Corpora Caelestia

The corpses here are different from the dead I knew as a little girl: La Calavera Catrina leading a procession of costumed skeletons strumming guitars under wide sombreros, snapping phalanges above their skulls in a syncopated dance, riding along on bicycles, two aboard. Here, there are no adornments. No colorful tissue paper; no marigolds; no sugar skulls; no tamales, pumpkin seeds, or pulque. Just an expanse of flesh, patiently waiting to be prepared for its visitors: hair parted, lips colored with a customary shade of lipstick.

I walk into the embalming room and see that I know this corpse.


He came into Stallions every Tuesday, sat at the same table in the darkness between the stage and the bar, and ordered a Miller High Life with a chaser of Jim Beam, which he nursed all night long. We nicknamed him Thirsty.

I danced privately for him a few times, although I wasn’t his favorite. I was too dark for his taste. He said he had a thing for cool blondes like Jean Harlow. But I amused him, he said.

We competed to see if any of us could get him to buy a second shot of Jim Beam, which was usually gone before the Miller. The customary stuff never worked on him: stroking his arm, telling him you were so sad at having to drink alone, coyly questioning him about why he couldn’t have a second. He never took the bait.


One night, I asked him if he knew anything about embalming. That got his attention. I told him I had a quiz the next day, so I’d be happy to tell him about it. He scooted his chair back from the table a bit and said, “Why not?”

I took his shot of Jim Beam, which was still almost full, and told him to pretend it was formaldehyde.

“OK,” he said.

“First,” I said, “the blood is removed from the veins.”

“All right,” he said.

“Then, it is arterially replaced with formaldehyde,” I told him, putting the shot glass up to his lips and pouring a bit into his mouth.

“The formaldehyde is injected into the body usually right around here,” I said, making a circle with my finger on his skin next to his collarbone and pouring a little more Jim Beam into his mouth as I leaned in close. “And it is distributed throughout the body by intravascular movement to extravascular movement, like this,” and I lifted his shot glass high in the air and poured the rest of it into his mouth.

“Do you know what a trocar is?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“You’ll need to fill this up so I can give you the proper visual,” I said.

“Use my beer,” he told me.

“It won’t be the same,” I told him.

“It’ll be good enough,” he said.

I drew him a picture of a trocar on a cocktail napkin, and explained how it was inserted in the body to remove liquids and gasses from the organs and how embalming fluid then was poured into the trocar. I picked up a drink stirrer from the next table, stuck it in his beer, and told him to drink. “Like that,” I said. “And that’s pretty much it.”


“That’s embalming,” he said.

“Yep, basically it coddles and distracts the cells so that decomposition is arrested.”

“Just like you do,” he said.

“Just like I do,” I said.

The D.J. called my name, so I took the stage, unhooking my bra, and exposing my breasts as the music began. I slid my hand from my breast to my navel, pressing the spot with my fingertips where the trocar would be inserted – mouthing “trocar” in his direction, which made it look like I was blowing him a kiss.

From then on out, he called me Formaldehyde. And every so often I sent him over a second Jim Beam, which he never touched.

His body –the one that is now on view – has been scrubbed down with disinfectant. I massage his arms to relieve the rigor. His face is smooth and shaved clean.

I am supposed to clean the room before the embalmer comes in. I set down my cleaning supplies and lock the door. I drag a chair over in front of him and stand on top of it. I know his eyes have already been glued shut, but I want to say good-bye. I slowly remove my jeans, my shirt, my bra – balancing on the chair. I think about singing something, but I’m afraid someone will hear me. I stand on the chair in front of him, naked. He lies on the table in front of me naked. And I whisper, “trocar,” which makes it look like I am blowing him a kiss.


Author's Comment

“Corpora Caelestia” looks at the parallels in the ways we publicly and communally address two big mysteries of life – sex and death. In strip clubs and in funeral homes, we give the body the starring role and follow conventions and rituals in which we find camaraderie, solace, and even humor.



Lorain Urban lives in Ohio and has returned to writing fiction after many years of laboring among the nuts and bolts of non-fiction. She finds writing short stories exhilarating. She recently received the Margarita Donnelly Memorial Prize from Calyx Press.


  1. The author has managed to pack so much life and lives into the economy of this short story of death. It’s poignant yet has a survivor’s humour. Leaves me wanting to read more stories about the student embalmer, her present and previous life.

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