The Fading Art of Preserving the Dead

The Fading Art of Preserving the Dead

As Mr. Harvell embalmed the two bodies, massaging stiffness out of the joints and pushing the arterial fluid through the blood vessels, Ms. Velazquez and Xenia Ware, the owner of the funeral home, stood nearby and chatted about clients. One family, they said, had insisted on holding a funeral service in northern New Jersey, then leading a procession an hour south on the Garden State Parkway to the burial.

Mr. Harvell seemed to register what was being said, while fragmenting his attention toward his work and the Airpod Pro that was squeezed into his right ear, through which he was carrying on a conversation with a friend. “That’s fine,” he whispered, and it was hard to tell whether he was speaking to the living or the dead.

The air in the basement room was slowly filling with formaldehyde, which carried with it a cloying odor. The fluid had been emptied out of the machine, the blood drained into buckets hanging off the end of the gurneys; Mr. Harvell washed the bodies again, massaging them as he went. He put dots of oil gel on their faces to moisturize the skin, then recalled aloud how a man had once called him to arrange his own funeral.

“He said, ‘I’ll be gone in about two weeks,’” Mr. Harvell said. “And I said, ‘Nah, you’ll be OK.’” The man seemed strong to Mr. Harvell; he knew him from the community, and it seemed preposterous that he could die on such a tidy schedule. Two weeks later, though, he was gone. “And that really did something to me,” Mr. Harvell said. “A person was just here, and laughing and joking, and, next thing you know, they’re not around any more.”

Mr. Harvell mentioned that his own brother had died, suddenly, in 2013. Then his grandmother in 2016. Then another brother in 2018. He embalmed them all. “A lot of times, I think this is what happens to us,” he said. “The people who go on and pass away, they’ve accepted it. It’s who they leave behind, we’re not letting go.”

Ms. Velazquez, in the doorway, recalled how difficult it had been when her husband died unexpectedly. People tried to talk to her, to console her. “To me, it’s just, like, just let me be,” she said. “Don’t try for nothing. It’ll go away by itself.”

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