Death is a constant presence in the life of In the Whale's Nate Valdez
Nate Valdez is good with fingers. Take, for example, his care when removing jewelry from them. First he coats a finger with wax. Then he ties a string around its base and wiggles it up slowly behind the ring it's wearing until the ring slinks off the tip at the fingernail. He calls this "the string technique," and it is the best way to get these things off a corpse without ripping the skin off with them. Despite his caution, there will still be little flakes of flesh on the table, from where the dermis layer has separated from the subcutaneous tissue because the body has been dehydrated by its owner's passing.
Nate is not your typical undertaker. He's 27 years old, still in the prime of his life, and yet he spends each day working at a mortuary, confronting a reality that most of us spend our whole lives avoiding: the inevitability of death.
Nate's fingers are more widely recognized as the vehicles for the driving guitar lines of his band, In the Whale, which just celebrated the release of its third EP. He has spent time living in a van on the road in the service of his music. But when he moved from Greeley to Denver with bandmate Eric Riley, he decided to seek steady work during the day, which led him to the mortuary. Nate says music has always been how he gets through his days; now his days are just a little harder.
He thinks the mortuary probably hired him because he's still strong enough to lift all the dead people onto the embalming table and manhandle them into their viewing outfits. He doesn't mind dressing the bodies or, say, curling their hair. But he doesn't like to do their makeup (he says they all end up looking like Mimi from The Drew Carey Show), and he really doesn't like cutting the sacred clothes of the deceased in order to squeeze their rigid limbs into their favorite pair of jeans. A few years ago, he had to dress a seven-year-old who had been hit by a drunk driver. Some days are harder than others.
It's Nate's job to make bodies feel like people, but he doesn't romanticize his work. His stories are filled with peristalsis, Y incisions, sphincter muscles and capillaries. They possess the clinical accuracy you'd expect from someone who has grown familiar with the human form from days of sewing together torsos and reconstructing limbs.
He has to disconnect from the people who come in every day; he can't think about the fact that the mouth he is screwing shut was probably kissed just days before by someone who loved those now-purple lips. The tricky relationship between bodies and their inhabitants is one he's been thinking about for most of his life.
Ken Hamblin Nate Valdez (right) with his In the Whale bandmate Eric Riley.
Before Nate was born, his grandpa owned a mortuary in small-town Pennsylvania. There he was the coroner, embalmer, ambulance driver and funeral director. He was a morbid one-man band until he moved his business to Las Animas, Colorado, where, with a population of 2,302, there was enough death to make more than one man's living. He enlisted a young Nate to help.
Nate was fourteen when he saw his first dead body. "I remember how sterile it was," he says. His eyes and nose burned from the body packs -- chemical-soaked wads of cotton stuffed in the body's orifices for the embalming process. He was in many ways unprepared for this intimate exposure to Mr. Jones, the owner of the tackle shop down the street.
"It's kind of a weird feeling to be in a room with someone who's dead," Nate says. "It's not something normal."
Still, he was captivated by the way the world had just stopped for Mr. Jones, and by how his body still looked like that of the Mr. Jones he'd known in life. He wanted to know what his grandfather had done to make the man look so alive, even in his unbreakable stillness. Thirteen years later, this still fascinates him.
The coffee table in his Denver living room is a coffin. It's a recent addition; it joins the embalming table in the dining room. And he's still got his grandpa's old mortuary van in the driveway. And yet these strange tokens from Nate's day job are overwhelmed in the apartment by the stacks of In the Whale merchandise, the framed edition of Music Buzz with his face on the cover, and the instruments scattered around the room. There's a ukulele hanging on the wall, which he strums idly as he talks. On the day we talked to him, he had a harmonica stashed in his shirt pocket.