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"sweet services" by Karl Khumo Calagan

The funeral home I worked at began as an anomaly. Before Sweet Services popped up at the corner of the town’s only intersection, funeral homes pretty much looked exactly like the boring, sterile ones you saw on TV. I was told when bright, playground chic Sweet Services came around, you’d mistake it for a candy store of sorts, and the name didn’t help. If you didn’t already notice the muted yellow casket-shaped doors before entering, you’d be in for a sour surprise.

This was why, a bit over four years ago, I decided to apply as their resident mortician. I never read the newspaper. And so I found it serendipitous when I picked one up on a whim and saw an article about the Sweet Services ribbon cutting, complete with an interview with one Mallory Rodriguez, their founder and funeral director. People unexpectedly hailed the novelty of Sweet Services as a symbol of celebrating the life of those who once lived, cementing the good despite the bad with its baby pink walls and mint green benches. I found out eventually that Mallory just liked the idea of pastel caskets, and so built an institution surrounding it.

As soon as I sat across from Mallory’s desk for my job interview, that very same day she decided to hire me, I knew instantly that we would click. She didn’t mind that I was a mortician by day and drag queen by night, and she didn’t care that I was as much of a loudmouth as she was. Mallory loved that I only wore ginger wigs while I was my hyper-femme alter ego Cassie Ketcher, and insisted I took inspiration from her flaming mop of red hair, only that hers didn’t look quite as dehydrated.

What came as a surprise, then, was how I found a mentor in her, too. As a retired mortician, Mallory showed me how embalming was as much an art as it was a science, something I failed to fully grasp in mortuary school. The way her scalpel entered a body’s neck and trailed across skin was not unlike a duck treading mirrored waters, pressing forward without much thought. I always had two makeup kits—one for the living, one for the dead, both wildly unkempt. She said I only had to employ the reverence I had for drag onto the art of embalming to be a better mortician. Her words echoed inside me each time I picked up my tinting brush and helped the dead impersonate the living, if only for a few hours of viewing. By then, my life revolved around impersonation, an art ever so temporary.

She became a mainstay at my shows, an attraction in her own right—I never got used to seeing this gentle-looking old lady floating amid a sea of gyrating, barely clothed queer people, hands clasped in front of her, swaying to the rhythm of whatever Ariana Grande song I was lip-syncing to. Her monochromatic pastel wardrobe became a built-in spotlight, and she relished every head-turn and double-take people did in her vicinity. Just one more thing we had in common.

Whenever Mallory told me she wanted me to put her in drag, I always joked she was way too old to be my drag daughter. We never really got around to doing it. She would’ve looked beautiful, especially with her bone structure that somehow only grew more defined as she aged. I could put her in drag now, I thought, but I knew regular makeup only worked and melted with the heat of human skin, which Mallory was now lacking. I prepared her for her big viewing. She would once more be the center of attention. An hour before doors opened, I stood glued above her lilac casket, mind adrift as I fixed the stubborn clumps of red hair she never wanted out of place.

Karl Khumo Calagan (he/him) is a queer Filipino writer, reader, book blogger, horror enthusiast, and lawyer aspirant. You can find him floating around over at


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