Not long ago on a sticky Saturday night at a comedy club in Madison, Wisconsin, the funeral director with whom I was having a drink told me how long it takes for the formaldehyde to replace the blood in a dead person’s arteries. He drank a light beer; the walls in the comedy club were bare brick and the stools were too high for my feet to touch the floor. The funeral director saw the challenge of his work in bringing back the essence of the dead person in the face by massaging the skin. He said the important moment comes when the dead person’s family looks into the casket and recognizes the person lying there, or not.
A friend and I had driven to Wisconsin in order to meet the funeral director’s predecessor, a man named Sam Sanfillippo, who works not only with dead people, but also with dead animals. In the basement of the funeral home that Sam Sanfillippo built, he created a second funeral home of sorts for hunting trophies and roadkill. He calls it the rec room. The animals are posed in dioramas—squirrels play pianos and drink beer and ride plastic horses, and chipmunks ride a moving carousel and Ferris wheel, and a muskellunge (a big fish) spins around and around after a fish hook in a motorized display. The Ferris wheel and the carousel spin, too. The displays are lit with fluorescent lights; some are housed in aquariums and others in wooden boxes that Sam built himself. His taxidermist cousin Vito stuffed most of the animals and arranged them into poses designed by Sam.
When Sam turned over the funeral home to another company several years ago, the new proprietors allowed the roadkill museum to stay, and visitors are welcome on weekdays, as long as they call ahead and as long as there is not a funeral in session upstairs. Sam lives in a brick house up the hill behind the funeral home and applies makeup to the bodies of the deceased whose families request his services specifically, and he attends funerals of people he knows. He also remains the curator of the collection in the wood-panelled basement, which the new company has promised to keep as it is, at least as long as Sam lives. Sam is now in his eighties. He has white hair and the wide, white smile of a man with false teeth.
The new funeral director made an exception and allowed my friend and me to visit on a Saturday. We arrived in the early afternoon and the funeral director telephoned Sam for us. Sam was recovering from surgery and was not always well, and he told the funeral director he had just woken up and was not well enough to walk down the hill to greet us. The funeral director then invited me into a back room in the basement so I could speak with Sam on the telephone. A handwritten order for peach-coloured flowers for an upcoming funeral lay on the desk, and the telephone was the old kind, with a twisted, curly cord. I left my friend in front of a moose wearing a baseball cap while I took the call. She later told me that she had wandered through the rest of the basement while she waited and, through an open door, saw the table where dead people must be embalmed.
In Sam’s rec room, a three-legged goose stood next to a badger poised to throw a small plastic football. The badger wore a red sweater the same colour as the University of Wisconsin Badgers football team jersey. Later I read on the Internet that the fawn beside them both was a stuffed fetus retrieved from the womb of a deer hit by a car. Were it not for all the dead animals, I could see how the place could once have been a rec room, with Sam’s children watching Johnny Carson on an old television within the safe confines of its wood-panelled walls and Berber carpet as he embalmed people somewhere else in the basement.
Sam called again as we were photographing a muskie wearing a monocle, top hat and tails, and covered in dust. He invited us up the hill, past the fake deer and the Virgin Mary statue on the lawn and into his home. Before we left the rec room, my friend and I took a picture of ourselves with the moose head. I stretched out one arm and pointed a camera at us, and in the process I leaned so close to the dead moose that the fur on its nose touched my cheek.
Sam answered the door in a bright red cowboy shirt. He took us across the plush red carpet, past the entryway’s red and gold jacquard wallpaper, through the family room lined with fish, and opened the door to the laundry room, to his most prized catch, an enormous muskie almost big and long enough to break a world record, but it did not. In the dining room, a dead albino squirrel was posed atop a plastic motorcycle. Sam told us he had asked the Lions Club in a Missouri town known for its white squirrels to send him any that had died of natural causes or had been hit by cars. They began arriving by mail six at a time, packed in boxes with dry ice. As people heard about Sam’s project, they began arriving with their own roadkill. He said stuffing the animals became a way of giving them a proper send-off.
Sam kept yelling up the stairs for his wife to join us, and she kept yelling back that she was still getting dressed. When she descended, she leaned forward with the telling posture of osteoporosis, with her hair piled high and a full face of makeup, including lipstick. Sam told us rather proudly that she was the first girl he had ever kissed, and that he had hung all of the mounted fish in the laundry room because she was sick of picking through them as she took dirty clothes to the washing machine. Sam showed us a framed, faded picture of his wife with Ronald Reagan and told us that through her, he was related to Cesar Romero, the man who played the Joker in the Batman television series in the sixties.
Death figured in almost all of the stories Sam told that day. He talked about his service with the 101st Airborne in the Second World War, and the time his heart stopped at Normandy and he was hauled away with other dead soldiers, but the vibrations of a Jeep he was in restarted his heart (I think he called it his ticker). He talked about fishing in every single one of the annual fishing tournaments organized by his friend, the late Wisconsin governor Warren Knowles, with whom Sam also visited the Arctic. The governor died in the nineties after suffering a heart attack on one of their fishing trips. Sam talked about embalming his own parents because they refused to be embalmed by anyone else.
Death is Sam’s life. With the current funeral director, however, it is different—death is his livelihood. We took a cab to the comedy club and met up with him there a few hours after leaving Sam’s house. He listened to the details of our time with Sam and asked us if we had seen the three-legged duck, which Sam had told us was a four-legged goose. We drank thick, sweet lemonade and vodka out of glass bottles as the funeral director explained that he had left his job in social work and enrolled in a school for funeral directors in Illinois. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and kept checking his wrist watch, because his wife expected him home by 11 p.m., it seemed. He did, however, stay for one more beer. After that last beer, I think it was his third, the funeral director leaned across the table and confided that he does not want to be embalmed himself. It was hard to hear him over the jokes of the comedian in the next room.