March 17 2015 Baltimore City Paper
Shannon Cosgrove has a tattoo that runs across her chest, just under her collarbone, that reads, “I’ll sleep when you’re dead.” Her dark brown hair is cut straight across her shoulders and her harsh bangs hang above her brown eyes which sit curiously behind her thick, black, plastic frames. Hidden between her fingers are more symbols and markings, and a pair of brightly colored, inked ice cream cones poke out from under her sleeve on her forearm. She’s dressed all in black.
Cosgrove has been tending bar at Sticky Rice for the last two months. For two years before that, she was an occasional waitress and hostess at the hip sushi/rock ’n’ roll joint in Fells Point. She took on the second job purely for the fun factor. She’s known for her vegan cookie butter cookie sundae creation and good conversation. Her past career, as a mortician, or Funeral Director, was emotionally taxing in an unexpected way. She worked for a publicly traded, corporate funeral home for eight years before turning to bartending full time.
“I stopped embalming several years ago and started just doing sales,” Cosgrove says. “I hated it. I was very good at it, but I hated it. I felt like a car salesman for caskets.”
She says the last three or so years as a funeral director and sales rep started to wear on her. The work was commission-based and the focus, like many sales organizations, was on the upsell. “It was not about caring for people, or grieving, or helping them get through it,” she says. “I just became disgusted with what I was doing.” She says she liked the funeral home she worked at, and loved everyone she worked with, but she no longer agreed with the company’s principles and ideals.
Cosgrove first became interested in mortuary arts when her best childhood friend died of cystic fibrosis. They were 15. She says he spent that entire summer break at John’s Hopkins Hospital because his lung had collapsed and he was jaundiced. “He just didn’t look like himself,” she says, “and that was how I thought I was going to have to remember him.”
At the funeral, she was fascinated by how the funeral director was able to transform his body to a healthier look using science and chemistry. “The funeral director was very kind to me,” she says, “and didn’t dismiss me because I was a child.”
A couple of years later, when Cosgrove was 17 years old, she told her mother she planned to attend Community College of Baltimore County for mortuary arts, the only program of its kind in the state of Maryland. In an effort to deter her daughter, her mother set her up with a shadow day with a funeral director. “I came running home screaming, ‘I can’t wait to do this!’,” Cosgrove recalls. “She thought it would terrify me. But I just wanted to do it even more.”
Three of Cosgrove’s closest friends died before she graduated high school in Dundalk. “By the time I was 18, I had lost four of the most important people in my life, and I just wanted to be there for people who had dealt with loss,” she says.
She says she originally wanted to go to art school, but wasn’t confident she could make a steady living at it. “I convinced myself that going to mortuary school was my own way of doing art,” she says. “I would fix the body the best I could and display it for the family. Their response was a critique of whether it was good or not.”
Cosgrove took deep pride in her ability to make the deceased viewable. “The more messed up the body was, the more of a challenge it was for me to fix it and make it better for the family so they could find some kind of closure,” she says. For gunshots, she had to recreate parts of the deceased’s head, wounds, and holes. She has performed hair transplants to replace missing facial hair, and she even recreated an ear from wax for a man who had ear cancer and lost his. “His family couldn’t tell the difference between the real ear and the fake ear,” she says. “And that was really cool.” Overall, her experience made her feel at ease with death as a natural part of the life cycle. One man early on, however, struck her as confusing and sad. He shot himself in the head at 89 years old. She says he didn’t have much family. “I was so perplexed at why he waited so long to do it,” she says. “I couldn’t understand. He went this long. Why now? I didn’t want to go anywhere near him. It was one of the first gunshots I had.”
Embalming is a big part of a traditional mortician’s job, and early on in her career, Cosgrove had the opportunity to do the work. “It was almost like meditating,” she says.
She would put headphones on and play music and zone out for the hour and a half to two hours the process would take. The process starts with setting the features, cleaning out the nose and mouth, and resetting the body in a natural position. As rigor mortis sets in, the mortician needs to break, or stretch, the muscles in order to position the body naturally in the casket. Most establishments these days use a machine to drain and flush the blood, and replace it with a chemical through the carotid artery to preserve the body for some time. The mortician also treats the organs, washes the body, and takes care of the cosmetics.
As her career moved further away from the intimacy of embalming, she found refuge in tending bar, where she encountered an entirely different world. “There are no similarities between being a mortician and a bartender,” she says.
She is curious about people. She looks forward to chatting with whatever stranger might come sit at the bar and tell their tale. “I just want to make people happy,” she says. “Even if it’s just an outlet for an hour or a half an hour.”
Cosgrove points to a brightly colored tattoo on her inner bicep. It’s an urn with a blue candle, a flower, and the name Phyllis is written across a ribbon around it. “I do not know who Phyllis is,” she says. She and her best friend came across two urns a few years ago at a storage unit auction. They were to be thrown away, but instead, one took Phyllis and the other got Gladys. They tried to find out who they belonged to by contacting the family and funeral home, but didn’t get anywhere. “So, I kept them,” she says, “We kept them in our house.” She says they decided to have a séance with a cheap, glow-in-the-dark Ouija board and terrible, blueberry scented candles from the dollar store. “Obviously we did not connect with them,” she says, “but we gave them a proper burial. No one wanted them. No one wanted to give them a final goodbye. We always joke that the only names we have tattooed on us are ladies that we don’t even know. But I would hope that they were happy that someone cared enough to give them a proper send-off.”