The bodies come to Charles Reid in search of peace, victims of stabbings, car accidents or nature's course.
During almost 30 years as a funeral director, Mr. Reid, 51, has dressed the dead, prepared them for burial and come to know the human body's frailty.
"You see so much of everything," said Mr. Reid, owner of C.A. Reid Sr. Memorial Funeral Home. "You realize it doesn't take a whole lot to leave here. You learn to live what I call a `quiet life."'
Morticians hear stories of life and death every day, each with its own unique twist, but the same end. They say seeing death so often makes them appreciate their lives and the time they have.
Mr. Reid first touched and handled a dead body as a Coast Guard diver off Miami in the 1960s. He pulled dead Cubans from the sea after their attempts to float to freedom had failed.
That gruesome work and a tour off the coast of Vietnam helped prepare Mr. Reid for a lifetime of working with the dead. He never planned to enter the funeral business. But he and his father, Charles Sr., bought a funeral home on Laney-Walker Boulevard in 1966.
Mr. Reid said every human, rich or poor, deserves to be buried with dignity. He keeps a few secondhand suits around in case a dead pauper come through his doors.
"(Death) is the only thing we are guaranteed in life," Mr. Reid said. "No matter how somebody ends up there, they are still a human being."
In interviews, Mr. Reid and other morticians avoided discussing many of the specifics involved in preparing a body. They wouldn't discuss details of embalming, in which they drain the body of fluids to preserve it for burial. But all agreed that preparing the body and comforting families are important parts of the job.
Darron Starling, a Harlem funeral director, said it is important to give the living a comforting final look at the dead.
He uses makeup, heavy in rose colors, to breathe a natural look into dead cheeks. He pays close attention to details, such as the way a woman parted her hair, or if she wore lipstick or a necklace.
"This is the last time they're going to see the person," said Mr. Starling, 49. "You hope what you do helps leave them with a peaceful image of this person. They can accept the death better."
One of the first things a mortician learns is that death keeps strange hours. Morticians said they have to be ready to go on call whenever the phone rings. Sometimes, holidays and vacation plans are interrupted.
Mr. Starling escapes the stress of the job by taking his vintage 1953 gray Cadillac for lazy rides on the country roads around Harlem. Out in the country he'll clear his head, polish the old car and reflect on his own life.
"You never get used to (this business)," Mr. Starling said. "The older I get the harder it is. A lot of people think you get callous in this business. I think you soften more."
Funeral homes have traditionally been passed from generation to generation. Mr. Reid's son, Marcus, 23, already helps with the daily operation of the funeral home that carries his grandfather's name.
The family, including wife Teresa and daughter Catrina, also work in the family business.
"Somebody has to continue on," Mr. Reid said. "The profession has to go on."