Creative Nonfiction: The Removal
By Dennis Milam Bensie
Removal Technician: a person responsible for transporting the deceased to where they need to go. The position reports to a funeral home.
I gaze at the Craigslist ad on my computer screen for quite some time.
It’s the one hundredth day of quarantine and I need to get out of my two hundred square foot apartment. The Covid-19 crisis has left me jobless and severely depressed. The $600 added to my weekly unemployment doesn’t benefit my mental stability. I’m suicidal. It’s ironic that I’m looking at a job to pick up the dead.
Helping people is second nature to me. And who needs me more than a grieving family. The worst day of their lives could become the best day of mine. I’m organized, always on time, and the perfect people-person who really needs people in order to feel alive.
“What about the gore?” a friend asks.
Gore is nothing to me. I watch Dr. Pimple Popper and those dental videos where bad teeth are yanked out. How about the toe videos; the sexy Toe Bro? I’m no stranger to the sensational.
Transitioning from the entertainment industry to the funeral industry should work perfectly. The Craigslist ad asks for an example of when I’ve displayed “grace under pressure”. I give them my best razzle-dazzle showbiz line:
I have worked as a backstage dresser in professional theatre for over thirty years. Being a dresser is way more than getting the actors dressed. Being a theatrical dresser means being a nurse, a psychologist, a tailor, a personal shopper, a magician, a bodyguard, a maid, a scout, and a confidant. I have worked with many different types of people over the years and have become an expert in grace under pressure.
I got the job. Being a Removal Technician will give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I want to be the best Removal Technician there ever was. Like I said in the job interview: I care deeply about people. I promise myself that I will view the dead as a beautiful part of life.
“Hope you’re ready,” a skeptical Facebook post reads.
Day one. The nerves are like a first date. I get all dressed up in my black dress pants and crisp white shirt. Spiffy. I look spiffy today, not like any other day. But alas, there are no dead bodies to remove. What are the odds that nobody dies and needs to be transported on my first day of death work?
Plan B. I’m given a tour of the removal van that I’ll be driving. And a tour of the “care center” where all bodies go for processing. The giant metal warehouse features three enormous refrigerated rooms and four cremation machines. The word “care” is open to interpretation. Everyone that I meet at the care center looks hardened. I don’t want to piss any of them off.
For a job about helping people, it looks like I’ll be alone driving the van most of the time…once I’m properly trained. I’m promised by the boss that if I ever need help, I can call for backup. Someone is always available for difficult removal situations. My office is my smart phone: body dispatch app, time sheet app, van log app, and Google this and that apps.
Day one was a blip. Surely I’ll have better luck tomorrow.
Day two. The call comes like a lightning bolt. There’s a body to be removed from the medical examiner’s office. I tingle with excitement as I go meet my mentor, Debbie, for some hands-on training.
There’s an oddly angled loading dock, a private freight elevator, and a maze of florescent hallways to get to the medical examiner’s office. I’m greeted with that smell before we even get there. Of course, everyone is masked and gloved. Yet, my Covid-19 mask doesn’t help me with the stench. It almost knocks me over.
“We have a jar of Vicks VapoRub in the van. You can put some under your nose under your mask to help with the smell,” Debbie offers.
“Just like in that moth-in-the-throat scene in Silence of the Lambs.”
“Yes. Just like Silence of the Lambs.”
I like Debbie. She has just the right blend of seriousness and sense of humor. Everyone at the removal company seems to be cool and chose this job for the right reason.
The medical examiner wheels a single-size cot out of a huge refrigerated room with two bodies on it. The bagged decedents are tightly stacked side by side like kindling: feet to head, head to feet. I wish I had that Vicks VapoRub with me now.
“The one on the left is yours,” we’re told as the man rolls his cot up next to ours.
I take a deep breath and unzip the bag. Debbie gives detailed instruction on how to transfer a body from cot to cot.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to handle a body. You don’t want to drop the person or hurt yourself,” she says. I help her slide the corpse towards me with ease.
“Do you remember the procedure?”
“Yes, I do,” I answer, clutching the plastic tag I wrote out in the van with a Sharpie. All the decedents info is neatly printed on it. I place the tag around the ankle.
My first dead body. This young man in his thirties died a few days ago of a drug overdose. His chest has a “Y” incision—left open—from the autopsy the medical examiner performed yesterday. The information traveled to us from the funeral director, passed on to us by dispatch.
I briefly leave my body. Emily Dickinson comes to my mind.
“I’m nobody. Who are you?
Our van holds two “cots" for two bodies. They’re called cots because it sounds nicer than “gurney”, I suppose. Debbie and I quickly exit the medical examiner’s office with the first body of the day in tow. We’re off to our second call. Within the hour, I’m parking our van in a completely different part of town and Debbie is giving me the lowdown on our next case.
“The wife of this one has asked if we could remove her husbands glass eye before we take him away. Do you want to do it or should I?”
“Have you ever taken a glass eye out?” I ask.
“I’ll let you do it.” (I’m not quite ready for this.)
Debbie confidently digs the gentleman’s keepsake eye out with her gloved finger and puts it in a Ziplock sandwich baggy provided to us by his wife. She then shows me how to get a wedding ring off a corpse with dental floss. A handy trick. The gold ring goes in the same sandwich bag as the glass eye.
Back in the van, we discuss the glass eye and the gold wedding ring.
“Don’t ever use the word ‘gold’ or ‘silver’ or ‘diamond’ or any descriptive word like that when logging a decedents valuables,” Debbie tells me.
“Why not?” I ask.
“If the loved one’s family members sees one of those words, it could cause strife for everyone involved. Anything of value can cause trouble and we don’t want that.”
We now have two bodies: a full load.
“Mr. Smith, meet Mr. Jones,” Debbie says. “You two fellas will be roommates on the way to the care center. We’ll take good care of you.”
Once the two bodies are unloaded at the care center, we get another call on the other side of the city. Off we go again in our van. Training is going well. My second day of work has a body count of three.
There’s a four body day: a nursing home body; a loved one in a beautiful mansion in the country; another medical examiner body with the Y incision (closed this time); then a woman who just died a few hours ago in her tiny apartment. Her body is still warm.
Next, a two body day. Debbie and I start off with a hospital call. Just like on television, the hospital’s morgue has long, narrow refrigerated drawers to store the dead. The morgue attendant pulls the drawer out of the wall for us with all the whimsy of a flirty secretary filing documents for the boss. I try to act matter-of-fact.
Body two of the day is a fully dressed suburbanite who peacefully died of natural causes in her Lazy-boy recliner. I swear she’s grinning at me as I politely check her for jewelry, false teeth, and hearing aids. I feel a little embarrassed as I move the collar of her velveteen blouse to feel her chest for a pacemaker. A pacemaker will blow-up and damage the cremation machine. It's dangerous to the operator. Again, who knew?
At the end of every shift, I take the removal van back to the office. Ten minutes are spent in the parking lot wrestling with the phone app that logs the van in and out. The information on this app has never been accurate. I remove my white shirt, take the belt off my pants, and toss them into the hatchback of my black Chevy Spark. I swear my car is looking more and more like a mini-hearse. The fifteen mile drive back into the city gives me time to reflect on the day.
Covid-19 forced me to change careers. News of the virus is all over. Lucky to have a job at all, I could certainly call myself an essential worker. Am I glamorous or important? No. Before I get home, I stop at the grocery store to get some Febreze and OxiClean. I know from my previous career with smelly actor costumes that they both work well. My clothes and my Covid mask reek of that death smell. My tiny apartment has the smell, too. It’s making me nuts.
Week two. I assist Debbie with my first funeral: an entire eight hour day spent guarding a church sanctuary in the suburbs. A family from the Marshall Islands has lost their third loved one to Covid-19; and a fourth one is allegedly sick. I’m there to make sure only forty people are in the large sanctuary at one time. The mourners must socially distance themselves at this funeral. Everyone is to remain masked against Covid, like myself. The family’s all dressed in white and lavender: the decedent’s favorite colors.
I can’t help but notice the teenage pallbearers at this funeral are all wearing brand new white suits. Their pants are not hemmed. Their suit jackets still have the manufacture tags on the sleeves near the wrist. I see a price tag on a plastic string popping out of a lapel. It doesn’t take a detective to figure out the boy’s suits were bought brand new for this occasion and will likely be returned to the store for a refund after the funeral. I assume the family doesn’t have a lot of money but wanted to honor the loved ones color scheme without investing in dress clothes that will never be worn again.
I schedule a Covid test for myself on my next day off. Just for peace of mind.
On a slow Friday, Debbie and I pick up a Native American man from the trauma center. He died the night before but we don’t know the circumstances. The condition of the body is quite rough. The family’s patriarch has sent notice through the funeral director that they want his long black hair braided before cremation. We are his last caretakers. Braiding this man’s hair seems like a reasonable request. Debbie searches the care center for a comb and begins carefully combing his hair.
“Do you know how to braid hair? You wanna do this?” she asks.
“I’d be honored to do it,” I answer.
I gather the gentleman’s hair up into one neat tail and meticulously braid it. It’s simple. I have a thing about hair so I wanted the gesture to be more beautiful for the man. More ceremonial. I did the best I could.
On the way home this evening in my Chevy Spark, the radio announces the death of Mary Kay Letourneau. The school teacher gained fame in the nineties for raping, getting pregnant, going to jail twice, then eventually marrying her thirteen year old student. She lived in the area. I once saw her in a Blockbuster video store. I wonder if I’ll have to pick her body up.
It doesn’t escape me that I changed careers at a ripe time in America. My country is not dealing well with the Covid-19 virus. To make things worse, the death of George Floyd—a black man—at the the hands of a white police officer has sparked racial tension in Minneapolis and beyond. The murder was caught on camera and posted on YouTube. A snuff film. There are nightly Black Lives Matter protests near my apartment in the city.
Now there’s the brutal murder of Summer Taylor. The activist was run over and killed at a Black Lives Matter protest on Interstate 5. The whole incident was also caught on camera and posted all over social media just like George Floyd. Another snuff film. Summer’s name appears on our dispatch app a few days later. There is no beauty to be found in murder. I feel guilty—that I feel lucky—when I discover one of my co-workers got the dispatch to remove Summer Taylor’s body from the medical examiners office on my day off. I did not want to see Summer’s body.
I dodged Mary Kay Letourneau, too. She went to a different funeral home.
There’s a dead infant at the children’s hospital. The baby has been looming on our app for removal for a while. I feel terrible, but I hope I can dodge this case. I can’t admit it out loud, but my new career is like a bad video game of avoiding unpleasant cases that will deplete my emotional points. Most bodies don’t bother me, but the messy ones are harder than I thought.
My Covid-19 test results came back negative.
Debbie continues my training by handing me more and more of the responsibilities while she supervises in the background. I’m doing okay for the most part. I still want to help families and be the best Removal Technician there ever was.
There’s a house call. A woman is laid out in her hospital bed in the living room. The husband is lonely and needs to talk so it’s our job to listen. He invites us to sit a spell in the dining room while he shares sweet stories of dancing with his wife for the first time in 1962. I notice there’s a bowl of grey hair on the dining room table in front of me. Debbie sees it, too.
“That’s her hair,” the husband says with joy. “I cut all her hair off as a keepsake.”
Again, I have a thing about hair. Thank goodness the woman is going to be cremated. I can’t help but notice the hack job the husband did on his wife’s hair as I shroud her up for the care center.
The dead infant at the children’s hospital has come and gone without me. But I’m dispatched to the same hospital to pick up a four-year-old boy who died of Leukemia earlier in the day. I try not to flinch when I inventory his clothes. In a Target bag I find a pair of pink glitter tennis shoes, along with his shorts and tee shirt. Is the word “glitter” like “gold” or “silver” or “diamond”? Tomorrow I will have a long cry over this case.
It’s late. Debbie and I are at a home over by the university. A man is laid out on a hospital bed in the living room (this is pretty common). His wife needs to talk, so we are seated at the dining room table with her and her teenage son and daughter nearby. The brother and sister are in utter shock.
“He’s been battling brain cancer for over a year. But last fall, he got an infection and had to have a bigger surgery,” the wife tells us.
“I’m very sorry.” Debbie says. I stay quiet.
I take the head end of the cot and do the transfer with Debbie. About a third of the man’s head is…missing. Surgeons had to take a pie-shaped wedge out of the man’s forehead to give the man six more months to live. His eyes and nose are deeply sunken-in wads of skin. The visual takes my breath away under my Covid mask.
I especially miss my theatre family when faced with the sad calls.
At the start of my twenty-eighth day of employment as a Removal Technician, I count that I have handled twenty-four bodies. I’m getting more and more comfortable with the industry, I suppose. Wouldn’t it be cool to hit twenty-eight bodies on my twenty-eighth day?
Body number twenty-five. Debbie and I find ourselves at a swanky glass apartment building downtown. The sharp, modern angles of the unit make it difficult to get our cot into the bedroom where the body is located.
“Do you remember how to stand the cot upright on its wheels?” Debbie asks me.
“I do. I’m glad we had that class last week on how to do it,” I assure her.
We warn the family that standing a cot upright to get their loved one around the tight corners may look a bit odd. I don’t say it, but it reminds me of another scene in Silence of the Lambs. The airplane hangar scene where Anthony Hopkins is strapped down to a gurney…the one where he’s wearing the creepy mask with the bars over his mouth.
“Take this thing back to Baltimore,” the actress would say with disgust.
Body twenty-six. A nursing home. We get our temperature taken at every hospital and nursing home. The thermometers always look like a gun being pointed at my forehead. I get a HAPPY sticker for my shirt from this facility that says I’m clear.
This case is a husband and wife who share a room in the nursing home. The husband has died and the wife has Alzheimer’s.
“We keep telling her that her husband has passed but she doesn’t remember for very long,” we are warned by the floor nurse.
Discreetly, Debbie and I wheel the cot into the couple’s room. But the wife catches us. She’s accompanied by a nurse, but this isn’t going to be easy.
“What are you doing with him. He’s fine,” the wife says looking right at me.
“He’s gone to Heaven now,” the nurse tries to explain to her.
The poor woman is in and out of the room in a haze of confusion as we transfer her husband to our cot, wrap him in the shroud, and wheel him down the hall. The woman follows us.
“Can I see him just one more time?” she asks.
Debbie agrees and opens the shroud and shows her his face.
“Marilyn, they have to go now. They have work to do. Your husband is dead. He's in Heaven now,” the nurse repeats to her.
We continue slowly rolling the cot to the exit. The new widow is still following us and keeps grabbing on to my arm.
“No! Please! Stop! He’s okay. Please!” The woman says clutching my arm. I have my best stone face on under my mask as Debbie and I flee the facility.
“You’re one of us now, Dennis,” Debbie tells me once we’re settled back in the van. It feels good to hear someone say it. And I really needed to hear it. I had lost my backstage family, but now I have this strange, new family of funeral friends.
The clock has struck midnight (00:00 in military and funeral time) and there’s still one body—number twenty-seven—left to pickup at a hospital before I can call it a night.
“Are you ready to do this one on your own? It seems pretty straight forward,” Debbie asks me.
“Yes. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Is there anything I need to know about the body or the hospital before I go?”
“No. It should be easy. Dennis, you’ll do great.”
The boost of confidences has me high, although I’m exhausted. Debbie and I prepare to part ways.
“Remember, you can message me if you have any questions or need any help,” Debbie assures me.
Within thirty minutes, I’m pulling the removal van into the circle drive of another hospital. I hand-print an ankle tag with the details of the decedent from dispatch. It’s not good to be walking around a hospital with a body tag in your hand so I tuck it into my pocket.
A security guard takes me around the building to the morgue. It’s way, way in the back of the hospital. Morgues are always tucked away in some dark corner of a hospital (by the trash and next to a loading dock). Most hospital security guards are pretty laid back. However, this one is fidgety and obviously doesn’t want anything to do with me or my removal. We get to the morgue and Mr. Security becomes double-fidgety. I wheel the cot in behind him.
“What’s got you out so late?” he asks me nervously.
“My shift doesn’t end until I get everyone picked up from the dispatch.”
“Who are you here to get this evening?”
I pull the ankle tag out of my pocket and read the name.
“I’m here to get Mr. Miller.”
Mr. Security searches through the pages of a loose leaf notebook to figure out which drawer my decedent is in. The squirmy security guy opens the numbered hatch door and tells me I have to pull Mr. Miller’s drawer out myself.
Debbie didn’t tell me his weight before I left for the hospital. I pull Mr. Miller out of the drawer and he’s a big guy. Maybe too big. My guess is about 300 pounds. I don’t have that much upper body strength. I should stop here and call Debbie for back up. The guard sees me pull out my phone and start to dial. He shockingly offers to help.
“I can help you this one time…and one time only. I don’t want you to have to wait around here all night.” he says with dread in his voice. I can tell the man wants to get me in and out of the morgue as quick as possible for his own reasons.
My removal cot is lined up with the body on the refrigerator shelf. I’m on one side of the body and the security guard is on the opposite side.
There’s no ready, set, go.
There’s no count of three.
The guard just starts rolling Mr. Miller towards me, yet I haven’t got a good hold of him yet. The body clumsily tips towards me slipping and sliding. I start grabbing with all my might. With a thud, Mr. Miller is on the floor at my feet.
It happened so fast.
The guard freaks out and starts yelling like I’m not even in the room. “Fuck! Fuck! The last thing I need is another back injury! Not another back injury!”
I’m in a red-hot panic and start speaking in gibberish. “Wecanfixthis. Wecanfixthis. Wecanfixthis.”
I’m trembling, but manage to lower my cot to the lowest position next to the body on the floor. Mr. Security and I each grab a handful of the body bag and work together to try to get the dead man on the cot. The body bag has now been stretched and is perhaps torn. We’re not successful and Mr. Miller is mostly on the floor; his feet are all that’s on the cot.
“Awww, man...” the guard says and storms out of the morgue in a huff. He’s just as freaked out as I am.
I’m all alone in the morgue with Mr. Miller. He’s literally dead weight: too heavy for me to get the rest of him on the cot by myself. I know that once properly placed and buckled from the floor, I still have to lift the cot up to the highest position to roll him out of the building and load him in the van. I need help and Mr. Security has abandoned me.
It’s 01:30 in the morning.
I instant message Debbie on the company app a couple of times. She’s supposed to be awake and available to me for back up.
I call her phone over and over. It rings and rings and goes to voicemail.
I break down and call our supervisor, Dave.
My chest hurts while looking at poor Mr. Miller awkwardly twisted up on the floor like a noodle in his dirty torn, body bag.
I can’t catch my breath. The room is no bigger than an average bedroom without any furniture. I slide down the wall and slump on the floor. My sweaty shirt has me stuck to the wall as I try and collect myself. Once on floor level with Mr. Miller, I can’t help but cry. This poor man doesn’t deserve this.
I try calling Debbie again from the floor.
No answer. I leave her a panicked voice mail. I’m not sure I made sense but she’ll surely get the idea that I’m in big trouble.
Why isn’t she answering?
I call one of my other co-workers, Jordan, and she thankfully answers. I’ve obviously woken her up. While I’m talking gibberish to her, Mr. Security timidly sneaks back into the room. He’s nodding his head to me while I’m talking on the phone sitting on the floor. He signals me and agrees to help get Mr. Miller in the van. I hang up for the moment with Jordan.
After all the crying and the panic, I’m pretty depleted. Mr. Security Guard and I are on our hands and knees with the obese corpse. It’s like getting a three hundred pound sack of potatoes onto the cot.
Done. But not a pretty sight.
Yet, lifting Mr. Miller from the floor to the cot’s normal height adjustment is no easier task. At this point I’m so upset I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack and die right here in the morgue. After properly securing the body, the security guard follows me as I slowly wheel the decedent to the van.
“I once saw a body sit up,” Mr. Security says out of nowhere. I think he’s trying to lighten the mood; cheer me up with a story. I also gather he’s afraid he might get fired over this.
“Really?” I answer. I’m not in the mood for any stories.
“The dead woman sat up on the gurney and started talking to me.” Mr. Security starts babbling a tale of supernatural nonsense. I do my best to block his ridiculous story out as I finally get Mr. Miller loaded into the van. The night breeze dries the sweat from my face.
“Have a good night,” the security guard says as I close the van door to leave.
I can’t get away from this hospital fast enough.
Jordan calls me back. “Take a breather, Dennis. You’re still upset. It’s probably not safe to drive yet.”
She’s right. I’m still shaking.
“Make sure you check the body for any damage once you get to the care center,” Jordan reminds me.
Still no word from Debbie.
I calm down enough to drive. About twenty minutes later, I’m at the care center and there are removal vans everywhere. They’re backed up with many other dead bodies before mine. Waiting my turn in the parking lot, I have an hour all alone with Mr. Miller to think about my life.
Once again, Emily Dickinson comes to mind.
“I’m nobody. Who are you?
My birthday is in three days. I’ll be fifty-five. I took note when I made out Mr. Miller’s ankle tag hours ago that he’s a year younger than me. It’s 02:30 and he’s the only one near to comfort me. He’s passed on, but I’m the nobody. I failed him and I feel terrible about it. There’s an empty cot in the back of the van next to Mr. Miller. I want to curl up on the cot next to him and scream and cry and beg his forgiveness.
This late-in-life career change—Theatre Dresser to Removal Technician—has missed the mark.
Once logged in at the care center, I check Mr. Miller’s entire body for damage from the fall. He’s ok. His still-handsome face, I swear, is smiling at me. He looks better than I do. I’m certainly the damaged one.
It’s 03:30 and my day is finally over. I sign out on all the apps and lumber towards the van. There’s nothing anyone could say that would make me want to continue with this job. It’s my swan song. With nobody else to say goodbye to, would it weird to go back and give Mr. Miller a goodbye hug? Body number twenty-seven.
Once home, my resignation email (more of an apology) is emailed at 04:30.
After this resignation, my chest will still ache for weeks to come. Like I said in the job interview: I care deeply about people.
I get a note from my doctor to get back on unemployment and start all over.
"Dennis Milam Bensie is unable to work the job he was performing for medical reasons."
Dennis Milam Bensie has written three memoirs for Coffeetown Press: Shorn: Toys to Men, One Gay American, andThirty Years a Dresser. His short stories and poetry have also been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. (In 2021, he released an anthology of flash fiction titled: Robinson, IL which was inspired by his small, conservative hometown).