Advertisement
World & Nation

Serving the dead as a higher calling

A hush fell upon the embalmers at Thibodaux Funeral Home as the gurney with the black body bag was wheeled into their room. They stopped what they were doing and drew near.

Glenn Bergeron had been dreading this moment. Eight years as an undertaker, and he had never attended to anyone who had died so young, so violently. He made the sign of the cross.

One of the newer members of the staff, a student at mortuary science school with a kindergartner at home, held back. She had to be encouraged. If this was to become her trade, she needed to see death in all its manifestations.

PHOTOS: Embalmers tend to a child brutally killed

Advertisement

Stephen Kees reached for the zipper. He had opened body bags hundreds of times before, never knowing what to expect, but today he felt even more anxious.

As he peeled back the flap, he saw a little boy. The coroner had laid out Jori Lirette exactly as he once was. Kees was grateful for the gesture, and without saying a word, he began to transfer Jori onto the embalming table. He handed one of the arms to Bergeron. The boy’s skin felt as if it were porcelain.

Bergeron lifted the torso, cradling it as he would one of his own children. He thought about Jori’s father, who had picked up his son before killing him. Jori, who had cerebral palsy, was asleep at the time. Bergeron imagined the intimacy of that embrace, the 7-year-old held so close, and then the sudden betrayal.

The embalmers positioned each limb where it belonged; Kees placed the boy’s wounded head last.

Advertisement

“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us all,” Bergeron said.

As the other four embalmers went back to work, Kees, an owner of the funeral home, called Bergeron out of the room. It was their first chance to speak about Jori. The details of that day and their conversation are still fixed in their minds.

Kees wanted to make sure they could handle an embalming as complicated as this, and Bergeron, 40, was one of the funeral home’s most experienced embalmers. A mortuary nearly 100 miles away had volunteered the services of a specialist in postmortem reconstruction, and one of Kees’ partners thought they ought to accept the offer.

“Should we send him elsewhere?” Kees asked.

Bergeron didn’t hesitate.

“We need to keep him here,” he said. “We’re embalmers; this is what we do.”

As a novice at the seminary in Grand Couteau, La., Bergeron had helped bury fellow Jesuits. He carried their coffins to the cemetery in a simple ceremony accompanied by a tolling bell and the singing of “Salve Regina.”

His meditations focused on death. Contemplating the sacraments, he found himself lingering on the Last Rites, and today he concedes an occasional envy of the dead for what they know of the final mystery, be there a heaven, a hell or even a God.

Advertisement

“Despite whatever creeds we profess to, no matter whatever conclusions we come to in our lives, death is when we find out what is real,” he said.

Bergeron had been in seminary four years when he lost his calling, drawn more to the prospect of marriage and having a family. He was 32, an aspiring poet and essayist as versed in the music of Mississippi John Hurt as in the writings of St. Augustine.

After visiting an embalming room, he had found in death a way to stay close to God. The room’s tiled space seemed to him no less sacred than a church. The embalmers, dressed in aprons, sleeves rolled up, attended to corpses laid out on tables that looked like altars. Their work reminded him of the preparation of the Eucharist during Mass, something profound and holy.

When he left seminary, his faith was strong, and it has grown only stronger. “If I didn’t have these beliefs,” he said, “I couldn’t do this work. It would be too bleak, too empty.”

After apprenticing for two years in New Orleans, where he embalmed more than 400 bodies a year, he became a licensed funeral director and embalmer and took the job in this small town an hour away. Thibodaux, population 14,500, is on the edge of the bayou. Here, the Catholic faith is as prevalent as the garden statues of Our Lady of Grace in the front yards of many homes.

He soon married. He had met Samantha in mortuary science school, and she too was offered a job, part-time, with the funeral home. They bought a house and started a family.

In Kees, Bergeron found a colleague whose values matched his own. Kees had also considered becoming a priest, but the funeral business had been in the family four generations and he wanted to continue the tradition. He had grown up playing catch with his brother on the grounds where his grandfather practiced embalming.

“This is my ministry, my calling,” said Kees, 37. “How many jobs are there that allow you to go to Mass and receive the Eucharist?”

Advertisement

Kees and Bergeron believe that the living have an obligation to care for the dead. They say that the body is sacred and needs proper preparation before burial or inurnment. Jori presented them with their greatest challenge.

The dead come and go through Bergeron’s life, and he tries to keep track of them. He writes their names in a small black notebook he keeps in the lapel pocket of the houndstooth coat he’s required to wear by the funeral home. It’s a ritual, his own private memorial to those he has helped in Thibodaux.

Jori became No. 347 when he arrived in the embalming room on that hot summer afternoon.

The killing had taken place four days earlier, on Aug. 14. The father, Jeremiah Wright, was alone with Jori. A passing motorist saw the head in a gravel parking area and called the police. Wright, 30, confessed, police said, and he was charged with first-degree murder. He was later found not competent to stand trial and is being treated at a state psychiatric hospital.

Jori’s mother, Jesslyn Lirette, had wanted to cremate Jori, but in Louisiana coroners must approve all cremations and, given the investigation into the killing, her request was denied. Kees discussed embalming. He hadn’t planned on a viewing, but Lirette, 27, wanted to see her child again.

Kees couldn’t make her any promises until he had a chance to examine the body.

The other owners, Kees’ younger brother and a cousin, were of divided minds. One felt that it would be in the Lirettes’ best interest to send Jori to the specialist. The other wanted to keep Jori in Thibodaux out of respect to the community where the boy had lived and gone to school.

Kees listened and prayed, seeking counsel during the Eucharistic adoration at Christ the Redeemer church. Bergeron’s confidence after seeing Jori that afternoon reassured him, and whatever lingering doubts Kees had were set to rest by his faith.

“If God asks you to do something, he will give you all you need to do it,” he said.

The two shook hands before heading back into the embalming room. Together, they would not allow the manner of the child’s death to set the terms of the family’s grief.

They set up the embalming instruments, and Bergeron said a brief prayer. “Lord,” he said, “guide our minds, our hearts and our hands.”

He and Kees injected the embalming solution into the limbs, the torso and head. The combination of formaldehyde, methanol and dyes flowed smoothly from the arteries into capillaries and tissues. They massaged the muscles to allow the fluids to disperse evenly, and with each injection, they could see Jori’s coloring change from slightly pale to a richer hue.

The family had brought in photographs to help the embalmers with their work; snapshots lay scattered on top of a nearby gurney.

Kees focused on the face, fixing not just the mouth but the corners of the mouth, adjusting the closure of the eyes so that the upper and lower lids met naturally.

Afterward, he described the experience of holding the disembodied head as surreal. His senses seemed heightened to the sound of water coursing down the embalming table and the smell of chemicals, soap and disinfectant.

Bergeron soon felt that they were succeeding in repairing what the father had done. He held Jori’s hand, taking a moment to connect to this child as more than just an embalmer. His large fingers curled inside the delicate palm, and he was struck by the diminutive size of the fingernails. He thought about his own boys — Aodhan, 7, and Mathias, 9 months — and fought back his feelings of disgust toward the father.

Plato believed the body traps the soul. Bergeron believes the body illuminates the soul.

Once while working in New Orleans, he had finished washing the body of an elderly man and was setting his features — closing his jaw, his eyes, his lips — when over the radio, he heard the slow cadences of Arvo Pärt’s piano composition “Für Alina.” He took a step back. South Claiborne Avenue and the city disappeared, and in the silences between each note, he felt as if he were witnessing the man’s soul lift up from the corpse and depart into the heavens.

He never lost this feeling, the sense that in the embalming room the spirits of the dead communicate to him. He describes the experience as his consolation for having to bear witness to death every day. Here he sees beyond the ravages of time — disease, mayhem, accidents and age — and imagines within these bodies the soul, the love, and joy and sorrow that once defined a life.

“We have an identity that exists whether we are alive or dead,” he said. “Embalming — caring for the dead — helps us understand the limitations of the flesh. It helps teach us that the flesh is not going to live forever, and in seeing the body in this condition, we make the soul more conspicuous.”

An hour and a half into their work, Samantha, 28, joined them. Kees valued her expertise. Bergeron was comforted by his wife’s company, grateful that he would not have to keep the memory of this day to himself.

Samantha looked at Jori’s face. She thought about his mother, who, like any mother, no doubt gazed upon her child’s features every day and memorized every smile, every frown, every emotion. Samantha made sure that his eyelashes lifted off his cheeks.

As she started to suture the head to the body, the other embalmers in the room joined in, positioning Jori as she worked. All these hands on Jori, Glenn Bergeron thought, carefully holding him as he deserved.

Later he would think about the violence that brought Jori to them. If God is good and all his creation is good, including Wright, then where does this evil lie?

“I was left wondering if the person was evil or whether the act was evil,” he said. “And if the person was mentally ill, was this illness evil? Does evil lie in the person, the deed or the illness?”

He had no answer.

Afterward, they washed Jori, combed his hair and placed him on a dressing table. They wrapped him in a white cotton sheet, not the disposable sheets they usually used; they wanted to give him something softer.

Glenn lay a hand on Jori’s chest and said good night.

“You’ve done a very good thing today,” he said to Samantha, and as they left the funeral home, he gave her a kiss.

That night at home, he read the evening prayer from the Office of the Dead for Jori. “The Lord will keep you from all evil,” he said aloud. “He will guard your soul.” It’s something he does each month for those he’s served, but Jori, he believed, deserved his own prayer.

The embalmers continued their work for three more days, applying makeup and wax and allowing the chemicals to draw the moisture out of the tissues and preserve the body.

When they were finished, Jori was moved into the mortuary’s chapel. He lay in a casket of Carolina poplar, dressed in a plaid shirt bought last Christmas, with Tommy Hilfiger jeans he was just starting to grow into.

Kees said a prayer before meeting with Jori’s mother. There are times when he wonders whether he will meet in heaven the people he’s worked on. He wonders what they will say.

He remembers accompanying Lirette into the chapel. He gave her a moment before asking whether Jori looked all right and whether she wished to keep the casket open for viewing. She nodded. Lirette wanted her family, relatives and friends to see her child again. She thought he looked older and more handsome. She touched his hands and kissed his forehead.

Almost 500 people came by that day, and when the time came to close the casket, she mentioned that her son was afraid of the dark. Kees brought a flashlight and placed it in Jori’s hands. After the family left the funeral home, Kees relaxed. During the Mass tomorrow, the casket would stay closed.

On the day of the visitation, Bergeron had gone home early. His job done, he wanted to give the family their privacy. He, Kees and the others had made it possible for the Lirettes to see Jori one last time and find their words of farewell. By attending to the dead, Bergeron said, they had once again served the living.

PHOTOS: Embalmers tend to a child brutally killed

thomas.curwen@latimes.com


Newsletter
Get our Today's Headlines newsletter
Advertisement