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Dealing with Death as a Consular Officer

Marie Huhtala, who later became ambassador to Malaysia, had several assignments as a

consular officer. In these excerpts, she talks about grieving with family members as a young officer after a horrendous loss and the macabre sense of humor of some French undertakers.

Q: Would you talk a bit about the death and estates job [in Paris]?

HUHTALA: Oh gosh, how much time do you have?

It was really interesting. First of all there was a backlog because the previous one or two incumbents hadn’t really done all the paperwork, so there were still personal effects of deceased Americans waiting to be inventoried. They had a little vault in the basement of the embassy full of dead peoples’ underwear and that kind of thing and that all needed to be done. Then the week I moved over from the visa section there was a major air crash, a big DC-10, Turkish Airlines, crashed into the forest north of Paris.

Q: I remember that; a door came out.

HUHTALA: A cargo door. We lost about 25 Americans there, including several entire families, very sad. In June 1974 they had a memorial service for all the victims, many of whom were in an unmarked grave.

The airlines brought the family members over from the United States, so I had to take care of them. I escorted them all — I think there must have about 10 or 12 of them on a drive up to the place in the forest where the plane had crashed. I had not yet seen it so I wasn’t yet prepared for it. It still looked really raw. There were still big gashes in the ground and a tree limb sheared off and pieces of clothing still hanging from the trees. No one should have asked relatives to look at that. That was very unnerving.

Then I had to take them to a shed where there was a huge table with all of the unclaimed personal effects laid out. Now we had already returned to the families the effects that we could clearly tell belonged to their family members. These were piles of watches and jewelry and things like that and we were supposed to ask these families to look through all of these things and see if they could find anything that belonged to their family members. That was very hard for them. I was 25 years old and two months pregnant, but it wasn’t showing yet. I said, “Let’s go get some coffee.” I was just feeling my way through this. We went to a café and we ordered coffee. They pulled out pictures of the family members that they’d lost, and I thought this is going to be hard, but in fact it was really good. It was very healing for them to show me all the pictures of the people who had died and tell me what their names were and what they were like and tell me some stories. I understand now what was going on, but at the time this was new to me too. I just sort of instinctively, I think, did the right thing.

Q: Did you have any sort of contact with dead bodies that you had to take care of?

HUHTALA: My two “best friends” were the two French undertakers that serviced Americans. They were hilarious. One of them had been in the business for many, many years. He had a professionally glum face. He always dressed in black three piece suits, and he would tell me all these gory stories, for example about an American who had been murdered and how they took a chain saw to cut the head off and how hard it is to saw through the head. My God, my cocktail chatter during that tour was really gross. People would move away from me in a cocktail party!

The other undertaker was a former cement manufacturer who got bored in mid-life and sold his company and bought a funeral home. For him this was all an exciting new lark. He took me to his place of business so I could see his caskets. In the window they had the lozenge-shaped ones like in Dracula movies. That’s what they were using in Paris in those days. In the basement he had something special to show me. There had been an exchange of some sort and his company had received an American casket, a big bronze rectangular thing with a hydraulic lift so that the head of the deceased could be raised. He just thought that was the funniest thing he had ever seen.

I never had to handle a body myself during that tour. I did later on but not then. What I would have would be the bereaved, the freshly bereaved, coming in to see me. One Monday morning I came in to work and there was a lovely middle-aged woman whose teenage son had died over the weekend. He had cancer and was in remission and they were visiting Paris to cheer him up, and just like that, he passed away. What do you say to somebody in that situation? I guess that’s what I was learning.

There was another time when a woman in her fifties came in. She had been visiting Paris with her fiancé, who was also of that age, and he wanted to impress her. So he climbed up the Eiffel Tower. He didn’t take the elevator, he climbed up all the stairs and they enjoyed the Eiffel Tower and then they went back down, on a summer day. Then they went to the hotel and he was taking a shower and his heart just gave out and he died in the shower. Not only was she very, very sad to lose him, they were not yet married so she was not the next of kin. I had to ask her to give me his son’s coordinates so I could I contact him. I had to get instructions from his son about what to do with the body and all of that. She took that with a great deal of dignity, but I could see that it was distressing. It was very hard for us both.

Q: I have to say as a consular officer I found in these things that women consular officers are usually better at this than males. Guys really can’t handle this very well, myself included.

HUHTALA: Because I was doing that for my primary job for a whole year I got pretty good at it. I learned how. At first it was very difficult for me too. As a culture we Americans avoid death at all costs.

Q: It’s one of these things and one doesn’t think of when they think about diplomacy.