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Serving the dead as a higher calling

There's something spiritual about embalming for Glenn Bergeron and Stephen Kees, who tend to bodies at a funeral home in Louisiana. Their sense of obligation to the dead helps them persevere when the work is difficult, like when they repaired the torn body of a young boy.

December 03, 2011|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times
  • Embalmer Glenn Bergeron, left, and funeral home co-owner Stephen Kees stand in the chapel of the Thibodaux Funeral Home in Louisiana. They both helped restore the body of Jori Lirette, 7, who was brutally killed.
Embalmer Glenn Bergeron, left, and funeral home co-owner Stephen Kees… (SEAN GARDNER, For The Times )

Reporting from Thibodaux, La. — 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

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.

"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.

"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?"

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.

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