On an impulse that in no way needed sating, I recently wandered into a local flea market and purchased a 60s-era swimsuit, a neon red floor-length dress, and an electric blue wool poncho from a woman named Ray Kim, known on Instagram as @shopoddhabits. I remember very few details of her appearance; just that, like me, she boasted mixed-race blood, Asian and white, an uncommon heritage in this particular corner of the South. I remember pointing at a pair of tabi slippers lying on a technicolor tribal rug—the toe orientation befitting a seal or lobster—mentioning that they could be an interesting Mother’s Day gift. I remember a clothing rack collapsing in the balmy wind coming from the Mississippi. I remember thinking that she was not like everyone else I’d met in this town and wanting to talk further, in a context unrelated to the flea market. As is often the case in New Orleans, it was a dreamy day.
Around the same time (via an itinerant English PhD student I befriended at a local dive), I acquired the contact information of a woman who was studying to be a mortician. We got in touch to arrange a meeting.
“i have round glasses and heavily tattooed legs :)” the undertaker-in-training alerted. I hoped that, in a coffee shop located on a hip thoroughfare, these would be distinguishing features.
As it turns out, we’d met before. In addition to selling high-quality vintage clothing as @shopoddhabits, Kim also studies death. At thirty-one, Kim, a former philosophy student and artist (working with textiles and ceramics, specifically), came to New Orleans to get her degree in Funeral Service Education, the official name of the two-year program where she takes courses such as Mortuary Law and Ethics, Funeral Home Management and Directing, and the Dynamics of Grief. I have never spoken with anyone who works in this industry, so I had no expectations or assumptions about what morticians looked like, whether they all adorned themselves in Kuchi necklaces and leg tattoos. But I’m pretty sure she is a singular figure. We talked for an hour and a half, but I think we could have drifted into the evening discussing death rites, self-care, and how millennials will shape the future of the funeral industry.
The Rumpus: How did you come across funeral work?
Ray Kim: I feel like it’s been a long time coming. I’ve never really been freaked out about death or anything like that. When I was in high school, I did a career placement test, and my number one career pick was mortician. I remember my teacher being really weirded out because my second career I was placed in was sex therapist. She was like, “I have to say, in all my years of teaching you’re the only student who’s gotten these two things.” But I never really thought about it again.
I’m really into scavenging and foraging natural items—I’m also an artist. I do a lot of natural dyes and bone collecting, and randomly my boyfriend was like, “Maybe you should become a mortician,” and I was like, “Oh, whatever.” Then I looked into it, and I felt like I should do it. For one, I don’t have to work with people. I [thought I could] be away in a room in the back, which is not true. In the funeral industry, you’re really intensely dealing with people in really intense, raw moments. It’s one of those things where those people will remember you for the rest of their lives, so you have to make an immediate personal connection with them and leave them with the feeling that you’re going to take care of this person, their loved one.
Rumpus: What is your coursework like?
Kim: Right now, I’m just finishing my first year. I’m taking a grief class, which is really a psychology of death and grieving, and a management class [which entails] how to file death certificates, do removals, and things like that. Next semester is when I start my last two semesters, which is all embalming labs and restorative work.
Rumpus: How many people typically go to pick up a body?
Kim: It depends. At the corporate funeral home where I was working, there was a whole team of removal staff people and interns that did removals and up-keep of the place. The general rule is if the body is over 250 pounds, you have to take two people, and a residence call always requires two people. Residences are really tricky because a lot of the time, there are hallways that you cannot fit your gurney into, so you really have to have another person there to help maneuver the body.
Rumpus: In a respectful manner, too.
Kim: Exactly. I mean, people get fired for simply dropping a body. And you go into those Uptown homes, and they have insane narrow stairwells. I’ve been in situations where you literally have to stand the body up and shimmy them down the stairs cause they just won’t turn corners. You get very intimate with deceased people. I’ve crawled in beds with dead people. I have seen naked dead people.
Rumpus: What was your first removal experience like?
Kim: In order to be accepted into this program, you have to work forty hours in a funeral home, so I did my forty hours at a place on North Claiborne—Professional Funeral Services—right between Manchu’s and the Cajun Seafood. The first day I started, they were just like, “You’re going on this removal,” and the last dead person I had seen was my grandfather when I was eight years old, and so I was like, “Alright. cool, I’m ready for this.” I knew what to expect, but I did not expect my reaction. It was in a hospice, in the upper portion of a hospital, and I just walked in with the person who was training me, and she expected me to grab the legs and do this, and I was like “Oh my god. This person is not breathing. This person is dead.” I started to get really overwhelmed with emotion—not sadness or depression—it was just—I didn’t know how to process this person that I don’t know is dead, and now I have to touch them and move them and deal with the family members. It was an intense experience.
She was like, “What are you doing? Grab the ankles,” and we heaved the body onto the cot and rolled him out of there. I had not anticipated that that was how I was going to feel. It’s like, yeah, I’m prepared for dealing with death; I deal with dead animals all the time. But it’s totally different when it looks like you.
Rumpus: How did you get this job at the funeral home?
Kim: It’s kind of difficult to get your foot in the door, mainly because [the funeral industry is] full of good-old boys who do not want to hire a young Asian female, or they have family members who they’re already willing to give jobs to, regardless of experience, so you’ll get a lot of, “Can you even lift a dead body, sweetie?,” really patronizing things, and you have to let it roll off your back and prove yourself, which kinda sucks, but that’s the name of the game.
I had called that funeral home on North Claiborne four times with no response, and so finally I just went in and was like, “I’ve been calling all the time last week just to meet someone because I’m trying to give you free work. You want someone to work for free.” After the forty hours, I stayed on for—in total, I was there for eight months volunteering, hoping that maybe I would get hired—but I was never offered a job, so I quit and went to work at a corporate funeral home.
Rumpus: How would you describe the type of people who work in the funeral industry?
Kim: I think this industry in general attracts a very specific type of person. Most of the people who go into this profession are really compassionate people, and they start off wanting to help people and be there during a really crazy time in people’s lives. For me, that’s what was interesting about the job. As a removal staff person, I’m getting a phone call at three in the morning. Sometimes I have to drive [all the way] out to Covington and interact with these people who are emotionally wrecked—at three in the morning—so you’re seeing them in their pajamas bawling over their loved one. That type of energy really attracts a certain type of person. I mean, I’ve met people who are emotionally unstable who work this job but only because they love the emotion of the job. But you don’t want someone who’s emotionally messed up to deal with you in this really emotional time of your life.
Once you’ve been working in this industry a long time, the alcoholism rate is really high and so is the suicide rate. This job really takes a toll on you if you’re not emotionally strong willed and capable and competent. It can really mess you up. I think a lot of people are capable, but then they see [an autopsy] and they’re like, I can’t do this. When I worked on my first autopsy, the embalmer was like, “Are you okay? Do you feel sick? You gotta let me know if you’re not starting to feel good because we don’t want you passing out in the middle of the embalming room.” I was like, “Yeah, this is just totally crazy. I feel physically fine, but emotionally, this is nuts to absorb what is happening.”
Rumpus: Do they teach you self-care techniques in school?
Kim: It’s surprising, but no. Most of the program work is dedicated to caring for the family. [Funeral work] is described as a selfless job. My self-care process through this whole situation has been coming home from my long day and taking a bong rip and watching Seinfeld for hours. I have to check out from the experience, and part of me is like, is this a really healthy way of dealing with what’s going on? But I’m not bothered by anything, so I feel like I’m fine until I’m bothered by something, and then I’ll have to readjust how I’m taking care of myself.
For the most part, the funeral services program gives you tools on how to help other people, as opposed to how to take care of yourself. I think that’s really meant for you to figure out, I guess.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that the industry doesn’t place much emphasis on self-care, considering they’ve invested time and money in training you.
Kim: The concept of self-care is not necessarily a new thing, but I feel like recently it has become a really talked about idea. It’s relevant in the radical community, and that’s where I’m at. I’ve always thought about, how do I, as someone who aligns themselves with radical punk politics, radicalize the funeral industry? I think that self-care is very much a part of that radicalization. Self-care is a really progressive idea. The funeral industry is not very progressive but is only recently becoming pretty progressive with the Ask a Mortician person who’s been on NPR. She is based out of Los Angeles and has started a group that’s doing green funerals. The group has death doulas, which is also becoming a pretty popular thing—popular is not the right word—but it’s a progressive wave of the funeral industry. I wonder how long that’s going to take to get to New Orleans because it seems like a very west coast or larger city type thing.
Rumpus: In your experience, would you say that the industry is segregated?
Kim: Absolutely. The first funeral home that I worked at is a black funeral home, and I saw maybe, two non-black families that were serviced through that funeral home, and the corporate funeral home I worked at serviced seven different funeral homes, but the majority of the families they serviced were white. I saw maybe four black families serviced through them, so it’s definitely very segregated. In Hammond, you have two funeral homes: one is the white funeral home, and one is the black funeral home.
Rumpus: Can you explain why that is?
Kim: I think it’s traditional. It’s [about] who you feel comfortable with. As an Asian person, I might feel more comfortable with a Korean-owned funeral home if I were planning—God forbid—my mother’s funeral arrangements, just because they know. They know what I’m looking for. They know my mother’s culture. I think that’s really important, especially for the Southern tradition. It’s culturally very distinct, and I think that you always want to go to the place you feel most comfortable with, with people who look like you, with a similar background. Because when you go to someone who’s outside of that, there’s a larger possibility for discrimination, for ignorance.
Rumpus: Do you get cultural sensitivity training?
Kim: No. I think that’s what [this one] teacher is trying to do. He has mentioned, “You need to be sensitive to people who come from different backgrounds,” but there hasn’t been any training on questions to ask or questions to not ask, or tones of voice.
I think it’s really important to have that sort of training, especially in a place like New Orleans where there is a large Vietnamese population and a large black population and a large white population and a burgeoning Latin and South American population. There are so many things going on here, racially and culturally, that it would really behoove the funeral industry to start a cultural sensitivity training course. Maybe I’ll do that.
Rumpus: When you tell people what you do, what is their reaction to you and your work?
Kim: Most people are like, ‘What is that?’ Which is surprising to me. A lot of people are also like, ‘Whoa! That’s crazy! And they wanna talk about it, which I’m always happy to talk about it because it is interesting and crazy. No one gets to experience this type of stuff unless you’re in the industry.
My mom was really freaked out. She was like, “Why do you want to work with dead people?” I was like, “Because it’s interesting! No day is going to be the same.” She’s come around to it now because she knows it’s going to be a steady job. It’s lucrative. People are always dying. And I can move around. I can move anywhere and do this type of work. It’s not region specific. I have the ability to be autonomous in this industry. Having a career and a profession is not who I am, but this career and profession is interesting enough to keep me engaged and will hopefully be able to afford for me to go on vacations every couple months, which is what I really wanted.That’s all I want. And to be able to still do my art.
Rumpus: Has this experience made you think deeply about what you want for your own funeral?
Kim: Surprisingly, no. It’s just affirmed the fact that I don’t want to be embalmed. Embalming is really strange. I haven’t really thought about it that much, but when I have given thought to it, even cremation sounds weird. I just don’t really think about it. And a lot of people in my program are like, “I constantly think about, what if my loved one died, or what if I die,” and I don’t think about that at all. I feel like I’m very removed from it in this weird way. I’m not concerned with myself or my loved ones dying, but that might come from never having had someone really close to me die. I hope that doesn’t happen soon.
Rumpus: Is there a certain burial tradition that you admire or find particularly interesting?
Kim: In one of my classes this semester, we had to choose a religion and write about their death practices. And like I said earlier, I’ve never been one to shy away from stuff like this, and I chose to do Hinduism. So much of their daily life is about death: the idea of karma, if you practice karma and living a good life, it directly relates to dying, and I think that’s really interesting. Whether or not you’re thinking about death, it’s always present, and that’s sort of life in general. We’re just living to die anyway.
But what I found really fascinating is there is a town in India on the Ganges that does exactly this: they cremate bodies. There’s a caste of Untouchables that all they do is prepare cremations for families. The Ganges holds a really important role in death, and if your ashes are scattered in the Ganges, you have the ability to reach Nirvana and escape the cycle, and you don’t have to come back, which I think is what ultimately everyone wants. Families from all over the world will make that trek to this town to have a cremation pyre. There’s one fire that’s been burning for hundreds of years. You take your torch and light the cremation pyre. I find it beautiful and poetic that this eternal fire has been going and it’s ignited all these people that are washed away into this holy river. Talk about a funeral rite, you know. Imagine doing that on the Mississippi river. Its’ really cool that that kind of thing is still happening, and it’s so ancient. These people have been doing it for hundreds of year—and here we are on our smartphones buying caskets off of Costco.com. Where is the beauty and poetry in life if you’re going to treat death like something you can buy out of Costco? There’s nothing beautiful or celebratory about that. It’s just scoring the good deal, which is gross to me. But I also have to understand that not everyone is interested in the beauty and poetry of these things.
I would really like to see a coming back or recreation of funeral rites. Let’s create new ones. Let’s take this matter into our own hands. If you have that opportunity, you should definitely do it. Why put them in some Costco casket when you can get someone who personalizes them? That makes sense to me. But I think that this is generational specific.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the funeral industry progresses as we progress. When we run the world, how is that going to look?
Rumpus: And you’re a part of that change.
Kim: I think of my role in the world all the time anyway, but specifically in the funeral industry, I think, man, this is such a weird industry, and I wonder how I’m going to feel in 20 years just doing this thing. I wonder if I will become cold. I mean, there will probably be a removal of self somehow, but I really hope that I can maintain a compassion. That’s my worst fear: to become this cold calculated robot when dealing with—I don’t want to traumatize people. I really don’t.
Rumpus: You seem conscious of it.
Kim: I think that’s the first step. As long as I’m aware… we’ll see.
Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.
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