“I thought you said this kid was a homicide.” I had come to work expecting a gunshot-exploded face, a three-day job. Not a mark on the body. Perfectly intact head. Perhaps it was a mistake.

“Stabbing. Right here.” He pointed out an almost indiscernible slit on the guy’s chest, between two ribs. Less than an inch long. Died in one, uh, stab, I guess. How could it have been done so quickly and neatly?

The last stabbing victim I got had died fighting. She was hacked at exactly 27 times, all ribs broken, defensive wounds all over her face and arms, then dumped in a parking lot, like no one would ever look there, like no one would perhaps think to ask her ex-husband anything. It’s always the ex-husband. She went down fighting, while the guy from last week went instantly. He probably had no idea what happened.

Back to this later…

Recently, a veterinarian made headlines (on the Internet, anyway) when she posted a photo of herself holding up a feral cat she had shot with an arrow. Of course, the comments were all negative.

I’m sure if she had held up a dead chicken, deer, rat, squirrel or snake, there would have been little outcry. Those animals are seen as “lower” – AKA not cute or fuzzy or in existence for humans to dress in little outfits and name after people at work – so it’s not as bad to kill them. Game birds and squirrels don’t have names or little collars, but I guarantee they feel the same thing when the arrow goes through their heads as that cat did.

I have had pet chickens on and off throughout my life, and they are my favorite animal, yet I have no problem eating a chicken. I have even killed a chicken, and although I ate it, I didn’t kill it for food. This is not a hunter-gatherer society. Most of us live relatively close to a store full of any kind of meat we could want. I killed the chicken to see if I could properly slaughter and butcher an animal. (I failed.) Never mind that at the time, I had pet chickens. Chickens with names, who would come running if I called them, who were inside pets. No one was going to look down on me for killing a chicken.

Even skinning an animal comes with its own socially constructed morality. While people may frown on buying fox or mink fur, there would be an absolute visceral reaction to a person skinning a dog or cat, even if the animal died of natural causes. You just plain don’t do it, because a bunch of people say it’s wrong. Leather is fine, of course. It’s okay to kill a cow, a living creature, so you can wear its skin…but don’t do that with any other kind of animal.

The sight of a dead human body produces the same kind of automatic, inborn reaction. It’s gross, it’s scary, not for any particular reason, but because we are told it is so. Yesterday, Grandpa was a nice old man spending time with his family. Today, he died. Now he’s a dead body. He looks the same as he did yesterday, maybe even still has something left of the same smile, but now he’s “gross.” We’re not supposed to want to look at him or touch him.

Even an embalmed, dressed, made-up body in a pretty casket surrounded by soft lighting and flowers can be an unnerving sight, or we are made to believe it should be. We know they can’t hurt us, can’t see us, can’t do anything to us, and they aren’t decomposing before our eyes and emitting all sorts of odors, yet most of us would rather not spend a day with them.

A newborn baby arrives covered with blood, mucus, and often fecal matter. It screams and flails and its face is blue and its body is red. Its hair is matted with blood and a white substance resembling cream cheese and called vernix, which may cover the baby’s body as well. The mother is probably bleeding, crying, vomiting and urinating as all this is happening. Yet we see the newborn as “beautiful.” He’s covered in crap. He’s gross. Who would want to see that?

But, we are all told that birth and life and little babies are beautiful. Death and old age are the antithesis. We fear and avoid them.

Someone asked me recently, after the first “So what do you do for a living?” conversation, if I ever get scared. I get it. She thinks being around so many dead people as often as I am would be gross and scary and smell bad.

I am not afraid of a natural bodily process, which is what death is. It’s what decomposition is. A body in an advanced state of decomposition may certainly be gross, but it is not scary.

What’s scary is the person who stabbed the kid in one move is still out there. Same with most of the people who killed most of the ones who end up with me. How is it so easy to kill someone in public and not get caught? I’m not scared of the dead guy on the table in front of me. I’m scared of the living; of those capable of what is truly gross.

I am a strong person and I have to throw my entire weight into the part of the embalming process that involves, to put it nicely, the insertion of an instrument into the abdominal cavity attached to a suction device to remove the blood and fluids of the internal organs. It’s done with a definite stabbing motion. I have a hard time, physically, performing this task, yet there are people walking around out there who have no trouble doing the same thing to someone with a knife, sometimes hard enough to break their bones.

Here are some things that scare me, if I dwell on them.

The possibility of something bad happening to my children or other family members.

Maybe ending up with cancer or some disfiguring disease and losing my ability to work.

Trusting the wrong people.

Unforeseen financial problems.

Becoming a victim of a random act of violence.

My kids growing up with serious problems or struggles that I can’t help them with.

My kids growing up not liking me.

What never scares me: whoever is laid out on my table today.