about the story that they're writing.

Michael Lesy

Yes, the read the body. They read the body. And the body tells a story. They learn how to work backwards, from the corpse to the murder.

Ira Glass

But again, do you view what they're doing, that is, trying to take the body, trying to take the fact of this death and turn it into some kind of meaning, as being in any way parallel to what you were doing, coming on to the scene, trying to take the fact of these deaths and turn them into some sort of meaning? Or is it very different?

Michael Lesy

I was looking for some transcendent meaning. I don't believe they ever were looking for any transcendent meaning. They had a body in question. The question is, how did the body reach them? I had another question, which is, how does one bear grief? And how does one bear loss? And how does one understand the inevitability of death as a fact of life?

Ira Glass

At one point you write that at the bottom of the hierarchy of death jobs is the slaughterhouse. Let me ask you to talk about what you found there.

Michael Lesy

Well--

Ira Glass

You went to a slaughterhouse in Omaha.

Michael Lesy

Right, I went to a medium-size slaughterhouse, a beef kill. I think it killed 150 animals an hour. And the place was a mess. I mean, it was clean enough. They used germicides, and mechanical scrubbers, and so on at the end of every day. But when they were killing these animals and dismembering them, it was a howling, whistling, steam-filled chaos.

Ira Glass

At one point when you were there, you're watching the person who actually kills the animals, and he operates an airgun, which presses a bolt into the animal's skull, and he hands it to you. He says, go ahead, try it.

Michael Lesy

Yeah, he handed it to me. He went down. He fell. And he'd lost his hard hat. He handed me this airgun, and I did it.

Ira Glass

You killed the steer.

Michael Lesy

I killed the steer, yep.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you to talk about how that changed your story, your perception of what you were writing?

Michael Lesy

Well, everyone, everyone wears some sort of protective clothing. And certainly, my protective clothing was that I was a watcher and a listener, not a participant. It was always those people who did those things, and I was always there standing, listening to them, thinking whatever I was thinking to myself and not doing it.

Ira Glass

And actually, in an earlier scene, a detective says to you, everbody is a killer, everybody could be a killer. And you tell him, not me.

Michael Lesy

Not me, yeah. Well, I mean, I thought I was protected. I mean, half my relatives had gone up the chimney in the Holocaust. I figured, I wasn't about to kill anyone. People like me had been on the receiving end of things. We didn't perpetuate the murders. We were the recipients. And it's a rather comforting, smug place to be existentially.

Ira Glass

And so, once you killed the steer--

Michael Lesy

Well, once I killed the steer, I figured the detective was right. I'd done it. It hadn't bothered me very much. And the fact that it hadn't bothered me very much was very scary.

Ira Glass

Do you believe that being around death so much taints a person? Do you believe that it tainted you?

Michael Lesy

I think it taught me stuff. I think it does taint you to the extent that if you go out looking for this stuff, it'll come looking for you.

Ira Glass

What do you mean by that?

Michael Lesy

What I mean is that you make your own fate. I think that, if you think for one minute that you can go out looking for death the way you might take a vacation, and that at the end of two weeks, you can turn the rental car in and get on the plane and leave, you're wrong.

Ira Glass

Did you find that people who had these kinds of jobs viewed people who did not have these kinds of jobs and this contact with death at a distance?

Michael Lesy

Oh, yes. I mean, I can remember the scene, which was when I was spending time with homicide detectives, they were called to a crime scene in which a man had ended his life, his own life, because of a broken heart. He'd put a .22 caliber bullet in his brain. The homicide detectives walked in and found him stretched out on his bed. He'd done a very nice job of cleaning the apartment beforehand. He'd left a series of heartbroken notes to the woman who'd broken his heart. They were handwritten. The i's were dotted with little open circles like bubbles. Very, very quickly, everyone who was living in this apartment complex came running. Including, eventually, the man's first wife and their children. And soon there were people weeping, and sobbing, and crying.

And I can remember that a cab pulled up and out of the cab came the man's girlfriend. And she ran into the house, into the apartment. But then the cab driver got out. And the cab driver stood, with the door of his cab open, leaning on the top of the seal of the door, looking at all of this. And he looked very, very different from everyone around him. So different, the expression on his face was so different, that at the end of this scene, I asked the two homicide detectives I was with about that man.

I said that he was very strange. I didn't understand quite how, but there was something odd about him, and did they know him? And they said, yeah. He used to be a homicide detective. I mean, again, it's under the heading of useless and precious knowledge. The knowledge of these things separates you out from ordinary people.

Ira Glass

When you set out on your journey, you actually thought that these people would have some kind of knowledge, and that, by observing them and talking to them, you might learn something from them. But, in fact, it seems more what happened was, you simply got to see what they saw, that it wasn't the things people told you, and it wasn't the stories of the people who died, but simply being able to have contact with the physical fact, the concrete fact that this happens.

Michael Lesy

Right, the concrete fact of death is the equivalent of either satanic or divine miracle. It's as unprecedented as birth. And most of us, in this world, in this country, don't even have the primary knowledge of such things.

Ira Glass

We turn our eyes away from death.

Michael Lesy

Absolutely, absolutely.

Ira Glass

You said when we began that one of the reasons that you set out to go and see these things and see these people was that you wanted help in dealing with your own father's then-impending death. Did you find what you wanted? Did you find something that actually helped you?

Michael Lesy

No, my father died demented and skeletal at the age of 94. His dying destroyed him. By the end, I was looking at someone who looked like my father but wasn't. Look, I think, Ira, it's the equivalent of-- I mean, I am married. I have two children. They're young adults. And I can remember going with my wife Elizabeth to Lamaze classes to prepare her for the birth of these children. But no matter what she was taught, once the contractions really began, the contractions began. And you can sit through all sorts of peaceful breathing exercises and visualization exercises, but once the contractions start, any sort of preparatory seminars do you little good.

Ira Glass

Do you feel like going through this experience and reflecting on it and writing, I mean, in one way or another, about death and things related to death since then, do you think that it's helped you in thinking about your own death?

Michael Lesy

Sure. Absolutely. But, again, I've got to say, you can think about it all you like. It doesn't do you any good.

Ira Glass

Michael Lesy, author of The Forbidden Zone, and other books.

Well, coming up, David Sedaris, Smuggler, a fireman, and others in the business of death. That's in a minute, when our program continues.

Act Three. Fireman.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers, and performers, and documentary producers to contribute stories on the theme. Today's program-- The Business Of Death. Stories about people who are near death, every day, in their jobs, and what they see that we don't.

Act Three, Fireman. One of the things that Michael Lesy wrote about when he went with homicide detectives out on their cases, is that when they find a corpse, they don't think about the more existential questions about death. They do their jobs. The corpse, to them, is primarily a source of clues to solve the case. Firemen also see the body but cannot dwell on it if they're going to do their jobs. Larry Brown was a firefighter in Oxford, Mississippi. This is from his book, On Fire. Actor Michael Stumm reads.

Michael Stumm

The worst thing I ever saw was either two babies and their grandmother burnt to death, to nothing, to just charred black lumps that had to be picked up out of smoking rubble, or a guy who wasn't dead yet, who was mashed half in two by a truck. I saw a lot of death, and I worked at a small department in a little Mississippi town. It may sound cold, but the dead who were already gone never bothered me as much as the living ones, who were in great amounts of pain and shock, who had to be assured that, yes, in fact, they were not going to die, but were going to live if they'd just take it easy and relax.

That day when those two little kids and their grandmother burned up, I was out at the elementary school giving a fire extinguisher class with the Chief, and somebody else had to drive my pumper to the fire. We got the call during the class, and I rode with Uncle Chiefy out there. And we saw, right away, the house was falling in with fire. I was breaking in a rookie and nobody had even told him to put his gloves on. He stood there in the yard and did all he could, and blistered his hands badly while using an inch and a half hose. Then the house fell in, and we were told that there were people inside.

It was late in the evening by then, winter. The ruins were smoking. Cops tried to keep screaming family members back. The smoke shifted in the rubble and we all stood back, dreading what had to be done. We entered the back side of the house and no words were said. The police had set out the body bags for us. The smoke moved among the charred timbers and piles of ashes and glowing embers, and we had to find the things we were looking for. It was hard to tell, everything being so burned, everything looking so much alike.

There was silence among us as our people lifted the bodies out. The children were so small. I thought of my own. No words were said. I wondered what my life would ever come to. The lights of all the emergency vehicles blinked out on the street. And even the cops wanted to turn their faces away. I know they have a hard time. People mess with them, and they have to mess with drunks, and, once in awhile, they have to look at something with us.

A few days later, the man who was the father of the dead children came into the station to try and get his hands on a copy of the fire report, so he could turn it over to his insurance company. A poker game was going on at our big table in the middle of the kitchen. This man had his cap in his hands. And his clothes were ragged. The betting went on, our boys never looking crossways at him, not knowing who he was. Their voices got louder while the man stood there patiently, waiting for the Chief to find the report in the file cabinet. The man looked humbled by what had happened to him. His children had probably been buried quickly.

The poker game went on. And the man kept standing there with his cap in his hands, until finally, mercifully, Uncle Chiefy found the report and took the man back to the Xerox machine to make a copy of it. I never asked them to stop the game.

Sometimes there was a weird callousness about the work we did. We couldn't let it get too close to us, because we didn't want to be touched by it. We didn't talk much about the bad ones. When they happened, we dealt with them. Then we went back and ate, or watched a movie, or went on another call, or washed the trucks, or polished the chrome. We got through our shifts, and then we went home and went fishing, or hunting, or made love to our wives, or played with our children. We hoped the bad things we saw would never claim us. We hoped we wouldn't die in smoke and flames or torn steel, like the people we couldn't save.

Ira Glass

Michael Stumm, reading from Larry Brown's book, On Fire.

Act Four. Smuggler.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Smugglers. Well, David Sedaris is a frequent contributor to This American Life, and for years has been an occasional contributor to NPR's Morning Edition. And for years, there have been two stories that he has tried to get onto Morning Edition without any success at all. These days he is on a book tour for his book, Naked. And he reads these two stories wherever he goes, along with special modified versions of the stories that he also tried to smuggle on the air, without any success.

One of these two stories actually touches on people in the business of death. So this seems like, at last, at last, radio audience of America, this is the perfect opportunity to put these on the air.

David Sedaris

And then, I just wanted to read these. I had a couple things that I was dragging around for a while. But I tried to get on Morning Edition and they just wouldn't let them on for anything. And so these are just two of the little things.

I had dinner with Jean and Evelyn. Both of them work for the Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, where they plan the annual meetings. Jean told me that hotels have a rule stating you're not allowed to display a cadaver in any room where food is being served. It never occurred to me that someone might be forced to make such a rule, let alone enforce it. But both Jean and Evelyn have snuck the dead into meeting rooms.

Evelyn once traveled with half a woman. She named her Judy and carried her around in a refrigerated suitcase. Jean once had to sneak an entire cadaver into the San Francisco Fairmont. She said they dressed the corpse in casual clothing and mussed up his hair, so he'd look drunk. Then they carried him into the meeting room, supported by two sober doctors. Jean said the only hard part was finding two sober doctors at the convention.

At another meeting, a surgeon heard that Jean and Evelyn had a refrigerator in their room and knocked late at night asking if he could store a couple of knees until morning. His own refrigerator was packed with elbows and tendons, and he had no more room. I guess when you check that little square on your driver's licenses, there's no telling where you'll wind up. Parts of you may eventually check into some of the finest hotels of this country.

Ira Glass

All right, now, that was the first story. Now, we come to the second story that David wasn't able to get onto Morning Edition, and I have to admit, this has nothing to do with our theme. But you know, we've come this far, you and me. We might as well continue down this path.

David Sedaris

We had Easter dinner at John's house. A big afternoon meal, which we ate in his backyard. Everyone had taken their places at the table, when I excused myself to visit the bathroom. And there, in the toilet, was the absolute biggest turd I have ever seen in my life, no toilet paper or anything, just this thick and coiled specimen.

I flushed the toilet and the big turd roused around. It budged and bobbed a little, but that was it. This thing wasn't going anywhere. Just then someone knocked on the door, and I started to panic. Just a minute!

At an early age, my mother sat me down and explained that everyone has bowel movements. Everyone, she said, even the President and his wife, everyone in the world, everyone but me. And I could picture them all, everyone from Red Skelton to Lady Bird Johnson, but something this big? Just a minute!

And I seriously considered lifting this turd out of the toilet and tossing it out the window. I honestly considered it, but John lives on the ground floor, and a dozen people were seated at a picnic table 10 feet away. And these were people who would surely investigate and gather round. And there I'd be, trying to explain that it wasn't mine! But why would I bother throwing it out the window if it wasn't mine? No one would have believed me. Just a minute!

And I scrambled for the plunger and used it to break the turd into manageable pieces. And even then, I had to flush twice just to get rid of it. It was Janet at the door, and she said, well, it's about time. And I was left thinking that the person who left the huge turd had no problem with it, so why did I? And later, at the table, I examined each guest, trying to figure who was capable.

And they rejected that time after time, so then-- and there's no foul language in it or anything-- so I rewrote it. I rewrote it, trying to slip it past them as lighthearted verse.

I had dinner last night with Evelyn and Jean, at a place specializing in island cuisine. Jean had the bass and Evelyn, sturgeon. The two of them work for a large group of surgeons. They handle the dues and plan the convention. It calls for a great deal of anal retention. It's difficult work setting up the exhibits. These hotels have rules that strictly prohibit displaying cadavers in large meeting halls where people are eating. It's strict protocol.

It makes sense to me, but Evelyn and Jean have reason to think that this law is obscene. Because of their work, they both snuck dead bodies through dining halls featuring stuffed manicottis and beef tenderloin. It was Evelyn's duty to carry a corpse, half a woman named Judy, around in a suitcase packed with dry ice.

That's nothing, her friend said, I have once or twice snuck into hotels with a full-grown dead body. We dressed a guy up, then we made him look shoddy. I untucked his shirt and rumpled his suit, then mussed up his hair and unlaced one boot. To make him look drunk, right? The guy looked like hell. We carried him right through the Fairmont Hotel, supported by doctors. I searched the place over. The hard part was finding two doctors still sober.

She told of the time she once found herself lending her hotel room, cooler for storing a tendon. A doctor had visited, begging her, please, I'd use my own fridge, but it's chock full of knees. When surgeons convene, they come packed with parts, like kidneys and spleens, spinal columns and hearts.

It makes you think twice about checking that square, that space on your license whereby you swear to offer your body to science so others might see with your eyes, for the first time, their brothers, or love with your heart, or pee with your kidney, kick with your foot, or bend on your mid-knee.

It's something to think about when you're alive, the thought, when you're dead, there's a chance you'll arrive at four star hotels, cut up into pieces, displayed near a chart or a plastic prosthesis. Your lung or your liver will grace the convention, the objects of pure undivided attention.

And then, we had Easter dinner at John's house on Irving. A big sit-down meal in daytime's unnerving. For me, anyway, I like to eat later. I took some roast lamb, a couple potaters, and carried my plate outside to the lawn, to a table he'd covered in bright pink chiffon. I'd had a few beers and a glass of chablis and thought, before eating, I might want to pee.

I stepped back inside, down the hall to the toilet. The door creaked behind me. John needed to oil it. Unzipping my fly then, I glance in the bowl and spotted a turd there, a huge tootsie roll. The thing was gigantic, all coiled and massive. I flushed the john then, but this turd was impassive.

It budged and it bobbed, but the large stool remained long after the water had spiraled and drained. This stool was the largest that I'd ever seen. It looked like a log or a toy submarine. I flushed it again, and the action repeated. The feces remained while the water retreated.

Someone came to the door then, they knocked and they pounded. Just a second! I cried, panic-struck and dumbfounded. A bowel movement's normal, my mom once said, hesitant. Everyone has them, why, even the President. But something this big was beyond comprehension.

I'm coming! I yelled. It was my sole intention to get rid of this turd. But how could I do it? I said to myself, then what if I threw it out of the window? But to my dismay, the guests were all sitting just 10 feet away. They'd look up from their plates and in no time would gather around this big turd. And meanwhile I'd brather, it wasn't my doing! This wasn't my stool!

No one would believe me. They'd think me a fool. They'd look at me funny and think I was lying. Why toss a turd if it's not even mine? Just a second! I shouted. And plunger in hand, I worked with the handle and tried to disband this turd into pieces. I broke it to bits. Then flushed twice to wash away all the small [BLEEP].

I opened the door then, to find my friend Janet. While waiting she'd eaten a whole pomegranate. It's about time, she said. And I left the room thinking, the person who left that huge turd in there, stinkin', walked off with no problem, so why the big deal? I picked up my fork and returned to my meal. The thought of that turd, though, it was inescapable. I examined each guest then, wondering who might be capable. Thanks.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris, author of the book, Naked.

Act Five. The Happiest Death Worker.

Ira Glass

Well, that song brings us perfectly to Act Five. Act Five, The Happiest Death Worker. What's the point of listening to public radio if you don't occasionally learn a new word? Well, as a public service, to give you your money's worth, we know that many of you gave in the last fund drive, here's today's word.

Lou Zeidberg

Enucleator.

Meema Spadola

How do you spell that?

Lou Zeidberg

E-U-N-U-C-L-E-A-- I don't know. I have to write it down. You can't ask me that.

Ira Glass

Lou Zeidberg is an enucleator himself. It means that he removes people's eyes for a living, the eyes of dead people. He works for an eye bank in New York City. Meema Sapdola talked him into an interview.

Meema Spadola

Lou tells me I can tag along with him on Saturday night. But he warns me, I don't want you fainting and cracking your dome on the floor, because I'm going to have to wipe up the blood. Lou talks like that. I'll take you places you've never been before, he says. The Brooklyn medical examiner's office, think of the worst scene you can, it's worse than that. Let me put it this way, when you walk out of there, you want to burn your shoes.

In the end, the director of the eye bank decides I can't go with Lou. Eye donations are desperately needed, and they don't want me doing a story that'll scare people. So on a bright spring day, Lou takes me to this place I've never been before, a small office on the 10th floor of the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital. It looks like any other office you've been in, except for a small lab in the back, and a sink where they scrub-up for procedures.

Lou Zeidberg

So I have to put this on and scrub in.

Meema Spadola

Lou's completely decked out in blue surgical cap, blue surgical mask, eye shield.

Lou is tall and handsome. He makes me think of a tough-talking version of Gary Cooper. In college he used to be a boxer. The procedure he's doing is to remove a cornea from a donor's eye. Usually it's just the cornea, or sometimes the white part of the eye, the sclera, that gets transplanted.

Meema Spadola

Now he's opening a package, another blue, sterile--

Lou Zeidberg

These are towels, just to dry my hands when I'm done scrubbing in.

Meema Spadola

There's a ritual to eye transplantation. Lou lays out the blue cloths and sterilized tools. I'm impure and must stand away from the sterile field.

Lou Zeidberg

So the first thing I do is I scrape-- any bacteria that might be on the edge, I would clear it away using a scalpel.

Meema Spadola

Lou lays the eyeball on a strip of gauze. He expertly rolls the eye, like a piece of sushi, and holds it firmly. The eye peeks out at us.

Meema Spadola

We always talk about, oh, eyes have so much expression. Do eyes ever have any expression at all, of the eyes that you're removing from either a donor, or once you have it out?

Lou Zeidberg

Of all the procedures I've done, the biggest change in feeling I've got, or the biggest education about death that I've got, is that a person's body is just that. And that everything that makes up the person that you know is gone once that person dies.

Meema Spadola

He snips around the cornea with tiny curved scissors, then lifts it off the eye to reveal a soft, bright, blue iris.

Meema Spadola

Oh, it's like you lifted off the cap of the cornea, and it's so much more beautiful now underneath.

Lou Zeidberg

This cornea was somewhat opaque, so you weren't able to see all the true blueness of this person's iris. And when I lifted it up, a lot of people say, it really looks like I'm just taking a contact lens off of the eye. The eye is really an amazing structure, the way it's so delicately put together. And it's really tough, in one way. I mean the white part of your eye is a thick-- it almost feels like rubber. And behind that--

Meema Spadola

As we're standing in the lab, a coworker comes in to grab medical supplies from the fridge. You have a donor, Lou asks him?

Lou Zeidberg

You have a donor?

Med Tech

Yep.

Lou Zeidberg

Where are you going?

Med Tech

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Lou Zeidberg

You bummed you're going to miss that staff meeting?

Med Tech

No. [INAUDIBLE]

Meema Spadola

They have another donor, meaning another person in New York just died. Later, the education director tells me they get 1,200 eyes every year. 600 people who die, I say. 600 people who donate, she corrects me. Lou's enucleated 100 of them.

Lou Zeidberg

To be honest, before I started doing this work, like most Americans, I didn't really think about death.

Meema Spadola

Now, seeing so many dead people, old people, teenagers, little kids, it's easy for Lou to picture his own body spread out on a slab.

Lou Zeidberg

I definitely take health and safety a lot more seriously than I did when I was a young man. Definitely drive a little bit more carefully, always wear seat belts. And then also, just, I eat well and don't smoke or drink alcohol, things like that.

Meema Spadola

Lou's only 26. And when I met Lou at a party six months ago, he had a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other. He tells me he's quit since then. There's something about this job that makes him think he's supposed to be a saint. A benevolent angel, scrubbed and sterilized, calling the next of kin and calmly asking when he can remove the eyes of their loved ones.

Meema Spadola

Do you ever look down at this person, whose eyes you're removing, and think, this is someone's mother, this is someone's brother?

Lou Zeidberg

Yeah, every time, I always think that. And I just try and provide a little bit of comfort in this otherwise awful experience.

Meema Spadola

I mean you, in a sense, of every profession that deals directly with death, yours has got to be the most positive. You and anyone else who's dealing with transplanting organs of any kind. Because everyone else, the doctors losing the patient, the person at the funeral home, I mean, it's just death. There's nothing particularly positive there. It's interesting, have you ever--

Lou Zeidberg

I have to disagree. Because I think that a funeral home does provide a very important service. I mean it's a service that everybody does need. And to attempt to do such a hard job, I think is noble in and of itself.

Meema Spadola

Are you noble?

Lou Zeidberg

I don't know. I'm fortunate to have such a benevolent job. And I try to do it as well as I can.

Meema Spadola

The dictionary says to enucleate means to remove an eye. An older meaning of the word is to elucidate, to explain. After I leave Lou's office, I check my driver's license to see if I ever filled out the organ donor section on the back. I hadn't. I stare at my license and hesitate. Checking this one tiny box means admitting that I'm going to die. I sign up. I might as well tattoo a recycling symbol on my chest. I'm ready to be processed.

On the subway after the interview, all I see are eyeballs. Eyes stupidly rolling around in people's heads, reading papers, checking watches. The man opposite me with pale blue eyes blinks. His eyes shuttle left and right as he watches the subway tunnel fly past. A woman, with glazed over brown eyes, stares at an ad for corn and bunion removal. I think of Lou delicately snipping away at their eyeballs, lifting off their corneas, peeling away the sclera.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Paul Tough and myself, with Julie Snyder, Alix Spiegel, and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors Margie Rochlin, Jack Kitt, and Sarah Vowell, who also found most of the music for today's program. Other musical help today from John Connors. Thanks today to KUOW for their recording of David Sedaris.

If you would like a cassette of this program or any other This American Life program, well, it only costs $10. Call us at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Again, 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@ well.com.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who insists, insists, insists--

David Sedaris

It wasn't mine.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.