A Game That Finds Comfort in the Banality of Death
'A Mortician's Tale' is a game that lets you go behind the curtain of funerals.
All images courtesy Laundry Bear Games
Funerals are weird. They are a blur, made remarkable by stand-out bizarre moments, like following a hearse down a road, your eyes transfixed by the fact that there is a dead person in that car in front, that you used to know that person, that they are now just flesh and bone and nothing more.
There are thoughts that come into your mind unbidden that make you feel strange and rude, like how odd it is to cry over an uninhabited wooden box, or wondering if you're sad enough, or too sad, or sad for the right reasons, or just a selfish sort of sad—crying because you miss them, not because they're gone.
A Mortician's Tale is a game that lets you go behind the curtain of funerals, to step into the shoes of the people for whom this is just an everyday job like any other. Your grief is their bread and butter; your special, one-off occasion, lovingly planned and arranged, is their package deal. Your loved one, lying still and lifeless in their silk-lined coffin, has been plucked, shaved, prodded and drained by professionals in a clinical, clean backroom, away from the eyes of the mourning.
And you are that mortician: a young woman named Charlie, fresh from university and full of hope and excitement about what your best friend calls the "death industry." It's a cold, hard fact: Someone has to do all the dirty work of dealing with the dead, and they have to make money from it. While others are sitting at desks and answering emails to earn their living, you are shaving an old man's chest hair, stuffing cotton wool into a young woman's mouth, and massaging the rigor mortis from some poor unclaimed homeless man's bones.
The way you do this is similar to Trauma Center: Grab a tool from the right-hand side of the screen, then click and drag along a dotted line to make an incision; to sew up the lips; to rub the sponge across their body. You pull out pacemakers to prevent dangerous electrical explosions in the fire, remove jewelry to later place inside the urn, then once the body has been burned, you drag the deceased's bones into the cremulator to grind them into the ashes we recognize. I only have a trackpad mouse at the moment, but then I remembered that my laptop is one of those fancy touchscreen ones, and click-drag became a touch of my actual finger, drawing lines down purple death-kissed arms and chests. The line between computer game and reality began to blur.
There is a gentle tenderness to it all, from the soft pastels that permeate the game to the quietness of a body in front of you as you drain it of blood. Your computer pings with emails, sending thank yous from the grieving families, complaints from your co-worker and instructions from your boss, but in your work room there is just you, and the body. You sponge their pallid skin and gently massage their flesh as if you were still taking care of someone alive. There is care, and respect, and it's sometimes hard to tell if it's for the sake of the deceased, or the family waiting to see them in an open casket.
Once you are done with a body, you go next door to attend the funeral. Mourners stand in couples, shaking their heads, wringing their hands. It is a scene you would expect, but when you listen in to their conversations, you get a slice of life that often seems at odds with the solemnity of the situation.
"The food's delicious," says one woman. "I know that's weird, but these crab cakes are perfect."
My grandmother's funeral had finger food. I love finger food. My face was still wet and puffy from crying as I piled my plate with mozzarella sticks and nachos. It feels like a funeral should put normal human behavior on hold, but it doesn't, and that's one of the strangest feelings you end up wrestling with, especially when the funeral in question isn't that big of a surprise. It's like being drunk, but having to pretend you're not—trying to remember how you usually do things, and overlaying "normal" behaviour over what you actually feel. You've actually been mourning for weeks, maybe months, and often it feels more like a blessed relief that they're not suffering any more.
When you are playing a mortician, you see these stories over and over again at every funeral you attend, weaving through the small crowds unnoticed, like a ghost, to pay your respects. One person talks about what they're going to binge-watch on Netflix; another starts up a conversation with someone about a YouTube video they'd seen recently with a kid doing karaoke. That discomfort is what makes us human, rather than the perfect grief we see in movies. People are too complex to stick to a script.
When we took my grandma's ashes to a tiny, beautiful church in Cornwall, we expected a script. We expected to solemnly tip out a reasonable amount of ashes that would blow poetically away in the wind. Did you know that the ashes of a dead person usually weighs from three to nine pounds? Imagine tipping out a medium-size bag of flour. It's hard to be solemn when your beloved relative is being shaken out of a ziploc bag. It's nothing like in the movies, and that's okay. The absurdity of it all made us giggle furtively like kids at the back of class. It felt wrong, but it felt human. I would want people to be able to laugh.
Death positivity, which A Mortician's Tale is all about, accepts and explores this feeling that you're not doing grief right. Charlie's friend, Jen, emails death-related jokes that might seem like they're making light of something serious, but the fact is that death is like nothing you'll ever experience, even though it happens every day, and you can't anticipate how you'll react. Every day, a new body comes in. Every day, you wash them and care for them, and attend the funeral. Every day, the people talking at the funeral are at once the same, and different. We all experience grief differently.
I cried at my grandma's funeral. I wrote a piece about who she was to me. I hugged my mum and my brother to give them comfort. That all felt normal and expected, even though it was hard. But the thing I will remember is that rainy day in Cornwall, the place she loved, cry-giggling with my mum over the fact that my grandma had turned an entire patch of brambles a light, ashy gray. She loved to garden, and now she is the soil.