What interviewing a death care worker taught me about life

Crosscut reporter Margo Vansynghel reflects on her conversations with tattoo artist Jessica Henry, who became a death care worker during a pandemic.

Jessica Henry

Jessica Henry at Lilith Tattoo in Fremont, June 3, 2020. Henry had only recently started her job at the shop when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, then she started working as a removal technician in the death care industry. “It's a really delicate process,” Henry says. “And it's something that I didn't really know that I could do until I did it the first time.” (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Time has been a bit of a blur lately. So I don’t exactly remember when I saw the Instagram post by Jessica Henry, a local tattoo artist I had been following for a while. I just recall it was in early May, and that it stopped me in my tracks. The photo: a mirror selfie, a stern, tired look, Jessica wearing a white shirt and black blazer, multiple tattoos peeking out from the rolled-up sleeves.

Take a moment to read Margo’s story about Jessica’s experiences in the death care industry

The caption: “About a month ago, thanks to the generosity and trust of a dear friend who works in the death care industry, I began working as a removal technician for a group of local funeral homes. What does that mean exactly? Well, it’s an official sounding title for the person who shows up and transports your loved one after they pass. Think of me as Lady Charon of the highway. This photo was taken at the mortuary toward the end of an 11 hour day.”

The post went on. I could not stop reading. Jessica talked about how she was often one of the first people “on the scene” after someone has died and that she often ended up consoling the family. That the job was hard and technical, but that there was also a lot of tenderness. That she cried every day after work — for those losing their loved ones, for those unable to say goodbye because of the pandemic. 

“During a pandemic, such as COVID-19, or any mass-fatality disaster, death care represents a critical part of the public/private partnership and infrastructure that will help us all heal and recover,” she wrote. “Funeral workers are the back end of the front line, they work tirelessly and get very little recognition.”

I knew then that Jessica’s story and that of death care workers risking their lives during a pandemic deserved recognition. I knew that I wanted to hear how being a tattoo artist and “removal technician” might have things in common. What I didn’t know: that her story, which she dubbed an “unlikely and fortuitous stumble into the death care industry,” would poke holes in my carefully constructed shield of journalistic objectivity. I couldn’t help but be deeply touched by her heartbreaking stories and vulnerability. 

Jessica’s unguardedness was undoubtedly shaped by her experiences; she’s seen a friend die at a very young age and was up close with death, day in day out. Hers is a lived, everyday knowledge that we will all die, and, as she says, that “whatever mark you make on this world is going to outlast you.” I don’t think I needed a reminder of death. But I am grateful Jessica gave me a reminder of life, and really living it. 

Hear Jessica's interview with Margo on working in death care during coronavirus in this episode of Crosscut's This Changes Everything podcast.

This story was first published in Crosscut's Weekly newsletter. Want to hear more from reporters like Margo Vansynghel? Sign up for the newsletter, below.

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