On the whiteboard, using an erasable Sharpie, Lewis replaces the Science of Embalming with The Business of Mortuary Practice. He calls for a ten-minute break before the next lesson, his feet swollen in tight shoes. Students glide out of the hall and Lewis sits by a table beaming his laser pointer on the ceiling: it has failed on several occasions. He must replace the batteries. Always pays to be prepared. He unwraps a cellophaned cake donut and dusts lecture notes with powdered sugar. A woman with the scent of patchouli creeps forward.
“Shawana,” she introduces herself.
Lewis wipes his mouth with a monogramed hanky. “How can I be of service?”
Her hair is frizzy. She wears a purple corduroy jumper with matching knee socks. “According to Vanity Fair, Americans favor woodland burial in record numbers. Will you be covering that technique?”
With a stricken look, Lewis explains the limits of time. “Towards the end, I offer a twenty-minute module on creative interment.” He gulps water from a plastic bottle. “You may have heard about the decedent riding his Harley in a glass crypt, in Ohio.”
“Let’s talk after class.”
She sounds like the one teaching, he thinks, but he agrees. He has no plans, and it’s invigorating to speak with someone interested in the art of perpetuity, as he calls it.
They meet at a café near the junior college. Over lattes, she offers stats on the environmental damage from buried caskets and embalming fluid, not to mention motorcycles. “Un-preserved, clothed in a biodegradable shroud, bodies will nourish the ecosystem. We can save the earth, Lewis. Inform your students. Bury the business model. Teach sustainable cremation. In Tibet, they lay bodies on boulders, high in the mountains, for vultures to consume. Carbon feasting on carbon, the circle of life.”
He stares with wide, unblinking eyes. “I just teach basic mortician certification. Your sentiments are outside the box.”
She places her hand—moist and pulsating—on his. “Life depends on death.”
They walk to her place, a rented attic in a house in Santa Rosa’s garden district. Lewis hesitates before entering. “You’re a student, I’m your—”
“—it’s only a transgression if you define it as such. Lie with me. We’ll start on our backs.” Supine, they stare at luminescent stars stuck to the ceiling. “Life is a small pocket of warmth,” she says. Their hips touch. Then, their lips.
He places a hand on her thigh.
“Why, Lewis, you poor man, teaching but never taught.” She rolls on top. Her weight takes his breath away.
When he awakes, in the middle of the night, she’s at her desk studying, the room illuminated by memorial candles. “Have you ever gazed on a body in a cotton shroud, coiled with braided hemp twine, a crown of rosemary around the head, blue hydrangeas on the chest?”
He’d spent decades in the industry of death but had long since lost sight of the infinite. It all had become a brochure of caskets, livery processions, choice of music, payment plans. His sense of the future went as far as the appointments in his black datebook with the inscription of the mortuary home that he runs, that his father ran before him, and his grandfather before that. The only variation in the weekly schedule has been the lecture series he offers at the junior college. He’s the first in the family to do that.
“We’re just a flicker of light,” she says, kissing him again.
The next week, after class, they walk to the North Cemetery, a largely untended public burial ground in a remote part of town. In an overgrown section, within a thick grove of manzanitas and coast oak, there’s a fresh trench. Lewis sets his lecture notes on the rust-colored soil.
Shawana spreads the cotton shroud, and Lewis lies in the middle, staring up at the craggy branches of an ancient black walnut. She wraps the sheet around his body, tightening it with twine, then fits the rosemary crown around his head, kissing his lips. “Allow your heat to radiate.”
She gently drags him into the trench, and he feels the friction of the earth against his body.
She lets the blossoms fall, then shovels cool earth, each lump hitting his chest like the soft impact of a massage.
“Breath deep,” she says.
He shuts eyes, tastes the slightly salty soil, smells the loamy earth and the musk of worms and millepedes.
She takes care to ensure that he can still breathe. For an hour, she sits by his side, reading from the Bardo Thodol, known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, while Lewis floats in darkness. Later, at her apartment, he cleanses his body of soil and they fall into bed, anointed with rubbing oil.
The next week in class, she appears in the front row, a serene smile on her face, her scent of patchouli stronger than ever.
Lewis opens the lecture with an announcement. “Today,” he says, “we’re taking a departure from the usual material of commercial mortuary practice. Bear with me.”
Lights go down and the first slide comes up, a bird’s eye view of the Himalayans, jagged peaks enshrouded in morning fog. “Who here knows the meaning of the word bardo?”